Below are two articles by Michael about Private Peaceful
FINDING PRIVATE PEACEFUL
By Michael Morpurgo
“I shan’t sleep. Tonight, more than any other night of my life, I want to feel alive!”
I was born in 1943, near London. I played in bombsites, listened to the stories told around the kitchen table, stories of war that saddened all the faces around me. My Uncle Pieter lived only in the photo on the mantelpiece. He had been killed in the RAF in 1941. But for me he lived on, ever young in the photograph, as I grew up, as I grew old.
So I have been drawn instinctively, I think, in many of my stories, to the subject of war, the enduring of it, the pity of it, and above all the suffering of survivors. Some twenty years ago, after meeting an old soldier from my village who had been to the First World War in the Devon Yeomanry in the Cavalry, I wrote War Horse, a vision of that dreadful war seen through the eyes of a horse.
Then, just five years ago, on a visit to Ypres to talk about writing about war for young people at a conference, I visited the ‘In Flanders Field’ Museum.
Talking to Piet Chielens, its director, I was reminded that over 300 British soldiers had been executed during the First World War for cowardice or desertion, two of them for simply falling asleep at their posts.
I read their stories, their trials (some lasted less than twenty minutes – twenty minutes for a man’s life).They knew then about shell-shock – many officers were treated in psychiatric hospitals for it, Wilfred Owen and Siegfried Sassoon amongst them. They knew even as they sentenced these men (they called them ‘worthless’ men), that most of them were traumatised by the terrors they had endured, by the prolonged and dreadful brutality of trench warfare.
In all, over 3,000 were condemned to death, and 300 of them were chosen to be shot. I visited the execution sites, the cells in Poperinghe, I read the telegram sent home to a mother informing her that her son had been shot at dawn for cowardice. I knew recent governments had considered and rejected the granting of pardons for these men, had refused to acknowledge the appalling injustice visited upon them.
Standing in a war cemetery in the rain five miles outside Ypres, I came upon the gravestone of Private Peaceful. I had found my name, my unknown soldier. I had found my story, a story I knew I had to tell and that should be told.
The question then was how it should be told. I decided to put myself at the centre of the story, to become the condemned man waiting only for dawn and death. A glance at my watch recently returned from the menders who had declared it was made in 1915, gave me the idea that the chapter breaks should happen only when the soldier glances down at his watch which he dreads to do, and tries not to do.
My soldier would reflect on his life, live it again through the night so that the night would be long, as long as his life. He does not want to sleep his last night away, nor waste it in dreams. Above all he wants to feel alive.
Each chapter begins in the barn in Belgium, but his thoughts soon take him back to Devon, to the fields and streams and lanes of Iddesleigh, his home and his village.
Memories of his childhood come back to him, of family. Of the first day at school, of the first stirrings of love, a father’s death, a night’s poaching, then of the first news of approaching war and the recruiting sergeant in the town square at Hatherleigh. So to the trenches and to the events that have led him to the last night of his life.
And all the while the watch he does not want to look at is ticking his life away.
The New Zealand government has recently pardoned the five executed New Zealand soldiers. The French have now pardoned theirs. It is surely the mark of a civilised people to acknowledge shame and wrong-doing, to set the record straight.
I hope the book of Private Peaceful and the play of Private Peaceful (written by screenplay writer and producer Simon Reade) will help bring this about for our soldiers too, for the sake of the three hundred or so unfortunate men and their families, and for our honour too.**
© Michael Morpurgo
** This was originally written in 2004. After almost 90 years, in 2006 the British Government finally granted posthumous pardons to those shot at dawn for cowardice or desertion.
The Dawn Memorial
National Memorial Arboretum
Having written several novels about war, some five years ago I was invited to Ypres (‘Wipers’ to the British Tommy) to an international conference of writers who had written on this difficult subject.
On visiting the museum in Ypres, In Flanders Field, the most moving museum I have ever been in – you can hardly speak when you come out – I came across a telegram sent to a mother in Salford in 1916, informing her that her son had been shot for cowardice at dawn. I stood there feeling just a little of the great grief that mother must have felt on receiving this terrible news, knowing her life and her family’s lives must have been blighted forever.
I had the good fortune then to meet the museum’s director, Piet Chielens, and I asked him if he knew how many British soldiers had been executed in the First World War. Over three hundred, he said, some for desertion, some for cowardice, and two for falling asleep at their posts. I read some of the records of their trials, many of which lasted less than half an hour. Half an hour for a man’s life. Through all of this I noted a presumption of guilt, not innocence.
Often soldiers were unrepresented, often no witnesses were called in their defence. Many were clearly shell-shocked – a trauma already well recognised and understood at the time. Many men, officers mostly, suffering from shell-shock were sent home for treatment. Not so these unfortunates. Condemned as ‘worthless men’, three thousand were sentenced to death. Of these, three hundred were shot.
One case I read was a young soldier who had fought all through the Battle of the Somme in 1916, witnessed the slaughter and the horror, but one day in rest camp decided that he couldn’t stand the sound of the guns any longer. He made a run for it, was arrested,court-martialed, and condemned to death. Six weeks later he was taken outside at dawn and shot.
Men from his own company were compelled to make up the firing squad. To protest, and to honour the man they had been forced to kill, they stood by his grave all day till sunset.That there was little justice for these men I have no doubt. That these were political, military tribunals, seeking to condemn ‘pour encourager les autres’, I have no doubt.
Knowing this, feeling the pain of that mother in Salford, seeing in my mind’s eye that young man tied to a post one grey dawn in a field near Ypres in 1916, and knowing that successive governments in this country have refused either to acknowledge the injustices that they suffered, or to pardon them – either would do – I decided I had to write, needed to write, the story of this young soldier. I called it Private Peaceful, a name I’d found quite by chance on a grave in Bedford Cemetery, a Commonwealth War Graves cemetery just outside Ypres.
Years later, through the kindness of his great niece, Maxine Keeble, I was to discover much more about the family of the real Private Peacefull (his name was misspelled on the headstone). Where he came from, how he had been a van boy in London, joined up at the outbreak of war, and died of his wounds in 1915; how Henry James Percy Peacefull, a brother of his, had been killed on July 1st 1916, the first day of The Battle of The Somme, when the British Army suffered over 60,000 casualties in one day; how another brother, William Arthur Peacefull, had been caught on barbed wire and taken prisoner of war; and how yet another brother, Lewis Percy Peacefull, had survived the war and served in the RAF in the Second World War.
This was a family, like so many others in towns and villages all over the land, who had suffered terrible and irreplaceable loss.As with every book, once the research is done and the story has incubated long enough in my head, I need to find the voice with which to tell it.
For me, the voice is the key to allowing me access to the inside of the story, and therefore the reader too. With War Horse I had chosen the horse’s voice, because I wanted a view, a horse’s-eye view, of the universal suffering of war. Here in Private Peaceful I decided I would become the young soldier sitting in a barn in Belgium waiting for dawn and the execution. I remember I was sitting on my bed where I write, trying to begin, when I happened to glance down at my watch. The watch instantly became the key. Every chapter would begin with the moment Tommo glances down at his watch. Of course he tries not to. He wants the night to last as long as his life, so he takes himself back to his earliest memories, lives his memories again from his school days and his adolescence, right up to the present, from the village in Devon where he grew up, to the blasted wilderness of the Western Front.
But why do I write about war? Because I must. I was born in 1943, grew up in postwar London, played in bombsites, heard the stories of the years of trauma my parents, relatives and friends had all lived through. Then there was the photo of my uncle Pieter on the mantelpiece, the uncle I had never met because he died in 1940, shot down in the RAF. As a child I used to look into his eyes to try to know him. I’d even talk to him sometimes and tell him how brave he’d been. I never knew him, but I missed him dreadfully. I discovered that the grief of war endures long in the hearts of those left behind. I discovered that war destroys buildings, destroys lives. The building you can put together again; the lives you can’t. It seems that each of us, and each generation, needs reminding of this.
I write, I suppose, as a man bewildered and saddened by man’s continuing inhumanity to man. I have no solutions, only bewilderment and sadness, and anger too, for good people lost, people who never had the chance to live out their lives to the full as I have.Private Peaceful was one of those. He was my unknown soldier. Recently, I was visiting ‘his’ grave again in Flanders. A wreath had just been left there by young people from a school in Epsom. All had left messages of sympathy, of hope. Private Peaceful had become their unknown soldier, too.