Commonwealth War Graves Commission (CWGC) historians opened their doors this week to the MESH Theatre Co. The cast of Journey's End, were invited to identify with the characters they play in the Centenary revival of RC Sherriff’s WW1 play; to be performed at Kruitmagazijn (Ammunition Store) in Ypres, Oct 10 – Nov 12.
The Journey’s End writer was wounded at Passchendaele in August 1917. His famous trench play written a decade later is both a time-piece and a documentation of timeless themes - comradeship, sacrifice, hero-worship, trauma and the recklessness of powers-that-be. All this is told through the simple story of soldiers in a dugout just before a massive attack in 1918 (Operation Michael).
The full cast of Journey’s End can be spotted in real-life individuals, or combinations thereof, mentioned in Sherriff’s letters, however it was Journey’s End’s eager new recruit Lieutenant Raleigh who could most closely be identified in two casualties found by the CWGC archivist Andrew Fetherston and historian Max Dutton.
The first was Dick Webb (2nd Lieut. Richard Howard Webb), Sherriff’s closest childhood pal with whom he enjoyed boyhood camping trips by the river, just as Raleigh describes in Journey's End. Sherriff and Webb went to join up together although Sherriff was turned down at that point. Dick Webb was accepted but died of wounds in hospital on 10 October 1916.
The second was Harry Lindsay (Captain William Henry Lindsay), one of Sherriff’s closest trench mates in C Company (of the 9th Battalion of the East Surrey Regiment). Lindsay participated in a real daytime raid on the German trenches which was the model for the horrific scene in Journey's End in which Raleigh goes in and successfully "collars a Boche", but with the loss of six out of ten foot soldiers. Lindsay was last to leave the German trenches and had to be restrained from going back out again in broad daylight to retrieve wounded men. Lindsay, like Raleigh, would receive the MC for his day’s work. Lindsay was later killed in action, on 3rd September 1918.
Raleigh, played by Rory Fairbairn conflates the spirit of these two 'ghosts' of Sherriff's war. He is the embodiment of all those young faces who look out at us through the archives of black and white photos from the trenches. He, like Sherriff's dear friends Dick Webb and Harry Lyndsay, is “that soldier."
Sally Woodcock said “This was a truly illuminating experience for the MESH team about to go into rehearsal, giving absolute context to the world of Journey's End. The reach and quality of the work of the Commonwealth War Graves Commission is inspirational. Many thanks to everyone at CWGC for making us so welcome."