Setting the scene
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.
The real-life Journey’s End
Sherriff was born in Hampton Wick in 1896 and educated at Kingston Grammar School, before working as an accountant. On the outbreak of war, Sherriff attempted to enlist but was rejected. However, in November 1915 he successfully applied again and joined the Artists Rifles for training. By September 1916 had received a commission as a 2nd Lieutenant in the East Surrey Regiment. He arrived on the Western Front in October 1916 and spent four gruelling months with the 9th Battalion at Vimy Ridge and Messines Ridge.
On 27 January 1917, Sherriff was wounded during a bombardment at Bracquemont. He received field hospital treatment and returned to the front line in time to participate in the notorious third battle of Ypres, better known as Passchendaele. Sherriff recalled his short part in the assault as three nights of bedlam.
The 9th Battalion war diary records that on 31 July 1917 Sherriff and his men were called forward to attack the German positions. On 2 August 1917, during the advance, Sherriff was struck by 52 pieces of shattered concrete from a bombarded pill box. He was the only officer to be wounded that day but 7 other men were killed. After treatment in a casualty clearing station and field hospital, Sherriff was sent home to a hospital in Netley, Hampshire. Afflicted with neuralgia, he then joined the East Surrey’s Home Service Battalion, being made a Lieutenant in March 1918. From January 1919 he served as a temporary captain whilst acting as assistant area gas officer, a position which he held until 1920.
Throughout his service he corresponded almost daily with his parents and his letters are filled with a desperate yearning for a safe return to his loving family. Censorship and a desire not to disturb his parents prevented him from writing the unvarnished truth. However, he drew extensively on his letters when writing his unpublished war memoirs (and much later his published autobiography, No Leading Lady).
Journey’s End – the beginning of the legacy
After the war, Sherriff returned to work in the insurance business but his first love was writing and he began writing plays which were performed at his beloved Kingston Rowing Club. Out of his experiences at Ypres he forged his sixth play Journey’s Endwhich was published in 1928. The play is set over four days leading up to a massive German attack on the British trenches in March 1918. It captures the tension, claustrophobia and barely concealed terror as a new recruit to the company, Lieutenant Raleigh, discovers that his former childhood friend and hero, Captain Stanhope, has changed almost beyond recognition.
Initially, the play was widely rejected by producers, with the subject matter considered too harsh. However, one producer, Maurice Browne, agreed to stage the play following just two rehearsals at the Apollo Theatre, London, in December 1928. The cast included a young Laurence Olivier in the role of Stanhope.
Despite a lukewarm response the play then opened in the West End in January 1929 at the Savoy Theatre (now without Olivier). It looked doomed, with no advance ticket bookings and poor sales, but the portrayal of camaraderie and doomed youth won over the critics and fellow ex-combatants with its raw honesty and Journey’s End became a triumphant success.
The play sold out within days and by the end of the year there were 14 productions in English and 17 in translation around Europe. It played to packed audiences for the next two years. Thirty-one separate productions ran concurrently around the world and it was translated into twenty-six languages. It now sits alongside the poems of Sassoon, Owen and others, as a key part of the literary legacy of the terrible conflict.
Read the Commonwealth War Graves Commission blog “The real soldiers of Journey’s End“.
Watch Roland Wales’ video about the authenticity of Journey’s End (YouTube):
Playwright, novelist and screenwriter
The success of Journey’s End allowed Sherriff to give up his day job and concentrate on writing. During the 1930s a number of his plays reached the West End. He also wrote novels and was recruited as a screenwriter in England and Hollywood. He wrote the screenplay for The Four Feathers for Alexander Korda and went on to write screenplays for classic films such as Goodbye Mr Chips (for which he received an Oscar nomination), Lady Hamilton, Odd Man Out, The Night My Number Came Up and The Dambusters.
Sherriff’s work returned to the West End in 1948, with Miss Mabel, and he wrote four further plays between 1950 and 1960. His principal hobby, archaeology, is reflected in The Long Sunset (1955) and his memoir, No Leading Lady, was published in 1968.
Click here to read more about “To Journey’s End and Beyond: the Life and Legacy of R C Sherriff”. A First World War commemoration project focussing on Sherriff’s great play ‘Journey’s End’
RC Sherriff’s literary agents are Curtis Brown. For further details of Sherriff’s bibliography and Curtis Brown’s work, see their website http://www.curtisbrown.co.uk/r-c-sherriff/
To find out more about the Artist Rifles, there is a Hampshire Arts & Museums Service travelling exhibition ‘The Artists Rifles: From Pre-Raphaelites to Passchendaele‘, the project video for which features RC Sherriff and other famous soldiers of the regiment http://youtu.be/E5nbP5momtc.
To view the digitised First World War diaries of the 9th Battalion East Surrey Regiment, please visit the Surrey Infantry Museum’s website http://www.queensroyalsurreys.org.uk/war_diaries/war_diaries_home_new.shtml