The play is set in the British military trenches of World War I-era France, in the four days leading up to the battle of St. Quentin. The stage is set as a British dugout, with steps leading up to the trench above. A large table is at the center, with wooden benches, wire-netting beds, and boxes for the soldiers to sit on. The only decorations are steadily burning candles in bottles and tattered magazine pictures of scantily clad women. The earth walls deaden the sounds of war coming from the front line, which is fifty yards away. Gloomy tunnels lead left and right.
Act 1 opens on March 18, 1918. It is Monday evening. The dugout is lit by warm yellow candles and moonlight shining down the steps. Whiskey, water, and mugs sit on the table amid piles of paper and magazines. Cheerful-looking Captain Hardy hums and sings as he dries his sock over a candle, testing if the sock is dry on his cheek. Hard-as-nails-looking Osborne comes into the dugout. Hardy shares some whiskey and advises him against having too much water, which tastes strongly of disinfectant. Osborne says Stanhope asked him to come and take over. Hardy says he is glad. Though it is often quiet for hours, sometimes they are bombarded by Minnies. He says yesterday three came down and blew up a dugout that came down in the men’s tea. Osborne says there’s nothing worse than dirt in your tea. Hardy says the big German attack is expected any day: there’s more transport than usual, he can hear trains rattling at night.
Osborne says it’s time to do the handing over. Hardy explains how the infantry holds two hundred yards of the front line by showing him gun stations and sentry posts on a tattered map. Osborne says a new officer is coming up tonight. They discuss the poor-quality officers they receive, and Osborne says he hopes it’s a youngster straight from school, as they do best. They discuss the sleeping situation in the dugout. Hardy says you mustn’t hang your legs too low or rats will gnaw your boots. Osborne asks if there are many rats and Hardy says roughly two million, but he doesn’t see them all. Hardy details trench stores of rusty grenades, bombs, and mismatched gum boots.
They discuss Captain Stanhope, and Hardy asks if he still drinks like a fish. Osborne defends him, and Hardy admits he’s a good chap, but says he’s a sort of freak-show spectacle when it comes to how much he can drink. Osborne says Stanhope has been on the front for three years, since he came from school at eighteen. He’s never had a rest, never goes home like other men, and because he drinks to soothe his battered nerves he gets called a drunkard. Hardy says he isn’t a drunkard, but his nerves are shot: last time they played bridge, Stanhope flew into a rage and knocked the glasses off the table. They tried to keep the incident secret. Hardy says Osborne should be commanding the company: he is twice as old as Stanhope and more level-headed. Osborne won’t hear it: he says he loves Stanhope.
With sarcasm, Hardy finishes the handover to Osborne. Hardy hitches up his gear pack and wishes Osborne a good six days. Before ascending the steps, he gives tips for the cockroach races they play every night in the dugout. He leaves singing.
Mason, a solider servant, enters from a tunnel with a table-cloth over his arm and a plate with half a loaf of bread. He sets the table for dinner and says he’s serving soup, cutlets, and pineapple. Osborne is suspicious, and Mason admits he doesn’t know what the ration meat of the cutlet is. Raleigh, a second lieutenant aged eighteen, enters and introduces himself as the new officer. Osborne gives him whiskey and water, and a cigarette, which he shyly accepts. Raleigh says, as luck would have it, he and Stanhope were at school at the same time and their fathers were friends, though Raleigh was younger. He remembers Stanhope—whom he calls Dennis—being good at cricket and football. Raleigh says he asked his uncle, General Raleigh, if he could be in Stanhope’s battalion. Raleigh says his sister and Stanhope are unofficially engaged. Osborne warns Raleigh that the strain of war has changed Stanhope somewhat, and has made him quick-tempered.
Osborne explains that they stay close to fully dressed when on the line. They do about three hours of duty and six hours off at a time, but everyone stands to at dusk and dawn. He says the front line is fifty yards away, and outside is the support line. Raleigh is surprised by how quiet the trenches are. Osborne says a hundred yards away the Germans are sitting in their dugouts thinking how quiet it is. Raleigh says how strange it is that they are always waiting for something; he thought it would be fighting all the time.
Raleigh explains the long twisting route through the trenches he took to reach the dugout. It began in a house’s cellar and then crossed the plains. Green lights bobbed up in the sky along the front. Osborne says they are Very lights, used by both sides to light up No Man’s Land to watch for raids and patrols. They agree the lights are rather romantic; Osborne says it helps to think of it all as romantic. Mason enters and apologizes: the tin of pineapple turned out to contain apricots. He says he knows the captain can’t stand apricots.
Tall Captain Stanhope enters from the trench. Despite his rank, he quite young. He is handsome, and tanned from months in the open air. However, his skin is grayish and there are dark hollows under his eyes. By comparison, Lieutenant Trotter is short and fat, middle-aged and homely. Stanhope says he was going to give Hardy a piece of his mind for the cess-pit-like conditions the trenches were left in. Stanhope orders Mason to bring some whiskey. Osborne introduces Raleigh, who Stanhope stares at, as though dazed. Stanhope asks how here got there, and says it is rather a coincidence.
The men sit down for dinner. Mason says it’s yellow soup, and Osborne jokes that it has a very yellow flavor. Trotter asks for pepper, but Mason says it was omitted from the mess box. Stanhope sends a solider to go ask Captain Willis for pepper. Osborne and Trotter agree they must have pepper. As they eat the mystery cutlets, the men discuss the No Man’s Land map. Before they get to the apricots, Stanhope orders Trotter to go on duty to relieve Hibbert. Trotter takes Raleigh with him; he says to leave his walking stick in case he has to run from an incoming Minnie—a large trench mortar shell that you can see come up from the German side.
Hibbert enters. He is small and slight, and in his early twenties. He complains of neuralgia, and says he can’t eat because of it. Stanhope sends him to bed, and Hibbert takes a candle with him down a dark tunnel. After Hibbert is gone, Stanhope comments that he’s another little worm trying to wriggle home. Osborne says he looks in bad shape, but Stanhope insists he’s purposefully starving himself, thinking he can spend the rest of the war in comfortable nerve hospitals. He says no man of his is going off sick before the big attack.
Osborne and Stanhope discuss Raleigh’s sister. Stanhope says she is waiting for him, and thinks he’s wonderful chap; she doesn’t know that if he went into battle without whiskey he’d go mad. Osborne says he’s been meaning to tell Stanhope that he is long due for rest leave. Stanhope insists on sticking it out, and not wriggling away. Stanhope talks about how he wanted to make Raleigh’s sister proud, but after the horrors of Vimy Ridge he knew he’d go mad from strain if he was fully conscious. He had a choice either to go home or drink. He chose to drink and, after the war, get healthy again before he saw Raleigh’s sister. He used to be a hero to Raleigh and his sister, but now he is certain Raleigh will write to tell his sister that Stanhope reeks of whiskey. Angrily, Stanhope says he’ll censor his letters and let the sister go on thinking he’s a fine fellow.
As Stanhope mutters to himself about Raleigh and the filthy trenches, Osborne tries to force him to go to sleep. In time Stanhope relents, then asks Osborne to tuck him in and give him a kiss. Osborne tells him to go to sleep, and Stanhope turns away and begins to breathe heavily. Osborne tells Mason he too is going to sleep and asks Mason to wake him at ten minutes to eleven. Mason says he will, and that the pepper has arrived. They wish each other goodnight. Mason leaves and Osborne watches green very lights rising across the starlit sky through the hole leading to the trenches. He sits and winds an old-fashioned watch as the curtain falls.
The beginning of Journey’s End establishes the theme of the miserable and claustrophobic living conditions that soldiers engaged in trench warfare had to endure during WWI. The dugout in which the play takes place is gloomy, dark, cold, and damp, as illustrated by the imagery of Hardy attempting to dry his sock over a candle flame.
Compounding the miserable living conditions is the lack of decent food: this motif is introduced with Hardy and Osborne’s discussion of the need for whiskey to dilute the taste of disinfectant in the water. The men keep their spirits up by commenting ironically that there is nothing worse than having dirt in their tea, as though the reason for the dirt—falling German bombs—is less important than the inconvenience of the dirt itself.
Similarly, Hardy uses the rhetorical device of understatement to casually suggest that there are only about two million rats in the trenches. Through this ironic banter, Sheriff introduces the theme of humor as a means of distracting oneself from the horrors of war. Hardy and Osborne’s conversation also establishes the impending German offensive strike, which foreshadows the play’s calamitous end.
The theme of alcoholism arises with Hardy and Osborne’s discussion of Stanhope’s ability to drink more than other men. Hardy suggests that Osborne, since he is older and more levelheaded, should be in charge, not Stanhope. But Osborne is loyal to Stanhope, whom he says he loves. The exchange is ambiguous: either Osborne has genuine affection for Stanhope’s ability to command, or he is simply maintaining his position within the military hierarchy by refusing to disparage his superior; likely, Osborne is influenced by a mix of the two motivations.
Stanhope meets the revelation that Raleigh has joined his company with unease. The presence of Raleigh introduces a new conflict to the play that involves the themes of heroism, alcoholism, and PTSD (post-traumatic stress disorder). Stanhope knows that Raleigh’s sister to whom he is engaged believes he is a hero, but now he worries that Raleigh’s sister will learn of his true state: traumatized by the war and needing to soothe his nerves by remaining constantly intoxicated.
The theme of PTSD continues with Hibbert’s complaints of neuralgia, an intense and intermittent pain in the head. Stanhope is suspicious that Hibbert is faking his illness in order to be sent to the hospital before the big attack comes, comparing Hibbert to a lowly wriggling worm. Stanhope considers himself as having been able to overcome the trauma of the battle at Vimy Ridge by drinking. For all of Stanhope’s acting tough and violent, the first act ends with an unexpected moment of tenderness between him and Osborne, who tucks him into bed. The exchange speaks to how Stanhope’s youth and sensitivity—as with so many soldiers—continue to exist below the surface of his battle-hardened exterior.