Monthly Archives: December 2016

Back in the line again

The battalion went back into the line on 30 December [relieving the 8th Queens in the left section of the Hulloch sector], and Sherriff dashed off a short note to assure his mother that he was ‘quite well’, but ‘very busy’, and ‘until I have done the tour in the line I won’t have very much time for writing’. He explained why:

‘You see, dear, you are on duty at various times and when you are off you feel so sleepy that you have to rest, and it is a great tax on the brain to write long letters – but directly I am out I will make up for lost time with some good long letters’.

She was not to worry about him, however: he had enjoyed two months ‘rest’ with the Tunnellers, and although ‘the harder time naturally comes as rather a strain…it will do me good to work harder.’

[Next letter: 2 January]

On the move with the battalion

Sherriff began a short letter to his mother on 29 December, explaining its brevity by his need to take some time overhauling his kit. He told her that he had been relieved in such a hurry that he had very little time for regrets, ‘which is rather a good thing. If I had known two or three days before I should have been counting the hours till I left’.

[We know from his Memories of Active Service, however, that he was much more upset than he was letting on. The two volumes of the Memoir begin with his arrival in France on 28 September, and finally end, some 500 handwritten pages later, on 27 December,  with the following description of his departure:

‘The last day came: the 27 December, and I packed up all my belongings like a boy going back to school. Then I walked round and had a last look at the little district that had been my home for so long: there were so many little things that we had done – a drain dug here, a piece of trench wired back there – a new duckboard put down – a new dugout built – and each little thing had some memory attached to it that came back now. I was sorry to leave it all. I felt as miserable as I had on the day I left home, perhaps more so, because I knew too well what I was going back to. There was no surprise or novelty now.

About 3 o’clock in the afternoon – with the first signs of dusk coming down over the plain – Bridges of ‘D’ Company arrived with 15 men. I gulped down some tea with a lump in my throat, and when the last moments came I could have cried. All the hundreds of pleasant incidents came crowding back – the quiet free evenings – the walks to Bethune – and all that lay ahead were maddening hours of patrolling the front line – watching for Minnies, dreading the darts, caged like an animal in 50 yards of winding ditch.

The torture of Vimy Ridge would be drawn out now into one long agony of 6 days in, 6 days out, 6 days in, 6 days out; maddeningly regular, until something happened.’]

In a postscript to his letter, added the following day (30 December) he told her that the battalion was on the move and, since he would be busy packing things up, he could only write briefly to her, but hoped he might be able to write a longer letter when they were settled somewhere. He told her again that he was sorry to have to leave his duty in the mine, but, stoic as ever, he assured her that ‘it is no good having regrets, and I must, of course, make the best of everything’.

[Next letter: 30 December]

Hopes thwarted

Writing to Pips, a downcast Sherriff noted that today was his three-month anniversary of landing in France, but it had been difficult for two reasons: ‘One was that I returned to the battalion [having been relieved], and the other that I was told by the Colonel that he could not give me permission to transfer to the RE as he is short of officers, so two ambitions are thus knocked on the head – or perhaps not ambitions, but hopes’.

At such difficult times, he wrote, he found solace in Marcus Aurelius, as well as Scott and Epictetus. There was no good worrying about what had happened – ‘all there is is to make the best of it and look forward to the future peace that we hope is not so very far off.’

[Next letter: 29 December 1916]

Bad news arrives at last

He began his letter to his mother on Boxing Day, noting sadly that she could see by the date that Christmas was now all over. He had given Pips a full description of it, so felt there was no need to repeat it. But he did think to tell her  how much he had appreciated the pudding she had sent – in fact, it had ‘saved the situation, because no one else got any puddings, and none were issued in rations’. He had also enjoyed a ‘very jolly time’ with the RE officers – ‘they are such a nice set of men I wish I could get with them. I wrote a note to their Adjutant asking how my transfer was going through, but I have not heard anything as yet’.

The New Year would soon be upon them he wrote, and he had now spent nearly three months in France. The time had gone very quickly, but he feared that there was little chance of him getting leave soon, unless the battalion were to go into rest , in which case others ahead of him might get their chance. For his part, he was longing for leave to come:

‘…I am longing for those 8 days freedom to wander about with you all at home just like I spent my leave pending gazette – it will be a glorious time [to] which I shall look forward every day I am out here. I imagine how lovely every sensation must be on the journey home, getting into the train over here – the feeling, which must be of intense happiness, as the train goes off on the homeward journey – the voyage across and then the voyage to London and the great day when I meet you at Charing Cross or somewhere – it is almost too good to think about…’

Although he ended the portion of the letter written on Boxing Day with these reveries of returning home, a postscript added the next morning was much less happy, bearing the news that he had feared for several weeks:

‘I must stop abruptly now, dear, as this morning I have just got a letter from our battalion telling me I am being relieved this morning. So, goodbye dear until I have the opportunity of writing again.’

[Next letter: 28 December]

The Xmas Menu

Writing to Pips on Boxing Day, Sherriff set out the menu for their Christmas Eve feast, and how they had gone about preparing it.

He had drawn up the menu ‘after much consideration and consultation with Morris [his servant] as to the capacity of his cooking materials’, and by making full use of the Anglo-French dictionary which Bundy had sent him:

Sherriff’s Xmas Menu, from his letter to Pips, 26 December 1916 (By permission of the Surrey History Centre, Ref: 2332/1/1/3/129)

The servants had been ‘fired to enthusiasm by offers of extra rum ration etc’ and they soon had their coke fires ‘going strong and various tin receptacles over the fires’, and he and Patterson supervised, so that when Gibson and James returned from duty at 9:00 pm the dinner was ready.

‘The soup (made from compressed soup squares) was quite successful, Morris having become a most skilful waiter – as this example shows. A thick canvas sheet is nailed over our door which is secured at the top and is hung down at night. A dent appears on the canvas from outside and Morris appears head first with 2 soup plates in each hand and has to advance to the opposite wall of the dugout to get clear of the curtain. It is like a net which you have to get under in an obstacle race, and I leave it down on purpose to see Morris perform this skilful feat.’

The Beef brisé aux Tomates turned out to be steak ‘with rather watery tomato soup thrown over it’. He was relieved that there were no complaints about it since, as Mess President, he was responsible for their food supply. As he told Pips, this meant that any ‘sarcastic remarks or complaints’ about the food were directed to him (‘more amusement is perhaps got in this manner at meals than anything else’).


The Christmas pudding on the menu was the one which his mother had sent him, and it was a ‘gigantic success – set alight with some rum it really looked quite like an old fashioned Xmas.’ The ‘Coquillages á la Russé were less successful, and ‘brought down some sarcastic remarks upon my head’, for they had turned out to be ‘little square chippy bits of toast spread with anchovy paste.’ But the criticisms disappeared with the arrival of ‘Les Fruits’, which consisted of almonds, raisin, dates and figs, together with some French wine (‘which tasted like weak water’).

Overall, their little party had been a great success, and, while James and Gibson went back on duty afterwards, he lay back in his bed and read Guy Mannering. For the first time in his life, however, he did not hang his Christmas stocking up – ‘but I hope I will be able to next year’.

[Next letter: 27 December]

A (surprisingly) happy Xmas

‘Today is Christmas Day,’ he wrote to his mother, ‘and as regards the war, things seem to be going on just the same outside as usual – or perhaps a little livelier than usual. I really rather expected a quiet day, but it is not so.’

The men in their dugout. From Memories of Active Service, Vol 1, facing page 243. By permission of the Surrey History Centre (Ref: 2332/3/9/3/2)

He told her that their Xmas celebrations had passed off so far in a ‘most satisfactory way’. On Xmas Eve they had enjoyed a meal with Xmas pudding (‘yours, dear,’ he told her), various fruits and a Medoc (but unfortunately no cherry brandy). Their midday meal on Xmas day had consisted of tinned chicken in jelly, cold Xmas pudding and dessert. Later on, at the invitation of the RE officers, he would be joining them in their dugout for a turkey dinner, ‘so on the whole we shall not do badly’. He and Patterson had also bought treats for the East Surrey men who were on mining duty with them – a box of cigarettes each, two oranges, a ‘nice ham’ and plum pudding. He had just been along the trench to see them issued their Xmas dinner, which he hoped they would be pleased about, since it made a change from their usual fare.

He reflected on the rather surprising fact that, despite his surroundings, and being away from home, he had enjoyed his Christmas, and was regretting its passing (as he always had in previous years). He had been happy writing his letter to Pips the previous day, because it had cheered him by ‘bringing back all the old thoughts of Xmas’. He also reported having received a small parcel from an old colleague from the Artists [G R Rudolf, who was somewhat older than Sherriff and had gone on to a job in munitions in London], who had given him some more fruit, chocolate and bulls-eyes: ‘It was nice of him to remember me.’

And with that he left to go on duty, promising his mother a much more complete account of the festivities when they were finally over.

[Next letters: 26 December]

Ghosts of Xmas Past

‘Today is Christmas Eve,’ he told Pips, and he was obviously in nostalgic mood, for most of the letter discussed events of past Christmasses. In particular he recalled the occasion when their neighbour, Jack Bolton, had responded to Sherriff’s comments on Father Xmas by giving him a ‘knowing wink’ and asking if he really thought that he existed:

‘I remember I kept awake purposely that Xmas Eve to prove it – I lay in bed and heard you and mother having supper and then the sound of chairs being pushed back, and then steps on the stairs. Now, I thought, I will see. So, pretending I was asleep I waited with great expectancy – mother came in and it was only to tuck me up and kiss me and say goodnight, and then all was oblivion, and in the grey light of morning I saw a misshapen stocking, with some of the well-known little men peeping out – Father Xmas has come, I thought, and after that there was no greater believer in him than I. And although the truth gradually dawned on me, I still look upon Father Xmas as the most delightful person who was ever imagined, and shall always do so.’

Turning to the practicalities of Xmas in the trenches, he told Pips that ‘Fritz has been a bit lively again. I hope he will keep quiet tonight and tomorrow as I believe he respects Xmas Day as much as we do. There is one comfort – when he is lively, we are livelier, in the proportion of about 10 to 1.’ He noted that the was writing at 4:30, and the guns had fallen silent after having been going all day. and he was checking with Morris to see if tea was ready (‘water just on a boil, sir,’ Morris replied).

After a few more lines of reminiscence on the special nature of Christmas, he turned to the future:

‘It is no use gloating on the good past times, it is for everyone to look upon the good times to come, and there is no-one who looks forward to it more than I do – I am quite sure my ambitions and ideals will never alter, and when the time comes when I am free again I shall start the studies that I had to drop and that library of classics and the study of History – while my spare time for outdoors will be devoted to sport and the seeing of historic sights – I look forward to many pleasant tours with you to the Roman Wall – York and other places…’

He had found a lot of happiness, he wrote, in looking forward to the time when he could freely explore English history and literature: ‘It is like a wonderful Island which you have started to explore and although have only just touched the edge, find such things that spur you on to explore the whole.’

As he came to the conclusion of the letter he noted that he had begun it in the light, and that it was now quite dark outside, so the letter could serve as something of a Xmas Eve souvenir. Although Pips would receive it after Xmas, he could be assured that Sherriff and his colleagues would try their best to make the very most of things, despite the circumstances: ‘So now goodbye, till I write again, wishing you and everyone at home a Happy New Year.’

[Next letter: 25 December]

Giving Fritz a strafe

‘We have had a very lively day today,’ he wrote to Pips, ‘”Fritz” evidently having saved up some shells. But we gave him a very warm reply, and by standing on a high point behind the line we watched our artillery going him a fearful “strafe”, dirt and sandbags flying up in all directions, since which he has been considerably politer’.

‘The Guns’, taken from Sherriff’s ‘Memories of Active Service’, facing page 157. By permission of the Surrey History Centre (Ref: 2332/3/9/3/2)

In the midst of all this action they had completed their Xmas preparations, and were looking forward to quite a merry time: ‘A tinned chicken, and home made plum pudding, fruit etc will make a nice Xmas dinner and a special bottle of cherry brandy (the first intoxicant I have bought for our comfort) will warm us up’.

He hoped that, knowing that they would enjoy themselves in their dugout as much as they could, Pips and the family would try to enjoy themselves too, and would give him a full account of their celebrations afterwards. After thanking him for the two postcards he had sent (of Hampton Court, and Hampton Wick), he signed off and went off to his shift in the mine.

[Next letter: 24 December]

Schoolmaster or Farmer

In a short letter home to his mother he told her that the weather was keeping Xmassy:

‘… – a fine, crisp frosty atmosphere that cannot fail to make me remember that we are near the time of the year that has always had a wonderful charm to me. I don’t think anyone else enjoys Christmas as much as I do. Even before the war they seemed to look upon it as a matter of course, but I always looked forward to it months before, simply because the homely old-fashioned way we spent it was so much the best.’

Even in the trenches, he assured her, they would do their best to enjoy themselves, and he would do so by thinking of the fine times they had enjoyed in the past. If things went well he hoped they would enjoy many more such times in the future.

He told her that his ideas had not changed while being in France, that he was still longing to get back to all his old hobbies, and that there were still two professions he should like to take up most – Schoolmaster or Farmer:

‘I don’t think I shall ever give up these ideas, although I know you were never in favour of the former, but you can rely that, after the war, I shall never do any rash thing such as resign from the office to be a Schoolmaster or any thing that should in anyway affect your happiness, for I have a lot to repay you, dear.’

[Next letter: 23 December]

Thanks for a fine parcel

Writing to his mother, he told her of the trip he had taken to Bethune the day before, and apologised for having been unable to find anything suitable to buy for her, apart from a souvenir knife he was sending her – ‘it is made with a French bullet as a handle with a French military button on top.’

He then thanked her – as he had Pips the day before – for the ‘fine parcel’ he had received, with ‘exactly the things I like best, and to make things better there was the gold pin that I shall always treasure, and the book and cigarette holders as well that will also become my constant companions.’ He continued later in the letter:

‘You have done everything in your power to make things happy for me at Xmas and you have not tried in vain, dear, for who could not be happy when one thinks of the dear home waiting for me and how well you all treat me – it is impossible to explain how much I appreciate everything dear – I must simply wait until the time comes when I can show you by treating you as well as you have treated me.’

Another view of Bethune, from a postcard sent home by Sherriff. By permission of the Surrey History Centre (From Memories of Active Service, Vol 2, facing page 387; Ref: 2332/3/9/3/4)

He was now very confident that he would be spending Christmas in his present post [the Battalion having moved back into the line the day before, where they would expect to remain for 6 days or more]. He and the other officers had ordered ‘a stock of good things’ which, supplemented by the things that he had received in his parcel, ‘ought to make things pretty happy – or as happy as it can possibly be’. He only wished that he could ‘indulge in that old pleasure of stockings – but if it is denied us this year, I hope it won’t be next.’ The only thing he could thing of to ask from her was a packet of quill toothpicks – ‘not a very elegant thing to ask for, is it dear?’

In addition to the letter to his mother, he sent a quick not to Pips, letting him know that he was finally sending him the postcards he had bought for him. Unfortunately, he was being forced to ‘obliterate the names of the places’, by order of the censor, so Pips would have to wait ‘until after the war when I will tell you if I know them’.

[Next letter: 20 December]