To continue this week’s First World War theme in the run up to the centenary of the Somme on 1 July, a 1928 play which brings to life the most evocative of First World War images – the trenches.
Journey’s End is set in the British trenches near Saint-Quentin, Aisne, in 1918, as officers prepare for Germany’s Operation Michael (NB why did they give it a Beautiful British Name like ‘Michael’? Cheek of it). It primarily addresses the psychological impact of war on different individuals and is at its most powerful in the scenes that contrast the men’s fear of imminent death with the BE A MAN AND KEEP CALM AND CARRY ON IT’S ONLY THE FIRST WORLD WAR stoicism expected of them. The interchange between Captain Stanhope and Second Lieutenant Hibbert in Act II is unforgettable – I won’t give too much away, but essentially the pair of them admit they are bricking it, and Stanhope summarizes the dilemma of men who, quite reasonably, want to run for the hills:
Think of all the chaps who’ve gone already. It can’t be very lonely there – with all those fellows. Sometimes I think it’s lonelier here…
You may be wounded. Then you can go home and feel proud – and if you’re killed you…won’t have to stand this hell anymore…Don’t you think it worth standing in with (the other men) -when you know they all feel like you do…and just go on sticking it because they know it’s…the only thing a decent man can do…
We’ve all got a good fighting chance. I mean to come through – don’t you?
R.C. Sherriff based the play on his experiences as a Captain during the war, meaning this dialogue may have reflected conversations he had had himself or had overheard. Therefore, it gives the silent ‘Tommies’ in the picture below a voice, and, more than ever, makes one want to go down to the local park and play on a swing like a small child and pray for an end to this war crap.
I saw the play performed over a decade ago. There are rumours of a film remake with Benedict ‘I look like an alien but the ladies love me’ Cumberbatch and Tom ‘I got my bottom out on BBC1 and now my career knows no bounds’ Hiddleston, but if you can’t wait for that, there is also a 1988 made-for-TV film knocking around on YouTube.
Soldiers of the Royal Irish Rifles waiting to join the offensive on the Somme on 1 July, 1916.