Before 1914, Britain had been a much more confident and powerful nation than it was in 1918.
In 1914 it would never have occurred to anyone to question the morality of war or the ability of the country’s leaders. But after the war was over, plays such as Journey’s End and many anti-war poems shook this unquestioning confidence.
Journey’s End focuses on life in the trenches. Stage directions show little comfort. The sounds of war permeate. The constant references to rats, cold and damp etc highlight how difficult life was for men who discuss the comfort of their homes and gardens. This is combined with the feeling of constant boredom and waiting.
Young, able and - in many cases - highly educated men suffer these conditions. The overall effect is to make the audience question the wisdom of wasting their potential in this No Man’s Land.
It is sometimes easy to think that soldiers in wars are always fighting battles. But the play shows that for most of the time it’s a matter of waiting. What soldiers do to fill the hours under such horrendous stress is a major theme. Sherriff wanted his audiences to understand just how this tense prolonged waiting was an untold horror of war.
This helps create a subtle anti-war message.
One of Sherriff's skills is to construct a tense plot, whilst also showing the boredom of trench life. The humour and friendly banter between the officers is juxtaposed with talk of battle and fear.
This reminds us that they are on the front line, and also has the effect of showing us that these are human beings.
We see the men being concerned about what is for breakfast, discussing gardening and sports, and feeling nervous and scared before going into battle.
This removes the glamour and heroism sometimes associated with fighting for one’s country in the propaganda of the time. It also undermines the jingoistic works of poets like Jessie Pope.
Reading some of the anti-war works by soldier poets such as Siegfried Sassoon and Wilfred Owen will give you an idea of how war really looked in contrast to the propaganda.
The youth of the men is also emphasised to reinforce the waste of young lives.
Note how the word “boy” is repeated in the stage directions as Raleigh is dying, and how the simile “like a child” is used to describe how the Sergeant Major carries him.
All of the young, enthusiastic, able men are dead by the end of the play - reminding the audience, then and now, of the great losses in war.