In War is War, Ex-Private X (A.M. Burrage) is explaining how long soldiers usually spent near the front line:
Stanhope in Journey’s End had done three years off the reel, but he was rather exceptional, as they all were in that monumental drama. Bursting into tears after dinner was as common in that mess as grace after meat in a pious household, but then the poor things were seeing earwigs in March, which must have been pretty unsettling.
Journey’s End is set at the time of the Germans’ big March offensive of 1918. When the main characters take over the section of trench at the start of the play, the previous incumbent explains how he and his comrades amused themselves by racing earwigs. Earwigs, however, are hibernating creatures who burrow underground at the start of winter, and come up again in June or thereabouts. (Or so I gather after a bit of Googling. I certainly would never have spotted this tiny mistake if Burrage had not mentioned it.)
I’m always rather interested in the small errors that writers make, because they tend to be revealing, sometimes in odd ways. I’ve attracted pained howls from some lovers of William Golding’s novels for publicly drawing attention to some mistakes that he makes in Lord of the Flies – that myopic Piggy’s glasses wouldn’t have been any use for fire-lighting, and that warpaint is not nearly as easy to concoct as his characters suppose. The glasses error is just an error, and doesn’t tell us very much, except that Gloding was too delighted by his symbolism to check it against the facts. The face-paint, I think, is more interesting, because it shows one of the author’s underlying assumptions, that any product of a traditional indigenous people could easily be improvised by a group of English prep-school boys – so that the novel, designed to criticise imperialist books like The Coral Island, unwittingly shows its author to share some sense of imperial superiority.
Burrage makes two criticisms of Journey’s End’s accuracy. The first is about the tears, suggesting that the emotions are more obvious and explicit than they would have been in real life. Well, this is true of most dramas, because the job of a drama is usually to bring to the surface conflicts and passions that are often kept hidden. A play about the trenches where the hidden fears and emotions never burst out would hardly have been worth writing. Burrage himself in his memoir has a gripping episode where he describes himself as totally losing control of his emotions during a battle. He stresses that this was a solitary instance, and untypical, but its implications underlie all subsequent the chapters of the book. The second Journey’s End problem is those earwigs, and that is more interesting, because it gives a tiny hint of Sherriff’s intentions.
It surely shows that Sherriff didn’t start off by thinking “I’m going to give a picture of March 1918. Now what precisely was happening in March?” Instead, he obviously thought: “I’m going to give as full and varied a picture of trench life as I can. This will include several very different officer types, and it will show the lighter side of life as well as the dark.” The earwig-racing was presumably an authentic wartime activity, but at a different time of year. It fitted the play so well, showing how soldiers could improvise entertainment in the worst of conditions, that it doesn’t matter in the least that the season is a bit wrong.
Burrage didn’t think his criticisms detracted from the merit of the play, either. He goes on to write:
However, I must own I have seen Journey’s end nine times, and Hamlet only twice, and that I hope to see the former at least nine times more.
Actually the criticism of Journey’s End that I like best is from the ex-officer who came out of the theatre shaking his head and asking enviously, “How the hell did he manage hold of all that whisky?”