Wednesday, 12 March 2014

Tarka author tells of 1914 Christmas truce

Henry Williamson, 1915, having been commissioned.
 Tarka author tells of 1914 Christmas truce
Remarkable account of the 1914 Christmas truce between British and German soldiers on the Western Front emerges in interview with veteran, never before seen in full

It was one of the most poignant episodes of the First World War – as the guns fell silent and the troops emerged from opposing trenches to come together in no-man’s land to exchange gifts and sing carols, during a brief period of festive peace.
Now, almost a century on, perhaps the most moving account of the Christmas truce of 1914 has emerged, in an interview with a veteran recorded in the 1960s.
Henry Williamson was on a patrol in no-man’s land on Christmas Eve just 50 yards from the enemy lines when it became clear that an informal ceasefire was emerging. His unit had feared they were going to come under attack at any moment, but as the atmosphere became more relaxed, he and his comrades were soon “walking about and laughing and talking”, with no interference from the Germans.
Williamson, a private in the London Rifle Brigade, had been sent on the operation from the British lines at Ploegsteert – part of the front near to Ypres, in Belgium.
He recalled: “We crept out, trying to avoid our boots ringing on the frozen ground, and expecting any moment to fall flat with the machine guns opening up. And nothing happened. And within two hours we were walking about and laughing and talking, and there was nothing from the German side.
“And then about 11 o’clock I saw a Christmas tree going up on the German trenches. And there was a light. And we stood still and we watched this and we talked, and then a German voice began to sing a song – Heilige Nacht. (from the German carol Stille Nacht, Heilige Nacht, or, in English, Silent Night).

Henry Williamson's letters home

“And after that, somebody, ‘come over, Tommy, come over’. And we still thought it was a trap, but some of us went over at once, and they came to this barbed wire fence between us which was five strands wire ... hung with empty bully beef tins to make a rattle if they came. And very soon we were exchanging gifts.”
The following day, the exercise was repeated. Williamson recalled: “The whole of no-man’s land as far as we could see was grey and khaki. There they were, smoking and talking, shaking hands, exchanging names and addresses for after the war, to write to one another.”
Williamson – who would later become famous as the author of Tarka the Otter- also describes an exchange with an opponent, as the two sides were burying their dead and he observed the Germans marking their graves with little wooden crosses, made from ration boxes, with writing, in indelible pencil, ‘Für Vaterland und Freiheit’ - ‘For Fatherland and Freedom’.
“I said to a German, ‘excuse me but how can you be fighting for freedom? You started the war and we are fighting for freedom’,” Williamson said.
“And he said, ‘excuse me, English comrade – Kamerad – but we are fighting for freedom. For our country.’ And I say, ‘You also put, ‘Here rests in God, ein unbekannter Held ‘ – Here rests in God an unknown hero. In God? ‘Oh yes, God is on our side.’ I said, ‘he’s on our side.’ And that was a tremendous shock. One began to think that these chaps, who were like ourselves, whom we liked and who felt about the war as we did,” he added. The two sides began to argue over who would win the war, until the German said: “Well English comrade, do not let us quarrel on Christmas Day.”
Williamson confirmed in the interview that football matches were played during the truce but said that these had been behind the German lines, rather than in no-man’s land, and does not specify whether they involved both British and German troops.
The truce went on for four days before a British order came round that fraternisation had to stop. The Germans also sent over a note saying their senior officers were visiting the trenches that night, that they would have to fire their machine guns, but would do so high, to avoid hitting anyone.
The interview was recorded in 1964 for the landmark BBC series, The Great War, but only a segment was used. From Tuesday, an extended version will be available on the BBC iPlayer, while on Friday, excerpts, along with unseen testimony from other veterans, will be shown in a BBC Two programme, “I Was There: The Great War Interviews”.
Williamson’s son, Richard, said that the interview had been the only time his father had talked openly about his experiences. “He had never talked about the war with us as children. He would tell us it wasn’t possible. The show was a catalyst. It drew our father out,” said Mr Williamson, 79.
He said his father had found Christmas a difficult time of year and usually wanted to be alone. He has seen a preview of the new show. “It was very moving to see him talking again. It was almost difficult to watch without tears.”
Christmas Presents from Princess Mary
Williamson had joined the Territorial Army before the war, as a private in the London Rifle Brigade.
After the outbreak, he recalls their bayonets being taken off to be sharpened. “When they came back we were a little bit nervous about the sharpness, because we realised the other side had bayonets also,” he said.
Shortly after the truce, he was invalided home after a gas attack. He remained in Britain for two years, recovering, and undergoing training. He returned to the front near to where the Battle of the Somme had recently been fought. But, in June 1917, he was once again injured, after another gas attack. He recovered but was not considered fit for service on the front, although he appears to have returned for three weeks in 1918, during Germany’s Spring Offensive.
In his interview, he described the mud of the trenches, which claimed the lives of some men. “Some of our chaps slipped in and were drowned and weren’t seen until we trod on them perhaps later.” When heavy frosts came, the mud ceased, but the trench was “half ice” and had to be abandoned.
He also recalls waiting for an attack which, in the end was called off. “I felt drained out and when I tried to get up I couldn’t. My knees were wobbling.”
As well comrades killed in action, he remembered one who died after swallowing what he thought was his rum ration. In fact, this had been stolen from the bottle and replaced with a chemical fluid to avoid detection. As befits someone who would go on to become a leading naturalist, he also recalled the suffering of mules and horses used.
In his interview, Williamson also speaks poetically about the onset of peace, when the guns fell silent on November 11, 1918.
“No more very lights going up with their greenish wavering flare. No lilies of the dead, in the light. No flash of howitzers on the horizon. No downward droning of the shells. no machine guns. No patrols going out. Just nothing. Silence.”
After the war, deeply traumatised, he moved to Devon and started to write about natural history – partly in response to his experiences. Tarka was first published in 1927 and has never gone out of print.
However, his experiences had also driven him in other, darker directions. His abhorrence of conflict led him to believe that it was best avoided by strong, authoritarian leaders.
He attended the 1935 Nuremberg Rally, spoke warmly of Adolf Hitler and became a follower of Oswald Mosley, the British fascist. However, he later attacked Hitler as “wicked” and “Lucifer”.
Richard Williamson’s wife Anne, 77, who has written a book chronicling her father-in-law’s war career, said: “The 1914 truce marked him for life. His writing was cathartic and the 1964 interview gave him an opportunity to express what he felt out loud – as opposed to the inner writing – which no doubt helped him to come to terms with what had happened.
“The modern emphasis on his politics puzzling – actual politics were minimal in his life. It was the prevention of war that occupied him. He was not a fascist in the sense that we understand it today. He thought Hitler – as an ex-soldier and having seen the same horror as he had – would never consider another war.”

Williamson died in 1977, on the very day that the death of Tarka was being filmed for a celebrated film adaptation.

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