Monthly Archives: January 2017

‘Meditations upon the manners and customs of the French’

Still at the officers’ rest home, Sherriff wrote to Pips that, ‘As I am living the “quiet life” still, with no events to record, I will continue a few of my “meditations upon the manners and customs of the French”.’

Describing their habits and customs as ‘peculiar’, he began by observing that anyone who wanted to sell anything blew on a ‘little tin trumpet’ – the paper-sellers, the milkman and even the guards on trains. But it had its good points: ‘whereas the English paper-seller cries himself hoarse with vain yells of “Pipe-ee” he would find it much more labour-saving to have a bugle.’

Next he turned to their clothing, observing that men’s trousers were typically too long, and their coats too short. Calculating that trousers were on average 3 inches too long, and that there were some 20 million pairs of trousers in the country, he estimated that, if all the spare material was sewn together to form a tube, it would stretch for 1899 miles – ‘quite useful for a cable to America or for other purposes.’ But their most ‘imposing’ item of clothing was the muffler, seen frequently because of the cold weather: ‘I went into a bank to cash a cheque yesterday – a clerk appeared behind a barred grating, neatly dressed in black with a large woollen grey muffler wound round and round his neck, a habit I don’t believe is allowed in Cox & Co.’

Next he turned to the French soldiers, who were ‘as variously clothed as Parisian ladies (or as I have heard Parisian ladies are clothed, for till now all the female sex I have seen look like bundles of black cloth covered head to foot).’ The officers were ‘very smart’, and could be described in race-card style: ‘”Blue – with gold spots, sky blue sleeves, crimson cap”, or “Grey, with black hoops, black collar, Pink cap”, etc.’

He found their habits to be ‘singularly happy go lucky’, observing how they would simply throw potato peelings away on the pavement, or how the greengrocer would dispose of his rotten fruit by ‘flinging it violently out of the shop at imminent risk too passers-by’, a habit that the butcher observed in similar fashion with ‘obsolete bones and giblets’. It was even ‘quite the thing’, he wrote, ‘to walk along eating a piece of bread and butter, just as you would smoke a pipe.’ Falling down also seemed to be a popular pastime – ‘practised just now more than usual on account of the frost’ – and he wasn’t sure whether it should be blamed on the extra three inches of trouser leg, or ‘on their overgrown moustaches impeding their sight’.

At the end of his letter, he concede that ‘I may be wronging them – and I may have exaggerated a bit, for after all they are not a bad people – though very ugly – and they are not above “doing” you either’. He cited the example of an old Frenchwoman who would charge you a shilling for a sixpenny bit of chocolate, but at least he allowed that ‘I suppose times are hard with them as they are for everyone’.

[Next letter: 1 February]


Writing to his mother from the Officers’ Rest Station, Sherriff told her that the weather had been cold, but healthy, and that he had been watching some skaters on a lake where, in parts , the ice was six inches thick. He still felt guilty at being ‘back in the quiet while his friends were up in the line’, but fate had paid him back a little:

‘Yesterday as I went down the garden of the rest camp to the lavatories I slipped on the ice and went down with a hearty bang on my back and cut my hand rather nastily – luckily the RAMC in attendance immediately pounced on me to practice on and bound it all up – it has been rather painful today – throbbing, you know – but I hope it will soon get better.’

Letter to Mother, 29 January 1917. By permission of the Surrey History Centre (Ref: 2332/1/1/2/142)

Even in the rest station, however, he was finding it difficult to get thoughts of the line out of his head:

‘It seems that the further away from it [I am] the more it preys upon my mind and I feel I simply can’t go up again – of course the rest here may work a change and I am hoping it will but if I feel no better after a week here I will speak to the Doctor about it I think. Don’t worry dear, as I have said before, as I will be able to look after myself and if I have to go into the line again shortly I will make up my mind to bear it alright when the time comes.’

He apologised that his letters to her were shorter than those he wrote home to Pips, but explained that the latter were meant for everyone, whereas the letters to her were private – a means of expressing all his worries and troubles (‘exaggerated as you know only I can’). As regards his present situation, he told her that:

‘I feel extremely like the times when I did not want to go to school and worked up a worried expression and said I felt sick etc., but now, in a greater sense I feel the same thing – nothing bodily wrong, only a great mental tiredness’.

[Next letter: 30 January]

Not exactly shell-shock

Staying at the Officers rest station, and obviously with time on his hands, Sherriff took the opportunity to send a long, descriptive letter home to Pips.

He started with an account of his surroundings:

‘I have a most comfortable bed-sitting room to myself in a French hotel just opposite the rest station; the latter is a big French house in an old fashioned narrow cobbled street – the house is absolutely clean and airy – this is the Mess or Club, where there is a dining room and a very comfortable lounge and reading room – also a card room with a piano and all other sources of amusement.’

He then went on to describe his usual routine:

‘You sleep in a nice bed with such advanced signs of civilisation as sheets. At 8 o’clock, or 8:30, a servant appears and wakes you, bringing hot water. You get up and wash and go over to breakfast – tea or coffee, eggs and bacon, or fish – practically anything you fancy. This is between 9:00 and 9:30 – after that the time is quite free to you when  you can either go into the lounge and read, or you can go out. This morning…I chose the latter, and went for a good walk with two other officers…At 1 o’clock is lunch – we had stewed rabbit and treacle pudding and bread and cheese etc – all done in the most lavish style. The afternoon is quite free and I spent the time exploring the town…At 4 o’clock is tea and you can spend the rest of your time just as you like providing you are in your billet by 11 o’clock. Dinner at 7:30 with no two-course restrictions as I believe prevail in England now…The place is just like an English hotel, where your time is your own, an RAMC doctor is in charge of it and RAMC men are in attendance – just now there are about 20 officers here…recovering…from small wounds, nervous breakdowns etc, from various Regiments, Artillerymen, RE, Infantry etc…’

By permission of the Surrey History Centre (Ref: 2332/1/1/3/139)

Sherriff told Pips that he would ‘not have the slightest objection to being here “for duration”‘, although he understood it would only be for a few days while his teeth were seen to. But he felt the place was exactly what he wanted:

‘a few days rest like this – I am not suffering exactly from shell-shock, but the last 4 months has tried my nerves rather – I feel absolutely well and cheerful when resting – it is the continual bang! bang! of the line that makes me shaky…’

He went on to describe the town in which he was staying (though censorship prevented him naming it), and how much of a relief it was to move from the battered towns and villages nearer the front, ‘with the continual crash of the guns’, into:

‘a quiet old fashioned town away from the noise – where all that breaks the silence at night is the old clock on the church – whose deep joined musical bell seems to ring just when it thinks, showing the utmost contempt for all regularities of time.’

He had explored the town’s church (‘over-decorated’, he judged) and its town hall, its old market square, and narrow cobbled streets, noting ‘a canal or river running through under the road between old houses rising with walls sheer out of the water.’ It was a perfect place for a rest, ‘combining healthy walks in picturesque country with fascinating rambles round old historical streets and scenes’. In addition the club contained a fine library of serious books (‘all, alas, in French’), but he had no need of them because he was still working his way through Scott’s The Antiquary.

He grumbled a little that he had been forced to come in his dirty trench clothes – he would have appreciated a pair of clean trousers, but there had been no time. He had travelled by train, in ‘a big box truck, shut in with one side having a broad opening for access’ [his description sounds like a French forty and eight box car as shown], and been accompanied by an assortment of other passengers, including a priest, a French officer who looked like Napoleon, a group of French soldiers, all dressed differently (‘who ever saw two French soldiers dressed the same?’ he asked), some women and children and a couple of other men. He described the details of the journey at some length, highlighting the idiosyncrasies of his fellow passengers, as well as of the French railways system. This was the first time he had been in a place where the French outnumbered the English, so he ‘had been at liberty to examine their nature more leisurely’: he pronounced them ‘a queer sort of people whose habits are much to be admired and despised.’

[Next letter: 29 January]

Rather a nervy person

Sherriff wrote to his mother from the ‘officers’ rest station’, to which he had moved after spending a day in hospital. He was now waiting to see a dentist: ‘I am now some way back in a fine old-fashioned town which I am anxious to look around tomorrow when it is light.’ He told her that the other patients appeared largely to be officers who were recovering from minor complaints (such as ‘slight wounds, trench fever’ etc). He was in a very nice billet where he would sleep, but the men would come together for all meals at the Mess. He had not yet had time to explore, but he presumed there would be reading and writing rooms.

He planned to investigate the Mess later, after finishing up his letter, but thought he would turn in quite early, and ‘get some good nights rest if possible’. He went on to explain why, although he had been reluctant to go sick, he felt it was the right thing to do:

‘…I feel that the last 4 months continual (or almost continual) trench life has rather told on my nerves – you know that I am naturally rather a nervy person, and I think that it tells more on some than others – I really feel very mean in coming to a place like this while all my fellow officers are in the trenches, but I felt it best for myself and the men, as to have a nervy officer, who naturally would not feel very confident, in the line with them would not inspire them much if I showed any signs of it.’

Meanwhile, the weather was staying ‘fine and frosty’, and although it was bitterly cold, at least it was very healthy, with ‘no mud and slush’. He hoped, if he was to stay at the rest station for a few days, that he would be able to ‘get some good walks, which I am so fond of.’

[Next letter: 27 January]


Sherriff wrote home to both mother and father today, letting them know that he had gone sick because of his neuralgia. As he told Pips:

‘The cold weather [gave] me a return of that neuralgia I suffered from about 2 years ago, and I found it extremely trying when on my long hours of duty – the change from the hot air in the dugout to the cold air and vice versa brought it on badly – so I went down to see the doctor who advised having my teeth seen to, and as the trouble had made me a bit shaky he sent me down to the Field Ambulance, where my adventures began, and I have passed through so many different stations that I can hardly remember where I began now.’

He was now in an old convent converted into a hospital, waiting to see the dentist. He had a comfortable bed, one of 5 in a big room with a stove, and heating pipes wrapping round the walls. There was a table and chairs too, and he had nothing to do but ‘rest and read and write’. He was being treated well (‘good meals, etc’), but he was not pleased at being there. It was his first time going sick in the army, and he hoped it would be his last, but he thought he had been right to come, as ‘the neuralgia had made me rather nervy and I felt that I had lost my confidence a bit too – a fatal thing for the men to notice.’ He told his mother that he regretted that his leaving the line would inevitably mean more work for his fellow officers [in fact, part of his fellow officers’ ‘work’ on this particular day was a daylight raid on German trenches – most probably the model for the raid in Journey’s End – see here for an account]

Raleigh (David Manners) and Osborne (Ian Maclaren) prepare themselves for the raid in Journey’s End (Gainsborough/Tiffany, 1930)

He was obviously thinking of them quite a bit in hospital, as the letter to his mother makes clear:

‘An invalid’s life is alright in a way, but I think I prefer the society of the other officers of my regiment and while I am speaking of my fellow officers I must really tell you what a wonderful lot they are – I have never met a nicer set of men and there is not one of them that I would not be proud to introduce to you as a friend and as a matter of fact every officer out here is nice – I don’t know what happens to all the nasty men, I suppose they give up being nasty or don’t come out here. But all the officers I have met – whether RE, or Artillery or Infantry, and doctors and chaplains –  there are none who are undesirable, or at least I have not met any yet who are. Perhaps there is a kind of companionship amongst them that makes them nice, but you never hear them quarrel like they used to in offices and the Skiff Club – no face pushing goes on, and I am afraid Mr Herbert would find very little scope for practicing this famous speciality of his.’

The time in hospital also appears to have given him time to think about what exactly it was in the war that he found so difficult, and he set out his views for his father:

‘It is no good dwelling on the awfulness of it all, for you know it only too well – the men who go up for a tour of duty in the trenches go up absolutely resigned;  there [are] no fiery displays of hate as in England by certain people who have never been here, they go because they must – and although they are always cheerful they go with that thought that, although there is every possibility of them coming back safely, someone isn’t.  Any impartial onlooker – seeing our men going up to the trenches with such cheerfulness would never dream of the things they are to endure before they come out again.  Everyone has a different temperament I know, and I may have got a more imaginative one than suits the necessities of trench life, but I must say that I cannot conceive of anything that has occurred in history that puts men to a greater test than this – think of anything that is acknowledged to have been dreadful – the battles with the dear old cannon ball which you can let fall 5 yards from you without harming you – then battles were all over in an hour or so and while on it went thick and fast – here it is the awful expectancy which is most trying – it is that that tells on different temperaments – some may not feel it at all, to others it is torture.’

[Next letter: 26 January]

A short letter from the line

‘Here I am in the line again, and I hope if all goes well that we will soon go out for a few weeks – yes, as you say, well over 100 days I have spent out here and I hope over half the time before my leave comes…’

The remainder of Sherriff’s letter to Pips was brief. He told him that the weather had remained hard and frosty – a ‘very healthy sort of weather’ which at least kept the mud away. And he promised a series of longer letters in the future, lamenting the fact that there was so little to write about: ‘You know we are strictly forbidden to deal with military matters in any way, and the only subjects left are those about the French people and country, and when we get out I will try and give you sketches of this. In the meantime’, he wrote, ‘you will be content, I know, with short letters like this.’

[Next letters: 25 January]

Sick of the line

‘The longer one has of the line, the nervier one gets,’ wrote Sherriff to his mother. ‘There is no “getting used to it”, I am afraid, it is simply “bearing” it’. His remarks were prompted by the awareness that he would shortly going back into the line, which, by now, he was ‘very sick of’. But he recognised that he had to go through it, and there was nothing to do but ‘hope and pray that all will go well.’

While in reserve he had been training batches of men in some engineering work, and the weather had been good – a ‘hard, crisp frost’, with snow lying on the ground, and, as yet, no signs of a thaw (of which he was glad, since it made things ‘sloppy’). He was keeping well, and noted that, while in reserve, he was having a ‘very happy time’, with ‘very nice men’, although unfortunately he didn’t have as much time to spare as when he was with the RE: ‘I always have certain duties to do which have got to be done- which, I suppose, is really much more good for you as it teaches regular habits.’

R C Sherriff  (2nd left) taking part in the Artists Rifles sports, 1916. By permission of the Surrey History Centre (Ref: 2332/6/4/1/9)

While in reserve they were doing much the same thing as they had while in their barracks in Dover – ‘in the morning the usual drill, etc – the band has just played “retreat” which reminds me of the old days in the Artists Rifles, where I should not mind being now’. He seemed to meet a lot of men he had known while the Artists – indeed, the day before he had met someone against whom he had jumped in the Regimental sports.

He hoped that everyone at home was well, and that his mother was adjusting to her night work at the hospital. He knew it could be trying at first, and that it was easy to get sleepy, but for his part he had become used to it ‘as almost all [our work] is night work’. Before closing his letter he reminded her that when he was back in the line, his letters to her were likely to be rather short until they came back out again – but he still hoped that ‘my leave will not be very long in coming’.

[Next letter: 23 January]

Trench warfare in the winter

Having come out of the front line on 17 January, Sherriff finally had time to write some letters home.

Letter to Mother

‘I am now sitting in quite a civilised room,’ he told his mother, ‘where we will be for six days, which fly by only too quickly, two having almost gone.’ On the bright side, there were ‘plenty of amusements’ (such as ‘concerts, cinema shows, and people coming into dinner’), and the weather was staying ‘fine and frosty’. He thanked her for another parcel he had just received (‘done up in the same dear old homely way’) and he noted that they were ‘becoming famous in the Mess, they always contain such nice, homey things, and sensible things, too, which you cannot get out here.’ While he enjoyed the various activities laid on behind the lines, he felt he would ‘prefer to have a quiet time reading and writing’, as it was more restful. As it was, he had struggled even to find the time to write this letter to his mother, as he had been continually interrupted by other things. And now that it was almost time to go to the concert (which he was ‘not very keen’ on), he apologised that the letter would have to be briefer than he would have liked – but he promised another the next day.

Letters to Pips

In contrast to the three pages he sent to his mother he sent two much longer letters home to Pips (his father).

First letter

In the first of his two letters he began by noting that he was ‘sitting with polished boots and buttons…in a civilised room with a fireplace, but at present no fire, for we are out for our week’s rest.’ [actually they were in Brigade reserve in Le Philosophe, which was just a few miles back from their trench positions in Hulluch.] He was looking forward to a full week out of the line, and was very much enjoying being able to put on clean underclothes, and sleep in pyjamas again. He was also looking forward to having more time at his disposal than in the line, although ‘you can never tell when you have to go off on some working party or other.’

A Working Party packing up their shovels. From Memories of Active Service, facing page 275. By permission of the Surrey History Centre (Ref: 2332/3/9/3/4)

Replying to his father’s request for a description of his Xmas dinner with the RE officers, he commented on how many of them were ‘Colonials’: ‘2 from Rhodesia, one from California, one from Alaska (what he was doing there I don’t know) and the last from East Africa – mostly mining engineers.’ He continued:

‘You certainly meet a variety of people when soldiering and I think I have been acquainted with Englishmen from all parts – North Countrymen, Devonshire men, Welshmen, Scotchmen, Irishmen etc etc, and it certainly is good for you to become acquainted with them as you learn a great deal, especially as they are all educated men.’

He hoped that when they eventually went out to rest he would become a ‘kind of Engineer officer to the Battalion’, something which he would be interested to do. He was already fulfilling that duty to some extent, although his time in the role was limited by the need to fill in for the many officers who seemed to be away sick or for other reasons.  But, he cautioned, he must be careful not to say any more, for fear of running foul of the military censors.

Second Letter

Despite his concerns about military censorship, he endeavoured, in his second letter to his father, to ‘give an account of trench warfare in the winter’:

‘The day you start for the line is all bustle – the men get all their kit packed up  – they oil their feet (one of the most important points in winter) and the officers are busy getting their belongings packed and seeing their men are all properly equipped. You start off for the trenches…miles of road are covered and then you say goodbye to the last house – the last vestige of pre-war civilisation – you say goodbye to the last little french shop proudly displaying the inevitable tinned fruit and chocolate – and down you go into the trenches. It is impossible to describe what you see – after the war if possible I will show you all this in a tour of France which I hope you and I will be able to do. [in fact they did go on a 10-day tour together in 1921, which Sherriff wrote about in an article, in his old school magazine, entitled The Battlefield Today]

A ruined French village. From Memories of Active Service, Vol 2, facing p304 (By permission of the Surrey History Centre, Ref: 2332/3/9/3/4)

There are endless turns and twists – old gaunt dead trees, miserable remains of cottages, roads, hayricks – all with the appearance that a huge tidal wave has swept over everything, smashing houses and trees, killing the grass and destroying all living things. And then you come to kind of little trench villages – and by peeping in you see men squatting round their fires, eating their stew (usually excellent), or talking or singing, and the better class dugouts, which may be some Headquarters, or Officers’ quarters, and canteens with the usual cigarettes and tinned fruit (what would the British army have done without the invention of tinned foods?)

Suffice to say – you reach the line and all is sorted out – your servant turns up with your bundle of necessary belongings and comes puffing and blowing down the dugout steps and proceeds to make your bed…’

After observing that no skilled writer could give an adequate description of the trenches [rather ironically, given that he did just that in Journey’s End] he proceeded to give an account of his feelings while on duty:

‘Your tour may be, say, 3am to 6am…you may be lying warm and snug in your blanket and someone wakes you – it is the servant on duty – “time to go on, sir,” he says, “a quarter to 3, sir.” You sigh with relief – another 5 minutes before you need to get up – and you snuggle in again as though you had another 6 hours. Someone shakes you and you are told it is 5 minutes to 3 – you must get up, and you proceed to wrap up with a muffler and mackintosh, put on your steel hat and off you go. You crawl up the dugout steps and shiver when you get to the top – it may be snowing – and you button up your coat and tramp off. At a given place you meet the officer you are to relieve, itching with impatience to get away. He hands over any information and you say alright and off he goes, and you start your rounds. You come to snow-covered huddled figures sitting asleep in the open – their heads covered up with mackintosh sheets – and then you come to sentries, huddled figures gazing into the dark – into the churned-up country that they have come to get back – and I often wonder what they are thinking about: poor, old men who have left their little tobacco shops in the East End – or their cottages in the country or their rows of symmetrical smoky cottages from some great industrial town – all come out for the same reason. It is really a wonderful thing that has collected these men together and put them  in their uniform and taught them to drill and shoot.

Awful as the whole thing undoubtedly is, it is, and will be, an everlasting monument of wonderful organisation. You come upon a man sitting in the snow contentedly eating bread and jam: where did the food come from and how did it arrive? It is marvellous how every man is fed and fed well. All these millions who in ordinary circumstances would be elsewhere, and the majority get food far superior to that which they are used too – it is the greatest triumph of organisation ever performed.’

Sherriff rounded off his letter by expressing his plans for the future: ‘I would like to become a historian and travel over England seeing all the wonderful things in it – then to collect coins and stamps – to complete a fine library…’. But ‘all these things seem so far off that you wonder what is the use of thinking of them’

[Next letter: 21 January]

Longing for the end of war

Sherriff, still in the line, wrote a quick note to his mother: ‘I have had a pretty busy day wandering round the trenches on various jobs and I have just snatched a moment or two to write your usual letter.’

As he had the day before, he promised her a longer letter when they were finally relieved: ‘If all goes well we shall soon be out having a rest and then I will write you a longer letter – but I expect you think I am always promising a long letter which never comes.’

Before finishing he thought to ask her how things were at home, and at the hospital: ‘I expect things are fairly monotonous – and you have that same longing for the end of the war as everyone else has out here and probably everyone in the world except those who are making something out of it or those who don’t know that it’s on.’

[Next letters: 19 January]

Working hard

Another short letter home from the front line, this time to his mother. He told her that he was quite well, and ‘the time still goes on bringing me nearer that great day when leave becomes due.’

He let her know, as he had Pips the previous day, that he was working on an Engineering job which suited him:

‘I get far more freedom to carry out various work and I believe when we have a rest I shall have a freer hand in doing [the] sort of jobs that interest me – I hope so at any rate, for if you can have work that really interests you the time goes by in a far pleasanter manner.’

He hoped that her own work was not becoming monotonous, although he doubted that it would: ‘I should delight in your work – it is so interesting and useful – far more useful than my work, which is sometimes so sickening and weary.’ But he was hoping that they would not be much longer in the line, and when they went out for a rest ‘I may have the opportunity of training a party of men specially on Engineering work.’

Apologising for the brevity of the letter he explained it was due to pressure of work. And although, ‘when you have a special job you can have an easy time if you like, I always feel that you should work hard to make it a success.’ He often wondered how home now looked, with the new furniture that had been bought, and he felt that, once he got home, ‘I shall never want to leave it again, despite old Harman’s shop and the trains etc.’ [The local trains rattled past the end of their garden at home.]

[Next letter: 16 January]