Much has been written  about playwright and author, Robert Cedric Sherriff, whose most famous play “Journey’s End” was based on his experiences in the Great War. Sherriff served in France with the 9th Battalion East Surrey Regiment from October 1916 until wounded on 2nd August 1917. He was invalided back to the UK on 4th August, the third anniversary of the war .
Years later Sherriff wrote of his first impressions on meeting the men of his “C” company:
‘They looked the biggest set of ruffians I’d ever set my eyes on. Anyone seeing them without knowing who they were might have thought that Ali Baba’s forty thieves and the pirate crew from Treasure Island had amalgamated to do some deed of super villainy.’
Yet, Sherriff would say they were ‘some of the best men I ever knew’.
In contrast to Sherriff, very little has been written about the men of the 9th East Surreys that he had to leave behind and their experiences over the next few days in the trenches near Klein Zillebeke. This short series brings together the story of three of those men and their families, all from Merton!
The men’s struggle to survive in the wasteland of war that Sherriff himself described as a ‘drawn-out nightmare’ where ‘shelling had destroyed everything’ epitomises the lines penned by Siegfried Sassoon in 1918 in his poem, memorial tablet:
Squire nagged and bullied till I went to fight,
(Under Lord Derby’s Scheme). I died in hell –
(They called it Passchendaele). My wound was slight,
And I was hobbling back; and then a shell
Burst slick upon the duck-boards: so I fell
Into the bottomless mud, and lost the light.
Their five days of hell was here at Klein Zillebeke 2-7 August 1917.
Return tomorrow to read the story of friends and family from Lyveden Road, Tooting Junction.
Footnote1: The Surrey History Centre holds an extensive archive of R.C. Sherriff material, it has held an exhibition and blogged extensively about his life and times, including his “Final Days on the Western Front” .
Footnote2: 2nd Lt. R.C. Sherriff regimental roll entry.