Published date: 3 May 2013

Journey’s End is a well-known play about the Great War. The author, RC Sherriff, saw all his front line service with 9th Battalion East Surrey Regiment. The podcast explores in particular Sherriff’s experiences with the battalion and his reactions to them and the situations and characters he had in mind in writing his play.

Michael Lucas has researched 9th Battalion East Surrey Regiment for over eight years, his interest first aroused by discovering a great-uncle had served three years with them on the Western Front. Michael has had a number of articles published, including in the Western Front Association’s Stand To. His book The Journey’s End Battalion -The 9th East Surrey in the Great War followed in 2012.

In 2006 Andrew Lucas began investigating his German great-grandfather’s First World War service with 4 Kgl. Sächs Feldartillerie-Regiment Nr 48. He has been researching the Royal Saxon Army from German sources ever since. Andrew provided background research on the 9th East Surreys’ many German opponents for his father’s book, and has recently had the first of a projected series of three articles published in Stand To. He is an active member of the 1914-21 Society, the only ‘living history’ group in the UK devoted to the First World War on the Eastern Front.

Author: Michael Lucas and Andrew Lucas Duration: 45:39

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Good afternoon ladies and gentlemen, I’d like to introduce my son/collaborator here, Andrew, who is going to be reading account from both sides of the lines. Andrew is presently writing a book on the Saxons on the Western Front.

This is the outline of the talk. I’m going to talk about how I started out. What it aims to do, some key episodes from the book, with readings by Andrew, and I have given Sherriff disproportionate amount of interest for this talk because I think that’s the most obvious area of particular wider interest for the public. I’d also like to talk about Journey’s End, the play and the models for its characters and situations and finally, I’d be very happy to take questions at the end.

So how did I get started in all of this? Well this is a picture of my grandmother and her brother Charlie with their parents in Surrey in the 1890s. And my mother was very keen on exploring the family’s history but Charlie had long been dead and little was known about him. We knew that he’d served on the Western Front with the East Surrey Regiment as a private soldier and it was believed that at some time he had been captured.

I discovered through my researches, mostly here and also in the Surrey History Centre, that Charlie had served for three years indeed on the Western Front. He’d been wounded no less than three times and taken prison of war very near the end of the war. And I was fascinated to find that Charlie and RC Sherriff, the author of Journey’s End, had served in the same battalion. So I located Sherriff’s autobiography which is called No Leading Lady. But I was disappointed and puzzled because this has got much about the writing of Journey’s End but it only begins after the Great War. So it was a happy coincidence when I found Sherriff’s papers at Surrey History Centre where I was already there researching the regiment’s papers.

I gradually established what Sherriff and experienced and possible reasons for his later reticence. When he wrote about his experiences some years later, he only covered his first days at the front in a series of articles in the regimental magazine and then the period immediately before he was wounded in August 1917 in a book of essays called Promise of Greatness. I also established, along the way, that a number of supposed facts about Sherriff’s military career are in fact wrong. It seems that this arises from the carelessness of various people. I don’t believe there was any intention by Sherriff to mislead.

First of all, he served in France from October 1916 to August 1917 only; although some people would say that was long enough. He was in England for the German March 1918 offensive which is the setting for Journey’s end; he wasn’t in France then. He was wounded only once and that was in August 1917 and not seriously and he didn’t win the Military Cross; that was won by another man with the same surname. Well, on the positive side, my researches meant that I discovered men and situations who I believe to be models for Journey’s End.

So moving on. What the book aims to do, I’ve aimed to provide not just a simple narrative based on the war diary. That was already done briefly around about 1920 as part of an overall regimental history by two senior officers, Pearse and Sloman, neither of whom had served with the 9th Battalion East Surreys. That book has its strengths but it does lack a context for modern readers and avoids controversy. A large number of sources were not available to the authors or they chose not to use them. Instead, what I’ve aimed to do is provide a context, make the widest possible use of published and unpublished sources, address the issues that Pearse and Sloman were unwilling or felt it unnecessary to address or did not have the space or material to address. I’ve aimed to give particular attention, not only to the big events like the Battle of the Somme or the Battle of Loos, but also to Sherriff’s time with the battalion, which was mostly treated very briefly by Pearse and Sloman because as far as they were concerned, not much was going on and also to give something of the battalion’s range of experiences. I’ve also considered how the battalion changed over time, its makeup, its officers, its effectiveness.

Sherriff was profoundly influenced by his time with the battalion; he saw all his front line service with it. I’ve endeavoured to clarify his experiences and his reactions to them. What I’ve written has to reflect the sources available, so whilst it may appear that there is more material from the officers, the reason for much of that is first of all: that the men’s records were largely destroyed in 1940 by bombing but also the records for most officers survive, and there is relatively little unofficial material from other ranks although there are very useful reports from repatriated prisoners of war which in fact are here, available on-line.

I’ve also aimed to address the German perspective with Andrew’s help, and here we aim to break new ground in Great War British unit histories. Too often the Germans have been left out, but inspired by Jack Sheldon’s books, Andrew has researched the German unit histories for a view from the other side of no-man’s land and sometimes that means we’ve been able to describe the same incident from both sides. I’ve tried to avoid imposing modern attitudes on a very different age. It’s easy to be appalled by the terrible experiences of the battalion, in part because of the errors of military planners. But the failures and hardships were not all on one side, as the book demonstrates and the British Army was repeatedly pushed into premature offences on the western front in order to support its allies.

So now I’d like to move on to some key episodes, what the battalion and Sherriff experienced. To put things in context, this is the fatalities, month by month, for the battalion. Around 850 men died serving with it and you can see the peaks which at the Battle of Loos at start, with the Battle of Somme, August/September 1916, but you can see in between times there are long, relatively quiet intervals and trench holding although death and disablement is always a threat. Now the Battle of Loos in September 1915: this was the British Army’s biggest battle so far. On the first day a complete breakthrough looked possible, two raw divisions, the 21st and the 24th, were set to attack on the second day of the battle. Dash was expected to outweigh inexperience. But the failure of the supporting attacks meant that seven battalions of the 24th Division, including the 9th East Surrey’s in the 72nd Brigade advanced into a sack. And here we have, [shows image] this is the advance of the brigade in the middle, this is the G
erman line they were set to attack which was heavily wired and not easily observed from the British Lines. This is the village of Hulluch and these woods, so there were Germans occupying the village and there were Germans on the flanks and these, the flank attacks have never cleared these so here we have the 9th East Surrey’s here, advancing, to be shot at from all sides. So the result was disaster. The troops were unable to break through the wire and under heavy fire. Facing them was Doctor Burtling with the German 22nd Infantry Regiment, 26th, sorry:
‘The Englishmen attacked in whole hosts and with real guts, our men shot standing upright as rapidly as they could pull the triggers. No Englishman got through the wire, the attack flooded backwards. Along the front, where they had attacked, lay numerous dead and wounded.’

Indeed half of the battalions 900 men were casualties on that day and that includes 150 and more who were dead or dying. The Germans called it the Field of Corpses. [Shows image]This man was simply one of them, Private Teddy Cutt.

Loos for many meant lost lives or crippling wounds but it also blasted reputations, there was an unpleasant rush to find scapegoats. Some accused the troops of bolting. Sir John French the C in was obliged to resign. The CO of the 24th Division resigned. The CO of the 9th East Surrey’s was sacked. General Capp, the new divisional commander judged:
‘Both officers and men advanced gallantly and did their best and the best trained troops in the whole of the British, or any other army, would have found it difficult to succeed where the infantry of the 24th Division failed. I am confident that the unofficial reports alluded to in GHQ’s letter are entirely unwarranted and cast a most undeserved slur on the conduct of the infantry of the division.’

But the slurs continued, as Sherriff himself heard a year later, everywhere: ‘The 24th, oh yes, you mean the division that ran away at Loos’. Ironically the enemy were more generous. The battalion’s nickname ‘the Gallants’ is believed to have arisen from remarks by German officers, made after the battle. Afterwards the 9th East Surrey was set to trench holding at Ypres. The conditions were often very bad but the casualties relatively light. [Shows image] And here we have a photograph, informally posed, of Saxon Jägers, one of the units who were opposing the 9th East Surrey’s at this point. Not only that, but left a detailed description of clashes with the 9th East Surrey’s patrols there, as a number of units did.

And in particular regarding the death of Second Lieutenant Handford near Railway Wood, Ypres, when his patrol’s attention was caught by considerable noise made by fresh German troops arriving one January night to relieve the Saxons: ‘By chance, in the glow of a flare cartridge, an enemy officer was spotted a few meters in front of the trenches, who, half upright and astonished, seemed to be seeking the source of the noise of the relief. Immediately several men were to hand, among the Jäger Laynout. The enemy were chased away with well-aimed shots leaving their patrol leader dead behind them’.

The battalion’s next big action was on the Somme which it reached in August 1916. It was now experienced but again met disaster. This young man, Captain Vaughn, who was only 20 years old, led the 250 strong, two company attack on 16 August at Guillemont against a very strong position with poor artillery support and with 75% casualties and Vaughn was amongst the dead. 9th East Surrey were then holding Delville Wood at the beginning of September, under artillery bombardment after the Germans had failed to recapture it with their infantry.

Captain Pirie the veteran medical officer wrote: ‘Those four days and five nights were the most trying I have ever spent. Very little sleep and very heavy shelling. I don’t know how anyone got out alive. The wood was so heavily shelled by day and night that all wounded were stored in hung dugouts by day ’til between 5 and 8 am and 5 and 8 pm, during which periods the shelling seemed to die down and so allow the cases to be got out to my aid post. Then they were carried from me by RAMC bearers to a dressing station. My regimental bearers did very fine work, especially Mead, Trish, Oyston and Hardacre. They were fearless and worked like slaves.’

[Shows image] And here we have Captain Pirie who in fact I’m working on editing his diary at this time. He was sadly killed only a year later.

It has to be said that the conditions were horrible too for the Germans opposite: ‘Thirsty, hungry and ground down, officers and men laid together in mud filled creators amongst dead comrades who could be not carried back. We were obliged to be satisfied if the dead could be given a hasty, shallow burial where they fell. However, the fallen who lay between the trenches and often also further to the rear remained unburied. As a result the stench of corpses was virtually overwhelming and thousands of flies put the troops off their food despite their hunger’.

And now we come to the period of RC Sherriff’s own service. Robert Sherriff was an insurance clerk and he unsuccessfully applied for a commission in August 1914, when he was aged 18. He then enlisted as a private soldier in November 1915 with the Artists Rifles and was commissioned in 1916. He arrived with the 9th East Surrey on 1 October 1916. [Shows image] Here is the very young RC Sherriff sporting his new uniform. He would serve through with that same battalion until August 1917.

The battalion was lightly engaged until June 1917 with the summer fighting at Ypres. When he arrived the battalion had of course been wrecked on the Somme; there were only about 200 survivors. It was rebuilt with drafts and returned wounded, one of whom Corporal Billman:
‘I was shocked to find the remnants of what a few weeks before was a smart and strong battalion. The Battles on the Somme had thinned the ranks awfully. Just a few of my old pals remained and I was listening to the accounts of some terrible times they had after I was wounded. However, the good name of the regiment had been upheld although at such a price and there was satisfaction that the Bosch was getting a good hiding.’

Sherriff wrote home almost daily and in 1922 he composed what he called Memories of Active Service for his mother, which covered his first three months at the front. He later revised this to produce articles for the regimental journal in the late 1930s. Sherriff was struck by the Colonel’s talk to the new officers: ‘He laid bare the cold uncoloured truth of war. He spoke of the qualities that a young officer should possess and the duties that he should understand. A cold dread came over me, “am I an efficient officer? Do I know enough? Will I be sent back to England as an awful example of incompetence?”’

But there were compensations, looking back years later: ‘I was to meet in this battalion and particularly in this company’ (that’s C Company), ‘some of the best men I ever knew.’ But his first impressions on seeing his men of his company were: ‘They looked the biggest set of ruffians I’d ever set my eyes on. Anyone seeing them without knowing who they were might have that Ali Baba’s forty thieves and the pirate crew from Treasure Island had amalgamated to do some deed of super villainy.’
Sherriff taking in the unfamiliar sights and sounds of the front line thought: ‘Many others like me were spending their first night on the line standing about awkwardly like children in a strange room, fingering their new revolver holsters and remembering the time, not so far distant, when they last wore weapons as pirates or brigands defending a summer house in a garden.’ His Captain later sent Sherriff, by night, to inspect the barbed wire defences in No-man’s-land with a Corporal to gain confidence. After a short stay on Vimy Ridge the battalion returned to Loos, where it had met disaster just a year previously.

Pirie considered this a poor exchange for Vimy Ridge: ‘A wretched looking country, flat and nothing but dirty coal mining villages with crowds of huge slag heaps and chimney stacks’. As for the front line he wrote: ‘it’s in a wretched state, mud galore and parapets all falling in. It will take months of work to repair it’. [Shows images] Here we have a wrecked pithead in the vicinity and this is…another photograph that Andrew found which is Germans facing the 72nd Brigade which included the East Surrey’s at Loos in a fortified crater.

Christmas saw a mixture of tragedy and relaxation. Billman records on Christmas Eve: ‘Four men were blown to pieces on their way out of the trenches. It was so very sad, just before Christmas and only that morning those men had received letters wishing them a Happy Christmas. By noon the remainder of us were passing through Vermelles. The mud had pretty well dried on us and we did look some objects. But with a cigarette on and many jokes flying about we at last reached Filasof [?] and started to tidy up a bit so as not to lose the next day. Christmas Day arrived and we made the most of it, enjoying a really good dinner and attending a fine concert. The day soon passed with many pleasant memories of happier Christmases and sincere wishes that the next would be spent in peace and quietness in our dear old Blighty’.

[Shows image] This is a Battalion Christmas card form a year later but nevertheless it gives some idea. This is a card from the other side: ‘German New Year 1917 Greetings’. Sherriff was glad at this time to be loaned to the tunnellers. He respected Hilton, his company Commander, but he didn’t like his relentless sarcasm. The battalion’s locum, Commanding Officer Swanton, was a Montenette [?] With the Engineers Sherriff was sometimes shelled. And here we a have a picture of the men who did the damage. He wrote home: ‘when I spent that first eight days in the trenches, I never got the feeling of fear so much as I sometimes do now. But let’s hope I shall soon get over it and grow used to it.’

Sherriff saw the infantry officer’s life as one which was dull, monotonous, lacking in intellectual challenge and taken up with waiting which he found nerve racking. He wanted a transfer to either the Engineers or to the Flying Corps. Sherriff was nevertheless obliged to return to the battalion. Swanton wouldn’t support his transfer to the Engineers but he stood up well to a New Year bombardment, what he later called a pretty hot time for twelve hours in the trenches. It shook the nerves of Captain Tetley, previously awarded the MC for bravery in similar circumstances.

There was a successful raid by the battalion in January 1917 by around 60 men, but Sherriff was not involved. Indeed he was now away sick for two and a half weeks with neuralgia, nerve pain, a vague diagnosis covering a range of conditions. He seems to have thought it was psychosomatic; he wrote home: ‘Any noises worry me and I can’t set my mind properly to anything, but I shall have to get back to the regiment I expect, and see how I get on. The feelings may wear off later on’.

After a period of training and recreation, the battalion was sent to Cite Calon, near Loos. It was an exceptionally cold winter but the troops made themselves comfortable in the miners ruined houses. Sherriff enjoyed the comradeship of his brother officers but was also very sympathetic towards his men. The inspirational Colonel De Le Fontaine, badly wounded on the Somme, returned to the battalion. [Shows images] And here, this is Colonel De La Fontaine, who was to be killed some months later and Sherriff in this picture is in the middle row there. This is Warre-Dymond who is Company Commander who I’ll be mentioning later.

[Shows images] In March Sherriff was sent to train recruits for two weeks. When he returned the area was very bad for trench mortars the German, minenwerfer. And they were firing a missile…the size of a small dustbin and this gentleman here is my wife’s grandfather. It has to be said, however, the German infantry complained of similar attention from the British.

In April the Germans lost Vimy Ridge and they were forced to fall back into Lens. And this shows the state of the city after repeated attention by artillery. One officer of Sherriff’s company was killed at this time and another wounded, but meanwhile Sherriff’s personal crisis was worsening: ‘I absolutely could not bring myself to face the line again and I went to a doctor and explained everything to him; he’s given me a few days rest with the transport’.

Ten days later he confided in his father that he’d discussed his nerves and neuralgia with the doctor and that if the doctor said he must return to the line he had no choice: ‘But what I dread is that by going up I should make some serious mistake through lack of confidence’. He was overwhelmed by the realisation that a single mistake by him could cost the lives of his men: ‘When you first get out here you realise that there is a certain strain to put up with. One gets to the line and is rather surprised by its quietness, you feel rather agreeably surprised and the someone says “Look out, here’s a mini” and you see what appears to be a shell making apparently slowly upwards, then it turns and comes down with a swish and makes a terrific explosion. This goes on day after day and then one day a man may be blown to pieces by a mini and every time you walk past that shattered piece of trench you have the pleasure of seeing pieces of his anatomy hanging on bits of barbed wire, et cetera. One day a man is sniped and you may see his blood stained helmet carried away.’

Sherriff goes on to say that his nervous strain got worse with time, although some managed to overcome it and not show fear. Sherriff it seems to me was showing signs of neurasthenia, shellshock. An officer sent home the year before after a trench had been blown in on him had a medical board that found: ‘Following three months active service in France he developed symptoms of neurasthenia, emotionalism, depression, loss of confidence, over-reaction to stimuli, a constant feeling of horror and clear visual pictures of experiences in the trenches.’

Lord Moran was Winston Churchill’s physician in later years but at this time he was the medical officer of the 24th Division. He wrote The Anatomy of Courage in the 1940s using his Great War experience: ‘There seemed to be four degrees of courage and four orders of men: men who did not feel fear, men who felt fear but did not show it, men who felt fear and showed it but did their job, men who felt fear, showed it and shirked. Few men spent their trench lives with their feet firmly planted on one rung of the ladder, they might have days without showing fear, followed by days when their plight was plain to all. At other times they were possessed by the fear that they would be found wanting and branded as cowards. When in the toil and bloody sweat of trying to conquer themselves, they would end by doing their job without a sign of fear.’

Sherriff admired and envied confident and apparently fearless men, like the future Major General Lechmere Thomas who joined the battalion at Delville Woods as a subaltern, just aged 18. Some officers and men were clearly not up to the stress of front line service. Many wished for a Blighty wound which would take them back to England. Among the other ranks there were some cases of self-inflicted wounds, and there was even the odd suicide. There was the odd deserter who did not return from leave. 2nd Lieutenant Aprons was dismissed from the service for going AWOL from the rear area. Some officers were moved to non-combatant roles as physically or mentally unfit. Others after lengthy front-line service were given breaks as instructors. The whole issue of officer turn-over and reasons for it are discussed in the book. Unfortunately there aren’t sources available to examine the position of the other ranks in detail.

Now it seems to me that Sherriff was heading for a nervous collapse at this stage but he recovered. Why? Well the battalion was out of the line to mid-May, neuralgia had been linked by a doctor to his eye problem so it wasn’t simply a psychosomatic one, which was reassuring to Sherriff, and he had his stoic philosophy, writing: ‘I am trying to take everything quite calmly, a la Marcus Aurelius.’

Captain Warre-Dymond was perhaps a key influence at this time. Sherriff considered his Company Commander inspirational, he refers to his ‘magic hand’ and Sherriff took great pride in his company: ‘Every day I became bound more securely to C Company. And every day I loved and esteemed it more.’

The Battle of Messines, this time, was a great victory in June 1917, a real morale booster. The battalion was in reserve for this action and was not even needed. Sherriff was afterwards sent on the sniping and intelligence course away from the front and then he received his long-awaited leave. It’s not clear to what extent fellow officers noticed Sherriff’s fear. On the one hand Sherriff could’ve received unsympathetic remarks about neuralgia, just as Stanhope gives them in Journey’s End. But on the other hand Colonel Clark describes Sherriff afterwards as: ‘a steady, unassuming young fellow of good presence. Carried a warm charm in his personality, had a certain calm, quiet air of distinction, much respected by his men’. Sherriff’s papers also include a number of affectionate letters from his fellow officers. It’s easy to say that Sherriff wasn’t suitable as an infantry officer but he seems to have managed to overcome his problems.

The battalion took heavy casualties holding captured ground after Messines. The offensive was resumed at the end of July at the Battle of Pilkin Ridge. There was a massive British bombardment which opened it. A German General later wrote:

‘A hurricane of fire completely beyond any ones experiences broke out. The entire earth of Flanders rocked and seemed to be on fire. This was not just drum fire, it was as though Hell itself had slipped its bonds. What were the raw terrors of Verdun and the Somme compared to this grotesquely huge outpouring of raw power’.

The British were optimistic but with the weather breaking the offensive soon bogged down in mud. On 2 August 1917, Sherriff’s active service came to an end. The battalion was advancing to relieve other units heavily engaged the previous day. The conditions were awful with continued heavy rain, the communications trenches were flooded, the troops were forced to advance in the open and heavy shelled. Fifty years later, Sherriff recalled:

‘The whole thing became a drawn out nightmare. The shelling had destroyed everything. As far as you could see it was like an ocean of thick brown porridge. All of this area had been desperately fought over in the earlier Battles of Ypres. Many of the dead had been buried where they fell and the shells were unearthing and tossing up the decayed bodies. It was a warm, humid day and the stench was horrible’.

Warre-Dymond sent Sherriff off with a runner to try to establish contact with the neighbouring Company. ‘The Germans were now shelling us with whizzbangs’ (which is a 7.7cm field gun shell), ‘we heard the thin whistle of its approach rising to a shriek. It landed on top of a concrete pill box that we were passing, barely five yards away. The crash was deafening. I was half stunned. I remember putting my hand to the right side of my face and feeling nothing. To my horror I thought the whole side had been blown away’.

Covered in mud and blood, Sherriff reported to Warre-Dymond who told him to find a dressing station. Sherriff and his orderly had a long and difficult journey through mud and shell fire to find medical attention. Fortunately his wounds looked more serious than they were. The shell had sent steel splinters upwards. Sherriff and his Orderly had been showered instead by pulverized concrete. He recorded 52 pieces of concrete the size of beans or peas being extracted from his face, hand and leg. All the same he was perhaps lucky to be evacuated to England rather than kept at the base hospital in France.

This is the postcard he wrote to his father: ‘Dear Pips, I am writing this left-handed as my right is hors de combat at present. I was hit by several small splinters also on the right side of my face. The shell was so close that the big pieces went over my head. It burst about five feet way. Lucky for me my wounds are none worse and the shell no bigger. I feel quite fit, no pain. Hope to get to England. Am very much bound up and look worse than I feel. Hoping to see you soon. From your loving son, Bob.’

The battalion fought on in horrible conditions and taking heavy casualties. Colonel De La Fontaine was killed, leading from the front. And now, after a quiet period over the autumn and winter, we move on to the German March 1918 offensive.

Sherriff didn’t return to France. His wounds weren’t serious but he wasn’t anxious to return, he managed to stay in England training men. On 21 March there was a huge German attack and here we have the German infantry about to go into action at this time. The 1st Company of the 9th East Surrey were overwhelmed in the initial attack. The other three companies were in reserve. Colonel Douglas Fleming was killed on reconnaissance and Major Nobby Clark took over. Clark carried out a fighting retreat until 26 March. The battalion was then cut off but fought on until overwhelmed. Only about 60 unwounded men were captured. A number of Sherriff’s old comrades died. His Company Commander Warre-Dymond was captured.

Private Eatwell recalled Major Clark’s leadership: ‘He said we have nothing on our flanks and there are no supports behind. You will either be killed or captured before the morning is out. Stick it out for the honour of the regiment. A very brave man and loved by every man in the battalion.’

There were only about 30 survivors to fight on with the remnants of the brigade. Sergeant Fred Billman, who we quoted earlier, was by this time back in an English hospital. He wrote on 27 March with wonderful understatement to his fiancé: ‘I got wounded Saturday night and landed here last night. Am hit in left foot, right leg and right arm but not serious. Well darling I guess you’re wondering why you’ve not heard from me but it’s been a bit busy over there.’ I’m glad to say he made a good recovery from his wounds and [shows image] here are Mr and Mrs Billman on their Wedding Day later that year.

The Germans were finally held in front of Amnion at great cost. The 24th Division had lost the traces of the bad reputation it had gained at Loos. The battalion was rebuilt and holding the line again at Lens, it joined in the advance to victory in the autumn and took heavy losses at Oise in October 1918 after initially a very successful attack. The armistice came on 11 November.

The War Diary records: ‘The men hardly credited the news. An official photographer took pictures of the commanding officer thanking the men and then cheering the King’. [Shows image] And here we have one of the two which is frequently reproduced. There was little celebration, it was hard to realise the war was really over, no beer was available and billets were overcrowded.

And now I’d like to move on to Journey’s End to discuss the play and models for its characters and situations. Sherriff was de-mobbed and went back to insurance. He found it difficult to settle; I think there was an element of survivor guilt. He wrote plays for an amateur group. He picked up a novel he tried to write about hero worship. Denis Stanhope and Jimmy Raleigh were school boys; Denis seemed to have all the gifts while Jimmy was a plodder. But after school their respective positions gradually changed. Sherriff wondered if it would work as a play by concentrating on the few days at the Front leading to the Great German March 1918 offensive, with Jimmy moving Heaven and Earth to join his hero. That became Journey’s End.

It was first performed in December 1928 with the young Laurence Olivier as Stanhope. Journey’s End became the extraordinary world-wide success. Sherriff tried to explain this: ‘It was the first war play that kept its feet in the Flanders mud. All the previous plays had aimed at higher things. They carried messages, sermons against war, symbolic revelations. But the public knew enough about war to take that all for granted. What they’d never been shown before on the stage, was how men really lived in the trenches, how they talked and how they behaved’.

With typical modesty he took no particular credit for this. For him it was just how he’d happened to write it was the way that people wanted it.

Regarding the play briefly for those who aren’t familiar with it, it opens in Company officer’s dugout, 50 yards behind the Front Line three days before the German offensive. As such Sherriff considered the characters caught in a trap with no hope of escape. The young Jimmy Raleigh has pulled strings to be sent to join his hero, Denis Stanhope, the Company Commandeer at the Front. But Denis is unwelcoming and dramatically changed by the war. He’s keeping his shattered nerves going with whiskey and resents the invasion of his privacy and discovering of his weakness.

The other characters include Uncle Osborne his steady second in command, Trotter, a cheerful ex-ranker and Hibbert, a nervous officer with neuralgia who is determined to escape the Front Line before the German attack. Light relief is provided by Mason the cook. Stanhope refuses to let Hibbert get away to hospital. When Hibbert confesses his fear, Stanhope reveals his own and urges him to stand by his comrades. Brigade orders a raid to identify the German units opposite though the Germans are known to be on alert. Osborne and most of the raiders are killed but Raleigh secures a prisoner although Raleigh is then mortally wounded in the German opening bombardment. Stanhope now reconciled to him has to leave the dug-out to fend off the German attack. The play ends.

Sherriff didn’t name the models for his characters but he did write: ‘Beside Stanhope and Raleigh, the other characters walked in without invitation; I’d known them all so well in the trenches.’ He also wrote to Colonel Clark in 1936: ‘None of the characters is drawn from life but you may find in some of them a likeness to men you knew’. Clark wrote: ‘I posted Sherriff to C, fortunately, otherwise I fear there would’ve been no Journey’s End’. [Shows image] And here, we have, this comes from an anonymous cutting at Surrey History Centre, reproducing a photograph of C Company officers, giving the names for the models. So here, this is Captain Warre-Dymond and he claimed to be the model for Stanhope, Lieutenant Douglas here the model for Osborne, 2nd Lieutenant Trenchard was the model for Trotter. And obituaries for Warre-Dymond do say having some claim, having been the original Stanhope.

Godfrey Warre-Dymond was born in 1890. He was educated at Marlborough and Cambridge. He was a distinguished sportsman but left without obtaining a degree. He arrived with the 9th East Surrey on 1 September 1916 at Delville Wood. With the heavy losses on the Somme he was soon made an Acting Company Commander and he then took over Sherriff’s C Company early in March 1917. He was clearly not simply effective, but positively inspirational. He gave conspicuous service in August 1917 in the horrible conditions at Ypres, then, distinguished himself in the great retreat of March 1918. He was tough minded and cool headed. He won an MC but was captured in the battalion’s last stand. He was an inspiring leader, a ‘varsity man’, an athlete, just the man to inspire hero-worship, including perhaps in Sherriff himself.

Curiously the respective positions of Warre-Dymond and Sherriff changed as in Sherriff’s unfinished novel. During the war Warre-Dymond had been an inspirational and distinguished officer, Sherriff an obscure and undistinguished one. But after the war, Warre-Dymond’s life fell apart. His wife divorced him. He fell into the hands of money lenders and was sacked by his father from the family firm. He was even declared bankrupt in 1923. By 1931 he was a commercial traveller and his second marriage had broken up. But Sherriff was now a celebrity, a man of means, indeed Warre-Dymond in 1939 was asking Sherriff for a reference.

And now Archibald Douglas, known as ‘Father’ in the battalion, a clergyman son and an electrical engineer, he seems to be the main model for Uncle Osborne. Sherriff describes: ‘a tall, dark man, one of the finest men I’ve ever known. He was also about the coolest man I ever saw in the trenches, nothing seemed to make the slightest impression on him. And he did his job as if he were trying to make a silly game seem as if it were sensible in order to encourage the others’.

Sadly he was mortally wounded in March 1918. Percy Hine, an older officer and schoolmaster, I also believe contributed to the Osborne character, and he survived the war. Cecil Trenchard, the supposed model for Trotter, certainly looks well fed and as Trotter indeed should look. He was a stock agent born in 1881 living in Australia. There’s no evidence he served in the ranks. His arrival at the Front was delayed by a bad fall leaving the Mess. He was wounded after just four weeks at the Front, losing an eye. Mason the patrol officer’s cook in Journey’s End seems modelled on Sherriff’s soldier servant, Morris. Sherriff wrote home: ‘my servant has just been reading the instructions of a box of veal, which came up in rations last night: “Cut very thin and place between slices of new bread with a little tender lettuce and may-on-naise dressing; it will be a bit hawkward about the lettuce’’’.

Raleigh and Hibbert were perhaps aspects of Sherriff’s own character, hero-worshiper in the former and difficulty controlling fear in the latter. Sherriff obviously made some changes to characters from his models; so for instance, Stanhope is much younger than Warre-Dymond. Regarding the events of Journey’s End, as I said, 9th East Surrey were near St Quentin for the German attack in March 1918 although when 1 Company was immediately engaged. Sherriff told Clark that the raid in Journey’s End was inspired by the battalion’s in 1917, although that one was very successful.

There are a number of Journey’s End little features in Sherriff’s articles ‘My Diary’. So for instance, this first meeting with Douglas, Douglas is drying a sock over a candle, which he gives to Hardy in Journey’s End.

I’m delighted that Journey’ End continues to be revived to great success. Long may it be so. I hope if you see it, you’ll think of Sherriff’s old comrades who inspired it.

Thank you very much for listening. I have to say that if any of you are interested in the sources that I used including here at TNA [The National Archives], they are listed in the book (Journey’s End Battalion : The 9th East Surrey in the Great War by Michael Lucas

Transcribed by Matthew Vernon, as part of a volunteer project, March 2015

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