Now all roads lead to France and heavy is the tread
Of the living; but the dead returning lightly dance.
Edward Thomas, Roads

Tuesday, February 3, 2015

Private Peaceful
Reviewed by Jane Mattisson Ekstam

Private Peaceful 
by Michael Morpurgo
HarperCollins, 2003

Private Peaceful is the story of two brothers who go to war—sixteen-year old Thomas (nicknamed Tommo) and his older brother, Charlie. What happens at the end of the story changes the younger brother’s life for ever. Memory and remembrance, innocence, love, courage, and cowardice are the prominent features of Morpurgo’s story. Private Peaceful is not only a story of life at the front but also that of the family left behind: a widowed mother; Thomas and Charlie’s older brother, Big Joe, who has brain damage after having contracted meningitis at the age of six months; and Charlie’s pregnant wife, Molly.

Still from the 2012 Movie Version of Private Peaceful

Throughout the novel Thomas, the narrator, recalls incidents from his bucolic childhood in Devon, southwest England. These memories are contrasted with the harsh and terrifying reality of war. All look up to Charlie, who, Thomas observes, “always made things alright again”. At the end of the story, however, it is Charlie who must die; Thomas is powerless to save his older brother from the firing squad after his court-martial for disobedience and cowardice. Far from being a coward, Charlie demonstrates considerable courage as he disobeys orders to stay with Tommy, who has been seriously wounded in battle.

Characteristically, Charlie faces his fate with courage and without bitterness even though he recognizes that the sentence is a gross miscarriage of justice. The sergeant who ordered him to leave his brother and charge the enemy lines bears a personal grudge against Charlie and seizes his opportunity to dispose of a source of irritation by ordering Charlie to carry out a mission that is as meaningless as it is suicidal. Morpurgo’s postscript records that 290 British and Commonwealth soldiers were executed by firing squad for desertion or cowardice and “two for simply sleeping at their posts”. The story of Charlie is their story.

Thomas does not have the courage of his brother at the beginning of the war and is frequently overcome with horror and panic when he is ordered to attack a German trench, is gassed, listens to the sound of shells and wonders if/when he will be hit, faces charging Germans armed with bayonets, or sees his friends and fellow soldiers being mown down by German machine guns. He compares his situation to a fox caught in its lair, with the hounds waiting for him outside. Only Charlie understands his brother’s fear. Thomas wants to believe in God so that he can see some point to his present position and can look forward to Heaven and “a new life after death”. Toward the end of the novel he expresses his envy of Big Joe, who believes strongly in Heaven:

I envied him that. I could no longer even pretend to myself that I believed in a merciful god, nor in a heaven, not any more, not after I had seen what men could do to one another. I could believe only in the hell I was living in, a hell on earth, and it was man-made, not God-made.

Order Now
When Charlie is not with him, Thomas finds consolation in the few remaining signs of nature that have survived the ravages of battle, larks singing or a few blades of grass which spark distant memories of a world far removed from the present. As he notes at the beginning of the story, nothing will ever be the same again. This is indeed one of the most important themes of the novel.

Nothing makes sense to the two brothers. Why should they fight? Why should they kill Germans, who are, as they soon discover, no different from them? The only sanity that the brothers can find is in the letters from home. The family believes that the war will soon be over. There is joy at the birth of Charlie and Molly’s baby son. At the front, however, while Charlie and Tommy welcome letters from home, they do not talk about those they have left behind because they wish to keep the two worlds separate. As Charlie explains to Thomas, “by talking about [those from home] I bring them here, and I don’t want to do that. You understand, Tommo?” Thomas needs no explanation.

At Ypres, where Thomas is wounded, his misery is summed up in one short sentence—“I know that I am dying my own death, and I welcome it”. The irony is that it is not his death that he is dying but that of his brother because it is at Ypres that Charlie disobeys orders and stays with his wounded brother. The use of the present tense throughout the novel enhances the brothers’ suffering. This becomes particularly poignant as Thomas visits Charlie the night before his execution. The final chapter, “one minute to six”, describes the last few seconds of Charlie’s life. Thomas knows that Charlie will walk with his head held high—“He is not stumbling. He is not struggling. He is not crying out." The repetition of “he is not” is particularly powerful here. There is no cowardice in Charlie, only integrity and dignity. Once the execution has been carried out, Thomas notes that the birds start singing again; nature restores some kind of order to the chaotic world of war. At this point Thomas makes up his mind to survive not because he believes in the war but because he has a promise to keep—to return to his family as a man and as its guardian.

It comes as no surprise that the powerful story of Thomas and Charlie has been made into a movie, which was released in America  this past year.  Morpurgo has a special ability to tell the story of war from the individual’s perspective (the reader is reminded of his novel War Horse and Spielberg’s film of the same name), highlighting the contrast between the past and the present and demonstrating that war changes everything. The picture of the two butterflies that separates each chapter and section of the novel represents life, as the butterflies, who lead such a transient life, fly upward in unison and harmony, they remind the reader of the old world that has all but disappeared. From it emerge a new order and a new man—one who knows not only what his duty is to his family but also to himself. Thomas Peaceful looks forward to a time of peace, a chance to build a new existence on the ruins of the old. The reader is left in no doubt that the lessons learned in war have equipped him more than adequately to do just that.

Jane Mattisson Ekstam


  1. Nice review of a really powerful and moving novel. Along with Henry Williamson, Michael Morpurgo is one of the greatest Devonshire writers to deal with the Great War.
    David Beer

  2. The trench in the photo is remarkably clean and well constructed. You see lots of nice clean trenches in reenactments.

  3. Thank you for the comment, David! It is a great little novel and for someone who has lived in Devon for many years, the descriptions of the countryside are extremely evocative. I do hope that Morpurgo will continue to produce books about the War.