Henry Williamson was of the First World War generation from whose experiences emerged a new but eternal world-view. Williamson, like Knut Hamsun in Norway, saw man’s place in Nature as the ultimate source of one’s being, an idealization of nature as a reaction against the machine and the bank. The hope was of a new Springtime for the West in Spenglerian terms, the rural against the urban, the rootedness of the soil and of working the land against the nebulous city masses. It was what Spengler had called the final battle of “Civilization-Blood Against Money.”
Yet, whilst Williamson, like Ezra Pound and Hamsun, are recognized as having a crucial impact upon twentieth Century literature, these figures have been consigned to the memory hole. This is due to them not only having identified with new political forms but (unlike some of their contemporaries) to have never repudiated them. For this they cannot be forgiven by the liberal and Jewish coteries that control Western publishing and literary and artistic criticism. Williamson’s outlook shaped by both his experiences in the trenches and in his attachment to nature, unsurprisingly led him to an appreciation of National Socialism, with its concept of ‘Blood and Soil.’ and to the Fascism of Sir Oswald Mosley.
Williamson was born 1st December 1895 in London, the son of a bank clerk. As a child, he had an intense love of nature, spending much time exploring the nearby Kent countryside. He was intent on closely observing things for himself, this faculty remaining with him throughout his life and forming his writing style as the author of his famous and well-loved nature books.
World War I
Williamson enlisted in the army on the outbreak of the war, and fought on the Somme and at Passchendale where he was seriously wounded. He was invalided home in 1915, but was back as an officer in France in 1916. He came out of the war as a Captain with a Military Cross. It was his war experiences, together with his love of nature that prompted him to seek out and experience the “life flow” that pervades all existence.
An enduring experience for Williamson was the Christmas Truce of 1914, when Germans and Englishmen left their trenches to fraternize and play soccer. Men such as Williamson returned from the war far from hating Germans and determined that never again would ‘brother Europeans’ fight among themselves for the sake of greed and selfishness
After demobilization, Williamson returned to his family home and entered employment with the Weekly Dispatch in Fleet Street. He had his first articles published in several major periodicals. In 1919, he read The Story of My Heart by the nineteenth Century English nature writer Richard Jeffries. This was to have a crucial impact upon Williamson as a revelation that he — the individual self — is more than an isolated echo but a link that stretches without beginning or end in a cosmic flow. It was the sun that represented the symbol of this timelessness and unity. For Williamson this truth — known to all traditionalist civilizations, but smothered in our materialistic society — is that of a mystical union between the eternal sunlight and the earth. The symbol of the ancient sunlight was something ‘born within.’
Williamson “came to feel the long life of the earth back in the dimmest past while the sun of the moment was warm on me . . . This sunlight linked me through the ages to that past consciousness. From all the ages my soul desired to take that soul-life which had flowed through them as the sunbeams had continually found on earth.”
It was now that he embarked on the first volume, The Beautiful Years, of Flax of Dream. In 1922, Williamson returned to the countryside and rented a cottage that had been built in the days of King John, next to the local church in Georgeham, North Devon. Williamson lived here hermit-like and studied nature in detail, tramping the countryside and sleeping out. The doors and windows of his cottage were always open, and he gathered about him a family of dogs, cats, gulls, buzzards, magpies, and an otter cub. The otter, Tarka (meaning little water wanderer), had been rescued by Williamson after a farmer had shot its mother. The otter would walk like a dog alongside Williamson. One day it walked into a rabbit trap, panicked, and fled. Williamson spent years looking for Tarka following the rivers Taw and Torridge. He didn’t find Tarka, but his intimate contact with nature inspired him to write his most famous nature book Tarka the Otter. Published in 1927, this popular book was an intimate description of the English countryside, and gained Williamson the Hawthorne Prize for Literature in 1928.
In 1925, he married and his first son was born the following year. In 1929, the family moved to Shallowford, Devon, where over the next thirteen years four further children were sired, and more books were published, including Salar the Salmon. From 1937-45 the Williamson family lived at the Old Hall Farm in North Norfolk, where many more books and articles were written, and a sixth child was born.
Like Mosley and the many veterans who joined his British Union of Fascists, Williamson as appalled by the prospect of another war that would soak the fields of Europe again with the blood of closely related peoples.
Not only did the fraternity that had briefly existed between Germans and Englishmen on the Somme on Christmas Day 1914 forever affect him, but he was also greatly influenced by the act of the German officer who had helped him remove a wounded British soldier caught in barbed wire on the front line. Williamson was therefore able to contrast what he knew of the chivalry of the Germans with the anti-German hate propaganda that the press had begun to resurrect with the advent of Hitler. Williamson saw in National Socialism a spirit that could bring a dying Western civilization back to its wellspring of life. He felt duty-bound to raise a voice. He was one of the first to commit himself to Mosley and the British Union of Fascists, and championed Hitler as the visionary leader of European rebirth. In The Flax of Dreams and The Phoenix Generation Williamson was to describe Hitler as “the great man across the Rhine whose life symbol is the happy child.”
Williamson attended the 1935 Nuremberg Congress and was impressed by the economic and social achievements of Germany whilst the British continued to languish in poverty and unemployment. He saw a racial community based on the values of land and a revived peasantry, freed from banker’s interest, guaranteed from foreclosure, and the pioneering conservation laws and projects. Williamson saw in the faces of the German people expressiveness and confidence that looked as if they were “breathing, extra oxygen” as he put it.
In the Hitler Youth, reminiscent of his days as a Boy Scout, Williamson observed: “the former pallid leer of hopeless slum youth transformed into the suntan, the clear eye, the broad and easy rhythm of the poised young human being.”
Lest it be objected that Williamson was seeing Germany through rose colored glasses, very much the same description was given by the American journalist William Shirer, author of the perennially published basic anti-Nazi text The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich, whose hatred of Hitler is beyond doubt:
The young in the Third Reich were growing up to have strong and healthy bodies, faith in the future of their country and in themselves and a sense of fellowship and camaraderie that shattered all class and economic and social barriers. I thought of that later, in the May days of 1940, when along the road between Aachen and Brussels one saw the contrasts between the German soldiers, bronzed and clean cut from a youth spent in the sunshine on an adequate diet, and the first British war prisoners, with their hollow chests, round shoulders, pasty complexions and bad teeth-tragic examples of the youth that England had neglected so irresponsibly in the years between the wars. (Shirer, p. 256)
To Williamson, National Socialist Germany represented “. . . a race that moves on poles of mystic, sensual delight. Every gesture is a gesture from the blood, every expression a symbolic utterance. Everything is of the blood, of the senses.”
Williamson said, “The spirit of the farm and what I was trying to do there, was the spirit of Oswald Mosley. It was all part of the same battle” (Skidelsky).
With characteristic descriptiveness, Williamson, writes:
Rats, weeds, swamps, depressed markets, laborers on the dole, rotten cottages, polluted streams, political parties and class divisions controlled by the money power, wealthy banking and insurance houses getting rid of their land mortgages and investing their millions abroad (but not in the empire), this was the real England of the period of this story of a Norfolk farm.
In The Story of a Norfolk Farm he writes of his vision:
One day the sewage of the cities will cease to be poured into the rivers, and will be returned to the land, to grow fine food for the people. One day salmon will leap again in the clear waters of the London River; and human work will be creative and joyful.
One day the soul of man, shut in upon itself during the long centuries of economic struggle, will arise in the light of the sun of truth. And now I lay down the pen and return to the plow.
In The Phoenix Generation, he expresses his vision again through the autobiographical Philip Maddison, the returned soldier, his generation denied the ‘land fit for heroes’ that had been promised by the politicians:
When the soil’s fertility is being conserved instead of raped, when village life is a social unity, when pride of craftsmanship returns, when everyone works for the sake of adding beauty and importance to life, when every river is clean and bright, and the proud words ‘I serve’ are in everyone’s heart and purpose. Then my country will be good enough for me.
Williamson wrote for Mosley’s paper Action. He called for Anglo-German brotherhood, recognizing that Hitler desired nothing more than peace with Britain. He saw that the result of another war would be the bringing of Asiatic Bolshevism to the heart of Europe. He sought to have his friend T. E. Lawrence (of Arabia) join with Mosley in a peace campaign. Lawrence was returning from having posted his letter to Williamson agreeing to such a campaign when he had his fatal motorbike accident.
With Mosley’s rallies attracting larger audiences than ever in 1940, Williamson wrote to Mosley. If he could see Hitler, as a common soldier who had fraternized, on the faraway Christmas Day of 1914, with the men of his Linz battalion under Messines Hill, might I not be able to give him the amity he so desired from England, a country he admired. “Williamson visited Mosley full of hope, but Mosley’s reaction was that “I am afraid the curtain is down.” Williamson nodded, and asked Mosley what he would do. Mosley replied that he would carry on as long as possible working for peace.
In 1940 around a thousand Englishmen were interned without trial for opposing the war, including Mosley and 800 BUF members. Williamson was among those arrested. Williamson was paroled on condition that he remained silent. With this defeat of Germany Williamson stated that his hopes for a regenerated Europe had been killed.
Gale of the World
His marriage broke up in 1947. He returned to North Devon to live on the hilltop hut he had bought in 1928. In The Gale of the World, the last volume of his 15 volume autobiographic Chronicles of Ancient Sunlight, Williamson has his main character Philip Maddison (i.e. himself) questioning the legality of the Nuremberg Trials, the devastation of Germany, and puts the blame for the mass deaths in German concentration camps partly on the Allied bombing of the German transport system.
Williamson remained loyal to Sir Oswald Mosley (the character Sir Hereward Birkin in The Gale of the World). In this last volume he has Maddison write some notes for guidance to any young, writer, a survivor of the Second World War who aspires to write a War and Peace for this age. Williamson asks hopefully whether such a writer might write from his own spirit and vision, “unimpeded and unimpaired by contemporary massed emotions to truly show the luminous personality of Adolf Hitler”: to write with “divination and truth, without admiration or contempt, and above all without moral judgment, of the causes and effects of the tragic split in the mind of European man, from which arose this war.”
The creator of a work of art, continues Williamson/Maddison, will reveal the truth of this age, “holding in balance the forces and counter forces which led to the disintegration of the West.”
The mind of the poet must with detachment assess the fatal war with an “admired sister nation,” which resulted in exposing the West to “a greater ruin from the East,” because a leader (Churchill) pursued Britain’s centuries old policy of European “balance of power” and thereby endorsed the further decline of the West by destroying Germany.
Williamson/Madison, questions whether there was a soul of Britain or just a “disruptive determination,” arising from its island isolation and its position of wealth from trade. “Its policy for four hundred years has been to rule by money, thus keeping in division the continent of Europe,” as Winston Churchill has written in an early autobiography:
And will history decide that this European of great talent and emotion [Churchill] felt it to be his crowning purpose in life to balk and destroy a fellow European [Hitler] of genius-who could build only because he had forced out money for money’s sake?
The war had been that of the ‘spiritually damaged.’ The German leadership was being tried and executed unchivalrously, for war crimes, when the Soviets had been guilty of Katyn. When thousands of shopkeepers in France were murdered and their shops looted, they were condemned as ‘collaborators.’
Early in The Gale of the World, Maddison notes that after Berlin had been subdued from the shelling by 11,000 guns
rape and sadism preceded slow murder. Neither those ‘war criminals’ nor their Russian Generals are being tried at Nuremberg.
What of the so-called Allied war crimes? We are impotent to do anything about the loss of Poland’s integrity.
What the war was about for Churchill, and those who sought to keep Europe down and divided, was the preventing of Hitler from making Europe united and self-sufficient, and independent of loans and imports.
For this is what the war was about; it was not directly about Synagogues burned down or heads shaved or Catholics saying Mass or anything else which the man in the street was told, since that was ALL he could comprehend. The war, was, and remains, an economic war; and historically speaking, the misery of generations is less in eternity than a wave expending itself on a rock. The European wave breaks, and is no more.
Williamson has a doctor attached to the dispossessed Ukrainians in Britain, pointing out that Hitler ordered the halt of the German tanks at Dunkirk:
Declaring that he had no quarrel with the English, and wished not to invade or injure in anyway a ‘cousin nation.’ the Fuhrer said that if the British Empire went down, the Germans, although they would win the war in Europe, would go down under Bolshevism. Because we did not command the sea as well.
Williamson was acutely aware that the Soviets had been permitted to invade half of Europe while the British and American forces were held back; that they would soon have the atomic bomb.
Maddison notes on the radio news the final words of the defendants at Nuremberg as they went to the deaths on the scaffold. Immediately he makes a note:
Herman Goring shot down Manfred Cloudesley over Mossy Face Wood at Havrincourt in 1918. He saw that his enemy, who had killed nine of his Richtofen Staffel pilots, had the best surgeons and treatment in hospital. This morning Goring committed suicide, better to have died on the cross, old Knight of the Order Pour le Merite.
Although Williamson does not say it, one here wonders what it was that made the victory of World War II and its aftermath so different from that of Europe’s previous brothers’ wars up until 1918. Napoleon had been comfortably exiled and continued to exercise dominion over his island home and was treated honorably. The Kaiser was exiled to Holland. Yet, now the German leadership was condemned to death on a new set of legal principles alien to the Western ethos and contrived for the specific purpose of eliminating them. This was not Western justice and chivalry, but Old Testament vengeance
Post War and Oswald Mosley
Williamson was one of the first to respond to Mosley’s call for a United Europe and wrote for the new magazine of Mosley’s Union Movement, The European, in which he proclaimed the birth of a new Europe in tune with nature.
In The Gale of the World, he describes Mosley’s (Sir Hereward Birkin’s) background. Birkin’s political career, after returning from World War I, had began with original thinking at least two generations before his time. He was the youngest member to enter Parliament soon after the war. He left the Tory Party because of its staid manner and joined the Labour party.
Many perceptive men recognized him as a young man of outstanding brilliance, industry and courage. Now let the author of this book speak for himself. Williamson then quotes from Mosley’s book The Alternative:
We were divided and we are conquered. That is the tragic epitaph of two war generations.
That was the fate of my generation in 1914, and that was the doom of a new generation of young soldiers in 1939. The youth of Europe shed the blood of their own family, and the jackals of the world grew fat. Those who fought are in the position of the conquered, whatever their country. Those who did not fight, but merely profited, alone are victorious.
Williamson takes up Mosley’s post-war analysis, stating that Fascism had failed because it was too national. Its opponent, financial democracy failed too. “It could only frustrate those who would build a New Order.” There follows a large segment from The Alternative, ending with a call for Europeans to overcome their old wounds and rivalries and march onward in the “European Spirit.” Williamson remained true to what he had always believed.
Like Ezra Pound and Knut Hamsun, he was denied all honors and ignored for decades. Williamson was even denied an honorary doctorate from the university to which he was a benefactor.
In 1950, he remarried and sired another son, divorcing in 1968. His Chronicle of Ancient Sunlight was written between 1951 and 1969, and was acclaimed as a masterpiece of English literature, despite the efforts of certain interests to obliterate his name. He published his final book The Scandaroon in 1972, the story of a racing pigeon. In 1974, he began working on the script for a film of Tarka. Unknown to Williamson, filming went ahead despite the failing health that prevented him from completing the task himself. Willamson died on 13 August 1977 and was buried in North Devon.
Chapter 6 of Thinkers of the Right: Challenging Materialism (Luton, England: Luton Publications, 2003).
Editor’s Note: For more on Henry Williamson, see the website of the Henry Williamson Society, http://www.henrywilliamson.co.uk/