The Return of the Brute

return of the brute

Liam O’Flaherty’s Return of the Brute (1929) tells the story of what happens to a group of ineffective soldiers who are sent forward into no-man’s-land in 1917, as part of a large offensive. They get lost, they are victims of the mud, and of random enemy fire, and above all they endlessly chafe against one other as they unwillingly undertake a fruitless military exercise.
I was a few chapters into the novel before I realised that this was a version of Philip Macdonald’s Patrol (1926), transferred to the Western Front. (Patrol had been a best-seller, and 1929 was the year in which Walter Summers’ film version The Lost Patrol appeared. John Ford’s remake would appear in 1934.)
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Company K by William March

company k

Company K (1934) is a strange novel. At the recent Aberdeen conference, Steven Trout made strong claims for it, and with reason. It is wide-ranging, hard-hitting and original. Its form is a succession of brief (sometimes under a page) fragments, each relating a war experience of a different member of an American company of Marines. These combine to make a collage picture of the war and its aftermath. Read More »

‘The Fictional First World War’ at Aberdeen

I’m now back from the Fictional First World War conference at Aberdeen, with my head full of ideas, and with a lengthy list of additions to my reading list. The conference was of a very high standard; here are some of the highlights.
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I’m looking forward to heading north to Aberdeen tomorrow. Mostly because of the Fictional First World War conference, but also because it is where my father’s family comes from. My grandfather (also George Simmers) was born there in 1868, at 191, Gallowgate. This picture, of another house in the street, probably gives an idea of what Gallowgate looked like at the time:


I should think that this view of the street is from the 1930s:

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The Querrils, by Stacy Aumonier


With my paper for the Aberdeen conference in mind, I’ve been re-reading The Querrils (1919) by Stacy Aumonier. My paper will be on fictional representations of military executions over the hundred years since 1914, and Aumonier’s novel contains one of the earliest (and oddest). (Warning: spoilers ahead.) Read More »

Sassoon and slanginess

An article in the Guardian alerts us to an interesting new exhibition at the Imperial War Museum. It tells the story of a century of anti-war protest, and one of the exhibits is a manuscript copy of ‘The General’ by Siegfried Sassoon.

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Henry Carr, and the history behind ‘Travesties’


Last week I hugely enjoyed the excellent production of Tom Stoppard’s Travesties at the Apollo Theatre in London. A note in the programme about Henry Carr (the play’s central character) was interesting enough to send me off on a minor investigation. Read More »

Aberdeen conference ‘The Fictional First World War’

Booking is now open for the conference in Aberdeen, on ‘The Fictional First World War’, (6-9 April, 2017). Here’s a link to it.

I’ve been sent a provisional programme, and it is packed with good speakers and interesting topics.

My own paper will have the title: They ought to ’ave shot that bugger’: A Century of Fictional Executions. In it I will contrast the presentation of the shooting of deserters in fiction of the twenties (like Herbert’s The Secret Battle and Montague’s Rough Justice) with representations since the 1980s (as in Private Peaceful and Sebastian Barry’s A Long Long Way and beyond). The deserter increasingly becomes an admirable, even  heroic figure, rather than a pathetic one.

My title is from the greatest of First World War novels,  Frederic Manning’s Her Privates We. It is the scornful comment a soldier makes about Miller, a deserter who had been sentenced and then reprieved. Manning describes him: ‘He had a weak, mean, and cunning face; but there was something so abject in his humiliation, that one felt for him the kind of pity which can scarcely tolerate its own object.’

How different this attitude is from that evoked by the emotive Shot At Dawn statue in the National Arboretum.


(Image from Wikipedia)

Trooper to the Southern Cross

The War had many a bright moment even for the diggers so far away from good old Aussie. For instance there was the day the diggers got wild with the English A.P.M. And somehow lost him in the canal. I did my best with artificial respiration, but the bugger had me beat. We had one of the best laughs over that we’d had for many a long day.

Angela Thirkell published Trooper to the Southern Cross in 1934 under the name of Leslie Parker. It’s a fictionalised version of her own journey to Australia with her husband in 1920. The ship was unreliable (sabotaged by its previous German owners) and the lower decks were full of diggers, and also a load of criminals (murderers, deserters and so on) being transported home. Read More »

Sassoon’s copy of ‘Goodbye to All That’

There is an excellent article by jean Moorcroft Wilson in this week’s TLS . She has been looking at Siegfried Sassoon’s own copy of ‘Goodbye to All That’, which he annotated indignantly, marking factual errors and marking various passages as ‘rot’, ‘fiction’, ‘faked’ or ‘skite’. As Moorcroft Wilson explains:

He was particularly critical of Graves’s account of his (Sassoon’s) protest, which fell a long way short, he believed, of the “impartial exactitude required for such a sensitive topic”. “He exhibits me as a sort of half-witted idealist”, he complained to Louis Untermeyer and his wife, “with a bomb in one hand and a Daily Herald in the other.”

He  expressed his dislike of the book not only with marginal comments, but also by turning it into a wild collage: Read More »