In the first scene of Journey’s End, Osborne arrives in the British trenches of St. Quentin, France in the last year of World War I. He is the second-in-command of an infantry stationed only 70 yards from the trenches of their Germany enemies. The nature of this kind of military service is quite intense, so the infantries rotate working this location, each group taking six-day shifts. When Osborne arrives, he has a brief conversation with Hardy, the second-in-command who has just finished his six days. Hardy tells Osborne there is a German attack expected to come soon, and the two soldiers talk about Stanhope, the captain of the infantry. Stanhope is a hard-drinking young man who has been in the war already for three years. Hardy exalts Stanhope as both a sound leader and a prolific drinker. Hardy also tells Osborne about an officer who recently left, and he hopes that the replacement will be a better, braver soldier.
When Hardy leaves, Osborne sits down to a dinner made by Mason, the officers’ cook. At this point, Raleigh, the new officer, enters. As Osborne and Raleigh talk, Raleigh reveals that he knows Stanhope from before the war. He and Stanhope went to the same high school, and Stanhope was a respected rugby captain whose father was friends with Raleigh’s father. The boys spent summers together, and Stanhope started dating Raleigh’s sister. When Stanhope went off to war, Raleigh thought constantly of him as brave captain. When Raleigh enlisted, he even asked a relative to help him get assigned to Stanhope’s infantry. Hearing this, Osborne realizes he should warn Raleigh that Stanhope has changed. Next the two men talk about Raleigh’s journey through the trenches to the front lines, which he says was an unnervingly quiet experience. Osborne confirms that it is “often quiet” there, despite it being one of the most dangerous places to be stationed. Osborne says they are just “waiting for something” to happen.
When Stanhope enters the dugout, he’s stunned to see Raleigh. Rather than embracing him, he simply asks how he got here. He then turns his attention to Osborne and Trotter, another officer, and the group sits down to eat together. Eventually, the fourth officer of Stanhope’s infantry, Hibbert, enters and claims that he doesn’t know if he can eat because of his neuralgia. This obviously annoys Stanhope, who urges Hibbert to eat, but Hibbert goes to bed. “Another little worm trying to wriggle home,” Stanhope says.
During dinner, Trotter decides to make a chart representing the remaining hours until he and his fellow officers can leave the trenches. On a paper he draws 144 circles, intending to fill them in as the hours pass. By the end of dinner, only Stanhope and Osborne remain in the dugout, and Stanhope is exceedingly drunk. He admits that he’s afraid Raleigh will write to his sister—who’s waiting for Stanhope to return—and tell her about his drinking. Stanhope declares that he’s going to censor Raleigh’s letters, and Osborne puts his drunken friend to bed.
The following day, the Colonel informs Stanhope that the long-awaited German attack is set to take place on March 21st, in two days. Stanhope relays this information to Osborne, who says he’s glad something is happening at last. Stanhope then muses on his experience in the trenches and worries that he’s going crazy. Osborne assures him he’s merely experiencing “nerve strain.”
Raleigh enters the dugout with a letter, and Stanhope tells him to leave it open so it can be censored. Raleigh says that he hasn’t said anything confidential, but Stanhope angrily insists that he follow orders and allow his letter to be censored. When Raleigh leaves, Stanhope asks Osborne to read the letter, only to discover that the boy has said only positive things about him.
Later that afternoon, the Colonel tells Stanhope that the higher-ups have decided to stage a raid on the German trenches before the attack on the 21st. To Stanhope, this sounds like a suicide mission, but the Colonel insists that it must be done, and the two men determine that Osborne and Raleigh should be the ones to lead the effort. After the Colonel departs, Hibbert enters the dugout and tells Stanhope that his neuralgia has progressed so badly that he believes he must go home. This enrages Stanhope, who pressures him to stay and even pulls a gun on him, though he doesn’t shoot. Finally Hibbert makes it clear that he doesn’t truly have neuralgia. Rather, he can’t stand the war. Stanhope becomes more sympathetic, telling Hibbert that he too feels this way. He reveals that the only thing keeping him from faking sick and going home is drinking.
The next day, the Colonel and Stanhope go through the plan for the raid: Osborne and his men will launch a smoke bomb at a section of German fence. Raleigh and his men will slip through the fence, grab the first German soldier they can find, and take him hostage so they can gather info about the attack. Stanhope and the Colonel then visit Osborne and Raleigh, who are preparing for the mission. When they leave, Osborne and Raleigh wait to begin, sitting together at a table and trying to pass the time. Eventually, they talk about where Raleigh grew up. In the minutes before they leave, they continue to bond.
The raid goes successfully, and they kidnap a young German soldier. This pleases the Colonel, but Stanhope soon learns Osborne has been killed. Like Stanhope, Raleigh is stunned by the loss, but the Colonel has to strain to show his emotion, as he’s primarily excited to pass on news of the successful mission. When the Colonel finally leaves, Stanhope and Raleigh look at one another as gunfire sounds overhead.
That night, Stanhope, Trotter, and Hibbert get drunk on champagne, which the Colonel and other officials provided as a reward. Hibbert drinks more than he normally does, and tells Stanhope that Raleigh isn’t celebrating with them because he’s with the soldiers on watch. This enrages Stanhope, and when Raleigh comes into the dugout, he asks why he would eat with the sergeants rather than the officers. Raleigh admits he couldn’t imagine feasting and partying on the day of Osborne’s death. He asks how Stanhope can do so, and Stanhope yells, “To forget! You think there’s no limit to what a man can bear?”
The next morning, the officers are hungover when the German attack begins. Stanhope and Hibbert are in the dugout, and Hibbert tries to delay leaving. Eventually, Stanhope gets him into the trenches, but he himself remains. Soon Raleigh is injured and brought into the dugout. At first, he’s in such shock that he doesn’t register how badly he’s been hurt. Shortly thereafter, though, he realizes he can’t move his legs, and he starts calling Stanhope “Dennis.” In turn, Stanhope calls him “Jimmy” and tells him he’ll stay by his side. Stanhope goes to get a candle, and when he returns Raleigh has stopped talking. A soldier enters and tells Stanhope that Trotter wants him to join them in the trenches. Stanhope stares at Raleigh’s lifeless body, and then climbs the steps of the dugout. Moments later, a shell explodes nearby, snuffing out the candle by Raleigh’s side.