Text supplied by Roland Wales.
On the night of 8 October 1916, 2nd Lieutenant R C Sherriff spent his first night in the front line. His Battalion was due to occupy the trench two days later, and his Commanding Officer had decreed that Sherriff, recently arrived from England, and new to the trenches, must go up for a night in advance, to ‘get used to it’. The experience made a big impression on him, and he wrote about it at some length in his unpublished memoir, Memories of Active Service. The officer who showed him the ropes that night was Captain George Alwyn Penrose, of the 8th Queen’s – an ‘elegant, courtly young man,’ whom Sherriff regarded ‘with feelings of admiration and awe’. Just six months later, Penrose was dead.
Penrose was born in Ilford on 11 December 1893, making him two and a half years older than Sherriff. His early schooling is unknown, but in 1907 (aged 13) he won a place at Merchant Taylors’ School, where he remained for three years, leaving to join the Sun Life Insurance office in 1910.
His school magazine, The Taylorian (Vol 39, 1916-17), recorded his skill in shooting, noting that he fired in the Ashburton Cup at the age of 14, and then went on to win the inter-office cup for the Sun Life office (a cup which had been held for fifty consecutive years by the Sun Fire office, of which, of course, Sherriff was a member). He even competed at Bisley, winning a life membership of the National Rifle Association.
At Merchant Taylors’ he was a member of the OTC, and in February 1912 he joined the Artists’ Rifles (then a Territorial Regiment), rising to the position of Lance-Corporal by the time war broke out. He received his Commission in the Queen’s Royal West Surrey Regiment in October 1914, and was promoted to Captain in July 1916.
When Sherriff went up to Vimy Ridge that first evening, he arrived at the 8/Queen’s trenches at Stand-to:
‘Captain Penrose…was standing on the Fire Step, gazing through the falling darkness: some men were standing by him, and he was talking to them quietly. He saw me: “You’d better get down the dugout”, he said curtly.’
Sherriff did so, sitting alone by a table where, as his Memoir records:
‘a solitary candle spluttered itself away – an earwig hurriedly ran round and round the light in a little circle. I watched it in the deadly silence. I thought what a fool the thing was, to spend its time running round a candle in a dugout on Vimy Ridge, when it was free to go anywhere. I sat and envied that earwig.’ [The incident has echoes at the beginning of Journey’s End, where Hardy and Osborne discuss a similar earwig.]
At Penrose’s suggestion Sherriff tried to get some sleep until they went on duty together at 10:00pm, but Sherriff found it hard – it was still early, the surroundings were strange, and unfamiliar and frightening noises drifted in from outside the dugout, adding to his anxiety. Just before the two men made their way out of the dugout and into the trench, Penrose offered Sherriff some advice: ‘I shouldn’t take a walking stick, it’s in the way,’ he told Sherriff – in words almost identical to those which Trotter would use to Raleigh in the first Act of Journey’s End (‘You don’t want a walking stick. It gets in your way if you have to run fast’).
Sherriff’s Memoir describes the unfamiliar sights and sounds of the trench, and of No Man’s land, and recounts how the two men patrolled the trench, with Penrose talking to his men as they passed, and offering his wisdom to Sherriff. At one point they climbed over the parapet to inspect the wire, with Sherriff expecting to be killed at any moment. Then it was on to Ersatz crater, which lay in No Man’s Land, with the British on one lip, and the Germans on the opposite side (see Map): ‘This crater post, with the two hollowed out recesses where the men lay and watched, formed one of those God forsaken, devilish outposts of the Front line,’ wrote Sherriff.
While they were at the crater post, Sherriff found himself wondering how long the men and their Captain might survive – this Captain who ‘looked so out of place on this ridge of corruption and death in his neatly cut tunic and breeches, his well-polished gaiters and light silk tie.’ In fact Penrose survived just six more months, eventually being killed by a shrapnel shell falling behind the lines in Bully Grenay on 9 April, as he marched his men to an Easter church parade. The Germans had recently begun shelling behind the British lines, and the East Surreys had been glad to leave Divisional Reserve on 7 April and relieve the 8/Queen’s in the front line, as their medic, Captain George Pirie, had recorded in his Diary the following day:
‘Here we are back in the trenches again. We came in again last night and I don’t mind being here at all because Bully was getting a bit hot with shells flying about…The Queens, whom we relieved, are not looking forward to going to Bully.’ [See: Frontline Medic: Gallipoli, Somme, Ypres: The Diary of Captain George Pirie, RAMC. 1914-1917. By Michael Lucas]
The Taylorian records that Penrose had seen continuous service with the regiment, going through the Battle of Loos, and the winter campaign of 1915-16 (Delville Wood and Guillemont). Penrose himself told Sherriff of how, during the Somme, he felt he had, on one occasion at least, saved his company:
‘The Bosch started to barrage my line [so] I got all my men out of the front line and made them lie down in No Man’s Land, under our wire. The Bosch blew my trenches to hell, but he never hit a man of mine. After an hour or so he attacked through the dark and we got guns on him as quick as anything…’
According to his Colonel, Penrose’s untiring work as sniping officer during the winter of 1916-17 had saved his battalion many casualties. As a company commander he could be relied upon in any circumstances.
The Battalion Diary records that Captain G A Penrose was buried in the cemetery at Bully Grenay on 10 April 1917.
Roland Wales is the author of the new RC Sherriff biography From Journey’s End to the Dam Busters: The Life of R.C. Sherriff, Playwright of the Trenches (2016, Pen & Sword). He has set up a blog featuring Sherriff’s letters home from the trenches on the date they were written, one hundred years ago, see www.rolandwales.com.