It is Monday, March 18th, 1918, and Captain Hardy is drying his wet sock over a candle flame. He sits in the dugout of the British trenches in St. Quentin, France, where the military is involved in trench warfare with German forces stationed only 70 yards away. As he dries his sock, Hardy sings a little ditty, mumbling, “Tick!—Tock!—wind up the clock, / And we’ll start the day over again.” As he finishes, Osborne descends into the dugout, and the two men have a drink together. “Your fellows arriving?” asks Hardy, and Osborne tells him that they are indeed on their way. Over their cups of whiskey, Osborne says he heard that the trenches have been rather quiet, and Hardy says, “Well, yes—in a way. But you never know. Sometimes nothing happens for hours on end; then—all of a sudden—‘over she comes!’—rifle grenades.”
From the very outset of Journey’s End, Sherriff’s interest in the passage of time becomes apparent. “Tick!—Tock!—wind up the clock, / And we’ll start the day over again,” Hardy sings to himself, indicating just how attuned he is to the ways in which time moves. This focus on the time becomes even more evident when Osborne and Hardy talk about how the trenches have been calm and quiet. Indeed, a sense of anticipation builds during periods in which “nothing happens for hours on end”—a kind of anticipation to which the soldiers no doubt must be accustomed.
Hardy mentions to Osborne that “the big German attack’s expected any day now,” and Osborne points out that it has been expected for the entire month. “Are you here for six days?” Hardy asks, and when Osborne confirms that he is, Hardy guesses that Osborne will surely be here when the attack comes. “Well, you won’t be far away,” replies Osborne. “Come along, let’s do this handing over. Where’s the map?” With this, the two men go over the various details that Osborne needs to know about the dugout before Hardy can leave (he has, after all, just finished his own six-day shift).
When Hardy and Osborne discuss “the big German attack,” they once again reveal their sense of anticipation. Indeed, they’ve been waiting for this attack for quite some time, and even though it seems as if they’re edging closer to the actual event, they still are locked in a holding pattern of tension, one in which all they can do is conjecture about when it will actually take place. In this way, Sherriff demonstrates that one of the most difficult parts of being at war is the uncertainty that comes along with waiting for something bad to happen.
Osborne tells Hardy they’re expecting a new officer, and Hardy says, “I hope you get better luck than I did with my last officer. He got lumbago the first night and went home.” Refocusing, Osborne asks about the various weapons and supplies, of which he’s supposed to take an inventory. Hardy tells him vague numbers, assuring him that everything’s there and admitting that he didn’t even count the supplies when he took over. He then makes haste, not wanting to overlap with Stanhope—the captain taking over for him—because he knows Stanhope will force him to clean the trenches before leaving. “How is the dear young boy?” Hardy asks. “Drinking like a fish, as usual?” Osborne claims that Stanhope is the best commander possible, and though Hardy doesn’t disagree, all he can seemingly focus on is the man’s prolific drinking habits.
Although Journey’s End is not first and foremost a comedic play, there are often moments of dark or deadpan humor that shed light on the soldiers’ attitudes regarding the war. For instance, the fact that Hardy’s officer managed to go home because of a case of lumbago is indeed rather funny, since lumbago is an everyday injury that frequently amounts to little more than back pain. That a soldier would use this as an excuse to go home illustrates just how desperate many of these men are to leave the war. Rather than staying and facing their fears, they’d rather lie about some kind of ailment. On another note, Sherriff uses this moment to introduce Captain Stanhope before the man actually makes an appearance onstage, thereby building him into a figure of curiosity, especially since Osborne and Hardy seem to both respect him and disapprove of his drinking habits. By foregrounding Stanhope’s entrance with this conversation, Sherriff invites the audience to inhabit the world of anticipation—the world of waiting—that the soldiers themselves experience on a daily basis.
“When a boy like Stanhope gets a reputation out here for drinking,” Osborne says, “he turns into a kind of freak show exhibit. People pay with a bottle of whisky for the morbid curiosity of seeing him drink it.” He also points out that Stanhope has been in the war for three consecutive years. Apparently, he enlisted after school and has “never had a rest” since then, choosing to spend his leave in Paris rather than at home. “And because he’s stuck it till his nerves have got battered to bits, he’s called a drunkard,” says Osborne. Hardy tells a story about how Stanhope recently had an argument while playing cards and suddenly knocked everything off the table, “lost control of himself,” and broke into tears. Perhaps given this—or because of Osborne’s wisdom and age—Hardy says that Osborne should be the one commanding the infantry.
Sherriff makes an effort in this scene to present Stanhope as an unstable character. While Osborne defends his friend by pointing out that Stanhope has “never had a rest,” it’s clear that the captain is a bit unhinged, especially if a mere card game can bring him to violent tears. By preparing the audience to meet such a loose cannon, Sherriff continues to create the same kind of tense anticipation that the soldiers likely feel when they’re in the trenches waiting for something bad to happen.
Just before Hardy leaves, he pauses and looks at the table. “Why, that earwig. It’s been running round and round that candle since tea-time; must have done a mile,” he says. Osborne says that if he were an earwig, he wouldn’t be spending time in the trenches. “Nor should I,” Hardy says, and then tells Osborne that the best way to win “earwig races” is to dip them in whiskey, which “makes ’em go like hell!” When he leaves, Mason, the cook, enters and offers Osborne cutlets. When Osborne presses him, though, he admits that the so-called “cutlets” are really just “ordinary ration meat” that he made in a new shape.
When Hardy notices that the earwig on the table has been running in circles, Sherriff presents the audience with an image of futility. Despite how hard the earwig has worked—running for an entire mile—it hasn’t made any progress at all. This ultimately foreshadows the feeling of futility and repetition that bothers the men throughout the play, as they constantly wait for something to happen and then, after something actually does happen, they simply start waiting again. What’s more, the earwig’s pointless and repetitive efforts align with Mason’s unsuccessful attempt to become innovative with the ration meat. Indeed, Mason can try all he wants to improve upon the dreadful food he’s supposed to cook, but at the end of the day, he can’t change the fact that he’s serving the soldiers the same low-quality fare.
At this point, the new officer arrives. His name is Raleigh, and he’s a “healthy-looking boy of about eighteen” who looks a bit “bewildered” by the squalid dugout. Nonetheless, he radiates a positive attitude, greeting Osborne as “sir” and gingerly accepting a drink of whiskey. Osborne explains to Raleigh that he is the second-in-command and that the others call him “Uncle.” He also explains that their group has just moved into these trenches, and that Captain Stanhope is the commander. At the mention of Stanhope’s name, Raleigh perks up, saying, “I know. It’s a frightful bit of luck.” Apparently, he knows Stanhope from school. “I was only a kid and he was one of the big fellows,” he says, “he’s three years older than I am.”
Because the small amount of information the audience has already heard about Stanhope makes him out to be an unstable drunk, the fact that Raleigh knows him from school is quite significant. Indeed, the circumstances of their previous relationship are quite clearly much different than they will be here. After all, going to school with somebody is quite different than fighting alongside them in the trenches of World War I. As such, Sherriff adds yet another layer of uncertainty and anticipation to the audience’s perception of Stanhope, encouraging them to wonder how he and Raleigh will interact.
Raleigh tells Osborne that Stanhope was the rugby captain at his school. When Osborne asks if Raleigh also played, he says, “Oh, yes. Of course, I wasn’t in the same class as Dennis—I say, I suppose I ought to call him Captain Stanhope?” Moving on, he explains that his father is friends with Stanhope’s father, and that because of this the two of them have spent time together during the summers. In fact, Stanhope even has a romantic relationship with Raleigh’s sister, who is waiting for him to return from the war. “You know, Raleigh,” Osborne says at one point, “you mustn’t expect to find him—quite the same.” When he sees Raleigh’s confusion, Osborne says, “You see, [Stanhope’s] been out here a long time. It—it tells on a man—rather badly—”
Osborne’s advice that Raleigh shouldn’t expect to find Stanhope “quite the same” reveals his understanding of the ways in which war can change a person. Suggesting that life in the trenches can “tell on a man—rather badly,” he tries to get Raleigh to accept the fact that his relationship—or even friendship—with Stanhope developed in an entirely different context. In this new context, Stanhope may very well be a completely different person, meaning that the terms of his and Raleigh’s friendship will most likely also be different. Not only is Stanhope Raleigh’s superior, but he’s also a rugged alcoholic, and Osborne wisely intuits that this isn’t who Stanhope used to be when he was a rugby captain in high school.
Osborne adds that Stanhope is a “bit quick-tempered,” but Raleigh merely says, “Oh, I know old Dennis’s temper! I remember once at school he caught some chaps in a study with a bottle of whisky. Lord! the roof nearly blew off. He gave them a dozen each with a cricket stump. He was so keen on the fellows in the house keeping fit. He was frightfully down on smoking—and that sort of thing.” Hearing this, Osborne urges Raleigh to keep in mind that Stanhope has been commanding the company for quite some time, and that this is “a big strain on a man.” “If you notice a—difference in Stanhope,” he says, “you’ll know it’s just the strain.”
The fact that Raleigh can’t keep himself from referring to Stanhope as “Dennis” supports Osborne’s notion that the boy will likely have to shift the way he sees the captain. Unfortunately, Raleigh doesn’t seem to fully grasp this, as made clear by the way he misunderstands Osborne’s comment about Stanhope’s temper. Whereas Osborne is referring to the kind of temper that causes Stanhope to erupt in irrational anger in the middle of a card game, Raleigh assumes that he is talking about Stanhope’s admirable tendency to hold the people around him to a high standard. However, it’s obvious that Stanhope—an alcoholic himself now—no longer cares about whether or not his inferiors get drunk, and the fact that Raleigh thinks he still would care about this just goes to show that the young boy hasn’t yet comprehended how the war has changed his friend.
Osborne and Raleigh discuss the fact that their trench is only 70 yards from German trenches, though the “front line” is between them (their line is called the “support line”). “I’ve never known anything so quiet as those trenches we came by,” Raleigh says, referring to the ones he passed on his way to the support line. “It’s just this—this quiet that seems so funny,” he says, and Osborne notes that the Germans are probably “sitting in their dugouts” thinking the same thing. “It seems—uncanny,” Raleigh says. “It makes me feel we’re—we’re all just waiting for something.” To this, Osborne replies, “We are, generally just waiting for something. When anything happens, it happens quickly. Then we just start waiting again.”
It’s clear that Raleigh expected war to be a constant barrage of noise and violence and chaos. It’s natural, then, that he finds himself disoriented by the relative calm of the trenches, the “uncann[iness]” of the dugouts. In this moment, Sherriff suggests that expectations play an important role in keeping a soldier psychologically at ease. Although Raleigh would surely prefer calm and peace to violence and action, he has prepared himself for the latter, and thus now feels unprepared for the wartime circumstances in which he finds himself. Indeed, he didn’t count on the feeling of tense anticipation, the feeling that he is “just waiting for something” bad to happen. This, Osborne tells him, is simply the nature of war—it is a cycle of inaction and action.
Raleigh describes his journey to the support line, describing the many trenches he traveled through. On his way, he saw the sky was lit up with lights called Very lights, which soldiers send into the air in order to “watch for raids and patrols.” Regarding these lights, Osborne says, “There’s something rather romantic about it all.” When Raleigh agrees, he adds, “You must always think of it like that if you can. Think of it all as—as romantic. It helps.”
In this moment, Sherriff suggests that soldiers must find ways to reframe their circumstances. This is what Osborne does when he encourages Raleigh to see the Very lights as “romantic.” Rather than dwelling on the ominous nature of these lights—which are used for chiefly violent purposes—he urges Raleigh to shift his perspective so that the lights become appealing and nostalgic, as if the soldiers are looking out at the blinking lights of a beautiful city.
Mason enters the dugout, interrupting Osborne and Raleigh’s conversation by informing Osborne that the can of pineapple chunks he secured for the company is in fact a can of apricots, which Stanhope hates. Mason seems ill-at-ease, telling Osborne that he wanted to tell him first so that Stanhope won’t blame him (Mason). Just then, Stanhope enters and Mason retreats into the kitchen to bring out soup. The first thing Stanhope does is ask if Hardy left without cleaning the trenches. Then he sees Raleigh, and he doesn’t know what to do. “Hullo, Stanhope!” beams Raleigh. “How did you—get here?” Stanhope manages. When Raleigh tells him he was “told to report” to his company, Stanhope mutters, “Oh. I see. Rather a coincidence.”
Right before Stanhope enters, Sherriff uses one last opportunity to portray him as an unpredictable and ill-tempered captain. He does this by having Mason become fearful that Stanhope will berate him for obtaining the wrong kind of canned fruit, thereby casting Stanhope as not only ill-tempered, but also petty and unreasonable. Having thoroughly built up a sense of suspense regarding this character, then, he finally introduces Stanhope. What the audience sees upon meeting him, though, is not an enraged drunk, but a man caught off-guard by an old friend, thereby further casting him as a complex character, since he doesn’t yell or shout or do anything rash, but instead quietly tries to piece together his confusion regarding Raleigh’s presence.
Osborne breaks the tension between Stanhope and Raleigh by informing Stanhope that they’ll have to make do with apricots instead of pineapples. At this, Trotter—one of the other officers, who entered the dugout with Stanhope—rejoices, saying he loves apricots and hates pineapples. He then introduces himself to Raleigh, asking the boy if he feels “odd” being out in the trenches. “Yes. A bit,” Raleigh admits, and Trotter says, “Oh, well, you’ll soon get used to it; you’ll feel you’ve been ’ere a year in about an hour’s time.” Trotter then falls into a conversation about Mason’s food, criticizing the soup’s lack of pepper and poking fun at Mason’s attempt to turn the ration meat into “cutlets.”
Trotter’s assertion that Raleigh will feel like he’s been in the trenches for “a year” after only an hour once again taps into the play’s interest in the way time moves. The fear of war—the anticipation of impending doom—seems to warp the way these men perceive the passage of time, elongating it in strange ways and upending their internal sense of chronology.
“Well, boys!” Trotter says, “ ’Ere we are for six days again. Six bloomin’ eternal days.” As he says this, he does some arithmetic on the table, figuring out that they have 144 hours left of duty in these trenches. “Eight thousand six ’undred and forty minutes,” he says. “That doesn’t sound so bad; we’ve done twenty of ’em already. I’ve got an idea! I’m going to draw a hundred and forty-four circles on a bit o’ paper, and every hour I’m going to black one in; that’ll make the time go all right.” Looking at Trotter’s chart, Stanhope tells him he ought to go up and stand watch, assuring him he can “black in three of [his] bloody little circles” when he returns.
When Trotter makes it clear that he and his fellow officers have to spend six days in this dangerous dugout, the audience begins to understand why, exactly, they are all so obsessed with time. After all, not only are these men expecting and bracing for a harrowing attack by the Germans, they’re also waiting to leave. In turn, there’s little chance they’ll be able to stop thinking about how the time passes, so Trotter decides to draw up a physical representation of the hours they have left. At the very least, this might help them feel as if they have a modicum of control over their lives, which is something they otherwise lack completely, since they can’t actually influence what happens or when it happens.
Trotter and Raleigh go together to work a shift above the dugout. Meanwhile, Osborne and Stanhope decide which beds they’ll take while Stanhope drinks whiskey. When Hibbert (the fourth and final officer) enters, he claims that he has a bad case of neuralgia; so bad that he can’t even imagine eating because of the pain. “Try and forget about it,” Stanhope says, but Hibbert decides to go straight to bed. Once he’s gone, Stanhope grumbles, “Another little worm trying to wriggle home,” but Osborne shows more sympathy, wondering if Hibbert’s pain might actually be real. “You can’t help feeling sorry for him,” he says. “I think he’s tried hard.” Still, though, Stanhope remains unconvinced, saying, “He’s decided to go home and spend the rest of the war in comfortable nerve hospitals. Well, he’s mistaken. I let Warren get away like that, but no more.”
Hibbert’s complaints about neuralgia recall the story Hardy told Osborne at the beginning of the play about the officer who went home because of a case of “lumbago.” What’s more, even Stanhope seems to have let somebody leave the trenches before, as he reveals by saying that he allowed a man name Warren to leave because of medical reasons. In turn, Sherriff shows the audience that there’s a pattern amongst British soldiers of fleeing the war because of (most likely) pretend medical ailments. This is an escapist way of dealing with the fear presented by war. However, Stanhope seems resolved to keep Hibbert in his trenches, believing that such behavior is nothing short of cowardly.
Osborne changes the subject, saying Raleigh is a “good-looking youngster.” When he reveals that Raleigh mentioned the fact that he and Stanhope went to school together, Stanhope seems immediately put off, saying, “Has he been talking already?” In response, Osborne points out that Raleigh is simply happy to have been placed in Stanhope’s company. “He seems to think a lot of you,” he says. “Yes, I’m his hero,” says Stanhope. Osborne points out that this is natural, maintaining that boys at school often have heroes and that this kind of admiration “often goes on as long as—” At this point, Stanhope interrupts him, saying, “As long as the hero’s a hero.”
In this conversation, Stanhope’s tone suggests that he resents Raleigh for admiring him. When he interrupts Osborne to say that boys admire their heroes “as long as” they are still “a hero,” the audience begins to understand that Stanhope questions whether or not he actually deserves Raleigh’s reverence. In this moment, Stanhope implies that he isn’t actually a hero, despite how much Raleigh might respect him.
Stanhope shows Osborne a picture of Raleigh’s sister. “She is waiting for me,” he says, “and she doesn’t know. She thinks I’m a wonderful chap—commanding a company. She doesn’t know that if I went up those steps into the front line—without being doped with whisky—I’d go mad with fright.” Hearing this, Osborne suggests that Stanhope take a break, insisting that the Colonel would be happy to let him leave for a while, given his track record. Nonetheless, Stanhope resolves to “stick it out,” saying he might not have much longer anyway, since a man only has a finite amount of luck. Still, he says it’s “rather damnable” that Raleigh has come under his watch, since the boy is a “hero-worshipper” who he now feels obligated to protect.
When Stanhope suggests that Raleigh’s sister mistakenly thinks he’s a hero, he confirms the notion that he doesn’t believe himself to be worthy of somebody else’s admiration. He also reveals that he uses alcohol as a coping mechanism. Indeed, he admits he’d “go mad with fright” if he wasn’t “doped with whisky.” In turn, Sherriff shows the audience Stanhope’s low opinion of himself—an opinion so low that he actually appears to somewhat invite the idea of death, as suggested by his assertion that he would rather stay in the war until his “luck” runs out than go home. If Stanhope dislikes himself so much, it’s easy to see why he might resent Raleigh for admiring him.
Continuing with his complaints, Stanhope tells Osborne that the idea of returning from the war and reuniting with Raleigh’s sister has become a stressor. “It was all right at first. When I went home on leave after six months it was jolly fine to feel I’d done a little to make her pleased,” he says, slurping whiskey. “It was after I came back here […]. I knew I’d go mad if I didn’t break the strain. I couldn’t bear being fully conscious all the time.” Once he has said this, Stanhope admits that there are “only two ways of breaking the strain.” One, he says, is pretending to be sick so that he can be sent home. The other is to drink. And since he thinks it’s a “slimy thing to go home if you’re not really ill,” he has chosen to drink.
As Stanhope speaks to Osborne, he confirms once and for all that his alcoholism has developed as a crutch: in order to face the war, he has to numb himself to his own fears. This is perhaps why he has so much scorn for people who fake an illness to go home. After all, if he’s going to drink himself into poor health just to stay, it isn’t fair that other people choose the easier alternative of leaving altogether.
Trying to make his friend feel better, Osborne says that when the war ends Stanhope can return to his old life “as fit as ever.” Stanhope agrees that he used to think the same thing, but now that Raleigh has been assigned to his company, he doesn’t think his life will be the same. This is because he’s certain Raleigh will write to his sister and tell her that Stanhope “reek[s] of whisky all day.” Osborne tries to refute this, but Stanhope says, “It’s no good, Uncle. Didn’t you see him sitting there at supper?—staring at me?—and wondering? He’s up in those trenches now—still wondering—and beginning to understand. And all these months he’s wanted to be with me out here. Poor little devil!” Despite this, Osborne maintains that Raleigh will keep liking Stanhope “through everything” because “there’s something very deep, and rather fine, about hero-worship.”
When Stanhope says he worries Raleigh will write home to his sister and tell her how he (Stanhope) has become, he reveals another reason why he resents Raleigh’s presence. Not only is he unhappy Raleigh has come to his company because he doesn’t want to disappoint the young man, but he’s also nervous that Raleigh’s presence will negatively affect his life after the war. Nonetheless, Osborne remains optimistic, suggesting that certain kinds of bonds can withstand extraordinary circumstances. While the nature of Stanhope and Raleigh’s relationship will surely change as a result of its new wartime context, Osborne believes Raleigh’s respect for Stanhope will remain intact because “hero-worship” is a resilient kind of connection.
“Hero-worship be damned!” Stanhope explodes. He then decides to censor Raleigh’s letters so he can control what his lover hears about him. “You can’t read his letters,” Osborne says, but Stanhope ignores him, drunkenly rambling about crossing out anything bad Raleigh might say about him. As he does so, Osborne coaxes him to lie down. Before long, Stanhope settles into a drunken sleep, and Osborne calls Mason and tells him to wake him (Osborne) and Hibbert at certain intervals throughout the night so they can stand watch.
Amidst the discussions about Stanhope’s relationship with Raleigh, it’s easy to overlook the significance of his friendship with Osborne. Indeed, Osborne is a caring man who’s willing to let Stanhope talk out his feelings even when those feelings are fueled by drunken irrationality. What’s more, he patiently allows Stanhope to assume the position of leader, but when it all truly comes down to it, it’s not hard to see that he—Osborne—is the one keeping everything on track, as he puts Stanhope to bed and makes arrangements to ensure that the company knows what to do for the remainder of the night.