Monthly Archives: July 2017

Fast and furious

Sheriff wrote home to Pips:

‘As we are waiting for orders to move which may be through any moment, I am just writing you a short line in case we find a difficulty in writing during the next few days’.

He had just received a long letter from his father which discussed the progress he had made with Laws’ History [the book Sheriff had previously requested]. He had reached the Volume on Charles II, and Sherriff reckoned ‘it must be a very interesting book.’ His father had also written of the quiet country cycle rides he had been enjoying, and Sherriff trusted that it would not be long before he was able to go home and join him:

‘Things are going fast and furious here now, and we can never tell what is going to happen next – all I can hope is that I shall be one of the fortunate ones to come through safely and one can do nothing more than that – and to fall back on philosophy to save ones mind’.

He hoped that he would be able to write ‘occasional lines’ to Pips in the coming days, but knew that his father would be patient, ‘for you know what difficulties there are in writing’.

[Next letter: 2 August]

I pray I shall be lucky

Sheriff began a brief letter to his mother:

‘As we shall probably be going up into the line today I am taking the opportunity of writing a short line in case I do not have an opportunity for a day or so. We have had several days here now so had to expect to move and although we have no definite orders they will come through soon, I expect – I cannot tell at all what we are in for and simply trust and pray that I shall be lucky and come through safely – for as you say – some have got to come through safely and I hope I shall one among them.’

He went on to tell her that he had received the ring she had sent – it was ‘very nice indeed’, and he told her that he looked upon it as a gift from her, even although she was not paying for it. He did not feel he could wear two rings, so he would continue to wear the old one in the line, ‘because it has been through everything with me up till now’.

He had to keep the letters short, because he had to pack his gear, but he promised that he would write to her from the line whenever possible, but told her not to be surprised if she did not hear form hi for a while.

[Next letter: 31 July]


The rain had started…

‘I am sitting in our tent with the rain coming down in torrents outside – during breakfast (all meals are held out of doors in fine weather) it started to come down and we quickly moved inside to finish – it reminds me of camping to hear the rain pattering down on the canvas and natural thunder is mingling with gun thunder just at present’.

They were still in the camp at Dickebusch, from where, the previous evening, he had again strolled into town with a friend, to do some shopping and have dinner (‘a pleasant relaxation from camp life’). They were ready to move if necessary, and he promised Pips, as he had many times in the past, that he would endeavour to send a letter home whenever he could. But he knew there might be tough times ahead:

‘it is quite a matter of luck even how a regiment fares as a whole – we may be lucky and in a few days be out resting with very little further trouble – or it may be the reverse, it is of little use worrying and hoping, it is of little use worrying and hoping’.

As ever, he was resolved to leave everything to fate, and not try to ‘frustrate’ it by doing anything which he had been told not to, nor by doing anything which was very obviously not the right thing to do. ‘The best thing,’ he had decided, ‘is to continue as one is advised, either by superior officers or by instinct’. He apologised that he could tell his father nothing of ‘Military Interest’, except to note that everyone was ‘as usuall “fed up” but at the same time cheerful to a certain extent – the speculation is “How long?” “Another Winter?”‘

He asked Pips to try to get hold of a pocket edition of ‘Laws History’ [most likely  Edward Laws’ History of Little England Beyond Wales, published in 1888], for he was determined, ‘if I once again find myself safe at home’, to return to his favourite pursuits, and principal among those would be ‘the study of History and Antiquities’. His overall objective was to buy a small farm, and, supplemented by writing and teaching, to free himself from ‘the dependency of the office’ (although he was quite clear that he would return to the office after the war, for as long as it took him to be financially secure).

He thanked Pips for the long letter he had received from him, in which he had noted that he had been gardening on an evening recently which had been just like the one when Sherriff had returned home from leave. ‘How much would not I give for that 10 days over again,’ he sighed in reply, ‘I have dwelled on it so much since – lived it again and again…and come to the conclusion that it could not be improved’.

[Next letter: 30 July]

Pips’ happy lot

Sherriff, still in the tent encampment at Dickebusch, began his letter to his father by apologising for not having written much recently. He had been out of the line for three days now, but had spent much of the time trying to catch up on sleep:

‘One gets a certain amount of sleep in the line but it is disturbed and one of the greatest joys on coming out is to lie down and have an undisturbed sleep for several hours which is quite delightful’.

Their previous spell in the line had been ‘short but not sweet’, and they had been glad to get out for a few days rest. He knew they would be in again soon, but he was resolved to ‘bear it as patiently as possible’, and trust that he would be one of the lucky ones to come through it unharmed. Surely, he felt, the war could not last many more months – and ‘if only the Russians would pull themselves together I am sure things would end early’.

Pips had obviously just written a letter informing him of the air-raids that had been taking place [with daylight raids now mounted by Gotha bombers], but Sherriff was unimpressed at the suffering of his fellow Londoners:

‘You say in your letter you are now having to bear the hardships of war on account of the aeroplane raids – if only I could have those in exchange for these! What would the Londoners think if there was a fleet of aeroplanes dropping bombs day in and day out – all night too – not a moment when something does not drop somewhere. What would I not give for an occasional day with no firing at all as you get in London – if only some of the Londoners could have a day over here and then be put back into London I am sure they would not worry over an occasional bombing – specially when they have cellars to run into anywhere (which we don’t always have, and even if we have must not always use if on duty) – I am afraid you do not appreciate your happy lot sufficiently.’

Having got that off his chest he reported that he had been experiencing a ‘touch of biliousness’ of late, which he put down to the effects of recently inhaling some gas (‘very slightly though’). And it clearly hadn’t stopped him going into town the previous day, where he had enjoyed a walk around, as well as lunch and dinner (‘it is such a change to get away like that’).

Just as he was closing up his letter to Pips the Corporal was coming round to pick up the mail, so his mother had to settle for a very brief letter that was little more than an assurance that he was well, and a promise of a longer letter in the near future.

[Next letter: 29 July]

Going to town

Sherriff and his Battalion were now back in reserve, in a tent encampment near Dickebusch, a mile or so behind the lines. They had moved back there the day before after spending a couple of days in the support trenches following their departure from the front line. He was enjoying the rest, as he told his mother:

‘We are still out of the line but of course may go in at any time now. Meanwhile we are having a fairly good rest out here – it is pleasant, after all, to be anywhere so long as it is a fair way from the front line.’

If he received permission, he intended to take a trip into a nearby town that afternoon, to get away from the camp, and to do some shopping.

Scottish Wood, where C & D companies had been in support trenches two days earlier. From Herbert Sherriff’s account of their Battlefield Tour in 1921. By permission of the Surrey History Centre (Ref: 2332/9/7)

‘Things go on just as they did before I came home, ‘ he noted, rather wearily – but at least he had the happy memory of his 10-day break at home. He hoped that, if the war carried on into the winter, he might be scheduled for his next leave around Christmas time (‘that is, if the leave keeps on’).He often thought of the time he spent at home on leave, and had come to the conclusion that he could not have spent it any better: ‘I think there was nothing that could have improved our holiday and I am so thankful nothing occurred to mar it, such as a lot of wet weather or anything like that.’

And with that he told her that he had to go. He apologised for choosing to spend his time going out on walks, rather than writing her long letters – ‘but you cannot realise the pleasure of going for a quiet walk into a town with [Percy] High or another friend and having a quiet dinner and an hour’s rest’. But he promised to write later if they were still staying in the camp.

[Next letters: 27 July]

Banging and crashing

Back in the line once more, Sheriff found time for very short notes to both parents. He told Pips that he was ‘safe and well at present and…I very much hope I shall remain so’, although it was ‘pretty hot’ in the district he was now in.’

The Battalion Diary shows that they were now near Hill 60, in the Ypres sector, and that during the 23 and 24 July the German shelling continued almost unabated, except for a few hours in the early morning. The British artillery returned fire, and both sides were active in the air as well. This explains Sherriff’s complaint to his mother: ‘Here I am in the middle of it again, with all of the banging and crashing and uncertainty…’. He also told Pips that the noise was ‘very worrying’, and that it kept him awake, although, on a more positive note, ‘our quarters might be worse and at least they are comfortable enough for me to write you this note’.

He reassured his mother that he was still alright, and that, in their comfortable quarters, because of the fine weather, he found no need for a blanket while sleeping: ‘all one requires is a towel and washing materials and Macintosh, and plenty of smokes and a book’, although there was not much time for reading because they tried to get as much sleep as possible.

He told Pips that he hoped they were enjoying the sea good weather, but trusted they would be able to make more use of it: ‘It is almost impossible to imagine the quiet river and parks but providing I get through safely these pleasures will be more appreciated than ever before.’

[Sherriff wrote his two brief letters home on 23 July. During the course of the next twenty-four hours or so, 3 of his fellow officers – Lt Picton, 2nd Lt Bogue, and Captain Pirie (the Battalion Doctor) –  would be killed by German shelling, and another – 2nd Lt Ellis – wounded. Pirie’s death is described in a letter from the Chaplin to his sister on 25 July:

‘I am very sorry indeed to write this letter. Your brother, Captain Pirie, the M.O. of this Battalion, was killed yesterday in the trenches. He was working in his aid post when a shell burst right in the entrance and killed him immediately…’

The letter may be found in Michael Lucas’s published version of Pirie’s diary of his time in uniform.

Sherriff was sufficiently affected by their deaths that, in 1921, when on a cycling tour of his wartime haunts with his father, he made a point of visiting and photographing the site of their graves.]

Pirie’s grave, photographed by Sheriff in May 1921. (By permission of the Surrey History Centre, Ref: 2332/9/7)

The graves of Bogue and Picton, as photographed by Sheriff in May 1921. By permission of the Surrey History Centre (Ref: 2332/9/7)

[Next letter: 26 July]

Away from everything natural

After having relatively little time to write during the course of his four day march back towards Ypres, Sheriff now found himself with enough time to write two letters home.

Writing first to his mother he repeated what he had written to Pips the day before – that he was now back at the place where he had been before he left on leave, and that he was expecting to go into the front line the next day. He was clearly girding himself for the thought of the trials to come:

‘It is some time now since I was last in the line and there is no doubt, of course, as to it being my turn, and I sincerely hope I shall be lucky enough to come through safely as well as through all future periods in the line… We are bound to have a fairly rough time at some period during our next spell in the line – but some have got to come through safely and the most I can do is hope and trust that i shall be one of those. There is a chance of being wounded which – providing it was slight – would in any case mean a certain rest. Even should the worst happen, as I have said before dear, it would only be others who would know or care, I would know nothing of it. Whenever you are miserable read your little Marcus Aurelius for you will know that whenever I am miserable I will be doing the same…’

He quickly closed his letter to his mother, warning her that she might not hear from him for several days at a time, but that she was not to worry – he would write whenever he was able. He then turned his attention to Pips, and it is clear that, by the time he wrote that letter, his orders had firmed up a little. His Company was moving into the trenches that night, but he was staying an extra night at the transport lines.

He noted that the nights were becoming longer again, and the mornings darker, and ‘by September we shall have an equality of night and day again.’ Whether it was due to the encroaching nights, or the anxiety about what he feared was to come in the line, his mind was turning to thoughts of home:

‘There is one thing that I long for more than I can tell and that is the joy of those long winter evenings with a big fire in the dining room and the billiards and stamps and reading and after-supper walks – they are joys that this life makes me appreciate more than ever. We get good walks in some parts of the country here – but nothing like one gets in some parts of England – you rarely see the wild meadow land, the heaths and avenues of trees that you see in England.’

Thinking of the English countryside made him contrast it with the scenes which he was shortly to encounter:

‘Now tomorrow up we go into the line again and incidentally away from everything natural and beautiful – for some days it will be simply wallowing in mud or perhaps dust with evil smelling holes to live in which one clings to like a godsend and all the time there is the incessant crash of shells – you can imagine how many men like it – but everyone – that is every one in the Infantry – has to take his turn and our turn has arrived’.

And with that he closed his letter, since he had to complete his packing. But he hoped that he would soon be back out of the line again, and able to write some more and longer letters home.

[Next letters: 23 July]

A rough time ahead

Despite Sherriff’s earlier hopes that he might find some time to write a longer letter home, the march back towards the front had been too tiring for him to manage more than a couple of short pages at a time. Today’s letter was no different:

‘We have now reached the end of our marching and tomorrow I believe we go into the line – so I am taking this opportunity of writing in case I am not able to tomorrow.’

He must have known something was up, for although he told Pips that he knew ‘extraordinarily little’ of their future movements, he suspected that ‘we are bound to have a fairly rough time in our next journey up the line’: he hoped that he would be ‘one of the lucky ones to come through safely’, and felt that he would need to use all of his philosophical powers to stay cheerful. It had been some time since he had last been in the line, and he recognised that the outcome of the next trip would largely be a matter of chance.

Apologising for the brevity of his letter (he had much to do in terms of packing and cleaning his equipment), he also warned that the letters in the days ahead might be similarly brief, ‘as the opportunities for writing are small’ – but he promised at least a ‘line now and then’ to let them all know how he as.

[Next letters: 21 July]

On the long march back

Sherriff had just finished the second day of the slow march back to the front, when he wrote a brief letter home to Pips:

‘I wish I had more time to write to you, but at present our hours are so split up by night marching that it is difficult to get a good opportunity…We march from about 2:00 till 9:00 in the morning to avoid the sun – today we got in at 9:30 and had breakfast about 10:00 (omelettes made of ducks eggs) and after inspecting the men’s feet, rifles etc, turned in about 12:00 and slept till 4:00 in the afternoon.’

He had slept on the floor of the Mess which was located in a large farm house – and he had settled down into an old-fashioned recess, ‘something like those between walls at Hampton Court’. After they had awoken and had tea, there had been time for a stroll into town (they were billeted near Caestre, which Sherriff described as ‘an interesting though old place’). He was writing to Pips just after finishing an early dinner – and apologised that the note must be short, because they had another early start the next morning. Nevertheless, he assured his father that he would ‘endeavour to find more time to write tomorrow’.

[Next letter: 20 July]

Up the line again

‘I think today is our last day here,’ wrote Sherriff to his father, ‘after a very pleasant 10 days of it – the great advantage is to be away from the Battalion and all ceremony – guards etc – which go with it – the men have had more freedom and sports’.

They would all be sorry to move, he wrote, especially since it was pretty obvious that they would be moving into the line again – still, he realised there was no point simply in wishing himself out of it. He cautioned Pips that there might be times when he would find it impossible to write home for perhaps several days – but he would never fail to write when he had the opportunity: ‘You will simply have to wait and should anything recur you are quickly warned officially even of wounds etc., but I trust that I shall always be in such a favourable position as to write regularly.’

The countryside around them was very beautiful, and he had taken several very pleasant evening strolls while there – the landscape reminded him of the South Downs, and the weather had been quite perfect – breezy and sunny. He had had several opportunities to visit the nearby large town [St Omer], but he had preferred the quiet lanes and towns to a busy town – perhaps because of the lovely quiet time he had enjoyed while home on leave: ‘It will be a long time before I forget those beautiful rides around Worcester Park and Oxshott and our quiet walks in the park and river trips’.

He remarked again about the cricket they had enjoyed while at the School: they had their own bats and stumps, and gloves had been provided by W. J. Abel (an ex-Surrey player, whose more famous father – Bobby Abel – had also played for the County). The games had been ‘pleasant and exciting’ and Sherriff was obviously pleased with his scores of 14, 13 and 23.

He closed with the hope that all would go well with their next trip up the line, and that he would be out again in a month or so, and able to enjoy cricket and quiet walks once more. Then he had to go: he had an inspection in a few minutes, and ‘3 o’clock will see us on the road again in the morning.’

[Next letter: 18 July]