An analysis of R C Sherriff’s presentation of soldiers under stress in the trenches

Robert Cedric Sherriff was born on 6 June 1896 in Middlesex and was educated at Kingston Grammar School in Kingston upon Thames. Before and part way through World War One Sherriff worked as a clerk in an insurance office. From 1915 to 1918 he served as a captain in the 9th East Surrey Regiment, during which time he was awarded the Military Cross. He served at Vimy and Loos in France, and was severely wounded near Ypres in 1917. “Journey’s End” is based on his experiences whilst serving in the war that he recorded in detail in his journal.

The play juxtaposes the honour system of the middle and upper classes and the horrific reality of war that these soldiers had to live and fight through. Sherriff doesn’t show the horrors of war in the play; he suggests it, which is a more effective portrayal for the audience. Sherriff wrote “Journey’s End” in 1928 originally for Kingston Rowing Club to perform to raise money for a new boat, but it was too hard for them and was eventually performed on 9 December 1928 by the Incorporated Stage Society at the Apollo Theatre for one night.

The audience was small, but within it was Maurice Browne, who produced it at the Savoy Theatre, where it was performed for two years from 1929; it was performed over 600 times in that period. “Journey’s End” was the first British anti-war play, following the countless pro-war plays and poetry that preceded it and it changed people’s attitudes to war drastically. The public was ignorant to war before – it was celebrated and then forgotten.

Dying for your country was seen as a noble and patriotic cause, and poems such as “The Charge of the Light Brigade” praised those who gave their lives in a pointless attack that was a result of a misinterpreted order. In the film inspired by the poem, one of the soldiers, limping back from the attack wounded with dead and dying soldiers lying around him, asks his officer if he would like the brigade to “Go again sir”. This shows the willingness to die for one’s country because of the attitude towards war at that time and also the class differences between soldiers in the army.

Officers in the Crimean War did not necessarily have any more military expertise or experience than the soldiers; they were officers because they were middle or upper class. The working class soldiers therefore took orders from officers because of this class difference – this shows the parallel between the officers and the men, and the upper and working classes. “Journey’s End” inspired and prompted other soldiers to write about their experiences in the war.

Anti-war literature from soldiers who fought in the First World War was written during the war, such as “Dulce et Decorum est” by Wilfred Owen but this was not as common because of the pro-war propaganda at the time. Many officers suffered from depression, anxiety, shellshock and other related mental disorders during the war, especially those who served in the confined and rather claustrophobic trenches. This sense of claustrophobia is portrayed the film made by the BBC because a lot of the shots used are close up. These shots also show the strain on the officers’ faces.

Sherriff draws on his own experience when presenting how the officers in “Journey’s End” deal with stress in the trenches. He shows how many officers coped with the stress by drinking heavily. Stanhope represents these officers in “Journey’s End” because within the first few pages we find out that he drank a whole bottle of whisky in under an hour and a quarter. This is partly due to the fact that he is very young and unprepared for the horrors of war. The other officers try to keep his alcoholism quite because it was seen as a sign of weakness this shows how the upper classes are loyal to each other.

Sherriff does however show how young officers adapted and learnt quickly when commanding in the trenches, because Stanhope is described as “the best man for the job” and we learn that he has become fairly experienced. World War One was a turning point for the public’s attitude towards war. Sherriff introduces Raleigh into “Journey’s End” to represent the general public in both his ignorance and attitude towards war. Sherriff shows the naivety of young officers when he asks his uncle to place him in Stanhope’s regiment.

The request for this nepotistic action shows that Raleigh doesn’t comprehend the magnitude and seriousness of the war. Most of the conversations held between the officers throughout the play are held in a jolly manner, to distract from the horrific situation they are in. Sherriff shows how understatements were used by officers to distance themselves – after a raid in which many people were killed one of the officers makes the comment “There’s nothing worse than dirt in your tea. ” Sherriff shows how the officers created parallels with home to help cope by bringing a sense of familiarity to the trenches in their habits and actions.

Even when planning an attack on the German frontline, the colonel invites Stanhope to dinner. The playwright shows how people moved on and the war effort continued even after tragic losses when the officers have a grand dinner to celebrate the raid in which seven men and an officer were killed. Luxuries such as champagne and chicken helped them distance themselves from the horror of what had occurred because they could not cope with such emotional trauma if they did not try to forget it. The distance in No Man’s Land was described in “rugger fields” because it is something that they could relate to.

Sherriff further reinforces the representation of Raleigh as the ignorant public after he is traumatised by a raid, and confronts Stanhope as to why he can celebrate when Osborne died. Many soldiers like Raleigh were disillusioned whilst fighting in the trenches and some, like Stanhope, turned to alcohol as a way of coping. Others tried to occupy their minds with other thoughts for example, reading a book. Osborne reads “Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland” – this particular book is metaphoric in this context because it is an escape to a “Wonderland” to get away from the war.

Sherriff makes a social judgement at this point when Trotter ignorantly laughs at Osborne for reading a “children’s” book. To make the time seem to pass more quickly, Trotter draws a chart with a circle for each hour of the six days the company would be there; he colours a circle when the hour passes. Humour played an important part in coping with the war – in particular black humour. Making jokes about the horrors that the soldiers had to deal with made it easier for them to accept them. Sherriff shows this when Stanhope suggests drawing Trotter being killed on Trotter’s chart.

This would be seen as immature out of that context, but officers sometimes acted out of character to relieve the stress. Trotter also makes a poem relating death to jam over breakfast. The officers also use overstatement as a form of humour, e. g. when pineapple chunks were delivered instead of apricots. Osborne and Trotter act as if it is a big problem. Another type of humour used is surreal humour – Sherriff uses this when Mason explains to the officers that the soup is “yellow soup” and receives the reply “Yes, it tastes like yellow soup”.

At the time of the First World War, there were very obvious class differences between people and groups in society, and this is reflected in “Journey’s End”. Throughout the play Sherriff shows that Mason is working class by writing his lines as a working class person would pronounce them: he pronounces sandwiches as “sambridges”. Sherriff also comments on the lack of intelligence and education and the social inferiority of working class people when Stanhope asks Mason, “No pi?? ti?? de foie gras? ” and Mason replies “The milkman hasn’t been yet”.

The other officers refer to Mason by his surname, whereas they would refer to lower class and ranking officers as ‘Mr’. They refer to those of their own class solely by their surname however. Although Trotter is an officer, he has the characteristics of a working class soldier; sometimes soldiers were promoted to fill the position of a dead or wounded officer. Sherriff shows this by making his pronunciation comparable with Mason’s. He also portrays Trotter as common when Trotter says “The pips get stuck behind your plate”.

The working class in the early 20th Century didn’t have good health care, hence the false teeth. Sherriff is making a class judgement when Trotter explains that he has red, white and blue flowers in his garden – this is very tawdry compared to Osborne’s rockery. Sherriff shows his judgements and prejudices of working class people typical of the time – he assumes that because they have less education than the upper classes, they have no imagination: “It must be funny not having any imagination. Stanhope also asks Trotter why he never shows extremes of emotion; why he is never very happy or sad. The upper classes assumed that they were intellectually superior to the working classes.

The classes have certain agreements within themselves, for example the upper class officers don’t read each other’s letters even though the rules dictate they should. The lower class soldiers don’t mix with the officers, and Stanhope tells Raleigh off for doing so. He asks Raleigh, “Have you been feeding with the men? implying that the men are sub-human and not worthy of being addressed in the same way as someone of a higher class. Sherriff shows how in some ways Trotter is an outcast in the group of middle class officers because of his working class origins and mannerisms. This is shown when Osborne does not want to discuss Hibbert behind his back with Trotter. The officers are seen by the men as leaders because they are of a higher rank and class, so for the raid the colonel has to pick one to lead the assault, rather than use a non-commissioned officer of a lower class such as a sergeant.

Sherriff shows this clear class separation when Osborne asks Hardy where the men sleep, and Hardy replies that the sergeant sorts it out; i. e. he is too high class to bother with the men. As “Journey’s End” is based around officers and their experience of the trenches, the low-ranking soldiers do not appear in the play much. Sherriff represents them and his views about them through the characters Mason and Trotter. These views may be slightly biased, but they are fairly accurate representations of what people of different classes were like.

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