Heartened by the noble intentions of this symposium by Kings College London's Defence Studies Department, emphasising the commonality and consequential denationalisation of active Remembrance. As Director of seminal World War 1 drama Journey’s End in Ypres, Belgium about British soldiers in a dugout anticipating Armageddon, it is the universality of war (and anti-war) themes MESH Theatre Co seeks to excavate and illuminate: any concept of Britishness is, for the purposes of this very literally "active" event, both incidental and accidental, to be simultaneously acknowledged and, where pertinent, ignored. As Telegraph critic Bill Darlington put it when the play first showed in 1928, breaking a conspiracy of silence ten years after the end this criminally wasteful war, “Here in a few soldiers are all soldiers.” The play's author RC Sherriff, a veteran of Passchendaele, in giving life and voice to his trench mates, anchored his compelling story in the warts-and-all (sometimes very funny) specifics of lived experience - as any skilled dramatist does. History, aided and abetted by this play, has exposed how strategic decisions made by British generals were notably reckless with human life; yet every nation had its generals, strategists and decision-makers who can be shown retrospectively to have blood on their hands. Themes of terror, boredom, camaraderie, endurance and the whole gamut of human emotions associated with trench warfare was of course common across every trench, every regiment, every nation. And, as citizens of the world reflecting on the sobering lessons of a World War, we must remember them - the victims - regardless of that accident of birth which determines nationality and any associated construct of allegiance. I look forward to KCL's reprisal of this exciting platform to mark the end of the 14-18 Centenary and Armistice Day.
British and Indian machine gunners with a Vickers machine gun, Lewis gun and range-finder, 1917. Photo Credit: National Army Museum
The motto: "It's better to die than to be a coward" and the kukri (a long-curved knife) earned Gurkhas a fearsome reputation. Legend has it that once a Gurkha draws the kukri, he must draw blood…
Journey’s End sheds light on the plight of British officers during the First World War and, in so doing, brilliantly illuminates some broader war themes, notably the reckless waste of human life. However, this was a world war and there are many nations whose vital contribution and massive sacrifice is rarely credited by comparison.
Among these is the vital story of Indian and Nepalese soldiers. In MESH’s future work I am dedicated to ensuring their bravery is recognised and losses remembered through theatre - not least because I was born in Pakistan which was then part of India. It must be remembered Pakistan was not created until 1947 and that about 40% of soldiers in the Indian Army were Muslims from what is now Pakistan. So in speaking of India in this historic context, I include Pakistan.
India provided the largest voluntary force ever assembled in history, with around 1.5 million individuals. I was struck by a report by the Commonwealth War Graves Commission, which shows that 138,000 Indian soldiers were sent to fight in Europe. Most of these soldiers were deployed in the Ypres Salient and at nearby Neuve Chapelle in France during the period 1914-15. A very large number lost their lives in the campaign to halt the German advance.
VC awarded to Rfn Kulbir Thapa of 2/3 Gurkha Rifles during WW1, Accessed: 29-10- 2017 from http://www.gurkhabde.com/the-role- of-gurkha- soldiers-in- first-world- war/
During the First World War nine men from modern-day India and Pakistan won the Victoria Cross, Britain's highest military decoration for valour. While the Menin Gate Memorial to the Missing contains the names of 412 Indian soldiers, there are many more Hindu soldiers whose bodies were never found. Many were cremated, and only a fraction of those who died can be found in the Salient today. This is a tragedy, but headstones and memorials are not the only way to signify such sacrifice. Drama can too.
I strongly believe that active remembrance of non-white soldiers is a necessary step to honouring our history and contextualising contemporary Britain. Not least because the outcome of the Great War may well have been different without the support of international allies. Recognising our shared history is relevant today, as it can encourage broader engagement and understanding of WW1 across cultural communities in today’s multi-national Britain.
As the director of this seminal play, I maintain that drama is the ultimate medium to shed light on hidden historical narratives. I was deeply impressed by Ishy Din’s play, ‘Wipers’, inspired by the story of Khudadad Khan, the first non-British soldier to win a VC. This dramatic performance is a very real and human exploration of non-British soldiers during WW1. Through the immersive experience of drama it says the unsaid and shares the untold.
And the tale of our Indian and Nepalese allies during both world wars is one MESH will visit in future.
" Mairi Chisholm and the Baroness de T'Serclaes driving their motor ambulance through the ruins of Pervyse." The Imperial War Museum.
Speaking as an unequivocal feminist and female director of a play that was written by a male playwright, about ten men in the trenches of the First World War, portrayals of women are notably absent from Journey’s End. That being said, it presents an authentic representation of the Western Front, which was male-dominated. However, MESH is committed to recognising the role of women during the Great War: a vital part of inclusive active remembrance. Women were integral to the war effort, and were never far from men’s minds in the trenches.
Previously, I’ve written about the origin of MESH, which is an acronym of my four grandparents’ names. I’ve expanded on my grandfathers’ respective engagements in combat, however my two grandmothers are essential in the name and mission of MESH. Both strong and spirited women, they were victims of a war-torn generation and partners of these traumatised men, who went on to parent my own parents. MESH is a tribute to them and their generation.
Journey’s End is a story of trenches, tragedy and trauma, featuring references to women whose existence is integral to the characters’ interior and exterior worlds. Trotter makes numerous references to his wife and domestic life; Stanhope silently longs for Raleigh’s sister, his young sweetheart, fueling his troubled alcoholism; Uncle Osborne reminisces over how, while home on leave, his wife would help him “pretend there wasn’t any war at all” while she played the piano and knitted socks; Hibbert and Stanhope are sustained by casual encounters with local girls in a period when regular codes of morality were suspended; Hibbert in particular takes comfort from risqué postcards of pretty girls to escape his interior hell; the German prisoner is ferociously attached to his personal letters, which one suspects are from a wife or lover. Journey’s End is a microcosm of the war in which stories of women are symbiotic.
The emotional anguish of the Western Front is not exclusive to male longing for wives and sweethearts – the silent witnesses. When the play was first produced, it provided a theatrical window for women to recognise and empathise with fathers, sons and brothers, many of whom had not returned. Therefore, women simultaneously affect the characters on stage while female audience members identify their own personal losses through the drama of the production.
Focusing on intimate male dynamics also risks women being dismissed as passive bystanders during the war, which fails to acknowledge the actively brave women who fought and provided medical services to the front line. 1914 saw 18-year-old Mairi Gooden-Chisholm and 30-year-old divorcee, Elsie Knocker join the mobile ambulance corps on the Belgian Front. Together they saved thousands of lives. That same year 42-year-old Kate Luard joined the Queen Alexandra’s Imperial Military Nursing Service Reserve, serving in France and Belgium until 1918. These are but a few examples of remarkably brave women who served during the Great War, but who are not a part of Journey’s End.
Active stories of women are absent from this classic play, for legitimate reasons. Yet its silent female cohort deserves to be remembered in its own right, sharing women’s stories, in their own play.
Watch this space.
Tonight, MESH Theatre Company opens its first production at the Kruitmagazijn in this all-important year to commemorate the fallen in a way only live theatre can do.
MESH produces theatre of war, taking acts of remembrance to historic war zones. We are at a place where history speaks, giving voice to drama, poetry and prose from the mouths and pens of men and women who have experienced war at first hand, in all its complexity; to hear those voices and ask questions about our own history-in-the-making.
When we visit battlefield zones such as this, we are of course stopped in our tracks by the scale of losses: row upon row upon row of headstones, names on memorials, image after image of monochrome faces we almost know, stories of every kind preserved so that we can remember. The vastness of the immaculately-catalogued provision is humbling – and deafening in its silence.
In breathing ‘life’ into this arena, otherwise frozen in time, we open a window directly into our ancestors’ lived experience: here before our eyes are Sherriff ‘s trench mates suffering a war that was tedious, ugly, terrifying, funny, cruel and criminally wasteful. It is no accident that live theatre has a strong, subversive history in illuminating the political through the personal.
Both my grandfathers fought in the First World War. My maternal grandfather Stanley John Draper left Australia to join up in 1914, age 18 years old, and fought the duration of the war, first at Gallipoli then in France. He was shot twice, gassed and suffered recurrent bouts of pneumonia (in the days before antibiotics) but was sent back to the trenches from hospitals in Cairo and Bournemouth. He suffered from weak lungs and dark moods for the rest of his life. I’m told he never liked children much - apart from me, who came along late in his life. My few memories of him are of a kind, humorous old man with whom I could chat away for hours. I am gratified if I was, unwittingly, a late ray of sunshine in his life blighted from such a young age by unimaginable horror. I am also beyond grateful to him for what he suffered in the name of ‘duty’ for the benefit of a conceptual future generation. Not that he had much choice.
My paternal grandfather, Herbert George Ronaldson, a 34-year-old Irishman in South Africa, joined the Allies in 1917 in Tanganyka (now Tanzania). He fought the Germans face-to-face in the African bush, suffered malaria and dysentery, weighing in at under 44kg (7 stone) when invalided home. A chain-smoker, he died young of mouth cancer. It was in the painstaking work of transcribing his war diary, a tiny volume densely-scribed in fading pencil in heart-breaking detail, that first stirred in me a call to action. Such rich, first-hand accounts gather dust in many a family’s private belongings, not to mention archival treasure troves such as the RC Sherriff Trust for those who happened to become famous. There are so many untold stories here – and where there are stories there must be theatre.
So MESH was born: an acronym of my four grandparents names, my two grandmothers holding their own as silent witnesses to a war-torn generation. In the year of Passchendaele, it was a very easy choice for our inaugural production to be Journey’s End, a play I’ve long admired.
So, less than a year ago, I found myself on a ferry bound for Calais, armed with no more than a layman’s understanding of WW1 (GCSE History, Birdsong, Blackadder…) and a steely determination to bring Journey’s End to the Battlefields – and now. A crash course in Remembrance tourism later and we had a venue, a licence to perform and the widespread support of the Ieper / Ypres community whose open-minded generosity has never failed to amazing us.
Special thanks to the RC Sherriff Trust for enabling us to do this play and to In Flanders Field Museum for letting us use this iconic building.
We will remember them.
Journey’s End author R.C. Sherriff (1896-1975) left the royalties to his plays to his old school, Kingston Grammar, and the Scouts Association. From this, it is clear that investment in youth education is a core tenet of the playwright’s legacy. MESH is committed to fulfilling this heritage by fusing drama and history, bringing his work to young audiences.
MESH was privileged to host two troops of St Albans scouts at full dress rehearsals this week. Producing high quality, professional drama that is also accessible is an opportunity to breathe life into our history and exercise imaginations. We believe Sherriff would have approved, as the scouts gasped, shed tears and described this immersive bunker experience, as “like being in 3D”, “amazing”, “so realistic” and the “best play I’ve ever seen.”
History remains current when it manages to inspire younger generations. Drama is a vehicle for such inspiration. Just as this play broke the silence of tragedy and trauma of the Great War when it was first staged, this representation, 90 years later, shares the realities of trench warfare and allows its message to speak. As the world grapples with continued instability, taking a moment to witness and process this representation of events from our past may bring us one step closer to ensuring that history does not repeat itself.
'From Journey's End to the Dam Busters: The Life of R.C. Sherriff, Playwright of the Trenches' - An Extract Robert Cedric Sherriff
Born in 1896, R C Sherriff came to fame with his World War 1 drama Journey’s End. From its very first performance in 1928, it was a huge success, celebrated as the War’s most vivid and realistic depiction ever. The play was based on his own experiences as a young officer on the Western Front:. He had initially joined the Artists’ Rifles before being commissioned as a second lieutenant in the East Surreys in September 1916. A few weeks later he arrived in France, and was quickly embroiled in the trench warfare which he hated.
The play’s financial success allowed Sherriff to become a full-time writer. Although his next play (Badger’s Green) was a critical success, it failed to draw the crowds so he tried his hand at a novel instead. The result - Fortnight in September (1931) - was popular with critics and public alike, and, according to one reviewer, contained ‘more human goodness and understanding than anything I have read in years’. Two other novels followed in the next few years - Greengates (1936) and The Hopkins Manuscript (1939) - and all three offer a vivid glimpse of middle class emotions and experiences during the 1930s.
In 1932 he embarked on the screenwriting career that would keep him in the public eye to the 1960s. His friend James Whale, who had directed Journey’s End, invited him to work for Universal Studios in Hollywood (where Whale had just made Frankenstein), and after a huge success with The Invisible Man (1934), Sherriff’s scriptwriting was in great demand. He worked for most of the big studios (MGM, Fox, Warners), and despite tussles with the censors (and with the Nazis), he was able to produce movies as memorable as Goodbye Mr Chips (1939), the Four Feathers (1939), Lady Hamilton (1941 - reputedly Churchill’s favourite movie), Odd Man Out (1947) and many others, including his most famous - The Dam Busters (1955), where he was commended by one critic for finding ‘the right dramatic dialogue for the men of 1939-45, as well as those of 1914-1918’.
Despite his successful films and novels, the stage was his first love, and, although another Journey’s End eluded him, his plays were invariably well-constructed and absorbing, and often very funny. Some of them were set in familiar middle-class settings (Miss Mabel (1948), Home at Seven (1950) and White Carnation (1953)), but others, inspired by his love of history, wandered further afield - to Napoleon’s exile, for example (St Helena (1936)) or Roman Britain (The Long Sunset (1955)). His 1957 play, The Telescope, focused on the problems of juvenile delinquency, and caused quite a stir with its language.
The success of Journey’s End allowed Sherriff to buy Rosebriars, a large house in Esher with extensive gardens which were his pride and joy. He moved there with his mother in 1930, and lived there until he died in 1975. Never married, he left the royalties from his work to be shared between The Scout Association, and his old school, Kingston Grammar. The proceeds from the sale of his beloved Rosebriars meanwhile, provides the funds for the R C Sherriff Trust in its mission to promote the arts in Elmbridge, a cause of which he would wholeheartedly approve.
Here's a link to the full biography: www.amazon.co.uk/Journeys-End-Dam-Busters-Playwright/dp/1473860695
Roland Wales worked as an economist at the Bank of England for many years, and then as Policy Director at the Labour Party. He became interested in R.C. Sherriff when his two sons attended Sherriffs old school, Kingston Grammar, and he became Chair of the parents support group for rowing the Sherriff Club. He produced several Sherriff-themed theatrical nights, and worked closely with the Surrey History Centre in their successful bid for Heritage Lottery Fund support of the Sherriff Archive, including writing a well reviewed play, How Like It All Is, examining the links between Sherriffs wartime experiences and his subsequent work..
By @Tobias Harris - Media Consultant for MESH Theatre Co
The immersive Battlefields production of Journey’s End is as educational as it is entertaining. It provides a direct window into trench warfare, showing the lived experience of WW1 by sharing history through personal narratives.
R.C. Sherriff’s seminal play is a famously authentic depiction of WW1 as he was the only playwright to have fought in the war. This privileges the play with intimate access to the silenced truths of countless fallen soldiers. Live theatre, like no other medium, has the power to unpack and personalise histories that may be component parts of larger, national narratives. This play puts faces and personalities to the macro event of World War One. Sherriff’s story is fictional, but equally it is real, provoking young audiences to engage with relatable ‘stock’ characters – from funny-man Mason to cheery, chubby Trotter to the avuncular Osborne, or the quaking German Prisoner - but who are also surprisingly subtle. Moreover, the play is set in a real historic event (Operation Michael, 1918), which heightens its representation of history through active remembrance.
Particularly, in the context of the centenary, this event has the power to excavate difficult truths of which it is wise to be reminded. Dramatic performance can provide a forum to challenge dominant historical narratives, which can allow people to raise issues that current and future generations may otherwise fail to address. By putting actors and audiences in a bunker together on the Belgian Battlefields to discover this potent story together, empowerment and education become symbiotic. In so doing, people may begin to recognise that each person, both individually and collectively, alters the path of history. This matters because the way we view our histories determines how we view the present and future.
Live theatre offers an interactive method for young people to associate with our past, evoking immediate ‘3-D’ context for the present.. History does not have to simply be a top-down recollection of dates and facts. History through drama engages in multiple ways, serving to inspire rather than merely lecture.
Actors get suited and booted ready for live run on Belgian Battlefields. October 10th - November 12th, 2017
Scenes from Journey's End (Ypres) at Commonwealth War Graves Commission Family Day at Brookwood Military Cemetery