Tommo realizes that there are only “sixty-five minutes to go” and tries to decide how to live them. He decides nothing will do, because it has already been decided that “Private Peaceful will die, will be shot for cowardice,” and henceforth there is no point in anything else. Tommo doesn’t know where it will happen, but he wants it to be somewhere “where there is sky and clouds and tress, and birds. It will be easier if there are birds.”
It has been decided that “Private Peaceful will die,” explaining the title of the novel, but there are two Private Peacefuls: Tommo and Charlie. The reader still doesn’t know which brother has been doomed to die and which will survive. Still, whoever’s death it may be, it will be easier "if there are birds,” because birds represent hope in the afterlife for the Peaceful family.
Back in battle, Tommo wakes “to the distant shriek of shells.” He realizes he is not dead after all. He thinks he is looking at the dark sky, but then realizes that he is buried in earth, and screams. Suddenly he hears Charlie’s distant voice, and then people start digging and manage to pull him free. Tommo finds himself in a dugout with his fellow soldiers. Many of their company have been killed by the same shell that injured Tommo. Tommo is shaking and “weak as a kitten.” Charlie tells him to be still, because he’s lost a lot of blood.
The narrative follows Tommo’s point of view, so the reader is equally as disorientated as Tommo is when he wakes up underground. The reader naturally assumes that Tommo is dead, but once again Tommo proves very lucky and manages to survive. Fortunately, Charlie is nearby and on hand to help Tommo, as he always is. Tommo’s injury is severe, but the reader has every faith that Charlie will look after him.
Pete tells everyone that the Germans have got them completely surrounded, and that “all hell’s broken loose.” Even sticking a head out of the top of the dugout would make you “a dead man.” They decide that they are stuck in the dugout for now, until Sergeant Hanley declares that they will under no circumstances “stay put.” He orders all of the men to leave the dugout and attack the German trenches instead. Everyone knows this is a suicidal order. Tommo concernedly whispers to Charlie that he won’t be able to stand up because he is too injured, and Charlie promises him that he will stay with Tommo “no matter what.”
Sergeant Hanley proves once and for all how senseless and heartless he is when he orders the men to leave the dugout. Everyone with an ounce of sense realizes that his order is not only absurd, but quite possibly suicidal. Hanley is happy to sacrifice his own men’s lives for the sake of his own pride. He always feels the need to prove his authority, even when his orders are senseless, cruel, and arbitrary. Luckily for Tommo, Charlie is willing to defy Hanley, and stays to protect his brother.
Hanley orders everyone to move out of the dugout, and everyone hesitates. Charlie tells Hanley what everyone is thinking: that there is “no point in going out there and getting ourselves killed for nothing, is there, Sergeant?” Hanley asks Charlie whether he is disobeying his order, and starts “ranting like a man demented.” He tells Charlie that if he disobeys him, Charlie will be sent to “the firing squad” and executed. Charlie tells him that he understands, but he can’t leave Tommo behind. Hanley calls him a “miserable little worm,” and threatens to kill him there and then. Instead, he turns away and orders the men to leave the dugout. Unwillingly, each man goes over the top. Pete tries to convince Charlie to join them, but Charlie says that he meant what he said—he is going to stay with Tommo.
Every man hesitates as he is leaving the dugout, demonstrating that everyone doubts Sergeant Hanley’s orders. Only Charlie, however, is unafraid to voice these doubts. He is the only soldier who will stand up to Hanley. Hanley has as a result developed such a hatred of Charlie that he is happy to kill Charlie for disobeying his orders. Charlie is too much of a threat to Hanley’s authority, and Hanley can’t stand it. Charlie nevertheless refuses to be swayed by Hanley, and sticks with Tommo even though he is risking his life in doing so.
Tommo drifts in and out of consciousness in the dugout. At one point, he wakes up to Charlie asking him to promise that Tommo will “look after things” for him if things go badly. He wants Tommo to take care of Molly and the family. Charlie also gives Tommo his watch, telling him to take care of it, and then reassures Tommo that he can go back to sleep.
Just as Tommo trusts Charlie to look after him, Charlie trusts Tommo to look after his wife and baby if he dies. The brothers are immensely close. Charlie then gives Tommo the same golden watch that has appeared throughout the novel, explaining why Tommo has the watch in his possession in the opening of Chapter 8.
Sergeant Hanley returns to the dugout, but barely any of the other soldiers do. Hanley sits glaring at Charlie with “cold hate in his eyes.” Eventually he decides it is time for them to leave. Charlie carries Tommo the whole way back to the trenches.
Ultimately, Hanley’s order leads to the death of many of his soldiers, demonstrating the terrible consequences of giving such a vicious and heartless person too much power.
When Tommo is placed on a stretcher at the trenches, he looks up to see Charlie being arrested on the spot. After this, he says, everything “happened so fast.” Tommo is not allowed to see Charlie for another six weeks, by which time Charlie has already been sentenced to death.
The British Army’s approach to Charlie’s sentencing seems excessively insensitive and hurried. Anyone accused of a crime should be innocent until proven guilty, but it seems as if Charlie’s sentence has already been decided for him from the moment he is arrested, as he is immediately incarcerated and denied visitation.
Tommo is finally allowed to see Charlie on the day before his execution, but only for twenty minutes. The guard outside apologizes to Tommo for this. Charlie is being held at another camp, not far away, in a stable. He is thrilled to see Tommo. He reads Tommo a letter he has received from Molly all about their baby (Little Tommo). Molly and the family have no idea about Charlie’s impending death. Charlie wasn’t allowed to write to them until today, and they will receive an official army telegram before they receive Charlie’s letter. Charlie makes Tommo promise to tell them what really happened, “how it really was.” He says all he cares about now is that they don’t think he was a coward.
It seems excessively harsh that Tommo is only allowed to see Charlie for twenty minutes on the day before Charlie is executed. It also seems excessively harsh that Charlie’s family will receive an official telegram informing them of Charlie’s death before they receive Charlie’s own letter explaining what has happened. The higher powers of the British Army are presented as being insensitive and out of touch with their soldiers. Even the soldier guarding Charlie says to Tommo that he is sorry he is not able to visit Charlie for longer, admitting the faults of his own army.
Charlie describes his court martial to Tommo. Charlie tried to tell the judges the truth, but they would only listen to the word of Sergeant Hanley. He claims that “they knew [he] was right, but it made no difference,” because “they’d made up their minds [that Charlie] was guilty before they even sat down.” Charlie wasn’t allowed a witness, because the only possible candidate left alive was Tommo. Given that Tommo was Charlie’s brother, they felt this to be too biased. The only other person present was therefore Sergeant Hanley, and Charlie was completely ignored. The whole court martial took “less than an hour.” One of the brigadiers concluded by telling Charlie that he was “a worthless man.”
The justice system of the British Army is presented as being biased and heartless. Not only does it seem wrong that Charlie is not allowed a witness, but the judges are also completely biased against Charlie from the beginning of the trial. Even when he tries to explain the situation honestly, he is ignored. Finally, the judge telling Charlie that he is “worthless” is not only completely unprofessional, but also completely unnecessary, proving that he is just being cruel for the sake of it.
Charlie tries to be optimistic about his fate, reminding Tommo that the thought of death is “no more than [they] were facing every day in the trenches.” Tommo and Charlie instead start talking about their home, but Charlie can’t bring himself to talk about their family, as he will get too upset if he does. He doesn’t want to cry. Tommo promises Charlie again that he will look after them when the war is over, and that he will give the golden watch to Little Tommo, the baby, as a memento of his father.
Charlie falls back into his characteristic bravery, being optimistic for the sake of reassuring his brother. Charlie has sacrificed his life to save Tommo, and now he is even going out of his way to comfort Tommo when it is Charlie who is going to be executed in the morning. Charlie is always incredibly selfless, and puts his brother before himself at all times.
Tommo finally brings himself to tell Charlie about the guilt he feels for their father’s death. Charlie assures Tommo that it “was the tree that killed Father, Tommo, not you,” that it is “all nonsense” and not Tommo’s fault in the slightest.
Finally, in their remaining minutes, Tommo assures Charlie that he is not worthless. Then the boys start singing “Oranges and Lemons” together, singing “it out loud so that the whole world can hear.” They laugh, and cry “tears of celebration” instead of sadness. Charlie assures Tommo that come his execution, he will be singing “Oranges and Lemons” rather than the national anthem or any hymn: “for Big Joe, for all of us.” Tommo is then called away.
Once again, the song “Oranges and Lemons” becomes a symbol of victory and defiance for the Peacefuls. The song bonds Charlie and Tommo, and reminds them of the rest of their family, helping them to feel strong in the face of Charlie’s death. In fact, the song means so much to Charlie that he assures Tommo he will be singing it as he dies.
When Tommo returns to camp he expects sympathy, but instead finds people smiling, because Sergeant Hanley has been killed. Unfortunately, the news comes too late to help Charlie, but Tommo describes it as a “small consolation.” After the initial news, the regiment becomes subdued again as they think about Charlie’s impending fate.
Hanley’s death is no more than a small consolation now that Charlie has been condemned to death. Hanley’s damage has already been done, and it is bitterly ironic that he should be killed so soon after Charlie has been sentenced.
Tommo is stationed at an empty farmhouse close to where they are keeping Charlie. Everyone at the camp tries to support him in the face of Charlie’s death, even the NCOs and officers, but no one can do anything to help. Tommo doesn’t want company, and even sends the padre (the military chaplain) away. Instead, he has come to an empty barn to spend the night thinking about Charlie, and when the time of his execution arrives, Tommo will “go outside, and [he] will look up at the sky because [he knows] Charlie will be doing the same as they take him out.” It is a way for them to be together in Charlie’s final moments.
In the face of his brother’s death, there is absolutely nothing that can be done to make Tommo feel better or to take his mind off the situation. Tommo refuses any company, and even sends away the chaplain, demonstrating his loss of religious faith. Instead, Tommo chooses to dedicate all of his thoughts to memories of Charlie on the night before his death. Tommo may have lost his faith in religion, but it seems he will never lose his faith in Charlie. Looking up at the sky together will allow the brothers to stay connected in their final moments together.