The Great War in the Writings of Henry Williamson
(There are links from the endnote numbers in the text to the endnotes themselves. To return to the text, click the 'back' button.)
THE GREAT WAR IN THE WRITINGS OF
I propose here to explore the influence of Great War in Henry Williamson’s many writings, and to illustrate his determination to record and recreate this period of history as truly as possible, in part by way of tribute, in recording the lives of real people – fellow soldiers – many of whom were killed and whose very existence would otherwise have been quickly forgotten. I have followed Henry’s writing career chronologically, using both published and unpublished source material, although the extracts reflect different periods of the war which are not in themselves chronological.
The Great War marked front-line soldiers in every army for the rest of their lives. It was, for the British, different from any war that had preceded it in two ways – it was the first to be fought by young men who were not professional soldiers; and it was the first mechanised war, utilising what were truly weapons of mass destruction. After its end survivors were often haunted by guilt: guilt at having survived when so many had not; and guilt that, despite their often awful experiences, there were parts of the war – the friendships and, yes, the excitement – that they had actually enjoyed. For a great many of these young men, the war would remain the greatest experience of their lives, so much so that everything thereafter seemed an anti-climax. And countless thousands suffered emotionally. ‘Shellshock’, they called it then. Fighting soldiers today suffer from exactly the same symptoms, and in our wisdom we now classify it as ‘post-traumatic stress disorder’, and, in its less acute form, ‘adjustment disorder’, or ‘combat stress’.
After the war’s end, and an interval of some years during which shocked and injured minds began to recover, the novels and memoirs of ex-soldiers flourished, at least until the reading public grew tired of them. There were, indeed, well over 400 British authors who committed themselves to paper, in novels, short stories and plays, most using their own experiences for material, as would be expected.1 The great majority of these books have sunk without trace. Many of the writers were perhaps trying to exorcise the worst of their memories, but Henry, I venture to suggest, was different. He didn’t want to forget. On the contrary, from the very beginnings of his literary ambitions, it is clear that he was determined to remember, and one day to bring to life again, through his writing, the events and the people he had known during this brief period of time.
He began early, while still a soldier. For in June 1918, at 22 years old, he already had the compulsive urge to write that would remain with him throughout his life, although he had not yet learned all the necessary skills. Exeter University’s archive contains the exercise books which he used when he began his first, unpublished, novel – written, as he noted on the inside cover, in ‘June, July, August, September and October 1918, during the war, and at Felixstowe’.2
In fact there are three unpublished novels in the archive, and Dr Wheatley Blench has written a masterly overview of these in his three-part essay ‘The Apprenticeship of a Novelist’, which appeared in the Society journals in 1988 and 1989.3 Dr Blench noted of this first one that it ‘presents cruder, less rich and less well-written drafts of some scenes later developed with great success in A Chronicle of Ancient Sunlight, but that nevertheless it has at times a certain freshness and charm.’4
And indeed, one can imagine the young subaltern, bored with the routine of Army life on the Home Front, casting around in his digs for something in which to write, and his eyes lighting upon an exercise book of which only a few pages had been used, to make a fair copy of the notes he had taken at an army lecture, which covered the organisation of gas warfare, the history of the use of gas, the object of gas training and common causes of casualties in gas attack. There were plenty of pages left. So, turning to a blank page, and no doubt taking a deep breath, he began to write:
A man was wandering along one of the deep narrow lanes of Devonshire. It was in the month of May, and the weather was beyond reproach. The sun glared down brilliantly from an absolutely cloudless heaven. High up in the sky a lark was singing, its notes seeming to merge into each other in one rambling trill [. . .]5
Much later Henry would recall ruefully that, two years after writing this, he was advised by the kindly editor of The Field that he should avoid clichés, and that he had then looked at these pages with new eyes. He remembered that he had imagined, when writing the opening lines, the windless, waveless blue of an early summer morning seen from a Devon headland high above the Atlantic. Now, he realised to his horror, it was a cliché – and what was worse, ‘the book was all like that.’6 It was a valuable lesson in his literary education.
But the young man here is named Willie Maddison, and the narrow lanes of Devonshire are the lanes around Georgeham – for to Henry in June 1918, Georgeham, where he had spent his last idyllic holiday before the war and a leave in 1916, represented his Shangri-la, remote and peaceful, and far from the war. The novel consists of sequences recalled as if in a dream, and the first is of Willie’s scouting days – yes, the good old Bloodhound Patrol, which would make a revised appearance many years later, and under a different command, in Young Phillip Maddison.
Of interest here though is Willie’s flashback to the early days of the war, and it is clear that, immature though the writing is, Henry is already combining fact with fiction, just as he was later to do in the Chronicle. I will look here at two of the episodes – the death of Baldwin and the Christmas Truce. Baldwin was one of the few people whose real name was used in A Chronicle of Ancient Sunlight, and Henry uses his real name also in this early manuscript. Ernest Wilfrid Baldwin had joined the London Rifles as a territorial some time before Henry – his service number was 9397, while Henry’s was 9689. He was also quite a bit older, being a married man of 31 or 32 in December 1914, while Henry had only just turned 19. They had made friends when the battalion was mobilised, and one suspects that Baldwin acted as something of a steadying elder brother, or even as a father figure, in these early months of the war.
Henry describes a failed British attack for which Willie’s battalion was providing support, and continues:
That night Willie’s platoon was sent up to the wire of the German trench, with orders to dig rifle pits. Many casualties were the result, and Baldwin, who was digging next to him, was shot through the mouth and killed.
This upset Willie very much, and when the order was given to fall back on the English front line, he went with a heavy heart. How easily it might have been him!7
This is reported in such a matter-of-fact way that no real sense of drama or atmosphere is created. When Henry came to write How Dear is Life some 35 years later, Baldwin’s death was recounted in a similarly brief paragraph, but now, how different in presentation. This time the protagonist is Phillip, of course, and his Company is involved in its very first attack. The build-up of tension is almost tangible, for Phillip and the others have to advance despite the discovery that the bullets with which they had been issued jammed in their rifle breeches – an incident which actually happened to the London Scottish:
Mr. Ogilby was moving his sword from his head towards the right. They were too far to the left. Right incline! shouted Baldwin’s voice only just audible in the noise. Right incline! How thin his own voice felt. He could now hear machine-guns firing. Each bullet passed with a sharp hissing. He broke into a sweat. Why was Baldwin kneeling down? He seemed to be sick. Then he saw that he was vomiting blood from his mouth. He fell sideways, hands clutching face, fingers streaming bright red jerking blood.8
The result is the same – Baldwin is still dead, but the later, more shocking account remains much longer in the reader’s mind. In fact, Ernest Baldwin was not killed until 3 May 1915, well after Henry had been invalided home in mid-January. He has no known grave, and his name is engraved on the Menin Gate memorial. It is interesting to note, however, that even as early as 1918 Henry was determined to record his friend’s death, and was prepared to move the date to a period when Willie could have witnessed it, even if his writing and imaginative skills weren’t developed enough at that time to do full justice to the event. This was Henry’s conscious way of ensuring that he paid due tribute to his comrades; many years later he would make plain this intention when, in the prefatory note to A Fox Under My Cloak, he states:
Each of the characters [. . .] had an existence in the 1914-18 war, though not all necessarily acted or played their parts in the times and places mentioned in the story.9
The other striking passage in this early manuscript covers two events during the Christmas Truce. Willie, after meeting Saxons from the opposing regiment in No Man’s Land, strolls over to some nearby cottages at Le Gheer to look for souvenirs.
He entered the bullet-holed door of a cottage, and immediately inside, on a level with his head, he saw, on the wallpaper, a dark brown splosh, with pieces of hair sticking on to it, and white fragments, which might once have been a man’s brain. In the middle of the sickening patch was a bullet-hole.
On the floor, underneath the patch, was a dead German soldier, his rifle still grasped in his hand.
Willie also finds in one of the rooms another German sprawled dead on a bed. Then, leaving the cottage, he crosses a ‘deep ditch filled with water, with a plank over it’:
Willie crawled slowly over this plank, and paused in the middle of it, for just under the ice, with every detail quite distinct, a dead British soldier lay. His staring eyes looked up into space, and his hair was sticking out quite stiff into the ice. His expression was one of terror and pain, and at just under the throat a small dark stain showed where he had been shot. His arms were spread out from his sides, his fingers clenched in his death agony.10
Reading this, we can feel that, unlike the imagined death of Baldwin, Henry is here writing about events that he has actually experienced, and he manages to convey these in a far more effective manner. Indeed in A Fox Under My Cloak the equivalent descriptions of those particular passages are much the same and scarcely bettered – although the circumstances have now changed, being considerably expanded and embellished. It is Phillip, of course, not Willie, who on Christmas Day discovers the dead Germans, who are now situated in a château, rather than a cottage. Following this, Phillip goes on his epic bicycle ride behind the German lines, and later meets up with Willie at the crossroads at Le Gheer. They then discover together the British soldier dead under the ice.
Outside in the flooded ditch, just under the ice, lay a British soldier, on his back, his blue eyes open as though staring at the sky, arms extended, fingers spread. A look of terror was still visible through the ice.11
The passage is sparer, just half the length of the earlier one, though I am not at all certain that in this case it is more effective. There is much potential for further interesting research into the military aspect of these manuscripts.
Henry was demobilised in September 1919. He knew he wanted to write, but he also had to make his way in the world, and for a short period he became a journalist on the Weekly Dispatch. It was for this newspaper that his very first ‘war’ article, if you can to call it such, appeared in print, for on 25 July 1920 the paper ran a short piece headed ‘7,000 Miles to a Grave: Battlefield Quest of Poor Parents’, being the human interest story of an aged couple who travelled from Canada to view their son’s grave, as told to the reporter by ‘an officer who has just returned from grave registration duties at Cambrai’ – perhaps the latter was the inspiration for Willie Maddison’s similar spell of grim duty in France.12
In March 1921 Henry moved to Georgeham, in North Devon, and there began the long process of recovery, for, even though never physically wounded in the war, he was certainly mentally scarred, one of the very many deeply traumatised by their experiences. The war continually seeps into his writing during this time. For example, just a week after his arrival he writes of watching a raven through his Zeiss monocular, which, he remembers,
I took from a dugout somewhere near Bullecourt, nearly four years ago. Four years ago! Then, [. . .] the calcium flares arose into the darkness and with tremulous brilliance wavered to earth. Sometimes the pop-pop-pop of a machine-gun traversing to catch reliefs floundering and cursing in the mud, and the hissing whine of gas-shells came when it was quiet. One night [. . .] I sat [watching] for hours, held by the unrealisable aching vastness of the scene. Pin pricks of light over the distant trenches, faint womps!, the oval instant belch of howitzers in a quarry near me; the Hun high shrapnel, the bursting of his, or our, H.E., the bright smack-back of our howitzers pointing stunted barrels at the unthinkable stars [. . .] And in the darkness I would shiver and hug myself – and then the air would leap alight and rock and thunder, orange, vermilion, and white flashes and stabs, the long white stabs of the 18-pounders, red and green S.O.S rockets soar above the German positions, the shattering bullet-fans of their machine-guns traverse the low darkness. Another raid, held up by their wire-belts; barrage and counter-barrage. It was a strange earth, to which I could never accustom myself; and now it is gone as strangely.13
At Skirr Cottage Henry was writing his first novels, and earning a living from newspaper articles and short stories for magazines. Many of the articles were for Express Newspapers, and while most are of the bucolic kind on which he built his early reputation as a nature writer, in a few there are reminders of the recent war. In December 1921, for example, the Sunday Express published a curious series of four articles in which he described life at ‘Scarecrow Cottage’ – otherwise Skirr Cottage. These are completely different in tone to the Daily Express articles he was writing at the same time – perhaps he was still feeling his way toward a style of writing that he could make his own. Ostensibly they are light-hearted, yet there is a melancholy, a world-weariness, in the tone, and cold reality surfaces – for example, visiting London just before Christmas, Henry describes walking down the Strand, where he saw in the street
[. . .] a happy sight. A small group of men were playing carols. ‘The waits,’ I thought – here was a link with my happy childhood.
‘Yes, they waits,’ tonelessly replied an ex-soldier to my inquiry, ‘they waits for work. Like I waits for someone to buy my toys. Like my nippers waits for grub. Like the toffs’ kiddies waits for Santy Claus.’
At dinner I saw fat old men with their over-dressed wives swigging champagne, or ancient bucks, with young and slender girls, whose company they had purchased. The new-rich. Outside the new-poor, and the old-poor, the out-of-works, and the maimed beggars unheeded.14
These are stereotypes perhaps – but the unemployed ex-soldiers and the maimed beggars were certainly a reality, and would remain a stark and uncomfortable public reminder of the war for many years to come.
One of the earliest novels to be written by an ex-soldier was published in 1921. It was Wilfrid Ewart’s Way of Revelation, of which Henry Williamson thought highly: ‘It was magnificent, a real book. For two evenings I [had lived with the characters]; I had trudged the battlefields of Neuve Chapelle, Loos, Ypres, Somme, Hindenburg Line – oh, marvellously real and true, a recreation of the incredibly vanished times and places.’15 Ewart had been an officer in the Scots Guards, and had had a hard war, experiencing some intensive fighting, and being wounded. Way of Revelation was a huge success, but was a product of its time – despite Henry’s opinion, and his subsequent championing of the book, to the modern reader it has dated, and it seems now melodramatic and clichéd. Ewart was not to enjoy his literary success for long – in Mexico City, while travelling, he was hit by a stray bullet fired at random into the air by revellers seeing in the New Year. He was found dead on the balcony of his hotel room on New Year’s Day, 1923. His death was noticed by S.P.B. Mais in the Daily Express a few days later, who noted in his short obituary, ‘. . . And now Wilfrid Ewart has gone. It comes with a far greater shock than it would have done five years ago. So quickly in those days did the great young men go to greet Death like a friend: they did not stay long enough to tire of “the long littleness of life”.’ Petre Mais, too, rated Way of Revelation highly – he describes it as ‘probably the only war novel that will live because of its extraordinary sincerity, its absence of exaggeration, and its vivid contrast between the horror at the front and the hectic pleasure-seeking of the lawless at home’.16
Another early bestseller was R.H. Mottram’s The Spanish Farm, published in 1924. Awarded the Hawthornden Prize, it sold 2,000 copies in its first few months, and when issued with its two sequels in one volume as The Spanish Farm Trilogy sales exceeded 100,000. I mention it here because Hugh Cecil in his Flower of Battle, a superb study of the lesser-known British fiction writers of the First World War, considers this work one of the real classics to come out of the war, stating that ‘Saving Henry Williamson’s war volumes of his Chronicle of Ancient Sunlight, there is in fact no better account of the Western front – a rich and detailed picture of the minutiae of people’s lives in the context of the vast campaigns that were taking place.’17
During 1923 Henry began to think about writing a tale about otters, and followed the Cheriton Otterhounds on their hunts on the rivers Taw and Torridge. It was on one of these that he met his future wife, Loetitia Hibbert. They were married in May 1925, and a part of their honeymoon was spent – on a tour of the battlefields of the Western Front. We can only guess why. Perhaps he couldn’t face returning there on his own; or perhaps, as Anne Williamson theorises in her biography, he thought that his young, beautiful and gentle wife would exorcise the ghosts and the trauma of that terrible time.18 The battlefields today, 90 years later, have been largely healed by man and nature, trench systems and shell craters filled in and ploughed over, or softened by trees and grasses. Then, they were much as they had been seven years before, scarred and ugly, as shown by the photographs that Henry took at the time.
During the honeymoon visit Henry made notes in his diary:
Walked from Albert to Beaumont Hamel. Explored Y Ravine and was drenched by rain [. . .] Tall black trees, branchless, standing in marsh. At evening a chorus of bullfrogs began – but no gunflashes lit the whitewashed walls of our room, the trains from Arras rattled noisily past the windows, and a star moved beyond. The dugouts of Y Ravine have subsided, the timbers break with a touch [. . .] Rifle barrels and holed helmets rust in the grasses. Rust and mildew and long green grass and frogs. The Ancre flows swift and hostile as before, gathering its green duckweed into a heaving coat, drowning its white water crowsfoot [. . .] What is to be found in the valley now? The answer is nothing [. . .] Have just seen the German cemetery at La Maison Blanche, at the Béthune-Arras road. 36,000 black crosses with white names and numbers thereon. Packed close together, two by two, back and front, the wooden crosses are planted in chalk. No flowers grow here, except the strays of the old battlefield, charlock, poppy and bindweed. They look in disgrace and unfriended [. . .] Black, black, black, thirty-six thousand of them, stuck in the white chalk. But there were larks above.
And, tellingly, he adds:
Why have I a war-complex? Terrified by war, I now love to let my mind dwell on the immense destructive power & desolation of war. Is this a form of neurosis? I love to imagine guns flashing, & troops marching, and the vastness of our army’s movements & operations. This is, of course, in retrospect, very different from the war that actually was.19
In 1926, when attending the reunion dinner of the original London Rifle Brigade – those who had sailed for France on 4 November 1914 on the Chyebassa – Henry renewed his acquaintance with Douglas Bell. Bell asked for his help with a book that he wanted to publish. This Henry gave willingly, and A Soldier’s Diary of the Great War was published anonymously three years later, with Henry contributing an introduction. The diary itself is, dare I say it, somewhat dull – for like all diaries, unless they are written with posterity in mind, the entries were written to trigger personal memory, not to inform others. Henry realised this of course, for in his lengthy introduction he quotes Bell’s diary entry for 22 November 1914:
Last night we floundered out through an ice-bound slippery communication trench to the reserve line in the wood. Water in our water-bottles was frozen by morning, but by lying close we kept fairly warm; had some straw. Quite a picnic; not so cramped here.
Just three sentences. And Henry writes:
The stranger by the home fire sighs, and says to himself, is that all? A picnic? For life in the reserve line in Ploegsteert Wood on that night [and remember, Henry was there, with Douglas Bell] meant crawling and being pulled out of trenches filled with icy water to the lousy crutch of the trousers: over-burdened men in mud-slabbed overcoats staggering slowly into the wood, to lie down in low shelters of hewn green oak-branches with roofs of mud-filled sandbags, sharp and brittle with brown icicles. Christ! it was cold [. . .] the boots froze stiff, and glittered with frost, while a chaos of shadows ceaselessly fled in the leafless trees, shadows bent and vanishing in the pallid light of flares sinking beyond the eastern edge of the wood. Bullets cracked among the tree-tops, and thudded into the earth-mounded shelters; or, arising in ricochet into the sky, fell with sounds strangely plaintive, between a buzzing and a whining, into the marshes of the wood. The sounds of the spent bullets falling – the wavering greenish pallor of the flares and the silent crooked rising shadows of trees – the swinging of charcoal fires in ration tins perforated by bayonet-jabs – the drone of stray German shells and the red-smoky crash and rattle of shrapnel – perhaps four white stabbing flashes and screaming paa-aa-angs of our field guns farther back in the wood – sudden startling crack crack crack of a machine gun traversing and snapping branches – slow shuffling movements of feet and toneless oaths of a ration party passing by [. . .] mittened hands swung and thumped against stiff and creaking greatcoats – frost pushing its thorns into the quick of each nail on fingers and toes – rumours of the battalion going home after Christmas, ‘coming from the latrine, as usual!’ – bitter agony of frost-bite, yet welcome, for thaw meant the chill of mud which absorbs your very life, your life enslaved and horizonless.20
Thus, with this amazing stream of memory, does Henry expand on a four-line diary entry, and how sharply and vividly he brings it to life.
In the summer of 1927, with Tarka the Otter being readied for the printers, Henry travelled once again to the battlefields, this time with his brother-in-law, William Busby. Articles written up after this visit appeared in the Daily Express under the title ‘And This Was Ypres’, which the newspaper published to coincide with the opening of the great Menin Gate memorial. In the fourth of these articles Henry writes:
I walked after sunset on the ramparts of Ypres, whose brickwork, upholding a deep bank of earth, is scarred, and cracked by shellfire from guns hidden behind the ridges of the semi-circle called the Salient.
Once there were hundreds of dugouts in these ramparts [. . .]
The new Menin Gate rose white and great between two sections of neatly repaired brickwork. [. . .] I heard in my mind, further away than my mind, the marching of the feet of men in sweat and fear, men hopeless and enslaved, the clatter of wheels, and the hoofs of animals not knowing why they were there in the roar and flash and appalling terror of bursting shells.
I left the ramparts, and sought the café where my foot-weary companion was awaiting me. There was much noise in there, and the lights were bright. Men were playing billiards; others talked with animation at the tables; waiters hurried with trays of filled glasses.
I looked up, took a pull at the pale yellow beer, and nodded to him; but the café scene fades, and I am a wraith again in the darkness rushing by, yet stagnant amid the soundless cries, the viewless white flashes of field guns lighting the broken walls and the scattered rubble; the misery of men marching, laden and sweating, out of the sinister ruin of the Menin Gate.21
These Express articles were included in Henry’s first ‘war’ book, The Wet Flanders Plain, which was published by Faber in 1929, a period when there was a positive glut of war novels and memoirs, for the boom was at its height. T. E. Lawrence’s Revolt in the Desert had been published in 1927, while in 1928 had come Edmund Blunden’s Undertones of War, Siegfried Sassoon’s Memoirs of a Fox-Hunting Man and Max Plowman’s A Subaltern on the Somme. In 1929, as well as The Wet Flanders Plain, there was published Richard Aldington’s Death of a Hero, Robert Graves’s Goodbye to All That, Hemingway’s A Farewell to Arms, Ernst Jünger’s The Storm of Steel, and the best-selling war book of all time, Erich Maria Remarque’s All Quiet on the Western Front.
I suspect that, against this considerable competition, The Wet Flanders Plain sank virtually without trace, for Faber did not reprint it. The public was becoming sated with war books. This was an undeserved fate, for it is a fine book, and it contains passages that are as powerful as any written about the war. The foreword to the book, significantly titled ‘Apologia Pro Vita Mea’ – ‘An Apology for My Life’ – is a particularly fine piece of imaginative writing. It was actually first published the previous year, in 1928, as an article in the Daily Express’s ‘I Believe’ series, under the title ‘I Believe in the Men Who Died’. The passage may be familiar to some, but it loses none of its impact. Henry is describing how, when he is high in the tower of Georgeham’s parish church, the thunderous peal of the bells transport him back in imagination to the Western Front:
The great sound sweeps other thought away into the air, and the earth fades; the powerful wraith of those four years of the War enters into me, and the torrent becomes the light and clangour of massed guns that thrall the senses [. . .]
The wraith of the War, glimmering with this inner vision, bears me to the wide and shattered country of the Somme, to every broken wood and trench and sunken lane, among the broad, straggling belts of rusty wire smashed and twisted in the chalky loam, while the ruddy clouds of brick-dust hang over the shelled villages by day, and at night the eastern horizon roars and bubbles with light.
And everywhere in these desolate places I see the faces and figures of enslaved men, the marching columns pearl-hued with chalky dust on the sweat of their heavy drab clothes; the files of carrying parties laden and staggering in the flickering moonlight of gunfire; the ‘waves’ of assaulting troops lying silent and pale on the tape-lines of the jumping-off places [. . .]
Again I crouch with them while the steel glacier rushing by just overhead scrapes away every syllable, every fragment of a message bawled into my ear, while my mind begins to stare fixedly into the bitter dark of imminent death, and my limbs tremble and stiffen as in an icicle while the gaping, smoking parapet above the rim of my helmet spurts and lashes with machine-gun bullets [. . .]
Until in the flame and the rolling smoke I see men arising and walking forward; and I go forward with them, as in a nightmare wherein some seem to pause, with bowed heads, and sink carefully to their knees, and roll slowly over, and lie still. Others roll and roll, and scream and grip my legs in uttermost fear, and I have to struggle to break away, while the dust and earth on my tunic changes from grey to red [. . .] who could have imagined that the big push was going to be like this?
[. . .] A year drifts by, and I am standing on a duckboard by a flooded and foul beek in the Salient, listening in the flare-pallid rainy darkness to the cries of tens of thousands of wounded men lost in the morasses of third Ypres. To seek them is to drown with them [. . .] The living are still toiling on, homeless and without horizons, doing dreadful things under heaven that none want to do, through the long wet days and the longer nights, the weeks, the months, of a bare, sodden winter out of doors.
The survivors are worn out; some of them, tested beyond breaking point, put the muzzles of their rifles in their mouths, in the darkness of the terrible nights, and pull the trigger [. . .]
And in the stupendous roar and light-blast of the final barrage that broke the Hindenburg line I see only one thing, which grows radiant before my eyes until it fills all my world: the sight of a Saxon boy half crushed under a shattered tank, moaning ‘Mutter, mutter, mutter,’ out of ghastly grey lips. A British soldier, wounded in the leg, and sitting nearby, hears the words, and, dragging himself to the dying boy, takes his cold hand and says: ‘All right, son. It’s all right. Mother’s here with you.’
The bells cease, and the power goes from me, and I descend again to the world of the living and move among men who did not go through the fire, and who think the old thoughts, and who seem not to care that it will happen againunless all believe in the sacrifice of the men who died. For it was a sacrifice, and we did believe, in a dull sort of way that out of our loss would come a better world for our children.22
This is an important piece, and it represents a milestone in Henry’s writing about the Great War. Given the Express’s influence and huge circulation at the time, this powerfully written, emotive essay could have been read by upwards of 10 million people. It struck a chord with many, and the newspaper published letters from several of its readers about the strong effect it had had on them, including one from a young student in Germany. One does wonder – what did the future hold for him?
That same year saw the tenth anniversary of the Armistice, and while the great victory of 1918 may be overlooked or forgotten by the general public today, it was occasion for celebration in 1928. Henry was one old soldier who recalled what the Express called ‘the series of terrific engagements that were to culminate in the final collapse of the German military machine’. He wrote a series of articles for the newspaper on ‘The Last 100 Days’ of the war, in the form of contemporary dispatches. Although only short pieces, they are strangely effective, and still manage to convey the human effort and cost of the victory – on both sides. Some brief excerpts illustrate this:
11 August 1918
The tanks suffer, twenty-three out of forty-three receiving direct hits from enemy field guns firing over open sights [. . .] the remainder, stiflingly hot with petrol fumes, so that the crews have to breathe through the mouthpieces of their box-respirators, churn their way through the grass-grown hummocks and hollows of old trenches and subsided dug-outs, among rusty wire tangles, and willows springing out of old shell holes [. . .] the tanks and their crews have fought to a standstill. After an average three hours in a tank in action men begin to suffer from severe headaches and giddiness, sickness, and heart palpitation.23
23 August 1918
The German machine-gunners defended their posts with extraordinary heroism (they were always brave troops), often squatting behind their guns and firing until the very last moment when they were crushed to earth by the tanks lurching upon them at four miles an hour. Every third cartridge in the canvas belts feeding their guns held a copper-sheathed steel-cored bullet; the tanks were pitted all over, and in many cases penetrated, by these bullets.24
3 November 1918
It is difficult to convey the weariness of our own shattered divisions. Since August 8 there have been ninety-six days of almost continuous battle. Every battalion is a ragged composite of drafts from all and every regiment [. . .] everywhere the talk is of an armistice and Peace. It may be a question of days! The ‘boys’ may be home for Christmas – leaving behind friends who are beyond the reckoning of days, but whom they will remember, in odd, still moments, all the rest of their lives.25
Henry’s next war book, published the year after The Wet Flanders Plain, in April 1930, was a very different and remarkable work. A novel, it was called The Patriot’s Progress, and combined the stark, almost crude linocuts of William Kermode with an equally spare, powerful narrative by Henry.
The genesis of the book is interesting. J. C. Squire, then editor of the London Mercury, a literary magazine, introduced the two men to each other in 1928. Kermode, a Tasmanian who had served in the British army during the war and had been awarded the MC, had become known as an artist specialising in linocuts, and had shown a series of these to Jack Squire. He thought that they might form the basis of a book, with the linocuts themselves telling the story, fleshed out with captions, and Henry was approached. Henry had other ideas, and wanted to write a full-length novel. Kermode eventually agreed to this, but insisted that Henry worked closely to the linocuts, so that there was a relationship between the text and the illustrations on each page.
Although Henry resented this insistence, the manuscript of the book, now held in Exeter University’s archive,26 shows how exactly he kept to this brief, for he has actually stuck in the linocut prints, two to a page, and written the narrative around them. The text is written very tightly around the pasted-in illustrations. While I haven’t made a detailed comparison of the text of this so-called ‘rough’ draft with the finished book, certainly the first two pages are virtually the same, word for word.
There are some interesting points about the title page of the manuscript: the title is given as The Patriot’s Progress: His Vicissitudes. This would become The Patriot’s Progress: Being the Vicissitudes of Private John Bullock. Kermode here gets top billing – ‘drawn by William Kermode and related by Henry Williamson’ – this was to be reversed. The linocut on the title page is of a child playing at soldiers, watched approvingly by his father, which I think is a brilliantly ironic touch; this was replaced, and never used in the finished book. In the top right hand corner, Henry has written some thoughts about the jacket design – ‘? barbed wire lettering? Skulls?’ And then in brackets, ‘(Not too realistic: just to indicate)’. The actual book jacket bears a new, more powerful, image of a mourning soldier with bowed head.
The novelist Arnold Bennett, by far the most influential critic of the day, reviewed The Patriot’s Progress in the Evening Standard. His review appeared on 8 May 1930, and was headed ‘The War Story of the Ordinary Man’. He wrote:
There have been so many war books, and so many good war books, and so many good English war books (none better), that on my soul I feel semi-apologetic about mentioning another [. . .]
Well, I must mention yet one more fine English war book: Henry Williamson’s The Patriot’s Progress, illustrated by William Kermode [. . .] It is the account of the war-career of a plain, ordinary man, John Bullock, who entered the army with a dogged sense of duty, and left it minus a leg. The author has not drawn John Bullock as an individual. John Bullock is Everysoldier, and Everysoldier would have been an excellent title for the book. The account is simple, and awful, absolutely awful. Its power lies in the descriptions, which have not been surpassed in any other war-book within my knowledge [. . .] The Patriot’s Progress ought to have a large sale.27
And so it did: it sold well on publication, reprinting twice within a month, and being serialised in the Evening Standard; it has been reprinted several times over the years, most recently as a paperback in 1999. Today it is considered an important contribution to the literature of the Great War. Reconsidering the book thirty years later, however, when a new edition was published, Henry thought that it was ‘mannered to the anti-Staff period of the infantryman’s war of 1915-1917. I [now] wanted to write balanced novels; the staff also had their problems.’28 This is a significant comment, and in the Chronicle war novels Henry is scrupulously fair to the General Staff.
It never took much to trigger Henry’s memories and emotions. For example, during the 1930s he was writing a series of weekly nature articles for the Sunday Referee. In one, written in 1935, he describes a walk over Dartmoor:
While we were walking we heard a dull, faraway report, succeeded by a swishing noise, and, with a loud plop, a dud shell fell fifty yards away. We remembered that this part of the moor was an artillery range, and we were under the arc of fire. As we walked we heard behind us the familiar chromatic whines of heavy stuff, and near the summit of a tor on our left front there appeared the fan shaped bursts of high-explosive shells. Womp-womp-womp-womp. [. . .]
With a mild shock one realised that over twenty years ago the British Expeditionary Force was falling back in exhaustion before the right wing of von Kluck’s army-group, and we were awaiting orders to go overseas.
It seemed but yesterday that one was marching through the Surrey countryside, while villagers and farmers came out with baskets of fruit and jugs of milk and beer for the brigade. How hot was that August sun, how heavy our equipment, how sore our feet, how proud we were afterwards that not a man of the battalion fell out. How we longed for that burning sun three months later, standing all day and all night in the flooded trenches of Ypres.
Now the whining of shells almost drew the heart out of the breast for those vanished scenes and faces.29
Perhaps Henry can be forgiven for being reminded of the war under those particular circumstances! But what a powerful, telling phrase that is: almost drew the heart out of the breast for those vanished scenes and faces. It was this piercing sense of longing for the past – for scenes and faces gone forever – for ‘ancient sunlight’ – that haunted Henry more than anything else, and instilled in him this driving desire to re-create those times, to bring the vanished scenes and faces to life again so that they would never be forgotten.
In 1934 a selection of these Sunday Referee articles was published as part of The Linhay on the Downs. Henry would later refer to this book disparagingly as a ‘potboiler’, but a lengthy essay included in it deserves a wider audience. It was actually written in 1926, and in it he attempts to define his obsession with the war. It is called ‘Reality in War Literature’, and begins with an everyday sound which again pitches Henry back into the past:
A motor car suddenly slowing down in the lane outside my window made a downward droning sound, and in an instant the sunlight on my paper was put out, and I was in deep sucking mud, helplessly and hopelessly pulling the reins of a mule, laden with machine guns, lying on its side on a slough of shell-holes, white streaks arising in a vast semi-circle wavery with shadows homeless in the light of everlasting flares. To avoid the shelled timber track, broken and congested with a battalion transport which had just received several direct hits, the guide had led the file of pack-mules a ‘short cut’ across the morass; the drowning beast snorted and groaned, while the mud glimmered silver behind its ears. Five-nines burst in salvoes around us, with ruddy glares and metallic crashes; bullets, arising in ricochet from the outpost line nearer the flares, moaned and piped away overhead. I stood, hot and sweating, clogged with half a hundredweight of mud. . . . Then a soft downward slurring sound, followed by a dull thud; another, and another, and another. Gas shells! My box-respirator, at the alert position on the chest, was treble-weighted with mud. I could hardly discover my face, so heavy and monstrous were my arms. While I was struggling to fit the mask the brutal whine of five-nines began again along the track, and a salvo dropped in our midst. A driver named Frith started screaming for his mother, and a long time afterwards (it seemed) I was shining my electric torch on his arms and legs tangled and twisted with shreds of his waterproof cape in a heap of dark red slime. A leather-covered trace heaved under the mass, and tautened; a stricken mule reared up gaping, and sagged, and under it Driver Frith sank into the slough.
Nothing at all, as life went; an ordinary incident in the night job of any front-line transport.
And significantly, he then adds:
I admit that I encourage the visitation of old scenes of the war. The sunlight, and agent of life, is often stronger than the haunting wish to be back again; firelight darkness is the best medium, with winter rain flat and quivering on the window. [. . .]
One smell of smoke from a wood fire – it must be deal wood of which the ammunition and ration boxes were made – and I am back again in the German dugouts above the Ancre valley at Baillescourt farm, with smarting eyes. The memories and visions that return at the smell of a fire of bits of deal plank or boxes would alone fill a hundred pages; but would they truly recreate the past? Or would they betray reality by an overplus of melancholy and sadness? For that appears to be the predominant of my psychic make-up. It would seem that only by concentrating on certain incidents, and recreating them as monoliths out of Time, and linking them in a book or series of books, can one recover a fragment of the power of the past.30
In Henry’s Army notebook covering the period when he was with 208 Machine Gun Company there is a list of his mule drivers, and among them, down as the cold shoer for the company’s mules is Driver Frith:31 (A cold shoer’s task was to replace shoes on horses, mules and donkeys without the necessity of a blacksmith’s bulky and heavy equipment of a forge and anvil, which was clearly impractical in front-line areas. A cold shoer would use the nearest suitable size from a batch of shoes already made.)
It is worth exploring this episode just a little further. We can put a date on it, for Private Willis Hirwin Frith, who was from Nottingham, is recorded by the Commonwealth War Graves Commission as having been killed on 8 June 1917, aged 20 – a lad just a year younger than Henry. Frith’s body, like so many, has no known grave, and his name is recorded on the Arras Memorial. That horrific journey on the night of 7/8 June, trudging six long miles in darkness up to the front line with the mules, carrying replacement machine-guns and ammunition, walking into a bombardment of high explosive and gas shells, and witnessing the ghastly death of Driver Frith and his mule, was to be Henry’s final, traumatic memory of the Somme. His short diary entry for 8 June reads: ‘Went sick this morning. Medicine & duty. Raining in evening [. . .] Gassed at B[ullecourt].’32 He was admitted to a Field Ambulance Hospital the next day, constantly vomiting from the gas, and was put on a milk diet. He was invalided home on 18 June, after 18 weeks in France.
By 1935 Henry was thirty-nine years old. In the fifteen years he had lived in Devon he had written nineteen books, two of them bestsellers: Tarka the Otter and Salar the Salmon. He was well established and had a high reputation as a writer, and was broadcasting regularly on BBC radio. But he felt stale, that he had written himself out, that he had said all there was to say about Devon; he wanted to start his novel series, but was unable (and unready) to settle to the task. He needed a change, and a new stimulus to write.
As we know, he then took what many would think either an incredibly courageous or an incredibly foolish decision. In 1937, with no previous experience of farming, he bought a run-down farm of 240 acres on the other side of the country, and moved his family, lock, stock and barrel to Old Hall Farm, on the North Norfolk coast – this at a time when farming was in an extended slump, with cheap food being imported from abroad, and derelict farms and farmland were a common sight.
There would be no income from the farm for the first year, and with virtually no capital he worked by day and wrote articles for the Daily Express and Evening Standard by night. Among these Express pieces was Henry’s first published account of the 1914 Christmas Truce, entitled ‘They Saw the Same Star Rising’, which the Express printed on Christmas Eve, 1937.
Given the importance of the event in his life, it is perhaps surprising that it had taken Henry so long to write about it. Without question his timing was deliberate – for Henry this was an article of faith. International tensions were building and another war was beginning to seem inevitable, a war which he believed with all his being must not happen or be allowed to happen, and the coming of which he dreaded. Naively he thought that no-one who had been a front-line soldier in the Great War – as Hitler had been – could ever want war again. In the article, once more Henry uses an everyday occurrence to bring the past to life again:
The frost glitters in the starlit grasses; the horse pond is frozen; wild geese fly overhead. When I open the granary door, I see bare trees against the sky. It is Christmas again, and I have a rendezvous in ancient sunlight, with you and you and you, unknown comrades of that first Christmas [. . .] when for myself and my friends, a miracle broke into the near-hopelessness of our youthful lives [. . .] A long time ago, Christmas 1914 – twenty-three years – nearly a quarter of a century.
[. . .] The cries of the wild geese bring sharply before me a bare and frozen wood of Flanders, charcoal braziers, bearded men in woollen balaclava helmets, rifles piled, starlight, and wood smoke.
[ . . .] We were in the support line, about 200 yards inside Ploegsteert Wood. It was freezing. Our overcoats were stiff as boards, our boots were too hard to remove, but we rejoiced. The mud was hard too! Also, happy thought, we would be able to sleep that night.
Henry describes going out into No Man’s Land on a working party, the strange, mysterious silence, and the calls from the German lines –
‘Come over, Tommy! We won’t fire at you!’
And he continues:
All Christmas Day grey and khaki figures mingled and talked in No Man’s Land. Picks and spades rang in the hard ground. It was strange to stare at the dead we had only glimpsed, swiftly, from the trenches.
The shallowest of graves were dug, filled, and set with crosses knocked together from lengths of ration-box wood, marked with indelible pencil. ‘For King and Country.’ ‘Für Vaterland und Freiheit.’
Fatherland and Freedom! Freedom? How was this? We were fighting for freedom, our cause was just, we were defending Belgium, civilisation . . . These men in grey were good fellows, they were – strangely – just men like ourselves.33
The importance of the Christmas Truce to Henry cannot be overstated. It was the turning point in his life: the revelation that the war was being fought with soldiers on both sides firmly believing that God and Right were on their side. It was an appalling realisation to the young Henry – that wars could be mistakes, brought about by misunderstandings, by stale mental attitudes – and in the years after the 1914-18 war he consistently endeavoured, through his writings, to bring about changes to these attitudes so that war, particularly between the British and German peoples, should not occur again. In this context we must remember too that Henry was a quarter German, with a German grandmother on his father’s side. He was to view the coming of the Second World War as a personal failure, a failure that contributed in no small way to the nervous exhaustion that almost destroyed him after its end.
In September 1939 the long-threatened war came at last. The Phoney War came and went, and in May 1940 – at a time when the French and British armies were being routed by the Blitzkrieg, and the British Expeditionary Force was falling back in disarray on Dunkirk – Henry wrote a letter that he intended to send to John Rayner, the features editor at the Express, begging to be allowed to write an article, which would propose that a negotiated peace be sought with Germany before England and the British Empire was destroyed. Henry states in the letter:
Please consider this; look ahead; anticipate [the] possibility [of defeat]. Do not think I am just a misguided crank [. . .] I have never been pro-Hitler in the sense of being anti-British; nor was it mere sentimentalism; or pacifism; it was a feeling of urgency, with the power of imagination fortified by all the inexpressive hopes and deaths of my 1914-18 generation lost in Europe: a knowledge that fundamental changes must be made if another Great War was to be prevented. We were not able to see this need for fundamental change; until now it is almost too late; but not too late to be prepared for the next opportunity. Once in 1928 I wrote an article, I BELIEVE IN THE DEAD, which people heeded, in the Express; and if you let me write one now [. . .] I think you could drive it home. You have a vast public, a great power; let Beaverbrook trust to his evangelical side, and act with the swiftness of his genius, before the huddled dissensions of the Cabinet of old men dither and dally and once more miss the bus . . . and we crash to slavery.34
This letter, the draft of which is in Exeter University’s archive, was never sent – perhaps Henry had second thoughts, or it may be that the speed of events in France overtook him; but he did write a version of the proposed article. Though never published, there are passages in this that emphasise again Henry’s overarching credo, and the end to which much of his work had been written – that there should not be, and should not have been, another war. The second Great War had come as a shattering blow to him. The article was actually written on Friday, 14 June 1940 in a cell at Wells-next-the-Sea’s police station, where Henry was very briefly held over a weekend under Defence Regulation 18b, and some short extracts are worth considering here. It begins:
I promised to send an article on the Salvation of Europe to the Editor of a great London daily newspaper, but found I could not write it: the mass of the entire war could not be overcome by one man’s imagination [. . .]
Now I am in a white-washed cell, 12 ft by 7 ft and 34 brick-course high. As a brick is 3 inches think, I guess its 8½ ft high. But I mustn’t waste my pencil on such details, as it is a BB, and soft, and I’m not allowed a knife: sharpening it with my teeth seems to be the only way.
Henry goes on to describe briefly the 1914 Christmas Truce, and then writes:
It was then that I felt myself shocked by an idea that ever since has made me feel a little apart from other people. If only the Idea could spread from our battlefield comradeship [. . .] and over the frontiers to the people in respective countries – people who did not know the truth of war, but who were animated by emotions of hate, self-righteousness, and prejudice. From the brotherhood of the battlefield the new world would be born, out of the bloody sweat and the anguish. The idea of a simpleton indeed! [. . .]
The years dragged on, and now are part of history. When I was free again I wrote The Flax of Dream, a long novel of half a million words, out of the seed-idea of that Christmas fraternisation. It was the story of the ex-soldier trying to dissolve the hate, the self-righteousness, the prejudice of the generation, that had helped cause the war: for in Peace there was no more comradeship – his generation was under the crosses of ration-box wood. [. . .]
For a quarter of a century I have devoted my life to the idea of peace, in a United States of Europe, ever since, as a youth, I had been torn, with inner anguish, from the fields and hedgerows and woods of England that were my very life.35
The Story of a Norfolk Farm was published the following year, in 1941, and Henry’s 1937 article ‘They Saw the Same Star Rising’ is included, virtually unchanged, as a chapter called ‘A Vision of Christmas’. This is a long book, over 400 pages, chronicling Henry’s early years as a farmer. It is not the traditional story of farming endeavour in the manner of A. G. Street’s bucolic Farmer’s Glory – and which Henry’s readers might have been expecting – but a much more uncomfortable book, telling with sometimes painful honesty of the author’s failings and failures – and occasional successes – as he struggled to restore the land and provide a home for his family.
There are other reminders of the Great War in The Story of a Norfolk Farm, too – for instance, when describing a scarecrow, or malkin, an ordinary enough sight in the fields, Henry writes:
It was a most realistic figure of a man, bringing back memories of the chalky cornfields of Picardy – although we never thought of them as cornfields – above the Somme. Jimmy had made the malkin out of an old faded coat and a pair of grey flannel trousers, stuffed with straw. Its paper face was bleached with the sun; and whenever I had seen it, suddenly, as I had been rolling the Hang High field, it had given me a start. The legs were rounded, as though swelled. It looked like something that had died in that position, in a warning attitude, its arms spread out, its shattered head thrown back. Jimmy had been too realistic. The malkin should have conveyed a sense of the comic. Its clothes should have flapped on it. It should have grinned, with a mangold for a face, a pipe, an old shapeless hat, with hair of hay or straw. It was not a scarecrow; it was a reminder of things that had been forgotten, and were likely to happen again, unless men began to think very differently, with the clarity and logic of genius.36
Such was the impact that this scarecrow made on Henry that he used a photograph of it as a frontispiece to the book, and in his own copy he has added a speech balloon, in which he has written: ‘I died in Flanders – I am the unknown soldier – I died for ideals which were not of the market place – my voice is gone, but not my ghost.’
The war in Europe ended in May 1945. Henry’s farm, which he had intended to hand down to his sons, lasted very little longer. His hard-won success had exhausted him, physically and mentally, and he was near to a breakdown. It had cost him his marriage too.
The farm was sold in October 1945. Henry returned to North Devon, to Georgeham, and here, at last, he saw his way clear to begin writing the immense work that he had planned and brooded about for so many years: the fifteen-volume A Chronicle of Ancient Sunlight.
A Chronicle of Ancient Sunlight is a truly remarkable work of fiction. The first volume, The Dark Lantern, was published in 1951, and the last, The Gale of the World, eighteen years later, in 1969. Of these fifteen novels, Henry devotes no less than five to the Great War: How Dear is Life, A Fox under My Cloak, The Golden Virgin, Love and the Loveless and A Test to Destruction. It is impossible to consider here these five ‘war’ novels in any great detail, but they are a remarkable body of work and form the very heart of the Chronicle.
One of the earliest critics to recognise this was Bernard Bergonzi, in his seminal 1965 work Heroes’ Twilight, the first critical survey of the literature of the Great War. Bergonzi considers the Chronicle war novels to be ‘surely the last substantial contribution to the literature of the Great War by a survivor’. Although he is of the opinion that the war novels are perhaps ‘not in the front rank of fictional achievement’, he does consider them ‘an impressive work [. . .] compulsively readable, and, more important, [the] unremitting saturation in the atmosphere and material detail of life both in the Army and on the Home front does leave an accumulative sense of “felt life”’. Bergonzi also notes signs of ‘hasty composition’, and that ‘in the unbroken outpouring of remembered material, considerations of style tend to become forgotten’. Indeed, he feels that the ‘narrative very much resembles an act of total recall by a patient undergoing analysis’. Bergonzi is, I think, wrong here. He was not to know then what we know now – just how much material was based on Henry’s actual war service, and how much on his meticulous research: for the joins between personal history, fictionalised fact and pure fiction are almost invisible, such is Henry’s supreme skill.
But Bergonzi is spot on with his final judgement:
It is fitting that the last of the literary records of the Great War by a survivor of the British ranks should also be the most comprehensive: whatever their failings, the combined breadth of reference and minuteness of detail of the wartime volumes of Williamson’s Chronicle give them an unforgettable quality.37
Bergonzi was also of the opinion, however, that the ‘accounts of Phillip’s home-service and leaves in England are slacker and [written] with a less compelling sense of authenticity’. I never found this to be the case, and I don’t agree with his assessment. One only has to think of Phillip’s excruciatingly embarrassing – and funny – period as a new subaltern with the Cantuvellaunians at Heathmarket, or of his various visits to Freddy’s bar, or the image of a tired and grey Hetty queuing for meat in the winter of 1917-1918 in the opening chapter of A Test to Destruction – these episodes, and countless others, all have the ring of truth.
One such episode may perhaps represent them all. There is a short passage in A Test to Destruction, only just over a page in length, which describes the fleeting friendship – as were so many friendships during the war – between Maddo and Gibbo, both convalescing, who meet by chance in Plymouth. Based on fact, Henry succeeds in painting an exquisite miniature portrait of the friendship in a very few simple words which perfectly captures this fragment of time, and preserves it for ever:
It was a gay summer friendship by the sea, with nothing to check mutual liking. ‘Gibbo’, from Eastbourne, and ‘Maddo’, from south-east London, ate oysters and drank stout in Jones’s Oyster Bar; they walked miles up and down Union Street, seeking interest and pleasure; [. . .] saw flicks at the Savoy, Gaiety, the Palladium, drawn by Charlie Chaplin or William Hart [. . .]
Gibbo sometimes stuck on a Charlie Chaplin moustache, while wearing an eyeglass with his usual languid manner. They were photographed together, Phillip with cap on one side of his head, a lieutenant’s stars on his shoulder-straps, but no ribands on his left breast – thus keeping faith with the undistinguished dead.
It was a tremendous friendship while it lasted; and it lasted all their lives – in Phillip’s memory [. . .]
Dear delightful Gibbo. One afternoon the sunshine seemed not to glitter. ‘I shan’t be seeing you tomorrow, Maddo, my dear. I’m being boarded, and go home by the afternoon train.’
A last toasted teacake at Genoni’s, a last dozen oysters at Jones’s, two final docks of dark brown sherry at the Old Chapel; and then the hand clasp, Gibbo saying calmly through his teeth, ‘Well, all the best, Maddo. I suppose I’ll be back in France this time next month.’
‘I want to get back as soon as I can, Gibbo.’
‘Pity we aren’t in the same regiment, Maddo. It would be fun going over the top together.’
‘Yes, indeed it would, Gibbo.’
‘So long, Maddo.’
‘So long, and all the best, Gibbo.’
So long – for ever.38
This brief episode perfectly illustrates, I think, the considerable achievement that was Henry’s life-work: that of re-creating ‘ancient sunlight’.
In recent years these war novels have come to be recognised too as a unique social history of the war on the Home Front. In Blindfold and Alone, published in 2001 – on British military executions in the Great War – the book first of all gives an overview of the ‘lost world’, as the authors call it, of the golden Edwardian age that vanished with the war. And they state:
One fictional, but quite clearly autobiographical, source of support for this structured view of society before 1914 is A Chronicle of Ancient Sunlight by Henry Williamson [. . .] As a record of suburban English social structure, lives and attitudes before the First World War Williamson’s broad sweep has never been bettered, and gives a far more accurate view of society, as it was, than any retrospective scholastic social history. More importantly, Williamson’s later treatment of the horrors of war is more accurate in its portrayals of men’s reactions than the more self-conscious and shocked reactions of the generally more upper class ‘war poets’, who had never experienced ‘real life’ or the rough brutalities of the workplace before they volunteered for the Front.39
In the Chronicle Henry has left us a magnificent legacy, for no other work of fiction brings to life the first half of the twentieth century, and in particular the years of the Great War, as vividly and as realistically as does this series of novels. In 1943 Henry asked in an article in the Eastern Daily Press, ‘Who will write the War and Peace for this age?’40 He knew, of course, if others didn’t, that this was a rhetorical question, provided he was spared to write it: for the Chronicle is surely the War and Peace of the twentieth century.
Henry, though, had not yet finished writing about the war. Even after A Test to Destruction was published in 1960, the Great War was still with him. It is significant that of all the soldier-writers from the Great War still alive 50 years after – and there were several: Siegfried Sassoon, Robert Graves and Edmund Blunden spring immediately to mind – it was to Henry that the newspapers turned to celebrate the various anniversaries. He wrote three major multi-part articles: ‘Return to Hell’ for the Evening Standard in 1964 on the fiftieth anniversary of the outbreak of the war, ‘The Somme – Just Fifty Years After’ for the Daily Express in 1966, and ‘The Battle of Vimy Ridge’ in 1967 for the same newspaper. Steadfastly, throughout all the years, he continued to keep faith with the men who died.
The Great War shaped Henry’s life, perhaps even gave it its meaning. I think alone of all the writers who came out of that war, Henry kept to this unwavering determination not to forget – or let others forget. I believe that his lasting legacy will not be as a nature writer, but – as Malcolm Brown called him in his Imperial War Museum Book of 1914: The Men Who Went to War – as ‘Henry Williamson, soldier-writer’.41
To return to 1918, and Henry, the young subaltern and budding writer, in Felixstowe: it was while he was stationed there that the Armistice was signed and the war ended. On Monday, 11 November he wrote in his diary: ‘Armistice signed at 5.30 this morning. PEACE! Bands playing, guns, sirens, etc. etc.’ And on 19 November his entry reads: ‘20 German submarines to enter Harwich tomorrow at 12 a.m. Saw scores, painted dragons on bows, saw-edge to cables over conning towers etc. Crews all to attention entering Orwell estuary.’42 So the war ended for Henry. He was still only twenty-two, and a long life lay ahead of him.
My thanks go to Anne Williamson, as manager of Henry Williamson’s Literary Estate, for granting me permission to use the extensive extracts from Henry Williamson’s writings, published and unpublished; and to Charlotte Berry, of the Exeter University Library Archive, for her considerable help in identifying passages in unpublished archive material, and for providing scanned copies.
- Hugh Cecil, The Flower of Battle: British Fiction Writers of the First World War, Secker & Warburg, 1995, p. 2.
- Exeter University Library, MS43/A10/2 (A).
- HW Soc Journal, nos. 17-19, March 1988–March 1989.
- HW Soc Journal, no. 17, p. 5.
- Exeter University Library, MS43/A10/2 (A).
- The Adelphi, January-March 1949; reprinted in Words on the West Wind, The Henry Williamson Society, 2000, p. 50.
- Exeter University Library, MS43/A10/2 (B).
- Henry Williamson, How Dear is Life, Stroud: Alan Sutton Publishing Limited, paperback, 1995, p. 257.
- Henry Williamson, A Fox Under My Cloak, Stroud: Alan Sutton Publishing Limited, paperback, 1996, p. ii.
- Exeter University Library, MS43/A10/2 (B).
- Henry Williamson, A Fox Under My Cloak, Stroud: Alan Sutton Publishing Limited, paperback, 1996, p. 60.
- The Weekly Dispatch, 25 July 1920; collected in The Weekly Dispatch: Contributions by Henry Williamson (1920-21), The Henry Williamson Society, 1983.
- Henry Williamson, The Sun in the Sands, Faber and Faber, 1945, pp. 59-60.
- Sunday Express, 8 January 1922; collected in Stumberleap, The Henry Williamson Society, 2005, p. 46.
- The Sun in the Sands, pp. 113-14
- Daily Express, 5 January 1923.
- Hugh Cecil, The Flower of Battle: British Fiction Writers of the First World War, Secker & Warburg, 1995, p. 112.
- Anne Williamson, Henry Williamson: Tarka and the Last Romantic, Alan Sutton Publishing, 1995, p. 100.
- Anne Williamson, Henry Williamson: Tarka and the Last Romantic, Alan Sutton Publishing, 1995, p. 117.
- [Douglas Bell] A Soldier’s Diary of the Great War, Faber & Gwyer, 1929, pp. xi-xiv
- Daily Express, 23 July 1927; collected in Stumberleap, The Henry Williamson Society, 2005.
- Daily Express, 17 September 1928; collected in Stumberleap, The Henry Williamson Society, 2005.
- Daily Express, 11 August 1928; collected in Stumberleap, The Henry Williamson Society, 2005.
- Daily Express, 23 August 1928; collected in Stumberleap, The Henry Williamson Society, 2005.
- Daily Express, 3 November 1928; collected in Stumberleap, The Henry Williamson Society, 2005.
- Exeter University Library, MS43/13.
- Andrew Mylett, editor, Arnold Bennett: The ‘Evening Standard’ Years: Books and Persons, 1926-1931, Chatto and Windus, 1974.
- Henry Williamson, The Patriot’s Progress, Macdonald, 1968, p. 196.
- Sunday Referee, 26 May 1935; collected in The Notebook of a Nature-lover, The Henry Williamson Society, 1996.
- Henry Williamson, ‘Reality in War Literature’, Henry Williamson Society Journal, 34, pp. 6-7, and The Linhay on the Downs, Jonathan Cape, 1934,pp. 224-226.
- Anne Williamson, A Patriot’s Progress: Henry Williamson and the First World War, Sutton Publishing, 1998.
- Anne Williamson, A Patriot’s Progress: Henry Williamson and the First World War, Sutton Publishing, 1998, p. 130.
- Daily Express, 27 December 1937, collected in Chronicles of a Norfolk Farmer, The Henry Williamson Society, 2004.
- Exeter University Library, MS 43.
- Exeter University Library, MS 43.
- Henry Williamson, The Story of a Norfolk Farm, Faber and Faber, 1941, pp. 270-1.
- All quotes are from Bernard Bergonzi, Heroes’ Twilight: A Study of the Literature of the Great War, Constable, 1965, pp. 213-9.
- Henry Williamson, A Test to Destruction, Sutton Publishing, paperback, 1997, pp. 278-9.
- Cathryn Corns and John Hughes-Wilson, Blindfold and Alone, Cassell, paperback, 2005, p. 29.
- Eastern Daily Press, 19 April 1943, ‘War and Peace’; collected in Green Fields and Pavements, The Henry Williamson Society, 1995.
- Malcolm Brown, The Imperial War Museum Book of 1914: The Men Who Went to War, Sidgwick & Jackson, 2004, p. 58.
- Anne Williamson, Henry Williamson: Tarka and the Last Romantic, Alan Sutton Publishing, 1995, p. 60.
Adapted from a paper given at the Henry Williamson Society Study Day, 18 February 2006; published, with illustrations, in HWSJ 43, September 2007.