Charles Hamilton Sorley: 1914–15 in Letters

On Sunday 4 November the LSO performs James MacMillan’s poignant memorial to the fallen of World War I, All the Hills and Vales Along. The piece sets poetry by the solider Charles Sorley, who was killed in action in 1915. We took a look at how he was affected by the war through his letters and personal correspondance.

Born in Aberdeen on 19 May 1895, Charles Hamilton Sorley was the son of William Ritchie Sorley, a professor of moral philosophy. He was educated at King’s College School, Cambridge and then Marlborough College where his favourite past time was cross-country running in the rain. He was a natural poet, studying literature and the written word word from his earliest years.

Early 1914 was a happy time for him. He had moved to Germany in January and travelled around, studying the local language and culture before enrolling at the University of Jena. While there he became involved in discussion societies, played tennis and studied politics, literature and economics. 

To K W Sorley (Charles’ twin brother)
19 May 1914
I have been pushed into a small society called Freischar i (I don’t know why) which meets twice a week evenings – there are only eight people – one night for literary discussion rather in the manner of Ludwig and you, and the other time for general conversation. And they are really a very nice lot. Most of the students there – apart from a natural tendency to cross-examine about ‘what England thought’ about this and that, and a trusting confidence in all my opinions as the opinions of England – were really very nice. It was amusing to see this side of German life....

His clearly loved the German language:

To A R Gidney  (Charles’ Housemaster at Marlborough College)
June 1914
Just compare our compound words with the German ones! Ours are two dead dried Latin words soldered together. The German compound words are two or more living current German native words grafted one upon another and blooming together so that their separated and common sense can be grasped at the same time whenever one uses them

I made a lengthy experiment one night when I was feeling silly: which resulted in the discovery that German has probably nearly twice as many rhyming words as we (at least beginning with the letter ‘a,’ which is as far as my experiment went). This gives them a horribly unfair advantage over us.

On 28 June 19145 the heir to the Austro-Hungarian throne Archduke Franz Ferdinand and his wife Sophie, Duchess of Hohenberh, were assassinated in Bosnia, beginning the chain of events that would lead to the outbreak of war at the end of July. Violence broke out in Sarajevo, encouraged by the Autro-Hungarian authorities, and people began to worry that the complex web of military alliances in Europe would mean that war between Serbia and Austria-Hungary would quickly escalate to war across the continent.

At first very little happened in Jena.

To Professor and Mrs Sorley (Charles’ parents)
16 July 1914
Nothing has been happening here, except that policemen have been worrying me. On the memorable date of my entrance in Jena I had to write two biographies of myself, one for the university and one for the town. The university thought that Charles was a masculine, the town that it was a feminine, name. So when they drew up their statistics, they didn’t tally. So they called on me to-day and put the whole matter in my hands. 

Even as tensions rose and Austria-Hungary delivered its July Ultimatum to Serbia, Charles kept himself occupied with other pursuits.

To A. E. Hutchinson (Charles' friend)
24(?) July 1914 (Four days before the outbreak of war)
Many thanks for your letter. I’m awfully sorry to have taken such a time in answering, but Justice has been engaging my attention. You see my landlady keeps a partly tame squirrel: a charming animal whose only fault is a habit of mistaking my bed for its own. Now the landlord of the whole house has accused the landlady of this particular flat that it pestifies the whole house. So it does. But I have spent the last week giving evidence before forty German Beamten [Officials] that the squirrel in question has the manners of a lamb and smells like eau de Cologne. By the steady honesty of my appearance (for I do look honest, don’t I?) I have largely succeeded in getting my landlady off. The reason for my perjury (the first time I have committed perjury—indeed, the first time they’ve given me a chance to) was this: I should love to have had that squirrel killed and my landlady imprisoned. But I feared. I knew that if I gave evidence against her, she would poison my morning coffee and hide my brushes in my bed. My course has been quite justified, because my landlady has given me a handsome present in the shape of a bunch of sweet-peas. Sweet-peas for Perjurers! Aha!

But eventually the war-fever of the summer of 1914 reached Jena

To Professor and Mrs Sorley
26 July 1914 (Two days before the outbreak of war)
The haystack has caught fire. The drunks are parading the streets shouting ‘Down with the Serbs.’ Every half-hour, even in secluded Jena, comes a fresh edition of the papers, each time with wilder rumours: so that one can almost hear the firing at Belgrade. But perhaps this is only a German sabbatical liveliness. At any rate, it seems that Russia must to-night settle the question of a continental war, or no. 

To Miss M M Smith  (Charles' friend)

26 July 1914
I’m due to leave Jena in two days… We are having an exciting time with the various Abschied-fests. It is a fine sight to see all the corps dressed up in their old-fashioned costumes, carrying torches, singing through the town at midnight. It almost makes one wish that one was an ‘inkorporierter’ too. To-night, I’m afraid, they are making a war demonstration and shouting ‘Down with the Serbs.’ We are altogether having a thrilling time at present: with new editions of the papers coming out every hour, each time with wilder rumours.

On 28 July 1914, one month after the Archduke’s assassination, Austria-Hungary declared war on Serbia. On 30 July, Russia mobilised in support of Serbia and on 1 August, Germany declared war on Russia. Britain would declare war on Germany a few days later.

While this was happening Charles and a friend were on a walking holiday in the valley of Moselle. On the evening of Saturday 1 August 1914, they came down from the hills to the village of Neumagen, where they first heard the news.

Account by Sorley in The Cambridge Chronicle
The children, who seemed to scent disaster, were crying—all of those I saw. The women were mostly snuffling and gulping, which is worse. And the men, the singers of the night before, with drawn faces and forced smiles, were trying to seek comfort from their long drooping pipes and envying those who need not rejoin their barracks till Tuesday. It was Sunday, and the wailing notes of an intercession service on a bad organ were exuded from the church in the background. I have never seen a sight more miserable....

The pair took a train to the city of Tier, and gave themselves up to the military guard. They were held in prison for an afternoon before being released and ordered to leave Germany immediately.

At the exit of the barracks were much the same crowd of curious people who had longed to see us shot that morning. They regarded our free dismissal with surprise, and crowded up friendlily. ‘Then you’re not the Englishmen who poisoned the water,’ they said. And when we had said ‘No,’ another said ‘Well you’ve heard that England has declared war against Russia on Germany’s side!’ However this extraordinary rumour had started, its effect was to provide us with an almost enthusiastic send-off.

Sorley returned to England, clearly frustrated with the war:

To A E Hutchinson
10 August 1914, Cambridge
But isn’t all this bloody? I am full of mute and burning rage and annoyance and sulkiness about it. I could wager that out of twelve million eventual combatants there aren’t twelve who really want it. And ‘serving one’s country’ is so unpicturesque and unheroic when it comes to the point.

Spending a year in a beastly Territorial camp guarding telegraph wires has nothing poetical about it: nor very useful as far as I can see. Besides the Germans are so nice.

Nevertheless he joined the Suffolk Regiment as a Second Lieutenant.

To A E Hutchinson
August 1914, Churn Army training camp
If you read the Gazette on Wednesday last, you would have seen that I, even I, had been gazetted as a temporary 2nd Lieut. to the New Army (called Kitchener’s Army because it doesn’t belong to Kitchener any more than to me). So no Territorials for me! I’m not contented now with anything less than Regulars. I got said commission by applying to Oxford on the first possible day, and as they are taking first come, first served. So I am now a 2nd Lieut. in the Suffolk Regiment till ‘such time as the war ceases.’

Three in a tent and very good food – but work all day, even on the Lord’s. It lasts a month and then, if we’ve been good, we are to be sent trembling to our regiments for five months’ training in this country. Then let us hope that the English will be in Berlin or the Germans in London: either of the two will do.

But meanwhile I bequeath to you (myself being disqualified) the task of realizing that this war is the best joke of the century.

He found himself in a military world, quite alien to him.

To A E Hutchinson
20 September 1914, Moore Barracks, Shorncliffe
Well, here am I (as Samuel put it) with my ‘unit’ on the South Coast. You notice the word ‘unit.’ It is supremely characteristic. For the battalion is the unit. The component parts of it are merely quarters and fractions of it and are allowed no individuality at all. I am a decimal. Not only that. If (as I on the whole hope) they allow me abroad in three months’ time, I may die a decimal. Think of that. With an identification disc stamped with a mythical number and ‘Church of England’ round one’s neck. I’ve resigned all claims to my person, I no longer am my own property. I am not a living creature, but a temporary second lieutenant (but don’t put the temporary on the envelope or ‘this correspondence shall cease’): i.e., in the eyes of those with whom I am doomed to live for the next few months, I am a kind of extemporized being called into life a month ago and fading at the end of the war.

As the months of training wore on, he continued to feel constrained.

To A E Hutchinson
14 November 1914, Shorncliffe
In training to fight for England, I am training to fight for that deliberate hypocrisy, that terrible middle-class sloth of outlook and appalling ‘imaginative indolence’ that has marked us out from generation to generation.

I might have been giving my mind to fight against Sloth and Stupidity: instead, I am giving my body (by a refinement of cowardice) to fight against the most enterprising nation in the world.

And his thoughts turned to his former Landlady in Jena.

To Professor and Mrs Sorley
17 November 1914, Shorncliffe
I have been wondering very much about the Bieders lately. Is there any way for me to get a letter through to the Frau? I feel very much that I ought to: one that should arrive before or round about Christmas.

As Christmas approached, Sorley had been saving up leave so that he might have a weekend at Marlborough. He had planned to be there as the Master’s guest from 12th to 14th December, when the Major-General issued an order stopping all further week-end leaves.

To the Master of Marlborough College (his former teacher)
15 December 1914, Sandgate
When I asked the Adjutant to ask the Colonel to ask the Brigadier to ask the Garrison-Adjutant to ask the Major-General whether he would make an exception in my case, he told me that when I was in the Army I was in the Army. He made this remark with the air of Solomon when he tried on his trick of bisecting babies, added a qualifying ‘after all,’ and I was left lamenting. I don’t think I have ever cursed so roundly in my life. I made up three poems and went to bed early on the strength of it, and have been late for parade ever since.

While he waited for his unit to be deployed, he turned to literature to occupy the time.

To A E Hutchinson
25 January 1915, Shorncliffe
How are you getting on? I can imagine it is not quite heaven. But neither is this. Heaven will have to wait until the war’s over. I have started to read again, having read nothing all the closing months of last year. I have discovered a man called D H Lawrence who knows the way to write, and I still stick to Hardy: to whom I never managed to convert you.

We talk of going out in March. I am positively looking forward to that event, not in the brave British drummer-boy spirit, of course, but as a relief from this boredom (part of which, by the way, is caused through Philpott having been away the last three weeks in hospital).

We don’t seem to be winning, do we? It looks like an affair of years. If so, pray God for a nice little bullet wound (tidy and clean) in the shoulder. That’s the place.

It wouldn’t be until June that Sorley was sent to France. His unit was posted just behind the front lines where they continued to wait.

To Professor and Mrs Sorley
1 June 1915,
7th Suffolks, British Expeditionary Force, France
I have just been censoring letters: which hardly puts one in a mood for writing. Suffice it that we are in a little hamlet, or rather settlement of farms; the men on straw, the officers in old four-posters: within sound of the guns.

The reading of a hundred letters has brought home to me one need. Could you send me out some of those filthy Woodbine cigarettes the men smoke – they all ask for them. Pour moi, I am well provided for the present. So far our company are separated from the rest. It is like a picnic, and the weather is of the best.

To Miss Jean Sorley (Charles’ sister)
17 June 1915, France
This is not like our last visit to France: among other things in that I have to speak more French. But it has this in common—mosquitoes: though we are not otherwise plagued by small living things. Indeed the mosquitos trouble us far more than brother Bosch.

He was then posted to the front, living in trenches and continuing to wait. He had been in the army for nine months by this time.

To Professor Sorley
24 June 1915, France
We lead a mole-like existence: above ground only at night, and even then blind. But neither side shows a great disposition to leave its comparatively comfortable quarters.

To Mrs Sorley
29 June 1915, France
We have now been out a month. Our time has been spent in a tedious preparation for possibilities which will never occur. All our behaviour is precautionary and defensive: from the universal silence one would guess that the Germans are similarly engaged behind that mysterious ‘pie-belt’ which divides the two armies that are both incapable of fight. One day, I suppose, six hours’ bombardment will knock six months’ work to pieces.

To the Master of Marlborough College

4 August 1915, France
Many thanks for your last letter. You’ll excuse a two months’ silence. There is really very little to say about the life here. Change of circumstance, I find, means little compared to change of company. And as one has gone out and is still with the same officers with whom one had rubbed shoulders unceasingly for the last nine months, and of whom one had acquired that extraordinarily intimate knowledge which comes of constant synousia.

Whilst not at the front, he found other ways of passing the time .

To Mrs C H Turner 
15 August 1915, France
We are still all flourishing here: fattening on your kind gifts: looking forward to a peaceful winter and trusting to the artillery to win the war in the spring, whence we shall return to civil life all the merrier for the jolly people whom we have met in our invasion into the army.

To Professor Sorley
2 September 1915, France
Many thanks for your letter and congratulations…. [Charles had just been promoted to Captian]
I now run (during our periods in reserve) a large public-house: buying barrels of beer direct from neighbouring brewers and selling it as nearly as possible at cost price to the men, thus saving them from the adulterated and expensive beer at the local estaminets. Selling beer at 10 centimes a pint I still manage to make a slight profit—about 5 francs to 60 gallons—which goes in mouth-organs and suet, the Suffolk’s love of suet pudding being as great almost as his love of sleep. The quartermaster-sergeant of course is the publican, myself merely the landlord.

In October, Charles learned his unit would be part of the coming push, which would be the largest British offensive of 1915 and begin the Battle of Loos. His last letters to are written to his father and Arthur Watts in October 1915. The letter to his father is just two paragraphs long. He seemed in good spirits though longing for the war to end.

To Arthur Watts
5 October 1915, France
Just a line—albeit on military ruled paper. It is the eve of our crowning hour. I am bleached with chalk and grown hairy. And I think exultantly and sweetly of the one or two or three outstandingly admirable meals of my life. One in Yorkshire, in an inn upon the moors, with a fire of logs and ale and tea and every sort of Yorkshire bakery, especially bears me company.

I dread my own censorious self in the coming conflict – I also have great physical dread of pain. Still, a good edge is given to the sword here. And one learns to be a servant. The soul is disciplined. So much for me.

Adieu! or (chances three to one in favour of the pleasanter alternative) auf wiedersehen! Pray that I ride my frisky nerves with a cool and steady hand when the time arrives. And you don’t know how much I long for our next meeting – more even than for the aforementioned meal!

To Professor Sorley
5 October 1915, France
There is absolutely no doubt that the Bosch is now on his way home, though it is a long way and he will have many halts by the wayside. That ‘the war may end any year now’ is the latest joke, which sums up the situation....

You will have seen that we have suffered by the loss of our chief: also that our battalion has lost its finest officer – otherwise commissioned ranks have been extraordinarily lucky. For the present, rain and dirt and damp cold. O for a bath! Much love to all.

Eight days later, on 13 October 1915, Charles Sorley was shot by a sniper and died at age 20 near Hulluch, France, during the final offensive of the Battle of Loos. His last and most famous poem When You See Millions of the Mouthless Dead was found in his kitbag:

When you see millions of the mouthless dead
Across your dreams in pale battalions go,
Say not soft things as other men have said,
That you'll remember. For you need not so.
Give them not praise. For, deaf, how should they know
It is not curses heaped on each gashed head?
Nor tears. Their blind eyes see not your tears flow.
Nor honour. It is easy to be dead.
Say only this, “They are dead.” Then add thereto,
“Yet many a better one has died before.”
Then, scanning all the o'ercrowded mass, should you
Perceive one face that you loved heretofore,
It is a spook. None wears the face you knew.
Great death has made all his for evermore.


Charles Sorely’s poem All the Hills and Vales Along forms the text for James MacMillan’s new work of the same name commemorating 100 years since the Armistice of 1918. The piece receives its Orchestral premiere with the LSO on Sunday 4 November. Find out more here