From Journey’s End to The Dam Busters

 From the end of the 1920s to the end of the 1950s R C Sherriff (the R C stood for Robert Cedric) was famous in the U.K. as a playwright, screenwriter and novelist – in fact, throughout those thirty years his name was almost a byword for quality. Apart from his most famous play, Journey’s End (which made him almost an overnight sensation when it was first produced in the West End in 1929), he was lauded for his novels (especially those he wrote in the 1930s: The Fortnight in September, Greengates  and The Hopkins Manuscript), his films (The Invisible Man, The Four FeathersGoodbye, Mr Chips,Odd Man OutQuartet and The Dam Busters among others), and his plays (including St HelenaThe Long SunsetThe TelescopeThe White Carnation and Home at Seven).

The worldwide success of Journey’s End (which earned him £80,000 in two years, at a time when his wage as an insurance adjustor netted him just £28 a month) was largely attributed to its authenticity, for it was quickly explained that it had been based on a Memoir he wrote of his time in the trenches. The Memoir itself, written between about 1919 and 1922, was drawn largely from letters he had sent home from France – letters which he and his parents had the foresight to keep.

Sherriff originally joined up, with the Artists Rifles, in November 1915, and commuted to his training in London (like any regular office worker), until he finally moved into their Gidea Park camp, in Essex, shortly after Christmas that year. He stayed with them until September 1916, when he was gazetted, as a second lieutenant, to the 3rd East Surreys. After spending a few weeks in Dover with them, he was finally ordered to France, with the 9th East Surreys, on 28 September 1916. Apart from a spell of leave, he would stay in France until he was wounded at Passchendaele on 2 August 1917.

Throughout his time in the Artists Rifles and the East Surreys he wrote home to his mother and his father – separate letters to each – totalling almost 400 from the time he began in Gidea Park until the time he returned to England. In the roughly ten months (or 300 or so days) in France he wrote 227 letters home – letters which provide an insight into the mind of a sensitive, 20-year-old man, willing to do his duty, proud of his Company, Battalion and Regiment, but of a nervous disposition, and anxious about his own abilities as a soldier. While his letters home necessarily obscure many of the horrors that he encountered, they are surprisingly frank about his own limitations and anxieties, and tell a compelling story of one young man’s experience of the ‘horribly abnormal life’ of the trenches (as George Bernard Shaw would later call it, when reviewing Journey’s End.)

Over the next ten months I’ll be blogging his letters home, as he wrote them, on an almost daily basis, exactly one hundred years ago. For permission to do so, I am extremely grateful to The Scouts, Kingston Grammar School, and the literary agents Curtis Brown. None of the extracts printed here, nor any of the photographs used should be reproduced without the express permission of The Surrey History Centre, where his papers and photographs are lodged.

But that’s enough of the disclaimers. If you want to follow Sherriff’s path through the thickets of the Western Front, just click on Letters From France. If you’d like to know more about Sherriff’s life – and you should –  then go and buy the book!