Monthly Archives: April 2017

Improvised sing-songs

Still back in rest , Sherriff had time to send two letters home today, despite the heavy workload. As he told Pips: ‘There is a lot for us to do – besides looking after the training of our Platoons we have to attend numerous conferences etc by the Colonel – still, however hard we work, it is preferable to the line.’

He told his mother that the weather was absolutely perfect, and that he was sitting in the Mess writing his letter on one of the finest evenings of the year. Earlier in the day he and the other officers had been taken in a cart to see the Army Corps Commander, who had taken the trouble to talk to each of them individually, and ask them a few questions: Sherriff ‘had a nice time’.

He told Pips that the organisation of sports was well in hand: ‘football competitions every evening (‘I know very little about football,’ he told his mother, ‘but it is best to take an interest in it.’) and there are some sports on Saturday  – 100 yards, Relay Races etc – quite an imposing programme’, but he recognised that ‘there is always that shadow of “pack up and move in an hour’s time” hanging about. I sincerely hope the men are here for some period though.’

The men were very happy, holding improvised sing-songs every night, and enjoying their billets in the barns which, provided with straw and blankets, and with the fine weather arriving, were not as cold as their previous accommodations. And perhaps the fine weather was the reason he was not feeling his neuralgia so much. He was glad to be out for a rest for a little while, and hoped it would be at least a few weeks before they went back into the line.

[Next letter: 5 May]

A perfect day

Just beginning his eighth month in France, Sherriff, still with his Battalion, and well back from the front line, seemed contented:

‘Today is one of the most perfect days of the year – absolutely cloudless sky and almost hot sun, which is a very good sign of coming summer. I am orderly officer today and have been sitting censoring letters, and have been out listening to the Band, which has been playing on the village green (if such a substitute for the English Green can be so called). Quite a crowd turned up, including the Colonel and two or three staff officers.’

The weather made training much more pleasant, and greatly cheered up the men. His men were billeted in a barn in the farmyard right opposite his Mess, which was the main room of the farmhouse, and above which was the room where he was billeted. They were mainly sitting in the sun, writing letters, or – in the case of a few conscientious ones – cleaning their rifles.

As he was watching, a can of tea had been brought out and the men were lining up with their canteens. On the whole, he reckoned, they were well supplied with food:

‘They have bacon and bread, butter, jam and tea at 7:00 in the morning. A good stew at 1 o’clock and tea at 4 o’clock. Besides anything they may wish to buy with their own money, such as eggs etc. Every farm has a lot of fowls and consequently no lack of eggs.’

And with that,apologising that he was required to go and inspect the guard, he signed off, promising another letter ‘as soon as possible’.

[Next letters: 30 April]

Sack fighting on poles

Sherriff told Pips that the Battalion was now billeted in ‘a pleasant little village a good way from the line’, where they were carrying on with their usual training while in rest, including all the exercises they had done in England, while also kitting-out the men with new clothes, boots and equipment. Training usually took place from 8:00 in the morning until 4:00 in the afternoon, after which their time was their own. As well as training they were taking part in sports, competing with the Engineers in various events, including the 100 yards, some obstacle races and ‘sack fighting on poles’.

But there was still one cloud behind the silver lining:

‘The worst part of this is the uncertainty about moving – you never know from one day to another – even from hour to hour – when orders may come to pack up. Every time a note arrives from the Orderly Room you half expect them to be Movement Orders – but it is not much use worrying about it – if you can only foster the philosophic spirit you are alright, but this is very difficult to do.’

Trying to shrug off his anxiety about a possible change of circumstances he told Pips about the countryside. They were on a small river, not far from the sea [actually in Coyecques, about 30 miles from Boulogne], which had taken them about three mornings of marching to reach. The countryside around was beginning to look dry, as no rain had fallen over a week. He had been for several walks in the countryside, and, as a result, had made up his mind that, once he returned after the war, he would take an interest in ‘natural, as well as ordinary, history’.

[Next letter: 29 April]

A Battlefield Tour

Sherriff wrote to Pips telling him that he thought it would be interesting, after the war, to return to France:

‘…to spend a few days over here visiting the old spots which were once our barriers to the land further on – to look into which, through a periscope, was to look like Alice did into the Looking Glass [an analogy he had used a few months earlier] – till one daytime glass melted and through they went and found the people there curiously the same as the ones here.’ [He and his father did go on a battlefield tour in 1921, which Herbert wrote up in a journal, and which Sherriff wrote about in an article in the school magazine.]

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

The weather was still very fine, making things easier for the British advance, which he hoped would hasten the end of the war. But he spared a thought for the Germans too: ‘What the Germans must feel like I cannot imagine – but it must be a queer feeling, for day after day the guns roar away without stopping – one continual roar which means unlimited ammunition and guns.’

He was ‘orderly officer’ today, and was writing while waiting for the moment when he would have to turn out the guard to make sure everything was in order. The following day they would all be heading off on another march, which would take them ‘a long way away from our usual haunts, which means a change of scenery’. He apologised that he could not say exactly where, but he hoped that he would be able to – someday soon.

[Next letter: 26 April]

A jolly Mess

‘I have not had a return of Neuralgia,’ he wrote to his mother, ‘so I have not bothered the Doctor – I am hoping if we can only get a few weeks rest I shall feel much better.’

Sherriff and his battalion were now in Lozinghem, about 10 miles or so back from the front line, where they would stay for another couple of days. About a quarter of the men had been given passes to visit local towns, and there was a general sense of relaxation.  ‘We are having a very nice time here,’ wrote Sherriff, ‘a quiet country village where only a distant rumble of guns can be heard.’

Percy High (rear left, with pipe). From ‘Memories of Active Service’, Vol 1, facing p 22. By permission of the Surrey History Centre (Ref: 2332/3/9/3/2)

He promised to send more photos of the company officers as soon he received them, and commented on how jolly his Mess was:

‘The company always seems to be very lucky in having nice men. I could not wish for better companions although they are mostly much older than myself. Do you remember that rather oldish man who was alone at Charing Cross Station the day I went off? He has now been transferred to my Company – and I am very glad, he is very nice.’ [The man was Percy High, about whom Sherriff wrote in his unpublished Memoir – a pipe-smoking schoolteacher who has a strong claim to be one of the main models for the character of Osborne in Journey’s End.]

There was still a chance he might be given 4 days leave to visit Paris, and although he would prefer 6 days, even the 4 might permit them to arrange a meeting in Paris. He would let her know as soon as he found out.

[Next letter: 24 April]

With old friends

Sherriff’s letter to his mother began with a sigh of relief:

‘We are now settled down for a little while in a quiet village a long way behind the line, almost out of sound of the guns – just a faint rumble in the distance a very long way away.’

He told her he was back with his old company (‘with the same old friends’), and that, as his neuralgia was better (‘thank goodness’) he had not yet been to see the battalion doctor. He told her, as he had Pips the day before, that the doctor who had examined him while at the transport had given him a note, but he hoped that he would not need to make use of it: ‘perhaps the quiet will do me good and I may get rid of it [the neuralgia] entirely’.

Fragment of letter to his mother. By permission of the Surrey History Centre (Ref: 2332/1/1/2/166)

‘I went for a ride into town today,’ he wrote, ‘to get money for the men to be paid’. It had been a glorious day, and he had chosen to ride a bicycle (rather than a horse) and had a very enjoyable time. Summer seemed to be coming on in earnest, with the days getting longer, and the countryside looking greener.

The men were in need of a rest, he felt, ‘having done extremely useful work’. They had also obtained plenty of trophies ‘in the form of German helmets etc – you can read in the papers how they left in such a hurry as to leave plenty of useful stuff behind for our people’. There was a possibility that officers who had been out in France for 6 or 8 months might be allowed 4 days leave to go to Paris; he would much prefer 6 days to go to England – ‘but I am afraid that is out of the question owing to the submarines’. Nevertheless he would still go on hoping that the time would come when he would be able to be back home with her again.

[Next letter: 23 April]

Back into rest

Sherriff’s latest letter to Pips was written over two days, during which he was taking part in his favourite army pastime – route marching: ‘Marching was always my favourite part of soldiering and I am never so fond as I am of a day’s march’.

The Battalion was moving into rest, and Sherriff with it. But he had been sent on ahead as they were marching from the front, and would take some rest along the way, although no one knew for how long. He was bringing with him a report from the Doctor he had been visiting while with the transport, and he was to give it to the Battalion Doctor, with the suggestion that his neuralgia should be ‘looked into’. The Doctor had thought it might be due to the straining of his eye muscles, but Sherriff didn’t care what the cause was, just that it could be cured:

‘The trouble is that it comes on for about an hour, 2 or 3 times a day, and while it is on it makes me feel absolutely knocked up – when it is over I feel quite fit again. So directly we have settled down for the rest I shall see our own Doctor and see if I can have things seen to – teeth, eyes, nerves or whatever it may be, I should think some cure could be found.’

He sought reassurance from Pips that all was still going well with the war: ‘You probably always get the news before we do,’ he grumbled. Not the news from nearby, of course – but that was never complete – ‘we never get the facts or reasons for certain things until we get the papers afterwards’. He couldn’t share any more details because of censorship worries, so advised his father that he must be ‘content with the messages of Phillip Gibbs, Beach Thomas and such other important personages published in the last few days’ Daily Express.’

Taking up his pencil again on the second day he reported that they had enjoyed a march of about 8 miles, and had halted at a village overnight, prior to moving on again soon. The weather was ‘fine’, and the farm which served as their headquarters was full of life – ‘thousands of chicks and fowls and dogs are running about everywhere.’ [The tone of his letter already seems more relaxed than that of a few days’ earlier.]

[Next letter: 22 April]

The man on my right has been killed

In today’s letter to his mother Sherriff enclosed a copy of a photo of the officers of ‘C’ Company which had been taken while in reserve at Bully Grenay a fortnight before:

‘Since it was taken, the man on my right (standing on the left of the photo) has been killed and the old man sitting on the extreme right of the photo has been wounded. These are some of the awful parts of war – the gradual disappearance of friends like this – and yet it makes death appear a far less fearful thing when so many go in front of you like this – men you know intimately – there is Webb and Restall and many others – almost as many friends on that side as this side, so you see, dear, that should anything happen I know you are always prepared to bear any news that you might hear perfectly calmly remembering how many thousands of others have had to do the same.’

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)

Death might have seemed ‘less fearful’ to him, but he still reassured her that he prayed every night, that he would come back safely – not just for his own sake (there as so much he wanted to do when he returned), but also so that he could repay her for everything she had done for him. He hoped that:

‘this beastly affair will be over by the time “the leaves turn brown” (as the Kaiser told his men 2 1/2 years ago), and that I shall be back again with you and Pips and Bundy and Beryl and Puss and the chickens and dear old home, and we shall be making our arrangements for our poultry farm.’

He was still in his billet, back with the transport, and was trying to get rid of his neuralgia by keeping quiet, as the doctor had ordered. But he assured her that, If the present treatment proved unsuccessful, he would see about getting his teeth and eyes seen to again, to try to ‘get to the root of the trouble’.

[Next letter: 21 April]

Frayed nerves

Sherriff, back with the transport because of his neuralgia, wrote home to both parents to let them know how his nerves were progressing.

He told Pips that he had been to see the doctor, as he had suggested, and had explained to him about his nerves, and how his neuralgia was troubling him. He understood that doctors might be suspicious of such complaints, but also noted that, before being sent to the rear, some kind of character reference had to be provided by one of the regiment’s senior officers. Unfortunately, his fellow officers were currently in the line, some distance away, so the doctor was ‘in rather a fix’.

The doctor had examined him and agreed that there was no question as to his nervousness and then asked if he could think of any reason for it:

‘I told him that I had always been rather highly strung – and he asked me all kinds of questions – where did I live? How long had I been out here? Did I smoke much? (I told him I smoked about 4 or 5 cigarettes a day) and several other questions – he finished up by giving me some tablets to take and I have to call and see him this afternoon – I am absolutely in his hands – if he decides I am fit to go up the line I must go – but what I dread is that by going up I should make some serious mistake through lack of confidence.’

After telling Pips about his experiences with the doctor he went on to give a very detailed and graphic account of exactly how his frayed nerves affected him:

‘When you first get out here you realise that there is a certain strain to put up with – one gets to the line and is rather surprised at its quietness – shells are not flying over incessantly and in fact at the period when I arrived there were none to spare on our front at all – they were being used in a more serious place.

You feel rather agreeably surprised – and then soon someone says “look out!  here’s a Minnie” and you see what appears to be a shell making apparently slowly upwards then turns and comes down with a swish and makes a terrific explosion – it may not have been near you and the explosion was not as loud as you anticipated.

This goes on day after day and then one day a man may be blown to pieces  by a “Minnie” (for only one in a hundred lands in a trench) and every  time you walk past the shattered piece of trench you have the pleasure of seeing pieces of his anatomy hanging on bits of barbed wire etc – one day a man is sniped and you may see his bloodstained helmet carried away and then you begin to respect the powers of a “Minnie” and you don’t feel so inclined to look over the top after seeing a man shot in the head – and as day after day goes by you gradually get a habit of gazing into the air for “Minnies” and your ears become painfully sensitive to picking up the sound of a shell coming – and your heart throbs unnecessarily sometimes, your arm brushing against your coat makes a swishing sound and you stop to listen in suspense, a man starting to whistle makes you jump, hundreds of times you become painfully on the alert for a false alarm and at others for a real alarm.

The more familiar you become with a sector of line the more you learn its danger spots and there are times when you pass certain places as fast as your legs will carry you.

It is when you get to this state – which may take any length of time according to your  state of nerves (and with some men apparently never comes) that the suspense of long hours of duty in the line tell upon you – and it is then that even when some way behind the line where shells only can reach that you get a kind of instinct to pick up any sign of a recent shell burst – a small hole in the ground where a splinter landed, a little loose earth scattered about by the explosion all worry you.

I think nearly everyone gets to this state sooner or later and it is, of course, a question of their powers of being able to conceal their fear after that.’

He told his mother rather more about the treatment the doctor had offered. He had agreed that his neuralgia was probably caused by his nerves  being ‘out of order’, and had then given him some tablets and suggested he stay quiet in his billet for a day or two. But Sherriff did not think this would be of much use:

my nervousness is worse than the Neuralgia and I feel it impossible to settle down quietly to anything in my billet – all the while I have that dread of going into the line again – if only I could get a real rest for a fortnight or so I am sure I should get better and tomorrow I will explain that to him if possible – it is such a difficult subject to talk to him about, though – as it looks just like you are shirking.

Nevertheless he would take his mother’s advice and see the doctor again the next day if he genuinely did not feel better – the last thing he wanted to do was to go back into the line in his present state, ‘ when every little thing makes me jump.’

[Next letter: 18 April]

This same nagging neuralgia

‘I am writing this letter to you in bed,’ Sherriff told his mother, ‘but don’t be alarmed – it is only this same nagging neuralgia again.’

He told her that he had returned earlier than expected from training new recruits, and that, as he was still feeling bad, m he had gone to the doctor, who had advised a few days rest at the Transport, behind the lines. The doctor had also given him some tablets, but as he didn’t think they were doing him much good he had sent Morris [his servant] to fetch the doctor:

‘I hope to be able to have a private talk with him and explain how my nerves are affected as well – it is such a difficult matter to explain but if possible I will tell him exactly how I feel – I cannot get rid of the dread of again going into the line.’

After seeing the doctor he picked up his pencil again, and told her that the Doctor had agreed that he was certainly nervous, and that was probably the cause of his neuralgia. He had given him some more tablets and arranged to see him the following day:

‘I do hope he will be able to do something for me.  There is no need for you to worry, dear, because there must be hundreds of cases like mine here – I wonder so many continue to go through it day after day.

He told her that he had also just received a letter from Pips urging him to see the doctor, and he was glad to have acted on his advice: ‘I feel rather mean staying behind when all the others are up the line – but I feel quite clear in my conscience that I am right.’

[Next letters 17 April]