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
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.
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
Sherriff with the 9th East Surreys
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.
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.
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:
- Christmas on the Western Front with RC Sherriff. Letters home from Christmas 1916.
- War Ghosts and Hollywood Vampires. Among Sherriff’s papers are drafts of an unpublished and undated short story entitled A Ghost on Vimy Ridge?
- Echoes of the Great War, public responses to Journey’s End. Correspondence shows the play’s realism apparently struck a strong personal chord with many theatre goers.
- A civilian in the trenches – Herbert Hankin Sherriff Explores the Western Front. A memoir Herbert, Sherriff’s father, wrote of a cycling tour he undertook with his son in May 1921 of First World War battlefields in France and Belgium.
- Passchendaele…R C Sherriff’s Final Days on the Western Front. On 2 August 1917 Sherriff sustained wounds to the right side of his face, right arm, hand and leg while participating in the opening phase of the Battle of Passchendaele, he never returned to active service in France
- Echoes of Journey’s End Part I – R C Sherriff’s servant Morris. Sherriff forged close bonds with some of his fellow soldiers during his time on the Western Front. Humour appears to have been a key component in these relationships, which helped Sherriff to cope with the stresses of trench life.
- Echoes of Journey’s End Part II…R C Sherriff and Hibbert. Trench life placed a great physical and mental burden on soldiers on the Western Front, and surviving letters written by Sherriff highlight how he suffered from repeated bouts of neuralgia while on active service.
- 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.
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.