Journey's End

Journey's End Themes

The True Nature of War

The difference between the fantasy of war and its true, horrific and demoralizing nature is one of the play's major themes. The theme is most overtly revealed through Raleigh's character arc. When Raleigh first arrives, his boyish excitement at joining the war is shaken when he notices the quiet and the general lack of action, which undermines his expectations of war being chaotic, frantic and filled with triumphant fighting. Even when faced with Stanhope's PTSD and alcoholism, Raleigh maintains his fantasy of war, choosing to portray Stanhope as a hero in his letter to his sister. Raleigh's faith in the war is only shaken after he participates in a raid that leaves Osborne dead. Raleigh finally moves from bearing witness to the horrors of war to being a casualty himself, becoming paralyzed and then dying from a shrapnel fragment. As a final image to cement the true nature of war, Raleigh is entombed in the dugout.

Shell Shock and PTSD

Though the term "post-traumatic stress disorder" would not have been used at the time, people used the term "shell shock" to refer to something similar, and either way the cumulative and persistent effects of trauma is one of Journey's End major themes. The theme is expressed predominantly through Stanhope, who suffers what soldiers refer to as "nerve strain" as a result of staying on duty and refusing to take leave. To combat his dissociative episodes, Stanhope drinks. However, the drinking appears to exacerbate his quick fluctuations in temper, which is another symptom of trauma-induced stress. Ultimately, Stanhope prefers not to acknowledge his deterioration, as showing weakness would undermine his authority as commander and risk demoralizing his men.


As a means of soothing his addled nerves, Stanhope drinks heavily throughout the play. To Osborne and eventually to Raleigh, Stanhope admits that he drinks in order to be able to walk out on the front line without succumbing to madness. Stanhope often forcefully offers other officers whiskey so that he is not drinking alone, as though he can conceal his habitual use by making drinking a social convention. Stanhope, while aware that he depends on drinking, seems to see it as a necessary evil; when Hibbert wants to leave, saying he is unable to go into the trench again, Stanhope manages to reassure Hibbert by saying he feels the same and offering the solution of drinking together. In this way, alcoholism allows Stanhope to deny the psychological harms of trench warfare.

The True Nature of Heroism

Throughout the play, Sheriff explores the theme of heroism, particularly through the figure of Stanhope. Through dialogue between Osborne and Hardy, the audience learns that Stanhope is a natural-born leader who has earned Osborne's loyalty. However, this heroic image is juxtaposed with Hardy's negative views of Stanhope, who he says "drinks like a fish." In this way, Stanhope is an example of how a soldier's need to maintain the illusion of heroism can cause him to deny the immense mental and physical strain of battle, as admitting his deterioration would mean leaving the war, therefore threatening his status as a hero in whom people put their faith.


Throughout the play, characters exhibit signs of emotional repression. In private conversations, Osborne interrupts Stanhope as he tries to discuss the dissociative episodes he has when faced with the battlefield. In a more public way, Trotter adopts a blithe attitude toward war by casually making grim jokes about death. Ultimately, Journey's End shows repression to be a necessary mechanism for maintaining the outward appearance of confidence and sanity in extremely trying circumstances.

Hierarchy and Class

The hierarchical class structure of early-twentieth-century Britain is replicated in the soldiers' stratified positions of authority. Even though Stanhope is half Osborne's age and much less experienced, Osborne serves under Stanhope. This is because of Stanhope's privileged class position; since he was privately educated (i.e., went to what's called a "public" school in Britain) he was given him entrance to the Officers' Training Corps. In the play, class positions are also expressed through the way characters speak: Private Mason's tendency to drop Hs suggests a cockney accent, which at the time had connotations of being lower-class and lacking education. Though the play does not directly address the issue, World War I fundamentally reshaped British society, resulting in women receiving the vote and improved living conditions for working-class Britons.

The Miserable Conditions of Trench Warfare

Throughout the play, Sherriff focuses on exposing the audience to the truly miserable conditions of life in World War I trenches. Early in Act 1, Hardy jokes about the two million rats that you have to worry about nibbling soldiers' toes and bombs causing dirt to shake loose and land in the tea. The casual way Hardy speaks of these things suggests how the soldiers get accustomed to life in the trenches, but the effects are insidious, exhibited in Stanhope's PTSD and Hibbert's desire to flee. By the end of the play, the normalized environment of the earth-walled dugout entombs Raleigh's body, an image that implies that the soldiers have been living in a pre-dug grave.