Malleson describes this play as being true to his experiences: “there is scarcely a sentence in it that I did not hear, or an episode I did not witness” (7) and it is the play’s raw realism that struck me as I first read it. The particular element I am going to focus on here is the idea that the soldiers of the story are not military men at heart, instead “they are all very much English civilians under their khaki uniforms” (9). The war’s scale meant that men from all nations were rushed to the front with the bare minimum of training to ensure that their forces would not fall short of the enemies, and, as a result, the idea of the professional soldier was something of a distant relic in most quarters. ‘D’ Company depicts this idea, showing how the soldiers who made up the fighting in the war were in large nothing more, and nothing different, to any other civilian living then, or indeed now.
The first way Malleson can be seen to present this idea is by connecting the soldiers to their civilian roles – stating what each man did before the war. For example, speaking of Private Tilley, Malleson informs us that “two months ago he delivered coals”, whilst Private Alf is a Cockney lad who was a van-boy somewhere in the city along with Jim who was friends with him back in London (10). To then hammer the point home in the opening scene Tilley awakes and in his semi-conscious state he still believes that he is at home, complaining at having to get up and telling his “ol’ girl” to get him a cup of tea.” (12). The big gossip of the opening scene also revolves around the identity of the quiet one of the group, who lays on his bunk and never talks. The Corporal comes in and announces that he is a gentleman, “and a proper one, too. […] E’s stacks above us, ‘e his. ‘E’s got money, ‘e ‘as. Bags… a ninkum, an’ a proper ‘ouse and edjucation” (14). The company then compare one another’s lives to see who has the greatest claim on knowledge of the upper classes, each believing it to be themselves. Again here the conversation uniquely surrounds their domestic lives, depicting the soldiers as in reality being civilians thrust into this war environment.
The next way relates to something I hinted to in the opening – the symbol of the professional soldier juxtaposing this new brand of soldier, new and untested. Corporal Charles Joyner, usually referred to simply as Corporal, is a professional soldier, and he takes all and any opportunity to distinguish himself from the new recruits he sees as soft domestic men. This is shown early in the play when Tilley says to him: “We knows as much as you do any day.” referring to a knowledge of gentlemen and the upper classes. The Corporal uses this then as an opportunity to lecture them on soldiering:
You! Wot ju know about soljering. You don’t know nuffink. Twenty-seven years’ service – with the Reg’lars, mind you, none o’ yer Terr-i-tor-ials [a fine contempt in that] Twen…ty-seven years’ service – that’s me. You! Ten drills a year! (14,15)
He later continues the refrain when explaining to Dennis, the man they have decided is from the upper classes, how he is superior from the other men in Dennis’ company: “There ain’t much I don’t know about soljering. I come out the Reg’lar Army, I do. Twenty-seven years’ service… This lot! Territorials or whstever they call theirselves – they don’t know NUFFINK!” (16).
This is then later reinforced when we find out why this professional soldier is with these ‘rooky civilians in khaki uniforms’ as opposed to with his professional army comrades – because he’s too old: “They wouldn’t ‘ave me. I’m a nold man, I am. Fifty, tho’ I don’t look it. Forty-four and eleven months, that’s wot this lot’s got me down. Though there’s as much soljering left in me as there is in fifty ‘er you any day.” (18). The Corporal is considered by the army to be too old to be of true use in the war as he is past his physical peak, and as a result he is not with the professional and experienced forces, but instead with these rookie forces. This is reinforced by the responses of the other soldiers, them explaining how they came to be in the regiment – not entirely by choice. “They jus’ chucked us out ‘ere, didn’t they”, explains Alf, “Get sacked out of our jobs, or come ‘ere and ‘ave ‘em kept”. (18). Once more the men relate their war life to their home one, explaining that they are only soldiers in order to preserve their domestic lives. The scene, and play, is then rounded off with the incoming post from home and the men’s excitement at hearing from their loved ones back in Britain – yet another connection of the men’s hearts and lives not being of the army, but of home. A line from Jim possibly shows this focus on the domestic best – “Never mind the wa-er. ‘Oo beat – Chelsea or the Arsenal?” (20).
The play is a quick and easy one, though at times Malleson’s continual use of dialect can at times seem overbearing and distracting from the scene at hand. However, having said this, overall it is a lovely depiction of the civilian in khaki clothing and how for the men at the front the events of home were as much on their mind as the events at the front. 5/10