Since I’ve been researching Great War literature, several people have asked me if I’ve read Michael Morpurgo’s Private Peaceful, a children’s book published in 2003. They have spoken highly of its dramatic power,and its depiction of the horrors of the time. I’m essentially interested in fiction written before about 1930, but I thought I should take a look at this modern reworking of Great War material.
Morpurgo is a highly regarded children’s writer. This book was shortlisted for the Whitbread Award, and he was Children’s Laureate from 2003 to 2005. His book is very readable, written mostly in simple sentences and one-syllable words. I should imagine that it is aimed at ten year olds. There is a fair sprinkling of the kind of words that ten year olds enjoy – “fart”, “arse”and “goolies” for example.
The first half of the book is a standard misery memoir about rural poverty. The Peaceful family scrape a measly living working for the Colonel, the sadistic local squire (depicted with about the psychological complexity of the average panto villain). They also suffer at the hands of a cruel schoolteacher, who wields his cane vindictively. The Peacefuls, by contrast, are sensitive and kind to animals, and protective of one another. Their decency is especially shown by the way they care for Big Joe, the brother with special needs and a big heart.
An interesting minor aspect of the book is the message it gives its young reader about female sexuality. Young Molly is loved by the Peacefuls, and when Charlie makes her pregnant this is shown as natural and good. There are two older women though. The boys’ mother is unsexual, accepting the role of protective carer for her children. The great-aunt, though, who has a relationship with the Colonel, is shown as passionate, vindictive and evil. It’s the same message children are constantly fed by TV – when it comes to women, sexuality and passion are strictly for the young.
1914 arrives (before this, historical detail has been thin, though there is an episode where the boys see an aeroplane for the first time). Molly, who works as slavey for the vicious Colonel and has to iron his Times every morning, reads that
some Archduke – whatever that was – had been shot in a place called Sarajevo – wherever that was – and Germany and France were very angry with each other about it. They were gathering their armies to fight with each other and,if they did, then we’d be in it soon because we’d have to fight on the French side against the Germans.
So the war is caused by random inexplicable events far away, and Britain will be drawn in for murky reasons. Morpurgo gives no indication that the men of 1914-18 were fighting for anything. They were just fighting because they were supposed to. There is a caricature of a recruiting rally, and another of those vindictive older women calling Tommo Peaceful “chicken” because he hasn’t joined up.
Eventually Charlie and Tommo Peaceful do join the army, out of no idealism, but because they are bullied into it by the nasty characters. Their sergeant at Etaples is just as sadistic, vicious and one-dimensional as the Colonel and teacher of their childhood. When Charlie defends his younger brother from the sergeant’s cruelty he is sentenced to Field Punishment Number 1, and the author indulges himself with a bit of crucifixion imagery.
In battle, Charlie behaves equally heroically, carrying his wounded officer back to the lines under fire. (In this book, junior officers are represented as generally nice, but liable to die.) War is grim, but they survive a gas attack. They notice that the German soldiers are humans, just like themselves.
Trouble comes when the nasty sergeant from Etaples turns up to take charge of the Peaceful brothers’ platoon.
During one mini-battle, a trench wall collapses on Tommo. The sergeant orders the platoon on to near-certain massacre. Charlie refuses, saying he will stay to look after his brother. When the sergeant returns (though most of the rest of the unit have been wiped out) Charlie is charged with cowardice and, inevitably, sentenced to be shot at dawn.
It wasn’t a trial, Tommo. They’d made up their minds I was guilty before they even sat down . I had three of them, a brigadier and two captains looking down their noses at me as if I was some sort of dirt.
So saintly Charlie is shot (“Field Marshal Haig is God out here and Haig has signed… He has decreed that Private Peaceful will die…”) As for his brother:
The next day the regiment is marching up the road towards the Somme. It is late June, and they say there is going to be an almighty push and we’re going to be part of it. We’ll push them all the way to Berlin. I’ve heard that before. All I know is that I must survive. I have promises to keep.
That’s the end of the story, with Tommo heading off for the massacre of July 1st on the Somme. Modern children are allowed no hint that Britain eventually won the war, with Field Marshal Haig contributing considerably to that victory.
I don’t especially object to historical inaccuracy in children’s books. If that was the only thing wrong with Private Peaceful, I’d just be amused by the way that this book is the ideological mirror-image of Brereton’s With French at the Front of 1914.
What bothers me is its total lack of moral complexity. Children in the book’s target age range are quite capable of handling the ambiguities of the excellent Harry Potter series, or responding to the complex ethical questions raised by the best of the Doctor Who series on television. In this book they are offered nothing more than a wallow in self-righteousness and self-pity. The world is melodramatically divided into nasty people and victims, and everything is made clunkingly obvious.
How does a writer like this get shortlisted for the Whitbread? Who appointed him Children’s Laureate? The Queen? Should we be concerned that books as intellectually sloppy as this are taught to children in school.
The latest news is that another Morpurgo book about the Great War is to be adapted for the National Theatre. War Horse is a sort of “Black Beauty in the trenches”, so far as I can gather. I’ll be fascinated to see what sort of reception it gets.
Reading this book, I was reminded of Douglas Jerrold’s comments on some of the war books of the late twenties:
These books all reflect (intentionally or otherwise) the illusion that the war was avoidable and futile, and… the illusion that it was recognised as futile by those who fought it.
As for their infinite pity, nothing is easier, unfortunately, than to be bravely sympathetic about the sufferings of the past.
Jerrold goes on to consider how wallowing in the sufferings of the past can be a substitute for dealing with the problems of the present. Which is the way some of us feel about the government’s granting of pardons to WW1 deserters while failing to give adequate support to soldiers damaged by the war in Iraq…