A feature I did on Henry Williamson, one of the best World war one story writers
I have decided to concentrate on one of Henry Williamson’s books from his “Chronicles of ancient sunlight!” – being the life story of one Phillip Madison, from youth to grave in fifteen volumes. Besides a life story the saga can also be considered a social history focus, as the periods covered are late Victorian, Edwardian and Georgian from the 19th and 20th centuries. The volume I have chosen is called “A Test to destruction” which covers the latter part of World War one. It is one of five volumes to highlight this historical period, the others being “How dear is life, A Fox under my cloak, Love and the loveless and the golden Virgin”
The thing I like about Henry Williamson is he can comment on the overall picture and zoom his focus into infinite detail. An example of his overview would be the passage where he waxes lyrical about the western Front as a whole describing the line of trenches that stretched from the North sea to the Alps as “A wound never ceasing to weep from wan dusk to gangrenous dawn” In a brief itinerary of the battlefields, he provides concrete detail with great economy of words i.e. “in the brown, the treeless, the graveset plain of Flanders; amoung the slagheaps and derelict pithead gear of Artios”
Phillip Madison is an interesting Character full of self-doubt and fear, a young man in his early twenties, he has acquired the rank of officer in the Gaultshire Regiment. Having switched from the London Highlanders in the early years of the war. He has far surpassed the expectation and duty of himself yet still considers himself to be a coward and a fraud as an officer. This self-doubt puts him at a disadvantage when it comes to reigning in a lower ranked officer by the name of Captain Kidd, who Phillip loathes and admires at the same time. Mainly because Kidd is the atypical gung-ho soldier that Phillip would wish to be. Yet a more senior officer and friend advises him the reason he outranks Kidd is he is more dependable, solid and sure in his application. Where as Kidd is likely to reckless and wasteful of his men’s lives. There’s a good depiction of the senior officer of his battalion, being a drunken sod.
Kidd proves to be the bane of his life, as Phillip goes from an administration position to a field commission. In time for the great German Advance of 1917, that pierced the frontline of the allies as far south as shell-shot range of Paris. Failing to follow Phillip’s orders on many occasions. Rather than enforce his will Phillip allows Kidd too much rein and creates a lot of self-doubt in his ability as an officer.
Always suffering from a sense of estrangement from his strict Victorian era father, Phillip deliberately gives his cousins address as that of his next of kin.
The relationship between them is highlighted by reaction to news and letters from other members of the family. There’s good historical focus on the homefront as well, writing about the parents situation. Like the episode of Phillip’s mother trying to gain meat for an evening meal, only to come away with a sheep’s head and heart after scouring South East London, from Penge to the Cut market at Waterloo.
His mother is portrayed as a timid, equally doubtful person, highlighting that the overbearing manner of her husband has taken its toll on the self-worth of the family members. With the exception of one sister who personifies the independence afforded to woman by the suffergette movement. Though the mother tries to do whats best, she cannot get things right and as a consequence is bullied by him, when he finds out the truth. Though he blames her, the fault lies with him by creating an atmosphere where by she feels he cannot handle the truth without reverting to type.
Phillip tends to keep a diary hap-hazardly, which is contrary to general routine orders. As any documentation captured can be useful to the enemy.
“Phillip raised his head to the parapet weeds and looked down a valley to the German lines about a mile away. He saw, on ground ascending to the south, the belts of 1917 German wires, Streaking with rusty brown the withered grasses of the valley side. In the distance lay green meadows, in which a glint was the St Quentin Canal. Through field glasses, freckles of Red turned out to be the broken roofs of a village seeming to float on the midday mist.”
Henery Williamson, encapsulates the scene with concrete detail and mixed metaphor about the roofs floating, combined into one paragraph. The sensory detail of the glint being a canal, hints at something known rather than fully observed.
All in all Henry Williamson is an entertaining and Lyrical writer, whose eye for detail shows through ,with great economy of words, he can lavishly describe a scene. The inter-relationship of his Charectors is equally detailed and believable for it. Perhaps there is an element of fictionalised biography to it.