1928 saw the first performance of RC Sherriff’s celebrated play Journey’s End, depicting life in a British officers’ dugout in the days leading up to the devastating German offensive of spring 1918. Many of those who saw it would have known precisely what was about to unfold at St Quentin on 21 March. To them, this was a drama of impending doom: perhaps even a ghost story.
While modern audiences may not be aware of this history, Saul Dibb’s outstanding new film adaptation remains unbearably tense. In this authentic and sensitive interpretation, crafted by screenwriter Simon Reade, the fighting is brief and chaotic. One memorable scene shows British soldiers mounting a trench raid: crawling out into no-man’s land before charging into the German lines to capture a prisoner for interrogation. Needless to say, not everybody makes it back. Although the action is suitably violent, the real horror is the unknown and unresolved fate of those who do not return.
When Journey’s End was originally staged, many of the Imperial War Graves Commission’s cemeteries and monuments were nearing completion. By this time, bereaved families and veterans were already visiting the old battlefields to find the graves of their comrades and brothers, fathers and sons. Tour groups and intrigued visitors came to see for themselves where notorious episodes of the conflict had taken place.
For the loved ones of those who had vanished in the havoc, there remained a pressing need for closure. Unveiling the Menin Gate memorial at Ypres in 1927, Lord Plumer remarked that:
"One of the most tragic features of the Great War was the number of casualties reported as 'Missing, believed killed'… when peace came and the last ray of hope had been extinguished the void seemed deeper and the outlook more forlorn for those who had no grave to visit, no place where they could lay tokens of loving remembrance... now it can be said of each one in whose honour we are assembled here today: ‘He is not missing; he is here’."
Just as it took many years for the physical spaces of remembrance to be conceived and constructed, the cultural response to the collective trauma of the Great War continued to evolve throughout the post-war years. In the late 1920s there was a proliferation of literature reflecting on the wartime experience, such as Siegfried Sassoon’s Memoirs of a Fox-Hunting Man, Edmund Blunden’s Undertones of War and, perhaps most significantly, Erich Maria Remarque’s Im Westen nichts Neues, subsequently translated as All Quiet on the Western Front.
Remarque wrote that his novel was ‘intended neither as an accusation nor as a confession’, and the same might be said of Journey’s End. Through the alcoholic, conflicted Captain Stanhope (played by Sam Claflin) the traditional ideal of the heroic British officer is comprehensively deconstructed, while the naivety of the youthful Raleigh (Asa Butterfield) gives way to disillusionment, but also determination and resolve. Yet although this is a bleak depiction of a terrible ordeal, there is humour and humanity too.
The squalid conditions depicted here have become familiar stereotypes – rats, whiskey and mud – but, for many, the strict social etiquette is likely to be somewhat more discombobulating. Staying true to the play, the drama focuses on a group of officers, with the ‘other ranks’ embodied by Mason, the officers’ cook (Toby Jones).
In the gloom of the dugout there is separation – physical and psychological – between classes and ranks. Nowhere is this more evident than in mealtime rituals. But there are also glimpses of the intimacy that could develop in spite of this, particularly through Paul Bettany’s outstanding performance as the gracious, paternal Lieutenant ‘Uncle’ Osborne.
Perhaps a new generation will be inspired by this revival of Journey’s End to visit the places where Stanhope, Osborne and Raleigh faced their destiny. At Pozières, on the Somme, stone walls bear the names of more than 12,700 servicemen who lost their lives during those desperate days in the spring of 1918, and whose bodies were never found or identified.
It is a sobering reminder that for so many of the real-life counterparts of Sherriff’s characters, the CWGC’s cemeteries and memorials would be their journey’s end.
- Journey’s End is released nationwide on 2 February 2018 -