" 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.