Monthly Archives: February 2017

Packing to leave

Sherriff explained to his mother why today’s letter had to be brief:

‘I have been very busy all today getting ready to leave tomorrow, there is a great deal to do – inspections of men as well as our own kit to be seen to…I am going to my billet now to get my kit together, as we march off early tomorrow.’

He supposed that his mother felt all his letters were brief, but he explained that he had been ‘pretty busy’ over the last couple of weeks, although he had enjoyed ‘a fair amount of time for walks and going into nearby towns.’ In fact they had been to a nearby town the day before to see a Regimental Boxing match, but boxing did not interest him much.

He hoped he would have time to write her another, longer letter before they moved off, and he told her not to worry if she did not receive letters for several days: it was usually the fault of the mail, and in any case, ‘if anything happened you would very quickly be told, dear’.

[Next letter: 1 March]

A beautiful day

Sherriff wrote home to his mother, sounding more cheerful than he had in recent days:

‘Today is Sunday and one of the most beautiful days we have had this year, fine, sunny and crisp. I am going for a walk this afternoon into a large town nearby – quite a nice town, but not quite so big as one which we were near in the line.’ [As they were billeted in Bas Rieux, the town to which he was referring was most likely Lillers.]

Although it was Sunday, there had been no church parade, since there were few places big enough to accommodate it. They had used a YMCA hut the previous week, but another regiment was using it on this occasion, so they had to do without. He went on to describe his surroundings:

‘I am sitting in a big open room that looks out onto a farm yard where there are chickens, accompanied with the usual crowing and cackling that reminds me of home [the Sherriffs kept chickens in their garden in Hampton Wick]. There is an old dog chained in a corner and an old horse who patiently works on a machine for cutting chaff.’

Sherriff’s mother, in nurses uniform. By permission of the Surrey History Centre (Ref: 2332/6/6/3)

He reminisced about their walks together in Bushy Park, observing that ‘it must [be] getting that fresh green look again’. Thinking about it made him hope that it would not be long before he was given leave and could see it again. He was pleased that he had not known, when he first arrived in France, how long it would be before he would be given leave – he had thought it might be in three months, but here he was, five months later, still waiting, but hoping that he would not have to wait much longer.

His mother had obviously been working the night shift at the hospital, and he sympathised with her: ‘Night work is an awful strain, I know – and don’t you feel so tired after a full night awake. I expect you think it almost worthwhile to do it to appreciate the rest afterwards.’ As lunch was just about to arrive he had to bring his letter to a close, but not before reassuring her that he would try to write at least every other  day, ‘unless it is quite impossible’

[Next letter: 28 February]

A colleague arrives

He began his latest letter to Pips by apologising that his correspondence had been somewhat ‘irregular’ of late – partly because he had been busy, but also because ‘not sometimes feeling well, I have spent the time resting when  I should write letters’. However, since today was Saturday, and they had the afternoon free, he had at least time to write something now.

He expected that the Battalion would only have a few more days of rest before moving back to the line – in total it would have been out for a fortnight or so – a little less than he had hoped, ‘but that cannot be helped, I suppose’. There was still not much to write about: the village they were staying in was very small, not much more than three farms and a similar number of Estaminets. Their Mess was in a farmhouse, and the men lived in barns round about, ‘with plenty of straw to sleep on’. His daily routine was straightforward:

‘In the morning I walk down to Mess from my billet, about ten minutes walk, and after breakfast the men parade about 8 o’clock, and after inspecting them we carry on with Physical Drill, Bayonet fighting, Platoon Drill etc…much time is of course spent in cleaning up…and having losses replaced. This takes a lot of time and we are pretty well on the go from 7:00am until 4:00 in the afternoon, and, as I sometimes have bad headaches, I simply come in and lie down and forget to write letters to you.’

Letter to Pips, 24 February 1917 [misdated as 1916]. By permission of the Surrey History Centre (Ref: 2332/1/1/3/17)

He told Pips that a new officer, named Reynolds, had arrived in the Battalion, who had previously been in the Foreign Department of the Sun Fire Office: ‘I did not know for some time that he was in the office and it was only quite by accident that I found out – he asked me if I knew Barkus in the Artists and I told him he was in  my office and he said he was in his office too. Do you remember Reynolds?’ He hoped that Pips would gather together information about how the men in the office were doing, as he was always interested to hear it.

He had little time to write much more, since he owed letters to Bundy, Beryl and his mother. But  before finishing he wrote briefly about the prospect of leave: ‘Fancy – it is now nearly 5 months since I left home, but as yet no sign of leave’. Nor would there be soon, he feared, because there were about 15 officers ahead of him in the list, and even if one left every week (‘ which they don’t’), it would still be another 4 months before he got home: ‘Still, it is no good worrying about it – we must just wait and see.’

[Next letter: 25 February]

Same old training

Sherriff’s general depression and listlessness continued to restrict the number and length of the letters he sent home. Having written nothing for three days he now dashed off a quick one-page to his mother, telling her that he had been innoculated, which reminded him of the same thing happening while he was in the Artists Rifles – although this time it had only given him a ‘bad arm’, and he did not feel bad ‘personally’: nevertheless the arm itself was enough to earn him a day off.

Sherriff’s younger brother Bundy, in uniform, c1918. By permission of the Surrey History Centre (Ref: 2332/6/6/5)

Training was continuing much as usual:

‘We still go on with the same old training each day with nothing exciting to tell you about – we train just as we did in England, starting at 8 o’clock with physical drill and finish about 3 o’clock after which your time is your own, to either walk into the nearest town or read or do anything. I think I told you I had a little room at a farm as my billet with quite a nice bed.’

Although his letter writing had slowed down, he was continuing to receive letters from home: ‘I got a letter from you today, dear, also one form Beryl and one from Bundy’. He told her (as he had Pips, a few days earlier), that the parcels which had come for him while he was in the rest home had been consumed by the Mess (‘I told them to if any parcels came in while I was away, otherwise they would have gone bad or any pastry etc, stale’.)

And that was where he signed off, apologising that he had to go on parade.

[Next letter: 24 February]

A mood of depression

Sherriff wrote two letters to Pips today, and the variance in tone between the two is quite marked.

He begins his first letter rather brightly, commenting on the haul of letters he has received since being back at the Battalion: ‘About 7 from you, 6 from Mother, one from Beryl [his older sister], one from Bundy [his younger brother], one from Mr Freeth [his manager at the Oxford Street branch of Sun Insurance], and a New Year present from my old Company Commander [Captain Tetley] in the form of a letter case commemorating our New Year’s day, when we had a pretty hot time for 12 hours in the line [described here].’

He had been back with the Battalion for three days, he told Pips, and they were ‘resting’ a good way behind the line. Owing to censorship restrictions he could not tell his father his whereabouts, but we know from the Battalion Diary that A & B Companies were billeted at Bas Rieux; while C (Sherriff’s Company) and D Companies were at Can Trainne. He could, however, tell him something of what they were doing:

‘…although the word ‘rest’ is used we are on the go pretty well all day – from 8:30am to 4:00pm, the last hour being devoted to compulsory games, football chiefly, and some cross-country running is being arranged.’

He told Pips that he had gone for a 2-mile run the day before with another officer, and had found it ‘quite invigorating’. The training they were doing was much the same as they would do in England – ‘Physical drill, bayonet fighting, musketry etc. etc.’ They were billeted in small villages, with their Mess in a farm house. He was billeted in a farm house as well, while his platoon lived in a barn ‘with straw beds – very comfortable too’.

He ended his first letter of the day promising a longer letter later on, but, when the time came, a mood of depression appeared to have settled on him: ‘I cannot pull myself together properly to write a good letter… I feel all I want to do is to sit and do absolutely nothing…’.

He told Pips that, during the day, the men had been at the firing range, which had taken up most of their time, since ‘there was a march of some miles there and back’. Unfortunately there had been a thaw during the previous couple of days, so now there was little ice to be seen, and ‘the old programme of Mud, Mud, Mud, has started again.’

Perhaps it was the mud depressing him, or perhaps it was just the continuation of the ‘nervy feeling’ that had persisted for some weeks. Even at the officers’ rest station he had struggled to concentrate, and his letter writing had slowed to a crawl. Nor can it have helped that the Battalion’s time in rest looked likely to be shorter than he had anticipated: ‘We have now had just a week of [rest] and we have one more before we move back to the line again – I am afraid I don’t feel very much effect of the rest yet – I cannot get away from worrying’.

[He seems to have struggled to shake off the feeling of lethargy and depression, since his letters writing remained patchy during the following couple of weeks.]

[Next letter: 22 February]

Orderly Officer

Back with his battalion, Sherriff had spent the day as Orderly Officer, which meant that, by the time he was able to write to Pips, he was ‘so sleepy that I can hardly keep my eyes open – so this will not be a long or very interesting letter’. Perhaps the next day, if he was not so busy, he would send a long letter ‘telling you as much as I am allowed to tell you about our work while in rest and while I was getting back to the battalion, hunting for t all over the countryside’.

He complained that he had not received any letters from home during his days at the officers’ rest home – in fact it had been three weeks since he had last received a letter, and he was ‘naturally rather anxious for news’. He had been told that a couple of parcels had arrived for him, but that ‘as I was away they were consumed by the Mess’. He signed off by wishing everyone well at home, and with the hope ‘that I shall soon be able to get the latest news from there’.

[Next letters: 19 February]

Moving back to the battalion

On the move, Sherriff wrote briefly to tell his mother that his fortnight’s rest was up, and that he  had spent most off the previous day travelling back to his Regiment – but since they, in turn, had gone back to rest, ‘we are having a job to find them’.

‘The rest has certainly done me good in some ways,’ he wrote, ‘but I still feel very nervy sometimes…I had a very good time during my last fortnight as it was an ideal place to rest – it is funny that several men got tired of the inactivity and asked to go back – I should not have minded several more weeks of it.’

Having now been out in France for five months (‘it seems ages, doesn’t it’), he felt that it would now not be much longer before he was given leave – perhaps another couple of months or so. And if the battalion were to go out to rest for a month the time would pass all the quicker (‘I am hoping there will be some cross-country running etc’.

[The battalion’s stay in rest would last only for a little under three weeks, but at least cross-country running would be on the menu of activities.]

[Next letter: 15 February]

Trouble concentrating

‘I have now had a fortnight’s rest here,’ wrote Sherriff to Pips, ‘so I expect I shall soon be leaving now…Although I feel better for the rest, I don’t think my nerves have improved much; any noises worry me and I can’t set my mind properly to anything – but I will have to go back to the Regiment I expect, and see how I get on – the feelings may wear off later on’.

His daily routine was unchanged: ‘Get up. Breakfast. Walk. Lunch. Read. Walk. Tea. Write letter. Read. Walk. Dinner. Read. Bed.’ He was enjoying the walks in the countryside, although the landscape was very flat, with no hedges. There were several rivers and canals, all frozen solid, topped by snow, which had fallen a few weeks before.

As for his reading, he was currently enjoying a ‘very good school story…called David Blaize, by E F Benson’ [published in 1916]. He was sure Pips would enjoy it. He had just finished The Antiquary, and was now ‘on Old Mortality, which, although I have started several times, I have not been able to get on with.’

Other than that, he apologised, he had ‘nothing much to say, so goodbye for the present, hoping all are well at home.’

[Next letter: 12 February]

Another short letter

Sherriff’s letter home to his mother was brief. The hard frost was still on, the ice was still thick and the skating was still thriving. He was feeling better for his rest (‘in some respects’), but ‘am still troubled with bad headaches…’. He hoped they would gradually wear off, but their persistence was making him feel ‘a bit miserable and “fed-up”, so you will excuse me writing a short letter, I know dear…’. In any event there was very little news to offer her, since he was having such a quiet time. He set out a typical day for her, which seemed to revolve around taking walks (with some of the other patients) between meals (of which there were four a day – breakfast at 9:00, lunch at 1:00, tea at 4:00 and dinner at 7:30). The men at the rest station with him were ‘very nice’, and were suffering from a variety of illnesses, but mainly Trench Fever (which he described as ‘a kind of influenza’).

[Next letter: 10 February]

[It is interesting that Sherriff’s letters had become less frequent, and much shorter, during his stay at the rest home. His earlier letters from the front tended to be short only when he was busy (in the line, for example, or with working parties while in reserve), so it is curious that the two weeks of rest had seen such a fall-off in his productivity. At the beginning of his time in the rest home he had written of his neuralgia provoking a ‘nervy’ feeling, but he had not mentioned the persistent headaches from which he now seemed to suffer.  It is possible that they had become more pronounced as the prospect of his return to the battalion grew nearer, and his nervousness of raising his anxieties with the doctor (lest he be labelled a shirker) may have been making things worse. The resulting state of emotional upheaval may have meant that he preferred to spend his time walking with other men, rather than attempting to put his thoughts down on paper for his parents.]

Bad headaches

‘Tomorrow my fortnight’s rest will be up, but I am afraid I have not properly got rid of my bad headaches yet, and I have not spoken to the doctor as I have hoped every day to wake up without it. I still may have time to get rid of it though’.

He told Pips that things were going on much as usual – he was resting, and going for walks, and in his spare time had been continuing to write a story which he had begun while with the Tunnellers, ‘and I will send you it for your criticism when finished’. [A few stories and extracts set during the war still exist, but it is not clear which, if any, this  might refer to.]

Other than that, he did not have a lot to add, for ‘as I do not feel very keen on writing today, I will close my letters shortly’.

[Next letter: 8 February]