Monthly Archives: March 2017

Thanks for the Photo

Still in the line, Sherriff wrote a short letter to his mother, and began by thanking her for the parcel he had received that very morning:

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

‘The Veda Bread came in for its usual share of applause as also did the chocolate biscuits…I love that photo of you in your nurse’s uniform, I think it is one of the best that you have had taken so far although the little one in the leather case wants a lot of beating – I have carried that in my pocket ever since I found it in my stocking the Xmas before last.’

He told her that he was keeping the new photo in the case that his Company Commander [Tetley] had given him [ to commemorate their time under heavy fire on New Year’s Day]. It was a very good photo indeed, he thought  (‘Jones is really quite a good man at photos’) [Chaplin Jones was a well-known Kingston photographer].

He promised a longer letter when he came out of the line again, which he hoped would be very soon.

[Next letters: 2 April]

Snowdrops in No Man’s Land

Back in the front line (the right sub-section of Calonne) with his battalion , Sherriff had little time to write, so settled for dashing off a couple of quick letters to his parents. He apologised to his mother for the one-page letter:

 ‘Just a hurried line to tell you I am quite well but very busy as we are in the line and as we have to work at all times we require as much sleep as possible, so you will excuse just a short note…’.

His letter to Pips was a little longer, and he mentioned that he had been reading a good little book (‘really a children’s book’) with ‘some very fine little stories in it’: Parables from Nature, it was called, and Pips should try to get hold of a copy, as he might like it.

The weather had been rather changeable of late (‘first rain, then snow, then sunshine’) but the days were growing longer (‘we have, of course, gone back to summer time as well as you’) and the nights less cold:

‘There are signs of spring everywhere now – today, two larks soared up from the middle of No Man’s Land singing – they are quite neutral – there are also some snowdrops growing out there…’.

The Daily Mail had reported that the crocuses at Hampton Court were at their best – ‘I should have liked to see them, but I do hope I shall be able to next year’.

[Next letter: 31 March]

Back to the Battalion

After 11 days ‘away back behind the guns’ Sherriff told his father (and his mother, in a separate letter) that they were getting ready to leave:

‘All is bustle and confusion again today as we are off from our quiet little village where we have been training men, back to our Regiment again – these good jobs never last long and this one has not lasted the time we expected – still we have to get used to these sudden moves and I suppose it is always the army way’.

They were due to leave at about 2:00 in the afternoon with the prospect of a ‘good tidy march’ – ahead. Luckily the weather was now ‘fine’, despite having been very variable of late.

Sherriff’s father dressed for the City (c 1900 or so). By permission of the Surrey History Centre (Ref: 3813/14/1/3)

Sherriff’s father dressed for the City (c 1900 or so). By permission of the Surrey History Centre (Ref: 3813/14/1/3)

Before he had joined up Sherriff had been, like his father, a clerk for Sun Insurance in the City in London, so he could sympathise that his father was likely to be ‘pretty well underwater with Renewal notices coming in.’ It was a job Sherriff had hated, and had been glad to leave to join the army (a ‘merciful, heaven-sent release he called it in his 1968 autobiography, No Leading Lady), but nevertheless, he now ‘would willingly work from 6 in the morning to 12 at night to be back at that work – you get quite enough of this in a few months.’

In his letter to his mother, meanwhile, he reminisced about the last day he had spent with his mother ‘wandering round Bushy Park’ – exactly six months before. ‘It does seem a long, long time to wait, and although it does not seem so very long ago ins some ways, it seems years in others – I can still remember so clearly everything we did together during those glorious days – our walks in the park, our talks in the front room over the little gas fire and everything between the time when I came home from Gidea Park that afternoon and sat in the front room until we said goodbye at Charing Cross’. He hoped it would not be too long before they got to see each other again.

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

He thanked her, as he had on previous occasion, for the letters ‘written in haste on the hospital paper’ – he appreciated how busy she must be, and expected she was now becoming quite a skilled nurse. He told her he was longing for the war to end, so that ‘we can settle down to do all those things we talked of so much – a farm, and our tours we would do – I do hope it will soon all come about’.

[Next letters: 30 March]


[Parts of this post were mistakenly published on 24 March (a confusion caused by the similarity in Sherriff’s writing of the numbers 4 and 7). The post relating to his 24 March letter has been rewritten, while the present post covers his letters to both mother and father on 27 March 1917.]

Field Service Post Card

Too busy to write on 26 March, Sherriff settled instead on sending a Field Service Post Card home.

Field Service Post Card. By Permission of the Surrey History Centre (Ref: 2332/1/1/3/154)

Field Service Post Card. By permission of the Surrey History Centre (Ref: 2332/1/1/3/154)

Instruction in everything

On 24 March Sherriff wrote home to his father with details of the training they were giving their men:

‘We are having some perfect weather now, and training is very nice back here – the men are getting instruction in everything: besides the usual Physical Drill & Musketry etc there is plenty of firing on a range – Rifle Grenades, Bombs & Bullets – Digging – Marching & everything pertaining to the soldier’.

He told Pips that he had received a long letter from him two days before, and wished he could think of more interesting things to say in reply. He felt he had said everything he had to say about the French people and plans as much as he could, or was allowed, and there was nothing much to add about his recent activities. ‘But tomorrow is Sunday,’ he noted, ‘and a day off except a voluntary Church parade which I shall go to after a hard week’s work – and after that, I hope I shall be free, and I will summon up all my thoughts to write a more interesting letter’.

[Next letters: 27 March]

Interesting training

The weather had turned cold again – it had been trying to snow and there was a biting wind – but the training continued nevertheless. He told Pips that, when the weather was very bad, ‘we retire into barns and give lectures – the training is very interesting and you get hold of very keen men sometimes’.

Pips had obviously written to him to ask how long they spent in the trenches at a time, but Sherriff felt he could not answer because the censor would be displeased: all he could say was that it was not quite as long as they used to do. He asked his father for more news from home – of men at the office, and of all the local news in the Surrey Comet.

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

Writing to his mother on the same day he thanked her for the letter he had received from her:

‘It is awfully good of you to write such long letters to me after your long hospital hours – please don’t sit up late to write, dear, even although I appreciate them so much – just a short note saying all is well when you are pressed for time’.

He apologised that his letters to her had become so ‘scrappy’ – but he found it hard to think of any news. He told her that all leave had been stopped, so his chances of getting home soon were ‘not great’ – but he was resolved to hope for the best, and just look forward to that ‘great time’. But at least, at the moment, home did not seem so very far away, with his letters arriving so regularly, and the countryside looking very English – ‘just like Shere or Dorking’.

[Next letter: 24 March]

‘Away back behind the guns’

Sherriff had not written home for a week, during which time the Battalion had moved into positions in the frontline again (on 14 March). He was not with his colleagues, however, for, as he wrote in letters to both his mother and Pips, he was in a little village (‘away back behind the guns’) helping to train recruits newly arrived from England. He thought that the job might last a fortnight, after which he would return to the Battalion, and some other officers would come down. Since it offered a short rest from the front line he imagined that everyone would be given a turn. He felt he had been chosen first because he was now ‘practically senior officer in the Company’: of the 11 officers who had been with the Company when he arrived, 8 had gone, transferred to other units or companies.

Writing on the same day to his mother he enclosed a couple of pictures of his fellow officers. One of them was of the whole battalion. Although he thought it was not a very good likeness of some of his colleagues, he took the trouble to identify two of them to his mother: ‘The man standing on my right is Hatten – [an] old Grammar School boy…the man with the glasses on my left is Reynolds who is in the Sun Fire office’ [whom he had mentioned once before].

In the middle row, from left, are Hatten, Sherriff and Reynolds. Enlarged section of photo of 9th East Surrey Officers. By permission of the Surrey History Centre (Ref: ESR/25/Clark/7)

The other picture was of the officers of ‘C’ Company, and he thought it was rather better, although he was not entirely happy with his own picture in it:

‘You see I am doing the usual shutting up my lips – I don’t know why I always do that in a photo – I suppose it is the strain of keeping still. Have I changed much? I expect I am looking rather worried.’

In his letter to Pips he described his billet at some length:

 [The room] looks into a genuine French farm yard, from a big window which nearly reaches the floor. There is a dovecote in the middle with a weathercock boasting a roman nose – underneath an old horse is slowly walking round and round in a monotonous circle harnessed to a pole…another equally aged horse laboriously walks on a kind of treadmill which churns up hay. An old French man with blue trousers and a not-too-clean shirt and face is sharpening a knife and talking to an old lady who is sitting at the door of the farm shouting inarticulate words every time he removes the knife to feel the blade. A pit on the side of the yard is filled with mashed swedes – the purpose appearing tone to give off a violent smell. The whole yard is strewn with straw (or is it manure?)’

He additionally told his mother that he had his own room, with another officer in an adjoining room, and ‘as we have electric light in the room you can imagine we are very well put up here’.

The officers of ‘C’ Company, 9th East Surreys. Front row, left to right: 2nd Lt Douglass, Capt Warre-Dymond, 2nd Lt Trenchard. Back row, left to right: 2nd Lt Kiver, 2nd Lt Sherriff, 2nd Lt Toplis. Seated: 2nd Lt Homewood. By permission of the Surrey History Centre (Ref: SHC 2332/6/4/2/3)

He was writing in the evening, having been out all day with the men: ‘The country here is very beautiful in its way…very much like Surrey with woods and hills…sometimes, looking down from the training grounds, you catch glimpses of country exactly like England’. The training that day had consisted of shooting on the range and bomb-throwing (which he found ‘very exciting’). He told Pips that he had to bring his letter to a close as he was just about to go to a ‘cinema show’. He was obviously relishing what he called the ‘quiet homely sort of days’, but he was well aware that they would soon pass.

[Next letters: 21 March]

A spectacular sight

‘Today is Sunday,’ wrote Sherriff to Pips. ‘We had church service this morning in the building in which I saw a Charlie Chaplin film yesterday – about a mile from the firing line with a shell hole in the roof patched with black canvas, and all the while we were watching the show the guns were going it hard not far away; they had on an Edison picture – “A Day That Is Dead” illustrating a Tennyson poem – also a Bronco Billy picture and a Charlie Chaplin one. [They] played to a very appreciative audience of whom many had probably been doing duty in the trenches that afternoon. The Church Service was also accompanied by the guns – the service is voluntary and a great part of the Battalion attends notwithstanding’.

Officers of the 9th East Surreys, March 1917. Including: seated, Lt Warre-Dymond (extreme left), Capt Tetley (extreme right), Lt Clark (2nd right). First row, standing: 2nd Lt Sherriff (centre), 2nd Lt Lindsay (extreme right). Second row, standing: 2nd Lt Douglass (extreme left). By permission of the Surrey History Centre (Ref: ESR/25/Clark/7)

He told Pips that the officers of the Battalion had had their photos taken in a group that day, and that he would send copies home as soon as he could. It was the first photo that had been taken of him in France.

[Note that the photograph includes some of the men who may have been, in part, the models for the characters in Journey’s End, including Warre-Dymond and Tetley (both of whom may be reflected in Stanhope); Clark (Trotter, to a limited degree); and Douglass (Uncle). The photo also shows Sherriff’s good friend Harry Lindsay, who took part in the trench raid on which the Journey’s End raid may be based.]

Before finishing his letter he told his father about the excitement of watching ‘air fighting’ (‘one of the most spectacular sights to be seen’) although the combat was not so much between the aircraft as it was with shelling from the ground:

‘I have known days when you could hardly ever look into the air without seeing somewhere the little black puffs of smoke showing where a shell has burst. I have not often seen it, but occasionally one of them coming down in a little ball of flame, or long trails of black smoke, is rather impressive, but the most striking fact is the absolute supremacy that we have over the enemy – you see literally clouds of our machines.’

[Next letters: 18 March]

In a better mood

Sherriff’s two letters home showed him in a good mood, probably for three reasons. First, the weather had grown cold again, which was ‘much better …than the moist, rainy days that we have occasionally – when it freezes you have a good, hard surface to walk on in the trenches – when it thaws you get a sloppy walk all the way.’

Second, he was happy with the stretch of trench they were defending, as he told his mother:

‘We are having quite a good time up here, and we are in a much nicer spot than our previous one – touch wood, because you can never tell from one day to another how things are going to be – but in any case we have better billets and our dugout is very homely – it is a cellar and we have tables and chairs, a big mirror and pictures on the wall, and a chiffonier in which we keep our crockery etc – this is quite unusual for a front line dugout, and at mess in the evening with a party of 6 of us we are quite happy.’

The first page in Sherriff’s short story about a boisterous dinner party in the trenches of Cité Calonne, probably written in 1917-1918. By permission of the Surrey History Centre (Ref: 2332/3/8/1)

He assured her that he was with ‘very nice men’, although officers were always ‘coming and going.’ In fact, of the 10 officers who had been with his Company when he arrived, only three were left, the others having transferred to other Companies and Regiments. He was still enjoying his role as Mess President, although there was quite a lot of work involved in laying in sufficient provisions for long stays in the line – and also in ‘extracting subscriptions from the members’. But, happily, they had a new Mess Cook who was proving adept at cooking ‘wonderful dishes made of quite plain things’.

The third reason for the lightening of his mood, as he told Pips, was the fact that they were being relieved that very day, and moving into Divisional Reserve in Bully Grenay. He was probably cheered up, too, by his view that the war was going well, although he acknowledged that he had no additional information beyond what he read in the papers. But he was always glad to hear how the men from the Sun Insurance office were getting on: ‘I expect the last remaining “eligibles” are now being combed out and you are getting filled up with old men and girls – the office must look very funny now, as all London must.’

There was still no sign of any impending leave for him, and he told his mother that it seemed like years since he had last been home, but that on nice days, when everything was quiet, he could close his eyes and imagine himself standing in Home Park. But she needn’t worry that he was homesick: ‘I am never really lonely or miserable – I simply long to be home and long for the end of the war’.

[Next letter: 10  March]

I am quite well

‘We have come in for a spell of good mild weather,’ he told Pips, ‘and it is a great change to the biting cold that we have had such a lot of’.

Other than the weather there was very little to write home about, since they were still in the line, and he could not tell Pips where they were, nor really describe his surroundings [although we know from the battalion diary that he was in Cité Calonne]. He could at least say that they were ‘quite comfortable as regards dugouts’, and he promised that, ‘if I ever have the chance (as I greatly hope) after the war, I will have some very interesting things to tell you about the place we are in’.

Sherriff’s father Herbert, on their Battlefield Tour in 1921. By permission of the Surrey History Centre (Ref: 2332/9/7)

He complained that he had a bit of a cold (‘like nearly every one else has here at various times’), but not enough to get him sent home. He was longing for leave, but knew that it was still some way off. At least when it came, however, they would enjoy it much more because of the long time he had waited for it. Beyond that he had nothing much more to write, since ‘my descriptions of French people and things have rather run out’. He reassured his father that, even when he had nothing to say, he would simply write ‘letting you know I am quite well’.

[It is notable that, although Sherriff’s letters home are brief at this point, they are at least more frequent (three in successive days, six in a week) than they had been throughout February, when he was suffering with his neuralgia. It suggests that, as on previous occasions (and as would happen later), Sherriff was generally more agitated by the prospect of moving into the line (even when the move was far from imminent) than by actually being in the line.]

[Next letters: 8 March]