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.)

In Macdonald’s book an ill-assorted group of British soldiers make their way across the desert in Mesopotamia. Their officer has died, leaving no clear orders. One by one the soldiers are caught by skilled enemy snipers who are hidden unseen in the desert.
Like Macdonald’s novel, Return of the Brute includes a variety of men from different backgrounds, including one with extreme religious beliefs. In Patrol, the disintegration of the unit comes from the surfacing of prejudices that the men have brought into the army from their civilian lives; O’Flaherty’s book just shows personalities grating against each other, a situation made worse by the ineffective leadership of Corporal Williams (‘servile to his superiors, arrogant and cruel to his subordinates’)
In Patrol, the unseen Arab enemies are clever; they are able to destroy the patrol because they are at home in the terrain, and their skilled sniping strikes terror. In Return of the Brute, the Germans are not a particularly clever foe. The terrain itself, where platoons can get lost, and where the mud can suck men down to death, is a deadlier enemy. Some men are killed by scattered shells or by random bursts of machine-gun fire, but the most terrifying deaths are caused by mud, or by the madness slowly growing inside Private Gunn.
This is a book that stresses the brutality of war, and the way that war brings out the brutality in individuals. the characters are mostly types, but I liked his portrayal of the inadequate Corporal, trying to make up for his ineffectiveness through harsh discipline. The war is a ceaseless ordeal of digging new positions in slimy mud and then being told to move on and on. Officers are rarely present, but Lieutenant Bull appears, and is memorably described:

The officer’s face was drawn and still more melancholy than on the previous night. Although he looked well-nourished and almost quite clean, his countenance was even more repulsive than that of the soldiers because it contained the ghost of intelligence that had died of horror.

O’Flaherty has imagined the battlefield vividly as a nightmare that lurches into the surreal,  especially when Gunn’s hallucinations and madness overcome him, and he seeks vengeance on Corporal Williams:

Now he was aware that a vast multitude of brutes was crawling with him, tracking the Corporal. He no longer feared the brutes, but felt akin to them and savagely proud of their hairy bodies and of their smell, and of their snorting breath. On all sides they rose in myriads, some enormous, some as small as ferrets, some with monstrous bellies, some as thin as snakes; all with protruding fangs and eyes that belched fire. All made the same sounds as they moved, a pattering of furred paws, like the pattering of heavy raindrops on a lake.

Military Gothic doesn’t get more Gothic than that. This book goes beyond grim realism, taking the battlefield story into the horror genre. It is grimly effective.

The book was published by the short-lived Mandrake Press in Museum Street. This firm specialised in books that were out of the usual run, the sort that conventional publishers might be frightened of; they published Alisteir Crowley, and D.H. Lawrence’s A Propos Lady Chatterley’s Lover. Does publication by this firm mean that O’Flaherty’s dark fable had been turned down by more mainstream publishers? I shall try to find out more.


  1. Stephen Paradis
    Posted April 23, 2017 at 3:33 pm | Permalink

    Maybe the last film in this line will be “Southern Comfort” (1981), at least until someone films it set in Iraq, thus closing the circle.

  2. Posted April 23, 2017 at 5:26 pm | Permalink

    there would be a good thesis in remakes and rewrites of ‘Patrol’. In the Second World War there was Sahara, and the Russian Film, ‘The Thirteen’. ‘Bataan’ (1943) seems to follow the same pattern, too. And it has been adapted as a Western 9though the name of the film escapes me for the moment).
    I didn’t know ‘Southern Comfort’. Now I’ve seen the online trailer, and may take a look at the movie.

    • Stephen Paradis
      Posted April 24, 2017 at 5:42 pm | Permalink

      Trailers are trailers; the movie itself is much less overwrought. In other versions the men die because of some Fatal Flaw. Here they’re the victims of their own stupidity. One of the men survives because the writer-director decided that he deserved it.
      If you like Southern Roots music, the soundtrack alone is worth the viewing.

  3. Posted April 24, 2017 at 10:06 am | Permalink

    I’ve found this review of the novel in the Saturday Review, December 1929.The reviewer is L.P. Hartley.

  4. Posted April 24, 2017 at 10:37 am | Permalink

    And here is the review from the Manchester Guardian, by Allan Monkhouse:

    retbrute mg

  5. Posted November 14, 2017 at 1:42 pm | Permalink

    In Julian Maclaren-Ross’s Memoirs of the Forties, he tells a story of O’Flaherty going into the Accounts Department of his publishers ‘wanting ten pounds cash and if it wasn’t immediately forthcoming he’d tap his raincoat pocket and say “I’ve got a gun in here.” The accountants usually forked out, not that there were any royalties due.’
    Does anyone know if this is a true story, or one embellished by Maclaren-Ross?

    • Roger
      Posted November 16, 2017 at 8:37 pm | Permalink

      By all accounts Maclaren-Ross was constitutionally incapable of not embellishing a story.

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