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Robert Cedric Sherriff

John Simkin

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Robert Cedric Sherriff is best known for writing Journey's End. When it was performed in 1928 it was a great success and it was the first of the anti-war works of art that helped to turn Britain in the 1930s into a nation that would do anything to prevent another event like the First World War. Some critics claim that these anti-war writers were therefore partly responsible for the Second World War.

Journey's End is also about the class system. A week after the outbreak of the First World War the British Army advertised in the national press inviting young men between the ages of 17 and 30 to serve as officers during the conflict. Sherriff, who was 18 years old in 1914, decided to apply.

Sherriff later recalled: "I was excited, enthusiastic. It would be far more interesting to be an officer than a man in the ranks. An officer, I realised, had to be a bit above the others, but I had had a sound education at the grammar school and could speak good English." However, the army was not impressed with his grammar school education and his application was rejected.

This is how he described this incident in his autobiography, No Leading Lady (1968):

The Adjutant came in. He sorted out some papers on his table and called for the first applicant to come forward. "School?" inquired the adjutant. "Winchester,"replied the boy.

"Good," said the adjutant. There was no more to say. Winchester was one of the most renowned schools in England. He filled in a few details on a form and told the boy to report to the medical officer for routine examination. He was practically an officer. In a few days his appointment would come through...

My turn came.

"School?" inquired the adjutant. I told him, and his face fell. He took up a printed list from his desk and searched through it. "I'm sorry," he said, "but I'm afraid it isn't a public school."

And that was that. I was told to go to another room where a sergeant major was enlisting recruits for the ranks.

Sherriff returned to his job with the Sun Assurance Company. However, by the following year, the British Army had lost so many junior officers that it decided to lower its standards. In November 1915, Sherriff volunteered again and he was granted a commission in the East Surrey Regiment. He arrived on the front-line of the Western Front on 7th October 1916. Over the next four months he served at Vimy Ridge and Messines Ridge.

On 27th January 1917 Sherriff was wounded during a bombardment at Bracquemont. After two weeks of being treated at the 73rd Field Ambulance's Main Dressing Station he returned to the front-line. In July he was sent on a sniping course at Mont des Cats.

General Sir Douglas Haig, the British Commander in Chief in France, was encouraged by the gains made at the offensive at Messines Ridge. Haig was convinced that the German Army was now close to collapse and once again made plans for a major offensive to obtain the necessary breakthrough at Passchendaele.

Sherriff and the East Surrey Regiment took part in the opening sequences of the battle. In his autobiography, No Leading Lady (1968), Sherriff recalled: "The great preliminary bombardment had begun. We were surrounded by batteries of artillery, and for three nights it was bedlam."

Allied attacks on the German front-line continued despite very heavy rain that turned the Ypres lowlands into a swamp. The situation was made worse by the fact that the British heavy bombardment had destroyed the drainage system in the area. This heavy mud created terrible problems for the infantry and the use of tanks became impossible.

As William Beach Thomas, a journalist working for the Daily Mail, pointed out: "Floods of rain and a blanket of mist have doused and cloaked the whole of the Flanders plain. The newest shell-holes, already half-filled with soakage, are now flooded to the brim. The rain has so fouled this low, stoneless ground, spoiled of all natural drainage by shell-fire, that we experienced the double value of the early work, for today moving heavy material was extremely difficult and the men could scarcely walk in full equipment, much less dig. Every man was soaked through and was standing or sleeping in a marsh. It was a work of energy to keep a rifle in a state fit to use."

Sherriff pointed out: The living conditions in our camp were sordid beyond belief. The cookhouse was flooded, and most of the food was uneatable. There was nothing but sodden biscuits and cold stew. The cooks tried to supply bacon for breakfast, but the men complained that it smelled like dead men."

On 31st July 1917, Sherriff and his men were called forward to attack the German positions. "At dawn on the morning of the attack, the battalion assembled in the mud outside the huts. I lined up my platoon and went through the necessary inspection. Some of the men looked terribly ill: grey, worn faces in the dawn, unshaved and dirty because there was no clean water. I saw the characteristic shrugging of their shoulders that I knew so well. They hadn't had their clothes off for weeks, and their shirts were full of lice."

Sherriff later recalled: "All of us, I knew, had one despairing hope in mind: that we should be lucky enough to be wounded, not fatally, but severely enough to take us out of this loathsome ordeal and get us home. But when we looked across that awful slough ahead of us, even the thought of a wound was best forgotten. If you were badly hit, unable to move, what hope was there of being carried out of it? The stretcher bearers were valiant men, but there were far too few of them."

As the battalion advanced towards the German front-line a shell exploded close-by: "The crash was deafening... I remember putting my hand to the right side of my face and feeling nothing; to my horror I thought that the whole side had been blown away." In fact, the shell had landed on the top of a pillbox and he had been hit by the shattered concrete.

Sherriff was taken to the Casualty Clearing Station at Abeele. He was one of the 2,015 men treated in the opening two days of the offensive. He was later moved to the 14th Base Hospital at Wimereux. He later recalled that "with the aid of probes and tweezers, a doctor took fifty-two pieces of concrete out of me."


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