I had never seen Journey’s End before last night, when I watched the most recent version of it. It is considered the archetype of the anti-war play – the way it is supposed to be presented. And I have to say, what I saw was excellent movie making; it is well worth your time to watch it. But it also left me cold.
The movie is set in the last few days before the German’s Spring Offensive in 1918 and centers around the officers of a British infantry company manning the front lines. Key to the plot is Captain Denis Stanhope, a war hero who has been in the trenches for three years and is presented as a man clearly crushed by what he had endured over the years. The action is strictly small scale – no grand war scenes. Just life in the trenches and the terrible anticipation of what everyone knows is coming: a major German offensive which will have a devastating impact on precisely the men manning the front line. The point is to make you sympathetic to the men caught up in the awful trauma of World War One and it drives home, especially at the end, the pointlessness of war.
But, war isn’t pointless, and I think that is what left me cold.
We are not permitted to gainsay the views of the play’s author: Robert Cedric Sherriff. He was an infantry officer in World War One who fought at Vimy Ridge, Loos and Passchendaele; among the hardest fought battles of the war. What he describes about the soldiers life is true. Just as true is that his play reveals he was gravely embittered by what he had suffered. And, who can blame him? Like so many of Britain’s youth, he was swept up into war and then placed into the meat grinder which was the Western Front. He did what he did, suffered what he suffered, and then wrote about it as he thought best.
Still, there are relevant facts which are not even mentioned in the play – notably that the British did win the war, and winning the war was good for Britain and the world. What should also be noted in any discussion of the particular battle the play describes is the incredible courage of the British soldiers in the battle. The British were heavily outnumbered in the sector attacked and the Germans were staking all they had on the offensive – they hit the British with the strongest forces made up of the cream of the German army; and the sector they hit, primarily the British 5th Army, was the least prepared part of the British line. The men performed prodigies of valor blunting the German attack and extracted a huge blood price for the advance. Because they fought so well – units often fighting until exterminated – the British were able to hold the overall line and eventually stop the German offensive well short of success. The Germans would keep battering away through the Spring, but they never came closer to actual victory than that first attack on March 21st and all the while the number and quality of the German attackers deteriorated – and so quickly that not five months later, the British Army launched their counter-attack at the Battle of Amiens, which spelled final defeat for Germany. All of this – all of the context which would make a person fully understand why Captain Stanhope’s company was there and what they would do before destruction – is left out of Journey’s End, and thus gravely distorts the picture of World War One.
And after watching it, I realized just how terrible was this poison that the play injected into all considerations of war and patriotism. Even the really great war movies of late (Saving Private Ryan, eg) are infected with this basic idea that war is just nothing but bad and that the men who fight in war are lambs led to slaughter by unfeeling commanders. It isn’t really like that; lambs led to slaughter don’t stand and fight when cut off and running low on ammunition. That is what lions do. They could have quit, after all; and, in all war, men do quit. The British had a fairly good idea when the attack would come because, among other things, German deserters had told them it was coming – and as these men were part of the assault force, this means that even in the very best units of a good army, there are men who take the measure of the situation and decide that living is the most important thing. I’m sure there were British soldiers who took off to the rear or went hands up at the first sign of the Germans – but they were few and far between. Most gritted their teeth and fought until destroyed or taken because all means of resistance were exhausted.
A play like Journey’s End robs the men who did stand and fight of the glory they had earned at the highest possible price – and it robs their fellow citizens of the heroes which are needed to sustain the sacrifices necessary for national survival. And, yes, it is heart breaking to think especially of the youngest men who are killed in war – so much of what could have been is lost and that is a terrible human tragedy which must never be downplayed. But to make it the only thing you talk about is wrong; just as it is wrong to merely dwell on the errors of the high command without assessing whether or not, at the end of the day, they secured victory.
One may think that a world without war can be made. That by some mechanism of talk, fight can be prevented. If you believe that, then I’ve nothing to say to you other than the whole course of human history is against you – and the number of wars currently going on indicates that if there is some way to bring about peace on Earth (absent the action of God) then it certainly isn’t going to happen any time soon. In short, there will be wars – and while war is bad, losing a war is the very worst thing that can happen to your nation. If people would not be slaves to a foreign conqueror, then they need to study the arts of war…and this includes understanding the value of bravery and sacrifice. And you can’t value what you think is garbage – which is what Journey’s End, and it’s long line of successors, says war is: nothing but garbage.
We need, I think, some correctives to this, and it needs to be done where the damage was done: in popular culture. Plays, movies and books need to be created which celebrate bravery and sacrifice…that after the war, the men who stood to it did, indeed, lead long lives and useful ones. That what they fought for endured, because they fought for it. That the pitiful young man killed shortly after arriving on the line did provide, in his numbers, the sinews for victory; that his death wasn’t pointless.