In the High Peaks

Friday, May 30, 2014

Private Peaceful -- World War I Literature

I was extraordinarily moved by Michael Morpurgo's Private Peaceful. I was immeasurably affected by the entire novel, partly because a sizeable chunk of the 192 pages was about a tenant family living on a manorial estate in England during the years leading up to World War I. The novel, told from the point of view of the youngest brother within that family, comes charged with all the injustices and the benefits of growing up in the English countryside during the Edwardian era. The other sizeable chunk of the book focused on the older brother and the youngest fighting in the British army on the front lines in World War I Belgium and France.

I emphasize the first "chunk" of the book because it clearly lays out the hierarchical class structure that ruled the rural landscapes of many regions in England prior to World War I. The manorial "head" of the estate, in this case, was known as "The Colonel," and he ruled, absolutely, and often without fairness, over all the farmers and other tenants who supported his estate with their labor. It would not be exaggerating to say that The Colonel proves himself to be unjust, uncaring, and downright heartless and cruel in many of the dealings that erupt between him and his tenants.

Yet the Peaceful family: Charlie; Tommo the youngest; their oldest, mentally handicapped brother Big Joe,  their courageous mother Mrs. Peaceful, and their close neighbor and friend Molly all manage to secure a warm, vibrant, enriching family life on the estate, full of all the wondrous experiences that rural life provides, and all in spite of the overbearing presence of The Colonel.

When war comes, Tommo feels shamed into enlisting, although he is a mere 15? or 16-year-old. His older brother Charlie also enlists, of course, although his recent marriage to Molly, with a child on the way, makes him loathe to leave home.

Again, British hierarchical rule comes into play in the army, which makes the infantryman absolutely powerless. At first Charlie and Tommo are blessed with an upper-class lieutenant who is a true leader and knows how to get the most from his men without resorting to abuse and terror. When this officer is wounded and leaves the front, he is replaced with a loathsome sergeant who believes wholeheartedly that abuse of his men makes them stronger. Charlie protects his fellow soldiers by refusing to obey suicidal orders, and eventually the sergeant charges him with mutinous behavior because Charlie insisted on staying with the badly wounded Tommo until darkness provided more safety. Charlie, as he knew he would, suffered the direst penalty for common sense and loyalty to his comrades. He is court-martialed and sentenced to death by firing squad.

I do not feel I'm betraying a story spoiler because Morpurgo's purpose in writing this book was to highlight attention on the fact that   British soldiers were sentenced to death even though many of them suffered from "shell-shock," battle fatigue, and, in two cases, for falling asleep while on sentry duty. Shot by a firing squad of their own comrades. Heinous.

Morpurgo's "case" or point is that because of these statistics, these men should be pardoned and exonerated by the British military and the British government. At the time of the publication of Private Peaceful, 2003, this official step had not been taken, but, by gosh, isn't this the year to do it if it hasn't been done already? Please alert me if it has been done. I may not be aware.


  1. I agree. It's a moving book. Very similar to How Many Miles to babylon but still, well worth reading.
    I payed less attention to the class differences but hye do play an importnat role. Thanks for this review. I'll add it to my post.

    1. Thanks, Caroline. I don't know How Many Miles to Babylon--I'm going to look it up right now. J.

  2. Just added this to my wishlist. This looks fantastic! I've always loved anything about WWI and can't believe this hasn't come across my radar sooner. Definitely agree with you-this is definitely the year. I honestly haven't heard anything about this happening previously??

    1. Hi, Kelly,
      It's great you've dropped in. I do have a number of English readers and no one has said anything yet, but, I'd like to know if anything is in the works to pardon these soldiers.
      I do think, based on your reading, that you'll appreciate this book. It's very well done, in my opinion.

  3. You just explained why I don't watch Downton Abbey. I don't understand why so many people in the U.S. love everything about this period of English history, with a kind of love that is so clearly nostalgic at heart. I suspect they all think they would be the lords of the manor.

    1. Hi, James,
      I don't understand it, and because I'm a devoted follower of Downton Abbey, you would think I would do some self-analysis about the attraction. I personally identify with the servants but find the entire manorial system hard to fathom--how on earth did it endure until the 20th century?
      This book was very well done, though.
      James, I miss you. I've already said I'd update my blogroll and I'm doing it NOW even though I said I'd throw the burgers on in 2 minutes.
      Best, J.

  4. Judith what about Scottish readers!! The law was amended in 2006. I thought you might be interested to read this from the Guardian
    Thanks, I'm adding Private Peaceful to my ever growing list.

  5. Well, thank you for a good write-up on the book. War isn't my preferred genre for just the reasons you've outlined.

    I would be so upset to read about British soldiers courtmartialed for having what is now called PTSD or other reasons. That is disturbing and it was true, not fictional.

    It appears from a comment that the law was amended in 2006, but oh, how sad the lives that were lost. And in addition to the untold numbers of young people, talented, fathers, sons, brothers, spouses, awful.

    War is the worst.