James Lansdale Hodson’s Return to the Wood (1955) is a thoughtful novel. Its frame narrative tells how, some thirty-five years after the War, William Hargreaves, now a provincial solicitor, travels with a group of ex-comrades back to High Wood, Passchendaele and other battlefields. This stirs up a rich brew of memories – tragic, comic, guilty, nostalgic; in particular, Hargreaves remembers a crucial event that became a turning point in his life.
In 1917 he had been assigned the role of ‘prisoner’s friend’ to Private Hamp, a deserter. The man is not very bright, and one day, hardly knowing what he was doing, had simply walked away from the War. Hargreaves at first is unsympathetic: ‘He’s asked for it. What the blazes did he run away for?’ When he meets the man, though, he can’t help feeling for him in his helplessness and hopelessness. Hamp had not thought about what he was doing, but simply followed his human instincts to get away from the front. At the court-martial he argues for recognition of the man’s human weakness, but military law goes its way – there is need to make an example to maintain morale.
This incident is a major factor in turning Hargreaves to pacifism, and in the twenties he becomes an effective speaker in the anti-war cause, marrying Kate, an equally committed musician. The rise of Hitler, however, gives him doubts. Passive resistance and Christian values are no answer to fascism. At the expense of his relationship with his wife and son, he deserts the pacifist cause and joins the LDV. His son begins as a conscientious objector (the members of the tribunal are mildly caricatured, but come to a decision that recognizes his principles); after seeing the results of the Blitz, however, Rob joins the RAF. He is killed during training. The marriage cannot withstand the strain of these events (Kate remains an impassioned pacifist), and after 1945 Hargreaves seems to have drifted into a life of lonely dullness.
His trip back to the battlefields gives him the opportunity of reassessing his life, and the twists and turns of his attitudes. After much soul-searching, he decides that for all the confusions, his life has been justified:
I knew then, and I know now that if I had to go through everything again, be confronted by both wars, go through my years between, pronounce wars monstrous and yet, when madness thrust it on us again and evil reared its head once more, have to decide whether I bowed to it or fought it, I should find no escape from fighting, and that I should do once more what I did then.
This is a novel for which I felt a great deal of respect, since the author does not fudge issues, but faces their complexity. Artistically it is flawed, since the first two sections (the return to the battlefield and the court-martial of Hamp) are more vivid and solidly placed in fact than the later sections, which sometimes get lost among the big abstractions of debate.
It would be a totally forgotten novel, probably, had not part of it been adapted for television, stage and film several years after Hodson’s death. The play Hamp (by John Wilson) and the film King and Country (directed by Joseph Losey, 1964) take only the fifty-odd pages of the book dealing with Hamp’s court-martial, to present an ‘anti-war’ message much simpler than the complexities of Hargreaves’ self-questioning, as presented in the novel.
I’ve not read Hamp, but Kenneth Tynan, in his review of King and Country, wrote that:
Evan Jones’s script, adapted from a poor stage-play by John Wilson, does not conceal its origins; indeed Leo McKern (as a pompous M.O.) positively embraces them.
Long sections of the film’s dialogue are straight from the novel, and the only notable bits that screenwriter Jones seems to have added on his own behalf are some not-altogether-relevant and rather naff scenes where a chorus of squaddies capture and torture rats, and one where they very implausibly break into Hamp’s condemned cell, and, drunkenly, subject him to a mock-execution. Many of the characters are coarsened in the adaptation. That M.O., for example, who Leo McKern portrays as a pompous blusterer, is more keenly shown in the novel as an overworked man who makes mistakes and feels the need to justify himself.
What saves the film are some of the other performances. Peter Copley is very good indeed as the gentle-voiced Colonel who keeps to the strict letter of the regulations. Dirk Bogarde is as good as ever (He made some poor films, but did he ever give a poor performance?) His Hargreaves is not the character from the novel, but is a rather rigid man forced into compassion despite himself. He begins the film behind a barrier of defences, and slowly becomes more exposed.
Hamp is played by Tom Courtenay. Another actor who illuminates every film he appears in, but once again not quite the character from the novel. Hodson’s Hamp is stupid, unaware, a poor suffering animal. Courtenay’s seems a holy fool, and his desertion an act of truth-telling about the nature of war. ‘Shot-at-dawn’ narratives had appeared in some powerful novels of the twenties – Herbert’s The Secret Battle, for example, and Montague’s Rough Justice. The theme appealed because it pointed to the most extreme case of conflict between military values and humane civilian ideas of justice. Hodson takes up the theme, and weaves it into a broader story of a man trying to understand the twentieth century and its wars. The play and film take it out of that context, and let the story of Hamp, pure innocent victim, become an indictment of all war.
Hodson’s novel vanished without trace. I don’t think it managed a second edition, and didn’t even appear in paperback when Losey’s film – a major event – hit the cinemas. The book shows Hamp’s execution as a worst-case scenario – an ultimate futility of war – but then in the second half of the book argues that, terrible as such incidents were, they should not be the only factors brought into consideration when considering the question of pacifism and conscience; the rise of Hitler shows that the military values, difficult as they are to cope with, have their uses. The simplifying play and film do the opposite. Hamp’s trial and execution are shown, and the audiences are left with nothing to counter the impression of an utterly fruitless killing. These made much more of an impact than the novel, and can perhaps be seen as the first stage in the long campaign that eventually gained posthumous pardons for all those executed for desertion during the Great War.