Private Peaceful is the heart-rending telling of the life of Charlie and Tommy (Tommo) Peaceful in the hours leading up to the execution of Charlie for "cowardice in the face of the enemy". The story is narrated by Tommo who wishes not to think about what will happen at dawn, but to remember instead what went before.
"I want to try to remember everything, just as it was, just as it happened. I've had nearly eighteen years of yesterdays and tomorrows, and tonight I must remember as many of them as I can. I want tonight to be long, as long as my life, not filled with fleeting dreams that rush me on towards dawn."
Tommo recounts his years growing up in England with his parents, his older brother Charlie, whom he admired, and Big Joe, a older brother who was severely affected by a bout of meningitis when he was a baby. The cast of characters is rounded out by Molly, the daughter of a neighbour whom both brothers fall in love, Grandma Wolf, and the Colonel, on whose estate the Peaceful family lived.
The story of the Peaceful family is one of love and kindness, of a family who love each other no matter what. Their simple tenderness and care for Big Joe is touching. Big Joe has a profound effect on the development of all the Peaceful folk, who are quick to respond with love, rather than judgement and harshness.
There are many poignant moments; when tragedy strikes the Peaceful family, Tommo feels he is to blame. This guilt he carries for most of his life until he finally confesses it to his brother Charlie in his last hours. Tommo must also deal with the fact that his older brother has captured the heart of Molly, whom he also dearly loves. When Big Joe wanders off and his whereabouts are unknown for two days, the fear and sadness of the Peaceful family permeates all those who know the family.
There is a wonderful contrast between the idyllic rhythms of rural life in England and the harsh reality of a bloody war in which the young of a nation are bled off. There is also the contrast between the kindness and consideration of good family life and the brutality of boot camp, where soldiers are abused and conditioned to kill.
And of course, there is the insanity of executing young soldiers for "cowardice" and desertion. The matter of Charlie Peaceful's execution is ironic, because in fact, he was not a coward but a very courageous soldier who stood up to the irrational order of an officer ordering his men towards certain death.
Private Peaceful, is one of Michael Morpurgo's best books. At the back of the edition I read, Morpurgo states that the 305 soldiers executed during World War I have never received the pardons they deserved, this is now not the case. In 2006, the Armed Forces Act pardoned these men, removing the stain of dishonour. Shell shock and battle fatigue as well as post traumatic stress syndrome were unknown at that time.Many men were tried without representation, some of them too young to actually be in their regiments. Nevertheless, the executions were considered necessary to prevent mass desertion by the large number of soldiers who did not want to fight what was becoming a war of attrition.
For more information the following resources might be helpful:
BBC History: Shot at Dawn: Cowards, Traitors or Victims?
Canadians Shot at Dawn