Tuesday, 8 November 2011

Reflections on the Somme

Henry Williamson

by John Roberts

It is heartening and encouraging to see the English writer Henry Williamson’s name crop up and it was good to see reader Michael Woodbridge mention him in a letter a few years ago.
I, too, am a member of  The Henry Williamson Society and for the benefit of readers of European Socialist Action the following is an article, albeit slightly revised, which I submitted to the society’s newsletter some time ago. It was written after a fascinating journey to The Somme and places associated with Henry, organised by the society.
Mr Woodbridge’s comment in his letter is, I feel, worthy of repeat here. “..... (The Henry Williamson Society) ..... although it purports to be non-political nevertheless can not deny that Williamson represented the spirit of England which Mosley sought to champion”.

Battlefield Tour

“The English Channel is free of U-Boats and the Kaiser’s navy is sunk. The coast is clear”. Thus to paraphrase our intrepid astonishingly well-informed guide Paul Reed (you may well have seen him of late on various television programmes on the Great War including Michael Palin’s documentary on the last hours of the war, shown in November 2008), setting the scene on a bright day in Dover for a riveting and extraordinary moving tour of The Somme battlefields in Northern France.
Memories of this tour are already indelibly inscribed in the mind. Placing a wreath on a lonely, windswept cemetery in the middle of a field. “May he rest in ancient sunlight” (an allusion to HW’s Chronicles of Ancient Sunlight series of books); the rusty remains of a shell unearthed by farmers after 90 years. There was a palpable sense of occasion here.
Other abiding memories are the soft Spring showers, wind driven, gently spattering the Portland stone. “A New Zealand soldier of the Great War”. Sgt J. Montgomery, Royal Irish Rifles. 1st July 1916, age 24”. The oak leaf crest of the Cheshire Regiment. Atop the hill beyond Serre Road Number 2 Cemetery, a steely threatening grey sky; in the foreground, bright Spring sunshine illuminating the Portland stone and daffodils. A poem is read by Gilbert Waterhouse; it alludes to nightingales in one verse. As we listen, we can hear skylarks.
Afterwards, we gaze at the lone cross in the corner of a field; an officer, Valentine Braithwaite: Somerset Light Infantry. “A corner of a foreign field that is forever England”. Those well-worn words sprung into the mind unbidden and acquire a stark relief this Spring afternoon.
For me, what makes Henry Williamson’s work so fascinating is how we can be drawn into a visionary, almost mystical sense of the English countryside, yet there is a keenness, an edge given by Henry’s experiences of the Great War. War and nature in close proximity; the blasted trees, the skylarks above the guns. At Lochnager crater (‘Le Grande Mine’ on the road signs with the poppy symbol by a row of typically French trees) we observe the poppies cast down into the crater’s base; a hare makes a brief appearance. In nearby fields where the Tynesiders moved forward, we can see the yellowhammers and skylarks.
We view ‘The Golden Virgin’ of Albert town across the fields, whilst Richard (Henry’s eldest son) reads in the midday breeze. The Angelus bell has just rung from a nearby church. In the distance, those so typical copses of trees.
A poignant address at the Arras memorial; the tragic circumstances of Private Frith’s death were recorded by HW along with his trusty mule. This I found an extraordinarily moving passage. The combination of man and beast. Those dignified, graceful and innocent creatures who obediently assist, even in the horrific midst of war. How often we are inclined to let their contribution slip from our memory. The Dickin Medal, initiated by the PDSA founder, Maria Dickin, has rightly been awarded to horses, dogs, cats, even pigeons.
I rediscovered Henry Williamson only a few years ago. My wife, Geraldine, was having treatment for cancer (happily she is now in remission) and I came across an article on HW whilst attending the infirmary in Leeds where she was receiving chemotherapy.
In the booklet given out to accompany the tour, Richard Williamson wrote an introduction and one of the things he wrote made a marked impression.

To quote: “A soldier sees things that others never see”.

This line ignited my imagination. Perhaps a soldier, in having to face certain truths about himself and the world around him, is in a similar condition to that of the artist. Maybe not the same immediate danger but there are connections in terms of discipline. Henry Williamson was, of course, an artist and a soldier.
To the artist or writer, a constant, acute and tireless observation of his or her surroundings is in their very nature. The activities of a soldier and artist also involve that acute presence of mind.
These musings brought to mind the poet Henry Reed who wrote Naming of Parts. On one level this is a description, with a sardonic edge, of a soldier’s training routine; in this case, rifle training. Yet Reed displays an awareness of his surroundings: it is obviously Spring. “The Japonica glistens like coral in the neighbouring garden”.
There are fascinating metaphors and juxtapositions made between the rifle instructions, so mechanical and matter of fact and equally precise observations of the beauty and fragility of nature. “Almond blossoms silent in the garden”.
When he refers to “Easing the Spring” on a rifle, there is a marvellous interplay of the meaning. The early bees “are assaulting and fumbling the flowers”. “Easing the Spring” is transfigured from a technical instruction to an acute observation on the emergence of the season of Spring.
There is also the further idea that everything has a name, whether it be the breech of a rifle or a genus of blossom tree, though their ‘natures’ and purposes are entirely different.
A soldier will also see things in the sight of a rifle. Perhaps an animal, the shadow of foliage on the bark of a tree in bright sunshine; the particular hue of brickwork on a barn or wall; a cobweb on a windowpane; the murmur of breeze; a bird darting across the vision.
Henry had the same acuteness of vision. To me, this ‘colliding of worlds’ is what makes Henry Williamson’s so compelling. He saw how war affects the natural world and how the natural world subsists even during war. How animals and insects react to man’s destructive potency.
I am sure that Henry’s acute, almost mystical awareness of the natural world, yet also his experience of the waste and barbarity (and dignity and heroism it can reveal) are what gives his work such energy, vitality and potency.
Another poem which came to mind unbidden is “All day it has remained” by Alun Lewis. Damp training tents; the tedium of the day: the discomfort. Rain pours on mankind whether he is at peace or war. The skylarks still sing, despite the guns.
Readers might be interested to know, if you are ever in Yorkshire, about Sledmere House near Driffield (East Riding).
Sledmere, on the Yorkshire Wolds, is the home of the ‘Wagoners Special Reserve’; these were agricultural workers skilled in the working of horses and wagons: they were amongst the first to join the British Expeditionary Force in August-September 1914. There is a small museum which documents the unique contribution which these men made, some of whom had never left the village in which they were born, amongst the first to serve their country abroad. These men of the Yorkshire Molds, of which there were a fair few, are celebrated here through memorabilia and medals. There is also an excellent (and very reasonably priced) cafe serving teas and lunches.
There is an interesting pair of memorials in Sledmere village itself, one in particular displaying a bas-relief of the Wagoners’ experience of the Great War (although somewhat controversial due to its somewhat lurid and savage depiction of the German army).
Sledmere is something of a well-kept secret. With its Arboretum of ancient trees (the likes of which I have only seen at Mourne Park House, Kilkeel, County Down in Northern Ireland), I am sure it is a place Henry would have appreciated.

For further details of Sledmere House phone 01377 236637

The Battlefields tour organised by the Henry Williamson Society occurred at Eastertide 2006.

copyright © John Roberts 2011
ESA No 37  November/December 2011

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