More than 80 years after it was first performed, a revival of R.C. Sherriff's play Journey's End, set over four days in the trenches in the closing months of World War I, has been receiving rave reviews. Paul Marston interviews one of the young stars, Bridgnorth-born Graham Butler while Roger Clarke has been looking back at the play.


Gripping tale among the mud, wire, death, shells and bullets

Innocents at war: Graham Butler as the young and naive 2nd Lieutenant Raleigh,  asked to join the company commanded by Captain Stanhope who he knew as the rugger captain at his school

YOUNG Bridgnorth-born actor Graham Butler returns to the Midlands next month with the most dramatic role of his career so far - playing a raw teenage officer sampling the horrors of trench life in the First World War.

He has landed the vital role of 2nd Lieutenant Raleigh, a rather naive newcomer to the conflict in R.C. Sherriff's wonderful play, Journey's End, which comes to Wolverhampton's Grand Theatre next month.

I caught up with talented Butler after a matinee performance at the Duke of York's Theatre in the West End, and he admitted that playing the part had a profound effect on him, as it must on everyone who sits through the nerve-jangling experience.

"War is ultimately a terrible thing, but what this play has done for me, a 25-year-old actor who has not had too much hardship in my life, is to give me a great deal of respect for soldiers across time, and particularly serving soldiers now," he said.

"We had Korean veterans in the theatre a couple of weeks ago who told similar stories to the ones we are portraying. Also people of my age, or younger, saying what a profound effect it had on them.

"And Sherriff said he wrote this as a memorial piece. It is not, in his eyes, an anti-war play. He wrote it just telling the facts as he saw them and what happened, and inevitably, I feel, people then conclude it is an anti-war play or that war is bad. But really, it has heightened my respect for the people who go and do this.

"Let's hope we never see a war quite as terrible in its conditions as this one, but its certainly not a load of lads sitting around having a great time.


"But the sense of bonding is so strong. It really is that 'family' unit, because that's everything they have to rely on and in that sense its quite a wonderful empowering feeling."

Butler's character, Raleigh, arrives in the trenches oozing excitement, but soon finds that the officer in charge, Captain Stanhope - an older former schoolmate - is a much changed man after too long at the front.  Courageous and loved by his men, he still relies on bottles of whisky to help him face the horrors of conflict on the front.

It is a gripping story of officers living in the trenches and preparing for an offensive from the enemy, with a number of humorous episodes to ease the tension as shells explode above, bullets scream by and death comes a little closer.

Butler, who has already booked about 90 tickets for relatives and friends from Shropshire and other areas when the play reaches Wolverhampton, believes he was incredibly lucky to land the role because no fewer than 300 young men were lined up for the auditions.

He was fortunate to attend on the first day, and recalls: "I think because I went on the first day - and I count my lucky stars for this - the director thought if he didn't book me then I might go and do something else."

People who see Journey's End at the Grand will get a real taste of what life in the trenches was really like. And the finale is mind-blowing. In the West end the rumble of the underground trains sometimes gave the Duke of Yorks Theatre audience the impression the soldiers were under more fire than they really were.

Paul Marston 

A battle to reach journey's end

R. C. SHERRIFF'S Journey's End had had a difficult journey of its own before it was finally performed for the first time at the Apollo Theatre in London on December 9 in 1928.

It had been hawked around all the theatre managers in the capital who had all rejected it saying that the public were not interested in a play about the war, particularly one with just a few blokes sitting around in a trench.

Sherriff was also told by one manager: “How can you have a play without a leading lady?”

Eventually the Incorporated Stage Society agreed to stage the play for just two nights as a semi-staged production (minimal props and no sets) with the 21-year old unknown Laurence Olivier as Stanhope. The production was directed by the equally unknown James Whale, who was, incidentally, the sixth of seven children of a Dudley blast furnaceman.

The unwanted play about war, and with no women, made its mark though, particularly on West End producer Maurice Brown who was in the audience at the Apollo and took a chance, taking it to the Savoy Theatre where it opened with no fanfare and no advance bookings six weeks later on January 21, 1929.

It could well have vanished into the winter gloom on the Strand but largely on word of mouth audiences grewand soon it was a sell-out. The play no theatre wanted was a smash  hit running to packed houses for more than two years. Robert Cedric Sherrriff's seventh play had made him famous, a household name and by the end of the year as the world reeled under the effects of the Wall Street Crash there were 14 productions in English and another 17 translations journeying around Europe.

The play opened on Broadway to huge acclaim and Hollywood turned the play into a hit film, again using Whale as the director.

Olivier's involvement is much quoted but it hardly made the young actor a star or indeed the play a hit.

July, 1916. A company of the Cheshire Regiment in a British Trench in the Battle of the Somme.

After the two nights at the Apollo Olivier left the cast  for another job and by the time it opened at the Savoy Colin Clive had taken his place and was to go on to star in the film.

Sherriff's play was not alone in the war stakes  at that time though. The tenth anniversary of the end of the Great War, the War to end all Wars, had seen a flurry of memories roll off the presses to commemorate a decade of peace . . . of sorts.

Siegfried Sassoon, like Sherriff awarded the Military Cross during the First World War, published Memoirs of a Fox Hunting Man, the first in his George Sherston trilogy of autobiographical novels, George being Sassoon.

His friend from the war, Robert Graves, another of the war poets, and a fellow officer in the Royal Welch Fusiliers, published his autobiography Goodbye to All That.

Graves, incidentally, appears as the character David Cromlech in the second of the Sassoon trilogy, Memoirs of an Infantry Officer.

One of the best remembered of the commemorative publications was fittingly by a German veteran of the trenches, Erich Paul Remarques's Im Westen nichts Neues.

It translates literally as “Nothing New in the West” and is taken from a communique from the German High Command later in the book, the West being the German military term for the font line.

When Arthur Wheen produced the first English translation in 1930 he modified the title to the more Anglicised All Quiet on the Western Front, a title which passed into the English language as a phrase in its own right to indicate peace and tranquility or panic over.

The book was based on Remarque's own experience in the trenches and like Sherriff's play had at first found it difficult to find a publisher. The two works, describing a similar life of brutality, degradation and death and squalor in opposing trenches, both appeared within days of each other.

A scene from Lewis Milestone's 1930's epic film of  Erich Paul Remarques's All Quiet on the Western Front

R. C. Sherriff, who died in 1975, never saw his play as an anti-war message. It was merely a play based on his own experiences. He was 18 when he arrived in the war as a captain in the 9th East Surrey Regiment in World War I.

He served at Vimy and Loos, where Britain used poison gas for the first time, before being severely wounded at Passchendaele in Belgium near Ypres in 1917.  The play is based on his time at the front and is condensed into just four days in March in 1918 in an officer's dugout in Saint Quentin awaiting a coming battle. Sherriff had considered Waiting as a title but eventually settled on Journey's End which is said to come from the last line of an unnamed book, “It was late in the evening when we came at last to our journey's end.”

Around 10 million military and seven million civillians are estimated to have died in the First World War, with another 20 million injured. It had been labelled the war that will end war after a 1914 book by H G Wells which incorporated his early newspaper columns about the conflict.

When the play came out  there were already those who believed, prophetically as it turned out, that the Armistice, agreed on the 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month in 1918 was little more than a break in hostilities, half time, and although people did not know it, the second half was not only going to engulf Europe but would become a global affair.

The Germans had not been officially defeated and had not surrendered. Struggling to carry the fight on they had merely agreed to a ceasefire albeit under the harshest of terms. While the one-sided talks  were going on the Kaiser abdicated and the German Government was in turmoil with no one around to take responsibility for decisions.

Matthias Erzberger, the politician leading the German delegation in the initial Armistice talks, managed to extract some concessions and make some changes to the terms – the French were demanding the Germans decommission more submarines than they actually possessed for example – but the Germans were in no position to bargain, negotiate or to refuse to sign.

 Erzberger was later assassinated for his part in what was widely seen in Germany as an act of treason.

The combatants at the signing of the Armistice aboard the personal train of French Marshal Ferdinand Foch, who had written most of the terms. Foch is second on the right

Some of the terms, dictated mainly by the French and their Prime Minister Georges Clemanceau, aged 77, were not only meant to humiliate but reparation was meant to economically cripple.

Clemanceau not only wanted revenge he was determined Germany would never be in a position to invade France again – and we all know how well that plan went.

The Germans were forced to accept all imports from allied countries, an economically crippling condition in itself, limit their armed forces, and pay huge damages to the allies, particularly France.

The French leader insisted that no figure should be set in the treaty with the bill only decided when every casualty, house, tree, stand of corn, sheep, cow and bottle of wine had been totted up. 

The Germans were effectively being forced to sign a blank cheque with the final figure being whatever the allies, or more accurately the French, eventually said it was. Under the terms Germany was also required to pay for personal injury and deaths caused by Allied shelling and bombing.

The terms were so draconian that many in Germany were demanding that the soldiers went back to the tranches and carried on fighting.

James Norton as Captain Stanhope in David Grindley's production of Journey's End which opens at Wolverhampton Grand on October 4.

Those involved in the signing of the Treaty of Versailles, the final agreement, were regarded as traitors, while the Americans, who traded with Germany, could not see a lot of point in crippling Germany who would not then be able to afford US exports. They saw the terms as far too harsh and refused to sign.

When the bill was finally presented it came to 226 billion marks. That was reduced in 1921 to 132 million marks, still the equivalent of £217 billion today, and Germany started defaulting as early as1922. The seeds of the second half of the war to end all wars had been sown.

Incidentally the final payment in the reparation bill was eventually made on October 4, 2010 which was the  20th anniversary of German reunification and the fall of the Berlin Wall – ending the split into East and West as the spoils were divided at the end of the Second World War.

The final installment came 92 years after the end of the war for which the reparation had been imposed.

Journey's End had an influence on many writers who followed, including Noel Coward, and influenced the way war was looked at both on stage and screen when the next conflict - or continuation of the last one - arrived.

It was Sherriff's best known work although he was nominated for an Oscar, along with Claudine West and Eric Maschwitz, for the screenplay of the 1939 film Goodbye, Mr Chips, a film which saw Robert Donat win the Oscar for best actor.

Sherriff was also nominated twice for a BAFTA in 1955 for the screenplays of both The Dambusters and The Night My Number Came up.

His last work was his autobiography, published in 1968 with echoes of those days 40 years earlier when he had trudged from theatre to theatre trying to persuade someone, anyone, to take his play - the title of the book? No Leading Lady.

 Roger Clarke 

Feature index Home  Grand