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A central theme of Private Peaceful is the British army's attitudes towards discipline and justice during the First World War.  The story culminates in the execution of Private Peaceful at dawn, by firing squad; the soldier’s crime was to stay with his injured brother and to question his sergeant’s order to go out from the trench whilst the Germans were still firing at them.

During this period, the British army killed over 300 of its own soldiers in this way for a range of reasons including desertion, alleged cowardice and in two cases for falling asleep whilst on guard. Despite a campaign by the families of those killed, it was not until 2006 that the British government granted posthumous pardons to those executed.


  • Watch Michael Morpurgo talk here about how he hopes Private Peaceful can contribute to young people’s general knowledge and understanding of this historical period and in particular what happened to soldiers like Private Peaceful.
  • After viewing, use the links opposite to start a historical enquiry about real soldiers who were condemned to death by their own military superiors during this period. As you begin your research, try to find out the following information:
    • What were the reasons given by the British army for shooting their own soldiers?
    • What evidence can you find about the people who were shot?
    • Why did it take so long for the British government to pardon those killed years after their death?

2012 © Eagle Media Group. All Rights Reserved.

Michael Morpurgo interview transcript


Yes, socially I think you get some sense of where these soldiers came from. Er, I think also you have some sense of the pressure these young people were under, why they went over the top, what the discipline was like, that's for sure.

And you have some sense of society, how it was ordered, how people… And it's very difficult to understand these days, because the first question a child is asked when he's told to do something these days is why? Well, you didn't ask why.

You sang songs maybe about the officers, but when the officers told you to do something, by and large, you knew you had to do it. Why? Because back on the factory floor there was some saying you do this, you do that, and if you don't turn up tomorrow morning on time you're sacked.

On the farm it was the same thing. I think it was a time when authority ruled. And the notion now… now that people would have climbed over the top on July 1st, 1916, as those extraordinary men did, because the whistle blew, when they knew from previous experience what was waiting for them, and that it was no better, the shelling would not have broken the barbed wire, it wouldn't have, you know, destroyed all the Germans in front of them, they kind of all knew this, and they walked.

You know, they were told not to run. Well, why on earth would you not run forward in those circumstances to get closer to the enemy quicker and make it a little bit more difficult to get to - no, you walk.

It's stuff like that, it's so difficult to imagine.

And I think - I mean I hope it's a decent book and a decent story, but I certainly know that the great stories of the First World War and the great films of the First World War, the great plays, you know, whether they're talking about 'Journey's End', or whether you're talking about 'All Quiet On the Western Front' or 'Oh What a Lovely War', all these things enable us to get closer to that experience. And if 'Private Peaceful' has its small contribution to make, I'm really pleased.