The illusion of youth that was ended forever by war

LIKE so many others of his generation, the story of Henry Williamson is that of a boy who went to war and came back a man.

Born on December 1, 1895, he was 18 when war broke out on August 3, 1914.

Growing up in south London, he was on holiday in Devon earlier that year and his son and daughter-in-law still have copies of wildlife diaries he kept of his visits.

The last entry on May 30, 1914 describes a buzzard sighting, and a neat, schoolboy hand writes of its plaintive crys’.

“Like a kestrel, there are several pairs about here: they can often be seen soaring over the hills. The nest was I believe, several nests of different years, ” he said.

The next day Henry said his farewells and returned to Brockley, near Lewisham, in London.

The next entry in the diary is years later and the writing has lost its neatness.

“HW was a soldier two-and-a-quarter months later, in France five-and-a-quarter months later, ” it says.

“And finish, finish, finish the hope and illusion of youth, for ever and for ever and for ever.”

Henry’s daughter-in-law Anne, who has published books on the famed author of Tarka the Otter, has dedicated years to studying his experiences.

“In 1919 he was obviously in a dreadful state, ” she said. “He was in now, what’s called post-traumatic stress.

A private in the London Regiment during 1914 and 1915, he became a junior officer in the machinegun corps in 1916 and 1917.

Henry’s experiences were among many others broadcast in a recent BBC documentary, entitled I Was There: The Great War Interviews.

The interviews were filmed in the 1960s for the BBC documentary The Great War.

However, many were not featured in their entirety, but have now been restored and made available.

Speaking around 50 years ago, Henry Williamson recalls the moment the war broke out.

He had joined the territorial army aged 17, mainly for the sport - boxing and swimming.

“We were all very excited and apprehensive, ” he said.

“There was a whole feeling in the air, which was one of anxiety and at the same time great endeavour and most of us wanted to be out in France before the war was over by Christmas.”

As his diaries show, even in his early days, he was a writer.

Frequently wandering through some of the parks near his family home, he became friendly with the gamekeepers and learnt a tremendous amount’ from them, according to Richard.

“Whatever they told him, he wrote them down as stories. He was like blotting paper - he used to absorb everything.”

This same habit saw him years later turn his pen towards recounting his memories of conflict.

Inspired to write after reading Richard Jefferies’ The Story of My Heart, he found an outlet in his writing and never looked back.

Anne has previously described being with Henry as like being caught in a magnetic storm’.

She expanded on this, saying his personality was very unpredictable’.

“You never knew what mood he would be in, ” she said. “His life was to do with books and so he was living in his imagination more than he was living in the real world.”

Richard and Anne still have a huge number of artefacts that Henry brought back from France.

A water bottle, a German hat and helmet and countless other souvenirs help paint a picture of his life.

“He kept all this because he knew he was living through history, ” said Richard. “He knew he was going to write all this down. He knew he was going to write the definitive social history of the war.”

Anne added: “He never threw anything away. It’s quite incredible the things he kept.”

Henry’s books recounting the war include part of The Chronicle of Ancient Sunlight series.

The 15-part saga details the life and times of a fictional character named Phillip Maddison and his family.

In essence a fictional extension of Henry, five books in the series capture the period of the first world war.

How Dear is Life, A Fox Under My Cloak, The Golden Virgin, Love and the Loveless and A Test to Destruction - all published between 1954 and 1960 - encompass the period of Phillip’s life between 1914 and 1918.

The descriptions in the novels are considered to be some of the most accurate and authentic accounts of warfare committed to the page.

The emotions and memories of the first world war continued to stay with Henry and he watched with dread as history began repeating itself 30 years later.

He was a passionate supporter of appeasement policy before the outbreak of the second world war, but in 1945 as the conflict continued, he tried to commit suicide.

He began walking out to sea, intending to be carried away by the current.

A group of people passing spotted him and dragged him back, despite him telling them to leave me alone’, according to Richard.

“The whole thing had happened again, ” said Richard of the war.

“He had tried to stop it.”

Richard said his father was deeply affected by the first world war - so much so that he dreaded seeing the experiences repeated.

However, at the time Richard said his father knew his life was going to be important’ and for this reason kept his memorabilia and continued to write.

“He kept it bottled within himself, knowing that it would all be released entirely and by 1967 he had completed that, ” he said.

That year marked the publication of A Solitary War, which was the 13th volume of The Chronicle of Ancient Sunlight series and which focused on Phillip’s experiences of the opening months of the second world war.

Friday, March 14, was the day the recent hour-long documentary was broadcast by the BBC, however Richard’s father has been made the subject of his own 30-minute programme, available to watch on BBC iPlayer, where he talks extensively of his wartime memories.

From his early days in the territorial force to the moment his partner was killed right next to him in France and the Christmas Day truce of 1914, Henry’s account encompasses a wealth of experiences.

It is available to watch at

Later this year, the Observer will publish a second feature on Henry, focusing on 100 years since he passed through Chichester on his way to France and the Christmas Day truce.

Visit the Henry Williamson Society’s website for more information about his life and times.