Theatre of war – An Irishman’s Diary on RC Sherriff and ‘Journey’s End’

RC Sherriff: survived the war and wrote ‘Journey’s End’ in 1928

RC Sherriff: survived the war and wrote ‘Journey’s End’ in 1928

 

In the early spring of 1918, British soldiers on the Western Front waited anxiously and with mounting trepidation for the German assault they knew was sure to come.

The defeat of Russia on the Eastern Front freed up 50 German divisions to fight on the Western Front.

This deadly waiting game provides the context for one of the most enduring plays of the first World War, Journey’s End, written by Robert Cecil (RC) Sherriff and now turned into a feature film which has just been released.

Sherriff was 18 when war broke out in August 1914. He sought an officer’s commission, but was turned down on account of not having gone to the right public school.

A commissioned officer was expected to lead from the front. They were more likely to be killed than the private soldier and, when so many of them were in the early stages of the war, Sherriff received his commission in 1915 as an officer in the 9th battalion of the East Surrey Regiment.

He survived the war and wrote Journey’s End in 1928, 10 years after the war ended. Journey’s End takes place over four days between March 18th and 21st, 1918, as rumours of the German offensive build. The British had just 11 divisions in the area, including two Irish divisions, the 36th (Ulster) and 16th, against a force four times that number.

Journey’s End was initially turned down by many West End producers who thought the play had very little commercial appeal. Unsure of its worth, Sherriff sent it to George Bernard Shaw. Shaw’s praise could hardly be more faint. “Having read Journey’s End, and found it as interesting as any other vivid description of a horrible experience ... as a slice of life – horribly abnormal life – I should say let it be performed by all means, even at the disadvantage of being the newspaper of the day before yesterday.”

The failure of Pte Mason, the hapless cook, to pack the pepper is regarded as a major drama by the officers waiting for their dinner

The play was first staged by the Incorporated Stage Society which took a chance on productions which would otherwise not be deemed to be commercially viable. Critics and audiences responded to it immediately. It had the smack of authenticity because Sherriff based it on his own experiences and his own letters sent back from the front.

Much of the strength of Journey’s End lies not in the drama of war, but the sheer banality of men stuck in a bunker trying to stay alive. They banter about the silliest of things.

The failure of Pte Mason, the hapless cook, to pack the pepper is regarded as a major drama by the officers waiting for their dinner. The men complain about rats. The tea is too “oniony” and the lamb cutlets too tough.

Anchoring the drama is Capt Dennis Stanhope, a functioning alcoholic who has seen too much of trench life for his own good.

He is described in the first few minutes of the drama as “drinking like a fish” but “also the best company commander we have got”.

The raid is couched in deliberately understated terms though the officers involved know it amounts to suicide

Much of the tension in the play is generated by James Raleigh, a young officer who joins Stanhope’s company. Stanhope is going out with Raleigh’s sister.

Of all the divisions and all the battalions and all the companies in the British army, Raleigh is assigned to Stanhope’s and Stanhope is not pleased about it. He does not want Raleigh reporting back to his sister on how the war has worn him down and threatens to censor his letter.

Near the end of the drama the men are sent on a daylight raid to retrieve German soldiers for interrogation.

The raid is couched in deliberately understated terms though the officers involved know it amounts to suicide.

“It’s no good getting depressed. After all, it’s only 60 yards,” the blimpish colonel tells Stanhope. Four of the 10 men involved are killed.

Journey’s End has been filmed four times, the latest version directed by Saul Dibb and which has just been released in advance of the centenary of the German spring offensive of 1918.

Nowhere did that offensive have a bigger impact than in Ireland. The 16th (Irish) Division bore the brunt of the German attack out of the mist on March 21st. Historian Tom Burnell lists more than 400 men from what is now the Republic who were killed on that day alone.

In two weeks the 16th sustained 7,149 casualties. It had, according to one of its officers, “ceased to exist, wiped off the map”.

Even more significant than the casualties was the sense of panic that the German advances created in the British cabinet.

The Germans swept across the old Somme battle capturing in days what had taken the British months to capture.

At one stage the Germans were outside Amiens, the critical rail juncture which supplied both the British and French armies.

The British desperately needed more men and there was only one place where those losses could be redeemed. As a consequence in April 1918 the British extended the Conscription Act to Ireland.

All shades of nationalist opinion in Ireland were united against it, but Sinn Féin were the big winners. The tin ear British politicians showed to nationalist sentiment in 1918 would have dramatic consequences when the war ended.

Sinn Féin trounced the Irish Parliamentary Party in the December 1918 general election. The attempt to introduce conscription was further evidence to convince the Irish public that they wanted rid of British rule in Ireland for good.

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