There is no doubt that Captain Dennis Stanhope is a brave soldier. His bravery has gained him the Military Cross. We're also told that he survived one of the war’s fiercest encounters - the Battle of Vimy Ridge - thus building up a hero image in the audience’s mind.
We forget while reading the script that he is only 21 years old - he is described in the stage directions as "no more than a boy”. He is therefore in a very responsible position at a young age.
We find out from Osborne that Stanhope has been “commanding this company for more than a year” and that “He’s never had a rest” in the three years he has been in the trenches.
Despite his heroism, Stanhope is a flawed character. This is a feature of a conventional tragic hero. He has not returned home in three years, partly because he does not want his girlfriend and family to see that life in the trenches has turned him into an alcoholic.
Stanhope is furious that Lieutenant Raleigh has found a way to join his unit, mostly because he is worried that Raleigh will tell his sister Madge - Stanhope’s girlfriend - about his addiction.
We are given further clues about his dark side when he threatens to shoot Lieutenant Hibbert - whom he sees as a "coward" - for trying to avoid the battle by pretending to be ill.
This scene allows Sherriff an opportunity to show a harshness in Stanhope’s nature, but also to develop useful insights into the effects of war on men.
Stanhope’s reputation as a heroic leader is only possible because of his drinking. He himself admits that “without being doped with whiskey - I’d go mad with fright”.
Despite his flaws, Stanhope is presented as a natural leader. This is apparent through the respect the men have for him, and the mature and reasoned way he deals with the issues facing his company.
Osborne’s character speaks highly of him in the opening scene. He defends Stanhope against the sneering opinion of Hardy when he states, “He’s a long way the best company commander we’ve got.”
The way Stanhope deals with the fearful Hibbert shows his leadership skills. He is straightforward and assertive, “You are going to stay here and do your job.” But he softens his tone later to, “Stay here, old chap – and see it through.”
Despite coming across as cold and harsh in this scene, Stanhope uses a variety of rhetorical devices such as repetition and empathy to persuade Hibbert to stay. Even with his own problems he is able to manage his team in a crisis.
When faced with the Colonel’s insensitivity towards the end of the play, Stanhope makes clear his disdain for his commanding officers - separated as they are from the dreadful reality the men are facing.
He adopts a sarcastic tone after the death of Osborne, “Still it’ll be awfully nice if the brigadier’s pleased.” This shows his resentment at the lack of concern shown for the death of his men.
Here we see that - unlike his superiors - he is compassionate enough to feel for his lost comrades.
In the closing scenes of the play, we again see Stanhope’s intense humanity as he comforts the dying Raleigh. The stage directions tell us that he lays Raleigh on Osborne’s bed.
This is significant because of the close relationship Stanhope had with Osborne.
In a final act of compassion and kindness, Stanhope remains with Raleigh who - as his life ebbs away - asks “Can you stay for a bit?”