IT is raining. Heavily. Again. But when you are stood in a cemetery where tens of thousands of young men were buried following World War I, it doesn’t seem fitting to start complaining. That the downpours have muddied the original trenches next to the cemetery at Notre Dame de Lorette, the French National Monument to those who died in WWI near the town of Artois, adds to the sense of empathy for the soldiers who were here nearly a century ago.
The trenches were preserved really by accident, the owner of the land not bothering to fill them in before letting his livestock graze here.
It’s still the case today. When visitors aren’t around the field is used by sheep. And there’s, shall we say, evidence scattered underfoot. There are original guns, shells, shelters, ladders and barbed wire scattered around but it’s far from a sophisticated or fitting memorial to those who fought and died here. There are no signs, no walkway and nature has filled in the trenches over time so they are shallower than they were by two feet. One has been dug out to recreate how it would have looked when Allied troops faced their German enemy less than 100 feet away.
The site helped Journey’s End director David Grindley with his production, to imagine what it was like for R.C. Sherrif, who wrote of his experiences of WWI in his play.
His experiences weren’t here but 80 miles south at St Quentin, in the days leading up to Operation Michael on March 21 1918, the last great German Offensive.
“It was their belief they could win the war if they could smash the British army before the Americans joined the war,” says Grindley.
“In some cases the British were outnumbered by eight to one and although they were pushed back up to 30 miles in some areas, they held the Germans. And this was incredibly important in terms of the outcome of the war.”
On that day more than 38,000 men died.
Sherrif created a fiction based on his experiences which tells of how a company of officers prepare for a daring raid across No Man’s Land to gather intelligence. Raleigh is just 18 when he joins a besieged company of soldiers in the British trenches. There he finds his new comrades being led by old school friend Stanhope but he is very much changed from the boy he knew.
It celebrates humour and courage in the face of certain tragedy. Many consider Sherrif’s work an important reminder of the horrors of war and the real, un-romanticised heroes who fought it.
Grindley’s production first opened in 2004 and has since picked up a Tony Award and been nominated for an Olivier Award.
After a run in the West End earlier this year, Journey’s End is now touring the UK and comes to the Theatre Royal next week.
“In 2003 myself and the production designer visited various sites mentioned in Sherrif’s story to get an idea of what the men went through,” he says.
“And I believe it had a lot to do with the success of the production.”
He adds: “I think the reason Journey’s End remains such a resilient piece is that these men aren’t professional soldiers. They are ordinary men who were encouraged by Kitchener to sign up at their local town hall to assist with the war effort.
“Sherrif was actually an insurance agent from Surrey, who saw frontline action for ten months in 1916 until he was injured and returned to the UK.”
“Sherrif suffered from survivor’s guilt. He felt that he didn’t deserve to be alive and felt the need to commemorate those he knew who had died.”
Journey’s End was first staged in 1928 with a young Laurence Olivier.
“It became a sensation around the world,” says Grindley.
Two years after its run in the West End a film adaptation was released, starring Colin Clive, David Manners and Ian Maclaren. A German remake, Die andere Seite (The Other Side) came out a year later. And the 1976 British film, Aces High, starring Malcolm McDowell, Christopher Plummer and Simon Ward, was based on the play.
“It’s probably fortunate that it’s raining so heavily,” says Grindley, as he walks us in to one of the trenches at Notre Dame de Lorette.
“You can get an impression of the sort of conditions these soldiers were enduring. They’d be wading through water now. And trench foot was a major concern because their feet would be literally rotting in this water. They’d be in wool uniforms that, when they became damp, would be a breeding ground for lice. And the dug-outs would be overrun with rats.
“Although it’s very green now, it would have been just mud. There would have been no colour. Sherrif talked of ‘mud churned up like the sea’. And there would be no birds, just a very eerie silence punctuated by moments of extreme violence.”
We also see the Vimy Ridge Memorial, Canada's largest overseas war memorial which maintains original tunnels, craters and unexploded munitions - many areas are cordoned off for obvious reasons.
The trenches here are less authentic, having been dug out and lined with white stone to make it easier for visitors to walk around.
And the site of Loos Battlefield, where one of the major British offensives was mounted on the Western Front in 1915. The Loos Memorial commemorates over 20,000 men who fell in the battle and have no known grave.
“What I wanted to emphasise with my production of Journey’s End was that these soldiers served on the front line for just six days at a time. This really surprised me when I first started working on it.
“It was only six days but they would have been the scariest six days of their lives.
“A lot of that time would have been quiet with little or no fighting. But there was an unbearable tension that at any moment something could happen.
“To deal with it, each of the characters in the play has a very active displacement activity, in order to take their minds off their situation. Trotter reads. Stanhope drinks and works. Osborne is the father figure and listens to the problems of the others. Mason the cook is trying to do 101 things with bully beef.
“Hibbert is the only one who really can’t disguise his fear and is consumed by it.”
He adds: “I think the ongoing success of the play is that the audience knows that these were just ordinary men and there’s a real sense of ‘what if it had been me? How would I have behaved?’”