For King and Country
by John Wilson

John Wilson - For King and Country

BBC Radio 4: Saturday Night Theatre

Broadcast: Saturday 12th November 1988 @ 7:45 p.m.

The 1917 Battle of Passchendaele is the setting for "For King and Country" which is a powerful play that uncovers the officially forgotten casualties of war the deserters. No less than 306 young men were executed during World War I. The play opens on an early evening on an August day in 1917. The place: the interior of a barn close to Passchendale in Belgium. Private Hamp is sole survivor of his platoon and he should be in a hospital, but he's on trial for desertion.

Hamp is not even remotely a protagonist on this grand tragic scale: a World War I private from the British North Country, he has deserted in battle and is to stand court-martial. But in catching a mirror image of existence in the features of a frightened boy, John Wilson raises questions that have disturbed and puzzled men since war began.

The lawyer-lieutenant chosen to defend Hamp is aloof, yet earnest, and thoroughly determined to help him. But Hamp is hard to help precisely because he is a simple soul of truth, a pebble of innocence without a tongue-wag of self-protective deviousness in his nature. "For King and Country" derives its tension and strength from a conflict between two goods, not between good and evil. Duty and discipline are obviously good and necessary in wartime, when communal responsibility is essential. On the other hand, mercy shown is also good, and morally imperative; none is shown to Hamp. As he says, softly and pitiably, "It were only the first time, sir." Here the playwright opens the play to the book of life itself. Life is always "only the first time" for every man, and, for all its late and early joys, he pays with a hundred trials and a hundred deaths. Hamp's death is a metaphor, not only for death in war but for death in the undeclared war of life.

Adapted for radio from his classic 1964 play, "Hamp", John Wilson based it from an episode of J. L. Hodson's 1955 novel, "Return to the Wood". The play was adapted by Evan Jones into a screenplay which became the basis for Joseph Losey's 1964 film "King and Country", starring Dirk Bogarde and Tom Courtenay.

With Peter Gunn [Private Arthur Hamp], Kim Wall [Second Lieutenant Charles Hargreaves], Crawford Logan [Lieutenant Tom Webb], Ken Cumberlidge [The Corporal], Ian Michie [The Guard], John Samson [The President of the Court Martial], Geoffrey Whitehead [Captain Prescott], Dominic Rickhards [The Young Lieutenant at the Court Martial], David Timson [The Padre], Philip Sully [Lieutenant Midgley], and Michael Graham Cox [Captain Fraser].

The mouth organ played by Harry Pitch .

Directed by Martin Jenkins.

90 minutes.


Third Battle of Ypres (Passchendaele) July-Nov 1917. French Gen Nivelle planned a grand offensive against Germans in April 1917 but early failures resulted in French mutinies in 54 divisisons. British Field Marshall Haig planned attacks in the Ypres region to turn the tide of the war. After a week of artillery bombardment the attack began on 31 July 1917 and lasted until 4 August (heavy rain, 2 miles territory seized for 32,000 dead). The battle continued on and off until November, hampered by rain and a sea of mud. The final halt was ordered at village of Passchendaele 10 November - 250,000 dead, missing or seriously wounded on each side.


Note from ND:

My grandfather fought at Passchendaele as a Lewis gunner, 27 years old. After three years, on and off, of fighting in the mud of Flanders, he suffered a serious leg injury at Ypres (he pronounced it "Wipers"), and was taken to a field hospital and then shipped back across the Channel to England, wrapped in straw.

Such wounds were lucky - it increased your chances of surviving the war. A wound like this was called a 'Blighty' - you were being sent home. If he hadn't been hit by that piece of shrapnel, I wouldn't be here now - ND.

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