Commonwealth War Graves Commission historians opened their doors this week to the MESH Theatre Company cast of Journey's End, about to start rehearsals for the play's Centenary revival in Ypres, Oct 10 – Nov 12 at Kruitmagazijn (Ammunition Store).
Journey’s End writer RC Sherriff was wounded at Passchendaele in August 1917. His famous trench play written a decade later is both a time-piece and a documentation of timeless themes - comradeship, sacrifice, hero-worship, trauma and the recklessness of powers-that-be – told through the simple story of soldiers in a dugout just before a massive attack in 1918 (Operation Michael).
The full cast of Journey’s End can be spotted in real-life individuals, or combinations thereof, mentioned in Sherriff’s letters:
from himself in "the worm” Hibbert in his attempts to go off sick with neuralgia; to Lieutenant CA Clark (aka “Nobby”) in Trotter “a stout jovial man who commanded respect, despite his dropped H’s”; to AH (Archibald) Douglass (aka “Father”) in Osborne (aka “Uncle”) “first seen sadly sitting in our shed drying a sock over a candle … one of the most lovable men I have ever known”; to the erratic Captain Charles Hilton in Captain Stanhope (functioning alcoholic at 21 years old) one minute “bluff, good-natured" and the next “sarcastic and bullying”.
However, it is Journey’s End’s eager new recruit Lieutenant Raleigh who could most closely be identified in two casualties found by the CWGC archivist Andrew Fetherston and historian Max Dutton.
The first was Dick Webb (2nd Lieut. Richard Howard Webb), Sherriff’s closest childhood pal with whom he enjoyed boyhood camping trips by the river, just as Raleigh describes in Journey's End, the last of which took place when war was declared on Germany in August 1914. Sherriff and Webb went to join up immediately, but Sherriff was turned down at that point. Dick Webb was accepted but died of wounds in hospital on 10 October 1916 in Etaples, where he is buried.
This was Sherriff’s first loss and he was crushed, making 10 October in the year of Passchendale a particularly fitting day to open this revival - just yards from where a 21 year-old Sherriff fought.
Webb is described in Sherriff's letters as "always so fresh and cheery ... a splendid boy and an excellent officer", words echoed clearly in Osborne and Trotter's chat about young Raleigh who manages to pull strings with his Brigadier Uncle to be assigned the same Company as Stanhope, his boyhood hero and family friend.
The second was Harry Lindsay (Captain William Henry Lindsay), one of Sherriff’s closest trench mates in C Company (of the 9th Battalion of the East Surrey Regiment) who participated in a real daytime raid on the German trenches which was the model for the horrific scene in Journey's End in which Raleigh, having arrived on the Front Line hours before, goes in and successfully "collars a Boche" but with the loss of six out of ten foot soldiers and the stalwart "Uncle" Osborne.
As Sherriff's biographer, Roland Wales, relates in 'From Journey's End to the Dam Busters':
"The raid took place just after noon (since it was felt that the Germans would be more relaxed then than they would at night) when the men moved through gaps in the wire which had been cut by shelling in the previous few days. The raiders succeeded in killing a number of the enemy (the account in the Battalion Diary suggests about 20) and taking three prisoners, while securing the desired ration bread sample, and a gas helmet. There were, of course, British casualties: three killed and four wounded."
Lindsay was last to leave the German trenches and had to be restrained from going back out again in broad daylight to retrieve wounded men. Lindsay, like Raleigh, would receive the MC for his day’s work. But, like Raleigh, would soon afterwards be killed in action, on 3rd September 1918, buried at Aix Noulette cemetery in France. On his headstone is engraved, “Peace Perfect Peace.”
Raleigh, played by Rory Fairbairn (who also played Raleigh in the UK tour of JE last year) conflates the spirit of these two 'ghosts' of Sherriff's war. He is the embodiment of all those young faces who look out at us through the archives of black and white photos from the trenches. He, like Sherriff's dear friends Dick Webb and Harry Lyndsay, is “that soldier."
Thanks to Jennie Sweeney, Max Dutton, Andrew Fetherston, Sally Andreou, Liz Woodfield and all at CWGC Maidenhead for inviting us in for this important act of Remembrance through live theatre.
2017 is the year to remember Passchendaele. It is also the year to remember Journey’s End.
I’m currently immersed in the humbling business of directing the play for its Centenary Homecoming at the old ammunition store (Kruitmagazijn) in Ypres this Autumn.
There is a Journey’s End film with an illustrious cast coming out around the same time.
This seminal piece of First World War literature has a pedigree which reveals itself daily as I peel back layers on this very literally muddy world. It’s author, RC Sherriff, is the only WW1 playwright also to have fought in the war 100 years ago at Passchendaele: “the battle of mud”.
He wrote it ten years later, comfortably back at his desk as an insurance clerk, saying, “I didn’t need to create these characters, they walked out on to the page.” They are his trench mates, and indeed himself, in the “worm” Hibbert crippled with nervous neuralgia (as Sherriff was), carping to his young Captain, Stanhope, war-worn alcoholic at just 21 years old.
As Telegraph critic Bill Darlington put it at the time, “Here are all soldiers in a few soldiers.”
Stanhope was first played by a young Laurence Olivier in London in 1927 in a subversive Sunday night showing at the Apollo theatre, deemed to be neither commercial enough nor cutting-edge enough for anything more significant. A stunned audience precipitated a word-of-mouth hit, culminating in a two year run in the West End and inspiring 30 productions in 18 different languages worldwide by the mid-1930s. Its simple story of a handful of soldiers in a dugout on the Frontline, anticipating a major attack broke a silence about the diabolical truths of trench warfare. The play was condemned and applauded in equal measure. “You have no idea what terrible offence Journey’s End has given — and terrible pain too, which is a great deal more important,” as critic Ralph Hodder-Williams put it.
Last week I had a preview of the replica battlefield in the grounds of Passchendaele Museum which was teeming with re-enactment rehearsals for the Centenary (soldiers in every uniform, constant din of gunfire, barbed wire, encampments everywhere). Standing alone beside me with his camera was a ‘German’ soldier. I greeted him – he spoke only German. With sign language and a smile I got the nod to take his photo. Then we both stood a moment, just the two of us, absorbing this half-acre expanse of crater holes and mangled wire: how the hell was a man to get from A to B on that? Let alone an injured man, fleeing for his life or trying to reach a brother-in-arms.
How the hell?
A little later I chatted with some re-enactment chaps, mostly English but in a variety of uniforms. The German was standing amongst them. We all examined the Journey’s End flyer, its iconic black-and-white image of the Royal Irish Rifles on the first day of the Somme, that one penetrating face staring down the lens. I greeted him again; one said: “He doesn’t speak English.” It didn’t seem to matter. In doing their proud Remembrance work together, in the name of "all soldiers" they were all having a tremendous time.
In excavating the truth of Sherriff’s ten men in a trench (including the quaking German Prisoner with his pocket full of homespun trivia) over three cataclysmic days in the last throes of this horrific war, my job is to address the personal, not the political – a job which live theatre can deliver like nothing else.
Sherriff counted himself hugely lucky to get his ‘Blighty’ after nine months on the Front with a relatively minor head injury, though he suffered from a degree of survivor’s guilt for the rest of his life. He was lucky. And so are we. He gave us these ghosts of “all soldiers” in Journey’s End.
Journey’s End (the play) * October 10 - November 12, 2017 * Kruitmagazijn, Esplanade 8900, YPRES (IEPER) Belgium * Daily at 1500 h (except Monday) & Tues / Thurs / Sat at 1900 h * www.meshtheatre.com/tickets