R. C. Sheriff, a playwright and screenwriter, was born in Hampton Wick and educated at Kingston Grammar School. He is best known for his play Journey’s End, which is based on his experiences as a Captain in the East Surrey Regiment during the First World War.
After school, Sheriff worked a clerk for the Sun Assurance Company in London from 1914 before enlisting with the East Surrey’s. He applied in response to an advert which called for men to serve as officers during the war. His initial application was rejected, but by 1915 the British Army had lost so many junior officers that it decided to revisit previous applications. Sheriff was granted a commission in the East Surrey regiment in November 1915. He arrived on the Western Front in October 1916 and served at Rimy and Messines.
In 1917, an offensive was planned at Passchendaele. The East Surreys took part in the opening of the battle. As the battalion advanced towards the German front line on the 31st July, a shell exploded nearby and Sheriff was injured. He was one of more than two thousand men treated in the first few days of the offensive. Sheriff was sent back to England to recover at the Royal Victoria Hospital.
The drama, Journey’s End, was written in 1928 and performed at the Apollo Theatre in London in the same year, starring Laurence Olivier. Set in the trenches at Aisne, the play offers a glimpse into the experiences of officers in the British Army during the First World War. The title is drawn from the closing line of a chapter in an unidentified book:
“It was late in the evening when we came at last to our journey’s end.”
The piece quickly became popular, with film adaptations and tours of the production across the West End and on Broadway. It is thought to have encouraged other soldiers to write and share their experiences in the war. The following year saw the publication of Goodbye to All That and All Quiet on the Western Front.
After the war, Sheriff studied at New College, Oxford, and spent time at his home in Esher, Surrey. He died at Kingston Hospital in November 1975.
Theatrical entertainment during the First World War will be explored in an exciting project, After Tipperary, delivered in partnership between Richmond’s council arts service and the University of Hertfordshire.
With thanks to Spartacus Educational for informing this blog.