Sunday, July 4, 2021



In 1916 Ernst Johannsen (1898-1977) was drafted into the German military. Prior to World War One, Johannsen had an apprenticeship as an electrician.  This knowledge base may have been a factor when he was sent to Verdun in early 1917 to serve with military radio operators. His experiences during World War One had a major impact on his subsequent novels and radio plays. These works convey an antiwar message.

Brigade Exchange: A Telephone Story of the Great War is a radio play written in 1928-29 after Johannsen moved to Hamburg, Germany. It premiered October 17, 1929 on Munich radio and The Stage, in its 20 February 1930 edition, reported that the German cast was composed of ex-service men. Brigade Exchange became extremely successful on German radio prior to receiving fifty other productions in eleven different European countries. The play was also made available on gramophone records.  With the popularity of this radio play in Germany and several other European countries, Johannsen gained significance prominence.

When Brigade Exchange commences, the listeners are quickly plunged into the chaos of battle. “The time is summer, 1918.  Place: A sector held by a German division on the Western front: the telephone post.” The radio program opens with an announcement that includes: “this dramatization pictures a man’s memory of hours spent in a telephone dugout behind the German lines.” There are twenty-one voices for named characters in the script and nine other German voices designated by the letters A through I.  In addition, there are nine different French voices. The main voice operating the switchboard belongs to the character named Schneider.  He diligently strives to handle the needs and requests of the soldiers and officers in the field.

Since Brigade Exchange is a radio play one perceives the war through the sounds of guns, fear in the voices of men, artillery firings, bombs exploding and cries of wounded soldiers. Added to this chaos is the constant ringing of the telephone switchboard. On every page of the script, the switchboard receives at least one call.  At the beginning of the script, two soldiers, Mueller and Schmidt, receive a few moments of relief from the business of war as they play cards in the telephone dugout. This is the proverbial calm before the storm. Then the war begins to bear down harder and harder on the location of the telephone switchboard.

The audience does not glean much information about each character, but Behnke represents the youngest of men. He mentions in the script that tomorrow he will celebrate his nineteenth birthday.  Brigade Exchange does not focus on the lives of the soldiers or who they were in civilian life.  What it illustrates is how each character reacts as the French army advances towards their location.

The Narrator provides the concluding images for the listening audience. “In the corner of a dugout was found lying between his dead comrades, a badly wounded telephone operator of a Brigade Exchange.”  If the play has not convinced the audience that war is hell, the Narrator provides one more image to hear.

                         Time has erased the marks of the monstrous struggle.

                          In the distance a cemetery, at the roadside a few bent rails,

                          tree stumps, a broken wall--that’s all. Reflecting the wanderer

                          rises, and gazes toward the distant hills.  As a pair of brightly

                          colored butterflies flutter by he goes slowly, down toward 

                         the cemetery to the ten thousand dead comrades.

Brigade Exchange clearly illustrates the critical role that the telephone played throughout World War One. It provided the only means of instant communication for the different ground units. It was catastrophic when the telephone communications were disrupted, and it frequently resulted in battles being lost.  Obviously, telephone communication was a significant tool needed to win.  When the play concludes with the loss of the telephone dugout, it clearly prefigures the German loss of the war.

Brigade Exchange was banned and burned in 1933 after Hitler assumed power.  In 1939, Johannsen left Germany to join his fiancĂ©e and son who in 1938 had moved to England.  The initial English translation of this radio play appeared in 1928-29, it was quickly called the German version of R.C. Sherriff’s (1896-1975) play Journey’s End that premiered on the London stage in 1929.

Johannsen lived in England from 1939 until 1957. He became associated with the British Broadcasting Company (BBC) and his plays were translated and aired on radio. The English version of Brigade Exchange was adapted for broadcasting by Dulcima Glashy (a playwright and children’s author) and I.D. Benzie (1902-1988). Isa Donald Benzie was a female BBC radio broadcaster.

Brigade Exchange was first aired by the BBC on March 25, 1930 and it was described as a “A Sound Picture.”  The Yorkshire Post and Leeds Intelligence newspaper described this program as “one of the most vivid war plays ever broadcast.”  The cast of fifteen actors was headed by Phillip Wade (1896-1950), Francis de Wolff (1913-1984) who I am guessing played the role of Behnke whose nineteenth birthday was to be the next day, and Dennis Arundell (1898-1988) whose actual WWI experience included being gassed.  This broadcast continued to be aired throughout England, Scotland, and Ireland during the 1930s. The Stage reported on 30 June 1938 that Brigade Exchange will be televised on July 3, 1938. I have not found another reference regarding a television production.  A more recent production of Brigade Exchange was created in October, 2003 by the London theatre group Two’s Company.

In addition to Brigade Exchange, Johannsen wrote several novels and five other radio plays between 1928 to 1970, but none of them achieved the level of success enjoyed by this radio play.  In later life Johannsen turned his career to writing film scripts, and he is most remembered for his achievements in film.


1.      The copy of Brigade Exchange I read was prepared by Will Jonson in 2013. It                  clearly states that this “modern edition has been carefully prepared and is not a facsimile.” The English text I used in this post is from this edition.

      2.      There are a few articles that discuss how Brigade Exchange compares with Journey’s End. Jonson discusses several of the “broad similarities” in his “Introduction” to the script.

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