Perhaps the most challenging thing the soldiers in Journey’s End face isn’t violence itself, but the threat of violence. Although their trenches are situated only 70 yards from their German enemies, the majority of their time is spent in nervous anticipation. In the long hours—and even days—between bursts of combat, the soldiers are left to grapple with their fear, which grows in intensity when the battlefront is calm. Indeed, most of Journey’s End focuses on moments of calm, suggesting that the psychological elements of fighting a war can be just as harrowing as the physical elements. Above all, this fretful sense of constant waiting comes as an unpleasant surprise to soldiers like Raleigh, who had expected war to bring with it a constant barrage of violence and action. The fact that the lack of activity so unsettles the soldiers suggests that expectations play an important role in the way people deal with and prepare for difficult situations; having come ready to face constant violent action, Raleigh finds himself psychologically unprepared for the quiet of the battlefront. Then, suddenly, he has to face intensely violent moments, and once those end, he has to settle into waiting again. By putting this cycle of inaction and action on display, Sherriff suggests that there is no true way to prepare for war, which is simultaneously calmer and crueler than anything a soldier could ever imagine.
When Raleigh first arrives, he doesn’t know what to make of the seemingly tranquil atmosphere in the trenches. “It’s—it’s not exactly what I thought,” he tells Osborne, “It’s just this—this quiet that seems so funny.” It’s clear he’s disoriented by the fact that the war doesn’t adhere to his expectations. He “thought” the war would be a hectic, dangerous endeavor at all times, but now he finds himself in a relatively peaceful situation, and he doesn’t know what to make of this discrepancy. Osborne, on the other hand, is a more experienced soldier who understands that this odd quiet is characteristic of most war zones. He points out that the Germans are probably “sitting in their dugouts” and also “thinking how quiet it is.” Still, Raleigh remains disturbed by the fact that the battlefront is so different than what he had in mind, and this ultimately reinforces the idea that knowing what to expect is an important part of staying psychologically grounded during wartime.
The sense of anticipation in the trenches also unnerves Raleigh because the seeming tranquility only further emphasizes all the bad things that could happen. “It seems—uncanny,” he says to Osborne, still referring to the calm that presides over the battlegrounds. “It makes me feel we’re—we’re all just waiting for something.” Whereas one might think Raleigh would be glad the battlefront is quiet, the “uncanny” calmness of the trenches only makes him dread the possibility of violence all the more. Forced to spend his days passing the time with bated breath, he feels as if he’s “just waiting for something” terrible to happen. This, Osborne tells him, is simply the nature of war. “We are, generally, just waiting for something,” he says. “When anything happens, it happens quickly. Then we just start waiting again.” Saying this, Osborne tries to teach Raleigh to predict the very unpredictability of war. The only thing a soldier can know for sure is that he can’t know for sure when something bad is going to happen—only that something bad will happen. Osborne shows Raleigh the cycle of inaction and action that characterizes military combat, trying to get the young soldier to see “waiting” as an unavoidable part of war.
Despite the fact that they can never know what to expect (and when to expect it), Raleigh’s fellow soldiers try to give themselves a sense of control—or order—over the passage of time. For instance, Trotter sketches out a chart full of 144 circles, “one for each hour of [the] six days” that he and the others have to spend in the trenches before retreating again to safety. Crossing off the circles one by one gives Trotter the feeling that he is somehow actively participating in how the time passes. Once he breaks the days down into smaller measures of time, everything suddenly feels more manageable to him. “That’s a hundred and forty-four hours,” he says, “eight thousand six ’undred and forty minutes. That doesn’t sound so bad; we’ve done twenty of ’em already.” In this moment, the audience witnesses Trotter focusing on something tangible and constant. After all, though something terrible might happen in the intervening time, the hours and minutes themselves will indeed pass. In turn, Trotter gives himself something to expect, managing to ground himself psychologically and maintain a sense of control.
In addition to Trotter’s time-chart, Sherriff installs an overarching countdown in Journey’s End, as Captain Stanhope learns that the Germans will stage a massive attack on the fourth day of his infantry’s six-day stint in the trenches. As such, the entire play becomes something of a ticking bomb. By suggesting that the Germans will attack on a certain day, Sherriff gives the soldiers (and the audience) a false sense of certainty—they technically know when to brace themselves, but they don’t know the exact time the Germans will strike, nor do they know what form the attack will take. In turn, their supposed certainty only exacerbates their sense of anticipation, making them dread the unknown all the more. Sherriff thus puts audience members in a similar position to the soldiers themselves, inviting them to inhabit the turbulent emotional realm of a person awaiting doom in the trenches, knowing only that something bad will eventually happen. Above all, this technique emphasizes the terror of anticipation in war, suggesting that the mere threat (or promise) of violence can be as harrowing as violence itself.
Anticipation, Expectations, and Uncertainty ThemeTracker
Anticipation, Expectations, and Uncertainty Quotes in Journey’s End
OSBORNE: You may find he’s—he’s a little bit quick-tempered.
RALEIGH [laughing]: 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.
OSBORNE: You must remember he’s commanded this company for a long time—through all sorts of rotten times. It’s—it’s a big strain on a man. […] If you notice a—difference in Stanhope—you’ll know it’s only the strain—
RALEIGH: It’s—it’s not exactly what I thought. It’s just this—this quiet that seems so funny.
OSBORNE: A hundred yards from here the Germans are sitting in their dugouts, thinking how quiet it is.
RALEIGH: Are they as near as that?
OSBORNE: About a hundred yards.
RALEIGH: It seems—uncanny. It makes me feel we’re—we’re all just waiting for something.
OSBORNE: We are, generally, just waiting for something. When anything happens, it happens quickly. Then we just start waiting again.
S-M: Well, then, sir. If they don’t get through the first day, they’ll attack the next day and the next—
STANHOPE: They’re bound to.
S-M: Then oughtn’t we to fix up something about, well [he gropes for the right words]—er—falling back?
STANHOPE: There’s no need to—you see, this company’s a lot better than A and B Companies on either side of us.
S-M: Quite, sir.
STANHOPE: Well, then, if anyone breaks, A and B will break before we do. As long as we stick here when the other companies have given way, we can fire into the Boche as they try and get through the gaps on our sides—we’ll make a hell of a mess of them. We might delay the advance a whole day.
S-M [diffidently]: Yes, sir, but what ’appens when the Boche ’as all got round the back of us?
STANHOPE: Then we advance and win the war.
OSBORNE: Haven’t you read it?
TROTTER [scornfully]: No!
OSBORNE: You ought to. [Reads]
How doth the little crocodile
Improve his shining tail,
And pour the waters of the Nile
On every golden scale?
How cheerfully he seems to grin
And neatly spread his claws,
And welcomes little fishes in
With gently smiling jaws!
TROTTER [after a moment’s thought]: I don’t see no point in that.
OSBORNE [wearily]: Exactly. That’s just the point.