As a new stage adaptation of Private Peaceful embarks on a national tour which currently in Salisbury, beloved children's author Michael Morpurgo talks about the true events that inspired the story.

It started with a letter. Twenty years ago, Michael Morpurgo, author of War Horse and Kensuke’s Kingdom, was visiting a museum dedicated to the First World War in Ypres, Belgium.

Just as he was leaving a framed letter caught his eye, flat against glass, its envelope addressed to a woman in Manchester.

“This typed letter was so stark,” Morpurgo recalls. “It said ‘We regret to inform you that your son was shot at dawn on such-and-such a date. Yours sincerely.’ I looked at the envelope and I could see it had been ripped open - there was a huge tear along it. What that tear told me was the moment that this woman’s life had fallen apart. She opened it, and the rest of her life was grief and shame.”

When Morpurgo spoke to the man who ran the museum, he explained that during the First World War around 300 British men had been executed at dawn for various acts including desertion, cowardice, even two who had been shot for falling asleep at their post.

They found some old files containing details of the trials. “One of them lasted less than 20 minutes,” says Morpurgo. “Many were not represented by a lawyer. The vast majority were suffering from post traumatic stress disorder, or shell shock as it was called. They were unable to cope. There were far too many Irish people shot, far too many black people. I walked out of that building thinking this was a part of history people did not know enough about. This was not justice.

Moved by that framed letter, Morpurgo started writing a story about two brothers, Tommo and Charlie, who are wrenched from their rural life to fight in the war, with the story of these executions playing a major part.

The story became Private Peaceful, published in 2003, and it was an instant success, winning the Red House Children’s Book Award and the Blue Peter Book Award, as well as being shortlisted for the Carnegie Medal.

It also caught the attention of writer and director Simon Reade, as Morpurgo explains: “I was doing a radio interview when the book came out, and my phone rang on the way home. It was a man called Simon, who was running Bristol Old Vic Theatre. He said ‘I’ve just heard you on the radio. Don’t give the rights for Private Peaceful to anyone else. I’m going to the bookshop to read it right now. I’ll call you back tomorrow.’”

Reade was so moved by the book’s message of fraternity, rivalry, redemption, the horror of war that he told Morpurgo he would turn it into a play. But he wanted something small-scale for just one actor playing all the parts, and he wanted to change the ending.

Morpurgo agreed and the show opened in 2004. For more than 15 years it toured the world, from Edinburgh to New York, Australia, Scandinavia and many other places. Then in 2019 Reade decided to expand the play. He wanted a bigger cast, he wanted to reinstate the original ending. Everything was set for a premiere at Nottingham Playhouse in 2020.

“Then the theatres all shut down,” says Morpurgo. “I thought that by the time they could reopen they would be interested in other things.”

Now, the new version of Private Peaceful is about to embark on an extensive UK tour, and Morpurgo is delighted.

Private Peaceful is at Salisbury Playhouse from April 25 to 30. Visit: