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Henry Williamson: Patriot’s Progress

The genesis for this book was a set of woodcuts relating to World War I by William Kermode. Kermode was an Australian artist. He came to England before World War I and joined the British army during that war. He was also an observer in World War II. He produced the woodcuts relating to World War I and the editor J C Squire suggested that Williamson write captions to them. After discussions between Kermode and Williamson, it was agreed that Kermode would do some new woodcuts and Williamson would write a story around them. The book was published in 1930 when there were already too many World War I books but, nevertheless, it attracted some attention. In particular Arnold Bennett and T. E. Lawrence praised it. Williamson was worried that it might delay his own series of novels on World War I (which became The Chronicle of Ancient Sunlight) but it did not.

The story is relatively simple. It is about a young clerk called John Bullock (not only is John Bull”the typical Englishman”, it was also a contemporary jingoistic newspaper, which is mentioned in the story). Bullock, at first sceptical about war, joins up when his country needs him. We follow him as he joins the army, goes through the usual induction and training and eventually makes it to France. From there, after initial optimism, there is the eventual disillusionment, though Bullock himself remains relatively cheerful despite the unpleasant conditions and lack of military success. The little adventures are recounted sympathetically. For example, he visits a prostitute and overpays her but cannot bear to look at her. Afterwards, he gets drunk and misses parade for which he is court-martialed and punished. Eventually, towards the end he is wounded in action and loses a leg but even that he takes relatively stoically.

This is not a great story but is an enjoyable one, giving a portrait of the typical Tommy with little cynicism. Kermode’s woodcuts, however, are what make this book something special.

Publishing history

First published 1930 by MacDonald