In 2018, we mark the end of a journey that lasted more than four years - four years of war, four years of centenary commemorations. In November, as well as marking the Armistice that (more or less) delivered peace, or at any rate the end of hostilities, we will note the 100th anniversary of the death of a great poet - Wilfred Owen. I notice that stamps are to be issued in recognition of this event, though I am not sure they should have used a quotation from Owen's "Anthem for Doomed Youth", since it is generally known that Siegfried Sassoon gave him considerable assistance in producing the final published version of this particular poem.
The other night I watched the latest big-screen version of R C Sherriff's play, Journey's End, a play I'd never actually seen, despite its long production history. First performed in 1928 - the same year as the publication of Sassoon's Memoirs of a Fox-Hunting Man - it deals with subject matter that Sassoon would have found very familiar. Sherriff searched long and hard for a suitable title for the play, and what made him select the title by which the play is now known is unclear. For me, the main character, Captain Stanhope, appears to be nowhere near his journey's end; on the contrary, we glimpse a bleak future for this man who in many ways resembles Sassoon. Only the dead officers and men have come to a point where they do not need to go on.
Stanhope is a young man, probably younger than Sassoon was at the end of the war, since he has been at school with Raleigh, the second lieutenant who is barely out of his teens. The original director, James Whale, recognised this by casting 21-year-old Laurence Olivier in the role of Stanhope. Sherriff was ten years younger than Sassoon, and had been just out of school when the war began. Initially rejected for a commission, possibly because of his grammar school background, he nevertheless admired the ex-public school officers with whom he came into contact on joining the Artists' Rifles in 1915. Like Sassoon, he did not reach the Western Front immediately on enlisting, and he arrived in France as a Second Lieutenant in the East Surreys, in the autumn of 1916. After being seriously wounded at Passchendaele, he never rejoined his battalion. Thus, although his own journey was at an end for the time being, it must have been hard for him to accept that friends and comrades were continuing to be killed. The observations in this post owe much to the article by Peter Crook in the August 2018 edition of the WFA's Bulletin.
Sherriff's other literary output, including plays and novels, never achieved the same success as Journey's End - even though theatre proprietors were at first unhappy that there were no females in the cast. Leading ladies like Zena and Phyllis Dare, Sybil Thorndike, and later, Jessie Matthews, could be a big draw for West End audiences; moreover, women made up a significant proportion of theatre-goers, and men who had served in the war themselves must have hesitated at the prospect of taking their wives to see this dark drama that threatened to reveal the unpalatable truth that they had kept from their families for years. It seems, however, that this was the secret of the play's success. Sherriff himself explained: "Old soldiers recognised themselves, or the friends they had served with. Women recognised their sons, their brothers or their husbands, many of whom had not returned..."
Rather than setting the play in the Ypres Salient where he had served, Sherriff chose the backdrop of the St Quentin region and the Spring Offensive, an event that occurred after he had been sent home. Perhaps this was partly to distance himself from the characters and thus avoid the suggestion of autobiography; perhaps another reason was to make the efforts of Stanhope and his men to stem the implacable tide of the German advance appear all the more pointless. He would have had the stories related to him by friends as raw material on which to build his plot, without having to go through the painful experience of reliving his own memories of battle.
Sherriff's depiction of senior officers, their callousness resulting from a "there's nothing else for it" kind of attitude that appears to rank human life equally with ammunition in terms of importance, is far from complimentary. He would certainly have read Sassoon's "The General", as well as having his own encounters to go on. He recognises, as Sassoon did elsewhere, that this frame of mind can be seen at lower levels, as Stanhope orders the inexperienced Raleigh to participate in a trench raid, knowing that he will probably be killed but unable to find anyone more suitable for the task. A CWGC blog post I came across gives us a clue to the real men behind some of Sherriff's characters, and you can read it here.
Sassoon would use false names to disguise the real people behind his characters, but with a lack of skill in subterfuge that makes them easily recognisable: Cromlech for Graves, and so on. His purpose was different from Sherriff's. He was exorcising his own ghosts by writing autobiography, and most successfully from a reader's point of view. For Sherriff, the catharsis of writing Journey's End is equally apparent. I do not know to what extent he succeeded in laying his own ghosts.