Private Peaceful is a novel committed to overturning the view that war is something glorious or distinguished. Instead, Morpurgo makes a point of illustrating that the First World War was characterized by tragic injustices that should never happen again. Morpurgo demonstrates this primarily through the characters of Tommo and the other soldiers, many of whom seem to sacrifice their lives for no tangible reason or result. That Tommo himself is underage reflects another aspect of Morpurgo’s criticism of the British Army: it should never have accepted boys too young to be involved in the first place. The worst injustices of all in Morpurgo’s novel, however, are the executions imposed upon British soldiers at the hands of their own army. Charlie’s execution in particular is presented as cruel and unnecessary—the result of a deeply unjust legal system and a spiteful superior, Sergeant Hanley.
The novel’s initial impression of war is one of glory and excitement. When the British Army comes marching into his village, Tommo is so struck and enthralled by its “scarlet uniforms” and marching band that he feels compelled to fight. As the novel progresses, however, and as Tommo’s friends begin to die beside him, this heroic image of war evaporates—and in its stead are the seemingly pointless deaths of millions of soldiers.
This is starkest at the end of the novel, when Sergeant Hanley orders the men to go over the top of their hiding place in the dugout to face the German guns because their “orders are to press home the attack.” As Charlie rightly points out, and as everyone around him knows, this will be a futile mission: the men are completely vulnerable to German attack and will be killed as soon as they leave. Charlie says, “No point in going out there and getting ourselves killed for nothing, is there, Sergeant?” Still, the sergeant effectively insists that the soldiers sacrifice themselves—not for the sake of victory, but of “orders.” The injustice of these orders and of the sergeant’s actions is made all the clearer when only “remnants” of the company return alive.
The losses of war are made all the more tragic by the fact that many soldiers are too young to have enlisted in the first place. Tommo is not even sixteen when he and Charlie go to sign up, and the soldier who takes their names, Tommo notes, is “eyeing [him] a little,” as if he is suspicious of Tommo’s age but happy to accept him anyway. After a few weeks, all of the soldiers in Tommy’s company, even the sergeant, know that Tommo is younger than Charlie, but they turn a blind eye to this fact. In fact, there are “dozens” more underage soldiers in Tommo’s company alone. The deaths of these young men seem all the more cruel and unfair in comparison to those of older men who had a better idea of what they were doing as they signed up, and Morpurgo is thus deeply critical of the British Army for letting underage soldiers enlist.
The worst injustice of all in the novel comes at its very end, with Charlie’s execution at the hands of his own army. Charlie is executed simply for “disobeying” a ridiculous, suicidal order and refusing to abandon his gravely injured brother on the battlefield. He is persecuted because Sergeant Hanley has a personal vendetta against him: Charlie doesn’t readily submit to Hanley as the others do, and Hanley can’t handle any question to his authority. Charlie, really, has done nothing wrong. In fact, he has been brave and loyal, and pays the price for this with his life. His trial isn’t really “a trial” at all, as the men judging him have “made up their minds [that Charlie] was guilty” before he even enters the room. The only other person at the trial is Sergeant Hanley, to whom the clearly biased jurors listen closely, without then bothering in the slightest to listen to anything Charlie has to say in his defense. For a man to be mercilessly killed for a minor offence at the hands of his own army, when he has already willingly given his life to them, is presented the greatest injustice of the novel and the war at large.
In the postscript to the novel, Morpurgo notes that his story is intended to bring some justice to these men who were executed as Charlie is. The British government still refuses posthumous pardons for these men, and, as such, Morpurgo seeks to redeem them in fiction. He uses his story to destroy any glorified image of war, and instead to point out the injustices of the army so that they may never be repeated.
The Injustice of War ThemeTracker
The Injustice of War Quotes in Private Peaceful
I was once told in Sunday school that a church tower reaches up skywards because it is a promise of Heaven. Church towers are different in France. It was the first thing I noticed when I came here, when I changed my world of home for my world of war. […] There are not many steeples left now. I have seen the one in Albert, hanging down like a broken promise.
Suddenly someone prodded me hard in the small of my back. It was a toothless old lady pointing at me with her crooked finger. “Go on, son,” she croaked. “You go and fight. It’s every man’s duty to fight when his country calls, that’s what I say. Go on. Y’aint a coward, are you?”
“He wouldn’t do that, Moll. It’s just a threat,” Charlie said. “He can’t do it. He just can’t.”
“He would,” Molly replied, “and he can. You know he can. And when the Colonel gets it into his head to do something, and he’s in the mood to do it, he will. Look what he did to Bertha. He means it, Charlie.”
We had a brew up with our prisoner in the dugout before they came for him. He smoked a cigarette Pete had given him. He’d stopped shaking now, but his eyes still held their fear. We had nothing to say to one another until the moment he got up to leave. “Danke,” he said. “Danke sehr.”
“Funny that,” Nipper said when he’d gone. “Seeing him standing there with not a stitch on. Take off our uniforms and you can hardly tell the difference, can you? Not a bad bloke, for a Fritz that is.”
I feel a surge of triumph welling inside me, not because we have won, but because I have stood with the others. I have not run.
“Y’aint a coward, are you?”
No, old woman, I am not. I am not.
From then on, every waking hour of every day, Hanley was at us. […] By the time we went back up into the line, Hanley snapping at our heels, his voice had become a vicious bark inside each of our heads. Every one of us hated him like poison, a great deal more than we had ever hated Fritz.
I looked up at the church steeple, a dark arrow pointing at the moon and beyond, and tried with all my heart and mind to believe she was up there somewhere in that vast expanse of infinity, up there in Sunday-school Heaven, in Big Joe’s happy Heaven. I couldn’t bring myself to think it. I knew she was lying in the cold earth at my feet. I knelt down and kissed the earth, then left her there.
“The whole court martial took less than an hour, Tommo. That’s all they gave me. An hour for a man’s life. Not a lot, is it? And do you know what the brigadier said, Tommo? He said I was a worthless man. Worthless. I’ve been called a lot of things in my life, Tommo, but none of them ever upset me, except that one. I didn’t show it, mind. I wouldn’t have given them the satisfaction.”
They tell me he walked out with a smile on his face as if he were going for an early-morning stroll. They tell me that he refused the hood, and that they thought he was singing when he died.