RC Sherriff, the man behind ‘Journey’s End’

RC Sherriff in East Surrey Regiment uniform c.1918

Title: RC Sherriff in East Surrey Regiment uniform c.1918
Description: Surrey History Centre ref 2332/6/4/2/2/1 by-nc

Just under 9 million men served in the armed forces of the British Empire during the First World War. An estimated one million men were killed, with a further 2.5 million wounded and missing. Robert Cedric Sherriff (1896-1975), was one of those who fought and survived and his experiences led him to write his first and most spectacular dramatic success Journey’s End.

Sherriff and the Artists Rifles

Sherriff as an Artists Rifles cadet, c.1916 (<strong><a href="http://www.exploringsurreyspast.org.uk/collections/getrecord/SHCOL_2332_6_4_1" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">SHC ref 2332/6/4/1/19</a></strong>)

Sherriff as an Artists Rifles cadet, c.1916 (SHC ref 2332/6/4/1/19)

By the outbreak of the First World War Sherriff had left school and begun working as a clerk at the Sun Fire Insurance Office, the same company as his father. Correspondence suggests that his employers preferred for Sherriff not to enlist due to staff shortages, but he nevertheless joined up on 20 November 1915 with the Artists Rifles. By early January 1916 he had begun his training at Hare Hall Camp at Gidea Park, Romford, Essex.

Artists Rifles cadets digging a trench, c.1916. Sherriff is second from left<br /> (<strong><a href="http://www.exploringsurreyspast.org.uk/collections/getrecord/SHCOL_2332_6_4_1" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">SHC ref 2332/6/4/1/21</a></strong>)

Artists Rifles cadets digging a trench, c.1916. Sherriff is second from left
(SHC ref 2332/6/4/1/21)

Sherriff now began to write the wartime letters to his mother and father which form one of the most significant components of his surviving papers. At this stage the letters show he was battling acute homesickness, although he gradually became used to the camp routine. The letters also suggest that he was one of the more restrained soldiers in the camp, as he wrote in disapproving tones of other men’s drunkenness, as well as the amorous attentions of the local girls. His training revolved around lectures, sentry duty and physical activities such as trench digging, bayonet practice, bomb throwing and route
marches.

Sherriff with the 9th East Surreys

Ravaged battlefield, c.1916<br /> (<strong><a href="http://www.exploringsurreyspast.org.uk/collections/getrecord/SHCOL_2332_6_5" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">SHC ref 2332/6/5/3/3</a></strong>;<br /> courtesy of the Imperial War Museum)

Ravaged battlefield, c.1916
(SHC ref 2332/6/5/3/3;
courtesy of the Imperial War Museum)

On 4 September 1916 Sherriff was discharged from the Artists Rifles, having been granted a temporary commission with the East Surrey Regiment as a second lieutenant. After a brief stint with the 3rd Battalion at Grand Shaft Barracks in Dover, Sherriff was ordered to France. He landed at Boulogne on 28 September 1916, and reached the 9th Battalion at Estrée-Cauchy on 1 October 1916. His active service came to an end when he was wounded in action on 2 August 1917 during the Battle of Passchendaele (Third Battle of Ypres). He was sent back to England for treatment and never returned to France.

Officers of “C” Company of the 9th Battalion of the East Surrey Regiment, c.1917. Sherriff is second from left, back row (<strong><a href="http://www.exploringsurreyspast.org.uk/collections/getrecord/SHCOL_2332_6_4_2_3" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">SHC ref 2332/6/4/2/3/3</a></strong>)

Officers of “C” Company of the 9th Battalion of the East Surrey Regiment, c.1917. Sherriff is second from left, back row (SHC ref 2332/6/4/2/3/3)

His letters from this period give detailed accounts of his experiences and responses to being on the front line. They chart his transformation from a fresh faced junior officer to an experienced veteran who carried out his duty in the face of countless traumatic incidents and a mounting sense of mental strain. They also show how he formed close bonds with his fellow officers and used humour as a coping mechanism to try to shield himself from the horrors of the war.

Find out more about RC Sherriff – The man behind the play.

Click here to read To Journey’s End and Beyond: the Life and Legacy of RC Sherriff.

The RC Sherriff archive contains a large number of letters and other material related to Sherriff’s service during the First World War. A selection of material from the archive is featured in blogs on the Exploring Surrey’s Past website:

  • From Hampton Wick to the turmoil of the Western Front…via Romford. Sherriff’s letters reveal his experience of life on the Western Front with the 9th Battalion East Surrey Regiment, including his arrival in France in late September 1916, and receiving “Blighty” wounds at the Battle of Passchendaele (otherwise known as the Third Battle of Ypres) on 2 August 1917.

Visit the virtual exhibition about Sherriff’s life and works: To Journey’s End and Beyond.

Roland Wales, 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) 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.

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