(Vol. 4, A Chronicle of Ancient Sunlight)



hdl 1954 front  
First edition, Macdonald 1954  

The background


The book


Critical reception


Book covers


Index and Chronology



First published Macdonald, 25 October 1954 (12s 6d net)


Panther, paperback (slightly revised), March 1963


Reprinted Macdonald, 1966, 1984


Zenith, paperback, 1985


Sutton Publishing, paperback, 1995


Currently available at Faber Finds



The title is taken from the words of Admiral Lord Nelson as he was dying: 


How dear is life to all men.

(Quoted on the half-title page)


Dedicated to C.M.D.W. (HW’s second wife Christine, née Duffield).



At the end of the previous volume, Young Phillip Maddison, Phillip had just left school and had obtained a job on probation as clerk at the Moon Fire Insurance Office, to start on Lady Day (25 March).


As How Dear Is Life opens, Phillip is preparing for his first day at the Moon Office in ‘Wine Vaults Lane’ as Part One is titled, with the ominously prescient Shakespeare quotation:


And summer’s lease hath all too short a date.


In this volume we follow Phillip through his first months in this somewhat mundane job during the summer of 1914, leading up to the declaration of war on 4 August, his training as a soldier with ‘The London Highlanders’ (Part Two: ‘The Great Adventure’), and their embarkation for France and the terrifying scenes in the trenches of the Front Line as, instead of being support in the communications sector as they had thought, being Territorials, they are thrown into the Front Line (Part Three: ‘The Red Little, Dead Little Army’).  






The background:


HW’s diary entry for 19 September 1953 reveals that he had just returned from a visit to Bungay in Suffolk, where his first wife Loetitia (Gipsy) was living, and where he had been to the annual Aston Martin meeting at Snetterton Motor Races in honour of Jock Horsfall – the eminent Aston Martin racing driver, who had lived at Botesdale when HW lived there after the sale of the Norfolk Farm, and the reason why HW bought his own (second-hand) Aston Martin. This thoroughbred car had continuous problems causing constant grumbling about poor quality garage work (it had broken down several times on this trip alone!). He expected to find the proofs of Young Phillip Maddison waiting for him on his return:


No proofs of Young PM. Damn! I want to read them to get back into the feeling, in order to get on with Book 4, now the old title of Goodbye My Bluebell.


This was a ‘Part’ sub-title from the material removed from Young Phillip Maddison as far too long. So, in effect, most of the material for this new volume was already written – but that title was (fortunately!) never mentioned again. The next diary mention on Monday 26 October states (obviously having dealt with the Young Phillip Maddison proofs meanwhile):


Finished new chapter 1 of How Dear Is Life.


It is obvious that he is re-writing all the material.


On 5 November he sent off the first 66 pages to his current typist, Mrs Tippett, in Cornwall. But he records that he and Christine are not getting on very well together (a year later she reveals she was already at this point having an affair with a local artist – more anon).


On 12 November he was in London ‘To open Greenacres Primary School, Eltham, SE9 at 2.30 p.m. Mr Harold Shearman, vice-chairman of Education Committee, County Hall, S.E.1.’ A successful event greatly appreciated by those concerned, but it cut through his work schedule and thought processes. And on his return he records further problems between himself and Christine. This is very unsettling for him with his need for total concentration on his work. On 20 November he wrote:


Have been working on Dear Life whenever a little energy came to me. I must finish these books: constant fear that I shall die before they are completed – my own fault for not working harder years ago.


He continues writing each day, recording:


On with the book. It moves me greatly – I am into the battle of Ypres again.


On 28 December he sent off Part III, chapters 19-23: ‘The fourth or fifth rewriting.’


And at the end of his 1953 diary, where it runs into the New Year he wrote:


Posted pp. 381-400 of H.D.I Life to Mrs Tippett. This is now the end of the book. I have wept, night after night alone in the hut, working all hours, sleeping on the couch, giving all to the work – the poorest ghost of an irritable companion for poor Chris.


The entry for 1 Jan. 1954 states: ‘Am on with A Fox Under My Cloak.’ (The next volume of the Chronicle.) There was no let-up on the writing treadmill. Two weeks later, on 16 January, he is considering recasting and shortening Dear Life:


Elwin [Malcolm Elwin, writer, HW’s friend and his reader at Macdonald Publishers] reports D.L. far too long. He wants me to cut the Westerham chapters – the county scenes. Says they hold up the narrative. He may be right. [But he then proceeds to criticise Elwin on various counts – particularly regarding his attitude to HW’s love for his step-daughter, Susan Connelly in 1946.]


Apart from that brief entry the diary is more or less blank. In March there is a short entry referring to Richard Aldington’s imminent controversial biography of T. E. Lawrence. There are no details recorded at this point but HW decided to pre-empt this book by writing his own ‘Threnos for T. E. Lawrence’, which appeared in two parts in the May and June 1954 issues of The European. This essay is reprinted in Threnos for T. E. Lawrence and other Writings, HWS, 1994 (e-book, 2014, and I will deal with it under the entry for HW’s book about his friendship with TEL,Genius of Friendship (1941; reprinted by HWS, e-book, 2014). I mention it here to show further evidence of the intensity of his workload at this time.


On 14 April the diary records: ‘I have not written in my diary for months . . . I have gone over my novel [Dear Life] so many times that it went off [i.e. to the publishers], after several typings, only a day or so ago. [But meanwhile he is working well on A Fox Under My Cloak.]


A week later, on 22 April, writing from Bungay (where he had gone once again for the Jock Horsfall Aston Martin Meet at Snetterton Motor Race Track) he notes that he plans –


with Eric Watkins of the News Chronicle editorial staff to go to Ypres next Friday week for 4 days: visit scenes of Dear Life, & also the Loos country. But it will be a lot of country for a weary old man [59 at this point!] to traverse in the time, on foot. . . .


Friday 7 May: Left Victoria station at 11 am with Watkins for a short tour, on foot, over battlefields of Loos, Arras & Ypres.


It was twenty-seven years and a Second World War since his 1927 visit, made when writing The Wet Flanders Plain. (The brief visit he had made as he passed through the area with Christine on their honeymoon in April 1949, on their way to the south of France, hardly counts.) This visit was mainly to clarify details for A Fox Under My Cloak and so will be dealt with under that volume. How Dear Is Life was already with the publishers, but he was also checking on details for that – thus:


& so up to Messines, crossing the little Donore stream. Had lunch by the Scottish Memorial. Visited L’Enfer wood. Yellow clay & rushy hillside, where springs fed the little Steenbeck. Got a bus into Ypres.


The import of that will be clear in the examination of the actual text of the book.


The proofs of How Dear Is Life arrived on 10 July.


Later that month HW was involved in The North Devon Festival – organised by his friend Ronald Duncan (poet and playwright). As part of this, HW gave a talk ‘Forty Years of Wild Life in Devon’ at the Bideford Cinema on 6 August. This talk was recorded for the BBC and broadcast on 11 August in the West of England Home Service, and again on 15 October on BBC radio. (It is reprinted in Spring Days in Devon and Other Broadcasts, ed. John Gregory, HWS, 1992; e-book 2014.)


 hdl forty years


On 28 September he received £500 advance royalties for How Dear Is Life. On 1 October he was in London where he met up with several members of his family for dinner, and he and Gipsy visited St Paul’s Cathedral:


A beautiful cool quiet living place – I thought of my final scene in Dear Life, where Hetty & Tom Turney attend Lord Robert’s funeral service there in November 1914. . . .


The book was published on 25 October 1954: ‘Will it bring my name back as a serious writer?’


Two days later Christine revealed that she was in love, and had been for at least a year, with a married artist living in Appledore – saying she had felt lonely and isolated by his irritable behaviour (caused by his extreme work load): thus throwing his psyche into chaos. It must certainly have cut across any feeling of celebration over publication of his book. There follows pages of angst, although he tried hard to rationalise and resolve the situation. After a while this all calmed down again. This makes his inscription to Christine in her copy of How Dear Is Life all the more poignant:


hdl dedication


But there were also big problems with the new Studio built at the Field but never quite finished to his satisfaction, which constantly irritated him. But the most poignant diary entry was on Sunday 7 November:


I hoped for reviews of Dear Life in Sunday papers – none –

hoped the 40th anniversary of Ypres 1914 would be noticed. None.


Yes, the 40th anniversary of that battle occurred as How Dear Is Life was published. That no critic noticed that is rather appalling – although HW should of course have drawn attention to the fact to his publishers, so that they could have given it publicity. That he did not do so is typical of the man. He thought it was not necessary; that others would see it for themselves. Alas – such vision tends to be sadly lacking without it being pointed out. It was a crushing blow for our author. But a few days later he received a sweet letter from his first wife which he pasted into his diary:


hdl gipsy letter a

hdl gipsy letter b


The review is featured in full in the Critical reception section.






The book:


Part One, ‘Wine Vaults Lane’


This part is headed with the quotation ‘And summer’s lease hath all too short a date’ (Shakespeare, Sonnet 18) – setting a wistful and poignant tone before we start. It is 25 March 1913 – Lady Day (one of the official ‘quarter days’ marking legal transaction periods) – and after a two-month break Phillip is preparing to start work at the Moon Fire Insurance Office. Before leaving he has to endure a lecture (well meant) from his father on the ‘etiquette’ of life at this ‘eminent’ work-place.


HW himself started work as a clerk at the Sun Fire Insurance Office on Lammas Day (1 August, another quarter day) 1913, having left school two months before at the end of May. Both HW and his alter ego Phillip had two months’ holiday!


When Phillip gets off his train he dawdles, enjoying the sights, then finds he doesn’t know the way and panics about being late, but is rescued by his uncle, George Lemon, fortuitously to hand as he is about to enter his bank, who very kindly takes Phillip by taxi to Wine Vault’s Lane. All of course typical of our grasshopper character! (But we learn later that George Lemon has been embezzling money and has deteriorated with extraordinary speed to the point of madness – a very sorry tale for all concerned.)


Phillip meets his seniors: Mr Downham, Mr Hollis (Head Clerk) and Mr Howlett (Manager), and young Edgar, the messenger. As the tale progresses they are all shown as kindly, although at times exasperated with Phillip’s odd behaviour.


Phillip’s work as junior clerk was to enter details of each day’s post into either the Post Book or the Receipt Book; outgoing post into the Stamp Book. He was also responsible for taking any money received to the bank, and for writing out simple property policies. Once established he relieves the boredom of his tasks by larking about with Edgar in the basement, playing football with a ball made from screwed-up newspapers.


His first pay-day on half-quarter day (6 May) – six weeks or so after starting work – is a momentous occasion: £5 (so £40 per annum), paid over as ‘three sovereigns, three half-sovereigns, and ten shillings in silver’. He promptly goes out and buys himself a ‘cork-lined silk hat’ for 12s 6d (expensive!) and other manly items. But by the time he gets home he is wrought up, mainly through lack of food (he has had no money for lunch for quite a while) and, realising he will still not have any spare money once he has paid out commitments, quarrels with his mother. But his spirit is soothed first by food and then by a visit to Mrs Neville, his best friend’s mother, who lives nearby, and with whom he is always very close. Their easy and happy relationship is in sharp contrast with the awkwardness within his own home.


There follows a lyrical passage about a visit to Westerham, encompassing one of HW’s childhood haunts, Squerrye’s Court, for which he had obtained permits to visit from the owners. The shortness of this passage shows that he had indeed taken Elwin’s criticism to heart and cut out a large chunk of material here.


Much social history background is woven into the tale with broad brush strokes, so that we are quite subtly taken into the period. Much of this is through the activities of Phillip’s Aunt Dora (Theodora Maddison – HW’s Aunt Mary Leopoldina Williamson). Dora is in the suffrage movement and her exploits provide a running continuum to the tale. She marches with her fellow women, demonstrates, is imprisoned and force fed (to the total embarrassment and disapproval of her conventional relatives!). Her sincerity to her cause and to relieving the hardships of the poor is a potent thread. We learn of the death of Emily Davidson, who ran out in front of the king’s horse at the Epsom races – causing a great furore in the press. It is Dora the thinker who gives us the background arguments on all matters political and social, and through whom we discover the appalling hardships of the destitute women left at home.


But the main development within the first part of the book concerns Phillip’s enlistment into the Territorial Army. His older Cousin Bertie (Hubert Cakebread) is already a ‘Terrier’ in the London Highlanders, and after including Phillip in a game of tennis (a great honour) further invites him to go along to a meeting, telling him ‘it’s a top-hole club’. There was a grant of £4 to all who joined – with which Phillip buys a new suit. This fictional ‘London Highlanders Brigade’ as such did not exist: its actual equivalent was the London Scottish. Two of HW's contemporaries at Colfe's Grammar School, the Barnes brothers Roland and Leslie, joined the London Scottish.


HW himself actually joined the London Rifle Brigade (LRB) on 22 January 1914 and immediately bought a new suit with the £4 grant money! Interestingly he gives Phillip the same army number – Private 9689 – as his own enlisting number.


There is considerable detail about the Drill and School of Arms work. It is all authentic and a superb picture of what was entailed. HW is describing his own experiences, transferring them to his fictional London Highlanders. One of the people he meets there is Peter Wallace, the boy who had fought on his behalf six years before, in real life and in his fictional tale, which episode still fills him with shame, feeling himself to be thought a coward. 


hdl lrb



Phillip takes his annual holiday with his Aunt Dora at her cottage in Lynmouth in North Devon, where she is recovering from her latest spell in prison and force-feeding. He takes the train from Waterloo to Barnstaple where he changes to the small-gauge Lynton train, the famous little line that HW writes about in several books, with a commentary as it chugs its way up and over Exmoor: a wonderful description of a journey and of a time long gone, worth reading just for its own sake. They cross a bridge with several arches built of white bricks: this is the viaduct across the Park at Castle Hill (tucked in here as a little bon mot for those who know) where later HW lived for a few years (Shallowford) and was to write about in due course. Further, when the train stops at Chelfham (‘Chill’em’), he writes: ‘No one got out, no one got in.’ A clear nod to the poem ‘Addlestrop’, also about a train journey, by Edward Thomas, killed in the First World War, and to whom HW felt a great affinity. Such tiny details, and so easily missed: the reader doesn’t need to know – but it deepens the appreciation when they do.


At Lynton Phillip is met by his Aunt’s friend, Sylvia. It is gradually revealed that she is Sylvia Pankhurst, daughter of Emmeline Pankhurst, founder and leader of the Suffragette Movement, now estranged from her mother and sister, but the chief instigator of the relief of the poor and needy in London. Sylvia takes Phillip down the cliff to Lynmouth by way of the (famous) cliff railway – worked by water hydraulics, and still functioning today.


During this holiday Phillip witnesses an otter hunt, and to his great excitement he has a brief glimpse of an otter. And we all know what that means for the future of our still callow youth! (HW actually saw his first otter as he made his way by bicycle from London to north Norfolk for a holiday in 1912.) He spends his time roaming across Exmoor, walking 20 miles or so a day, 200 miles in total. He visits the well-known landmark Hoar Oak and gets caught in a storm. This very lyrical and happy episode has two purposes. First it is the lull before the storm of war which we know is inevitably coming, and secondly it is a prelude to the final volume of the series, The Gale of the World, which ends with the tremendous storm which devastated Lynmouth (which took place in August 1952, just before HW started writing this volume). I think we may assume that HW had already envisaged this event as providing the climax to his series and wrote this scene as a precursor – a minor theme here growing to a major one in due course.


Aunt Dora and Sylvia decide to go to Ireland to help sort out problems being caused by the Home Rule Bill. Dora establishes that Phillip has not heard about the shooting of Archduke Ferdinand and is completely naive about the consequences of this act.


'War, Aunt Dora? . . . The Terriers are home defence you know. We’re really more a sort of club than anything else.'

[Thus repeating the words of his Cousin Bertie when he suggested that Phillip join the London Highlanders]


In real life HW took this holiday at his Aunt Mary Leopoldina’s cottage in Georgeham in the last two weeks of May 1914. It was an idyllic time, and he wandered around that area much as the fictional Phillip does on Exmoor. At the end of his ‘Nature Diary’ notes he later wrote in pencil:


H.W. was a soldier 2¼ months later; in

France 5¼ months later.

And Finish, Finish, Finish the hope & illusion of youth,

for ever and for ever and for ever.


hdl nature diary



Returning to London, Phillip is excited about the future: his friend Desmond on holiday, and Cousin Willie living with them as he too is about to start work at the Moon Office (tying up Willie’s movements from the earlier Flax of Dream series), but most of all the Territorial Training Camp at Eastbourne.


But everywhere is full of the rumour of war. It is the Bank Holiday weekend. Richard reads out the ominous headlines from the special issue of the Sunday Trident to his assembled family, telling them:


‘Bismark killed your great-grandfather and his sons, and your grandmother fled to England, and married your grandfather.’


– which is more or less what had indeed happened in real life (see references in AW’s biography Henry Williamson: Tarka and the Last Romantic).


The two youths invite Richard to join them for tennis on the Bank holiday Monday, 3 August 1914:


Bank holiday on the Hill. A day of sun and wind, white cumulous clouds passing swiftly across the blue, dry elm leaves rustling above a sun-baked gravelly soil, kites flying, distant Crystal Palace glinting along its grey scales. The thud of tennis balls on strung catgut (one or two strings broken), how proud he was of Father’s swift service, coming from the racquet held at the top of his extended right arm, whipping low over the net, flicking in low swift bounce upon him. . . . Father looked almost distinguished. He was glad he had asked him to play. He had been nervous about it at first, in case Father became cross. His relief therefore was the greater. Father wore old-fashioned brown-striped white flannel trousers, but they looked quite nice. . . . It really was a wonderful Bank Holiday. A pity Mother had to miss it all, having to do the housework. The wind blew, warm and sunny, the atmosphere was very clear. When the play was over, the question became uppermost again, Would Great Britain stand by France?


The next day, Tuesday 4 August 1914, work was resumed. Phillip hears immediately that the long awaited training camp has been cancelled, and later in the day that the King had signed the Order for General Mobilisation. Work finishes for the day.


Phillip and Willie join the crowds excitedly milling around. They see Keir Hardie (the Scottish Socialist MP and pacifist) being booed as he calls on ‘wor-r-rkers’ to unite (in order to defeat the call to arms). They end up at Buckingham Palace and see the King and Queen on the balcony acknowledging the cheers of the crowd.


When they return home Richard Maddison is playing records on his precious gramophone: ‘Liebestod’ from Tristan und Isolde:


Most beautiful music, that he had not heard before, filled the room. It made him think of the sun, which was dying and saying goodbye to the earth, a golden god slain in the darkness. . . . Voices came from the dark grass [of the Hill], laughter and far-off yodelling cries of happy boys. A star shone very small.


All very understated, but a very effective setting of atmosphere and mood.


That night, when the others were in bed, Richard went quietly to the front gate, and with a screw-driver removed the ten brass letters of Lindenheim from the top bar.


Richard realises that anything connected with Germany would have repercussions: Germany is now the enemy with which the country was at war. He sorts out his Special Constable items, including pistol, and prepares himself to do his duty.


The name of the Williamson’s actual house was ‘Hildersheim’, as had been the original family home in Sutton – deriving from HW’s grandmother’s German nationality. The name on the gate was indeed removed at the outbreak of war.


The next day Mr Howlett tells Phillip to report to his Brigade HQ: Downham is already in uniform. Phillip goes home to get into his: kilt, woollen hose, special garters, spats, shirt, jacket, sporran and finally glengarry bonnet and regimental badge. His mother is fearfully proud. The nervous Phillip eventually meets up with the other local young men: his cousin Bertie (corporal), Bolton (sergeant), Peter and David Wallace, while the youngest Wallace boy, Nimmo, plans to join the next day. His cousin Gerry Cakebread also enlists into this battalion. Willie also wants to enlist. So many young men, so eager for adventure.


Phillip’s main concern – the focus for his wider total anxiety – is that his boots should be thickly resoled for marching. But despite having taken them to the shoe-shop immediately, they are not returned and become an issue.



So we turn to Part Two: ‘The Great Adventure’.


‘It was then that the country in her need turned to the despised Territorials’ (quoted from Field Marshal French, 1914 (p. 293). The Territorials, as part-time amateurs, tended to be considered inferior soldiers who would be useless for actual battle.


Phillip duly reports to his HQ and is issued with rifle and bayonet, and then they march off. He makes friends with the man marching next to him, Norman Baldwin, and they team up and become close friends. Willie is unable to get into the London Scottish and so joins the London Rifle Brigade (LRB) – which was of course HW’s real placement: Willie and Phillip are both versions of HW himself, so we are in rather surreal country here!). The fictional LRB have their HQ in ‘Sconhill Row’: the real LRB had theirs in Bunhill Row. One of HW’s little bon mots!


He sees soldiers marching in the distance and recognises his friend (the former destitute) Horace Cranmer among them, so realising with some surprise that Cranmer is now a soldier with the Guards.


Phillip’s immediate training roughly follows that of HW’s (apart from the uniform kilt). (See AW, Henry Williamson and the First World War). A means by which HW shows the development of Phillip’s character is through his initial extreme embarrassment about the primitive lavatories, which he cannot and will not bring himself to use, which gets him into trouble several times – until eventually when in the trenches he has lost all inhibition about performing this natural bodily function. This small thread also cleverly illustrates how an individual is moulded to conform into a unit.


The men are given to understand that any role they will be asked to take will be in the communication lines or as support defence of the coast of Britain. But quite soon everyone over 18 is asked to volunteer for foreign service as there is a great need to reinforce the already overwhelmed regular troops at the Front (hence the quotation from Field Marshal French heading this section). Phillip and Baldwin and various others do so. Phillip is surprised by some who do not – Downham (from the Moon office) among them. But the men still think they will be used only in the communication lines.


His mother and Aunt Dora (back from Ireland and further disillusioned about the state of the world) arrive to see him briefly. Then Dora’s thoughts take us into the work of Sylvia Pankhurst in relieving the poverty-stricken out-of-work families. The first edition of How Dear Is Life carries acknowledgement to Sylvia Pankhurst’s book The Home Front as the source of background for her character and actions.


Phillip’s heavy soled and nailed ‘campaign boots’ arrive just in time for the long march to the training camp. They immediately prove far too heavy, and his feet are very quickly badly blistered. He abandons the boots for a pair of thin ‘elastic-sided’ ones – all he could get. Their destination is Crowborough Camp in Ashdown Forest. HW's letters home at this time included a cartoon of himself:


hdl sketch


The letter on the reverse of the sketch reads:


hdl sketch reverse



Phillip’s letters from Crowborough follow those of HW’s own letters. (All his letters are reprinted in AW, Henry Williamson and the First World War.) From these we gain a very clear picture of life at Crowborough – ‘Bleak Hill’, that lull before the storm.


hdl crowborough

hdl crowborough reverse


Orders arrive to proceed overseas and Phillip’s parents arrive on a visit; but the meeting is awkward as always. We have the first mention of Corporal ‘Douglas’ as in Phillip’s tent: ‘a dark, handsome, rugger-playing Old Blue’. Hetty thought him nice as he helped them to find Phillip. This is Douglas Bell, who was also at Colfe’s but older than HW, and who was in due course to publish (anonymously, and with HW’s help) his own A Soldier’s Diary of the Great War.


The men get 24 hours embarkation leave.


The Hill was just the same, though somehow looking more bare.


The time vanishes, and as Phillip prepares to leave, his father once again plays ‘Liebestod’. Father and son have a rare moment of accord, as they share a memory of a spider that Richard had saved in the past, and Richard assures Phillip that of course he will keep an eye on Timmy Rat for him. Phillip agonises whether to say goodbye to the Rolls family (and so the love of his young life, Helena, who plays rather a sotto voce role in this volume) but eventually walks back over the Hill to catch the train back to camp.


hdl timmy rat

HW/Phillip's pet, held by – perhaps – Doris Nicholson/Helena Rolls


It was a fine day in the third week of September when the London Highlanders . . . marched away from Ashdown Forest . . . the piper played The Road to the Isles, the regimental march, and at once an air of braced alertness moved down the swinging length of a thousand-odd men.


So the battalion crossed the channel to France en route, not for the communication lines as they assumed, but: ‘The London Highlanders were about to be flung into battle.’


There are two obvious reasons why HW put Phillip into the London Highlanders. The first was to disguise which regiment he had actually been in, in order to remove any immediate autobiographical element, and so give the work its fictional integrity. The second concerns HW’s overall purpose within the ‘war’ volumes of the Chronicle, which was to encompass a far wider view of the war than just his own experience. Thus the London Highlanders (i.e. the London Scottish) went to the Front Line well in advance of HW’s actual battalion, the LRB, and took part in the First Battle of Ypres. Without this strategy, HW could not have brought this important phase of the war into his fictional edifice. It was a very clever structural ploy.



And so as Part Three, ‘The Red Little, Dead Little Army’, progresses, that is where we find ourselves: at the First Battle of Ypres. The section is headed by further quotations from Field Marshal French’s 1914 (pp.293, 294) and General Oberst von Kluck (Commander German Army, 1914): ‘The British Expeditionary Force was the finest of its kind that ever took to the field in Europe.’Both praised the B.E.F. (British Expeditionary Force), that is the army of Territorial (non-professional) soldiers who made up the bulk of the fighting force, which not only sets the tone for what is to come but is also a tribute to the huge task and the price paid by these men. It is known that von Kluck held the British soldier in high esteem, and marvelled at his endurance and performance against such incredible odds (Von Kluck, Memoirs, ‘The March on Paris & The Battle of the Marne, 1920).


The men are taken by slow jolting train via Paris and on to Amiens, arriving at St Omer, and from there on to a convent. This is the route actually taken by the LRB, so HW is here recounting his actual experience within the fictional London Highlanders scenario. All is authentic.


Interestingly HW quotes here the supposed words of the Kaiser’s ‘Order of the Day’ to his troops at Aix-en-Chapelle (according to the Daily Trident): ‘Walk all over the contemptible little British Army.’ Then nearer the end of the book (see p. 320) he tells us what he had known for many years: that the Kaiser had never said any such thing, and it had been made up by an English Staff officer to stiffen morale after the Retreat from Mons. HW repeats it here in the 1914 context as that was indeed what everyone believed at that time – but with the caveat ‘as printed in the Daily Trident’ – Richard Maddison’s newspaper (with the inference that it could not be relied upon to be telling the actual truth!).


On at least two occasions HW wrote letters about the repetition of this untrue ‘fact’ in the national press, causing a little flurry among those who wanted to believe the story. There is a letter in HW’s archive from the Kaiser’s grandson thanking him for correcting this calumny which ‘grieved [my grandfather] deeply that such an order had been attributed to him’, and pointing out that the Kaiser had been a Field Marshal in the British Army.


hdl kaiser a



While the battalion is still at the convent Phillip and Baldwin wander out at night to have a look round.


The clouds had lifted. A star shone in the clear sky. There was a slight hillock among the trees, and seeing several men standing there, they wandered that way. . . . No one was talking as they stared towards the open space through the trees . . . Under distant clouds ran a faint flicker of light. A moment later he saw it appear again . . . A dull blow came on the light breeze, then another. The horizon was faintly reverberating, glowing fitfully, trembling with light. . . . The guns of Ypres.


HW noted in the margin of the official LRB book that recorded their progress at this early stage of the war, next to a statement about being billeted in a convent: ‘Wisques. First heard the guns here at night.’


London buses (commandeered for the purpose, and an emblem of British pride – a huge feature at this stage of the war) take the men on to Ypres – as Phillip begins to realise that they are in fact actually going into battle. Captain Forbes tells them they ‘have been given the honour’ of supporting the regular troops who have been in action continuously since Mons and are exhausted. The men march out through ‘a gap in the massive red-brick walls’: the ramparts with a moat beyond that guarded the town, and the place from where all soldiers marched off into the Ypres Salient battles; and where now stands the Menin Gate Memorial recording the 55,000 names of those who died with no known grave in the Ypres Salient (another 35,000 who died from August 1917 onwards are on the Tyne Cot Cemetery Memorial).


They pass Hooge Château on the Menin Road (about 3 miles east of Ypres) and march on into the Front Line, into an ever increasing barrage of shells and gunfire, described with chilling detail. But they are halted and return to Hooge, and then back to Ypres. However this respite is a false hope. The Germans are planning an attack for the next day: Hallowe’en. The London Highlanders are the only reserve there is. (The London Scottish were indeed the first battalion of Territorials to enter the line of battle.) They are to be support to the cavalry holding the Messines ridge.


They arrive at St Eloi, then on to Wytschaete (Whitesheet), where they come under a shell attack as they cross the square and are halted there in frightening exposure. Then they are given attack orders, and Phillip finds to his horror that his rifle is defective and cannot be fired – as are others – but he sorts it out just in time. (These defective rifles were a well-known and scandalous occurrence, as was lack of ammunition.)


As they move forward into the attack so Baldwin falls with blood spurting from his mouth. Phillip continues forward within the hell of shells and rifle fire and maimed and dead bodies:


It was like running for a train in a dream. All the steam-screeching engines in London Bridge station under the sooty glass roof were now out of control.


(So HW records the death of his friend Private E. W. Baldwin. Baldwin was actually killed in May 1915 and his name is on the Menin Gate, but as HW himself had been returned by then to England because of dysentry and trench foot, he has moved his death forward within the fictional story to make his tribute.)


Phillip reaches a ditch next to a stack, where he is told to remain to give covering fire. Next to him is ‘The Iron Colonel’ (Colonel Hatton – second in command ), dying from his wounds. With darkness the attack fades out. Phillip thinks of his father who at that moment will be walking over London Bridge. Richard, indeed walking over London Bridge, hears a noise.


Was it the rumble of traffic, or had the air shivered? He waited – it came again. Gunfire!


Another attack by the Germans is repulsed. Then Phillip and one of the ‘Leytonstone Louts’ are detailed to fetch more ammunition, but all is chaos as the Germans attack again and break through killing all those in the trench Phillip had just left. If he hadn’t been detailed to fetch ammunition, he would have been among them. The London Highlanders are driven out of L’Enfer Wood (interestingly, L’Enfer translates as ‘Hell’ – one wonders at the origin) and make their way back to Wulverghem.


When the roll was called one hundred and fifty men of all ranks answered their names. Of ‘B’ company twenty-seven remained.


‘Only’ 400 of their men had been lost. Phillip learns Peter Wallace had been killed in the attack going to the aid of a wounded man. ‘Peter had always been brave.’ (Peter had fought on Phillip’s behalf in their now distant school-days, a fact which always made him feel ashamed.) Field Marshal Sir John French arrives, ‘a sturdy, white-moustached figure’, to give praise and gratitude to the London Highlanders. They had ‘saved’ the situation. Phillip can’t see how.


hdl barnes

hdl barnes reverse

Roland Barnes, Old Colfeian, signed by him 'Yrs aye', with HW's note


Back in England headlines in the paper announce: ‘London Highlanders in Action’ (which Mrs Neville tries to hide from Phillip’s mother). Mr Bolton receives a dreaded telegram – and we also learn all three of the Wallace brothers have been killed, the most dreadfully cruel blow for their mother. (This actually happened.)


The London Highlanders go out of the line to Bailleul, but inevitably are sent back again. Phillip asks for a transfer to transport, but is scorned. He gradually realises he is alone, and desperately misses his friend: ‘Norman Baldwin dead, and gone for ever.’


The new attack is again beyond Hooge Château, where they had been only a week before. The battalion is in reserve at their HQ, Bellewaarde Farm (just north-west of Hooge). While Phillip is on guard he feels something tug at his coat: a bullet has glanced across his greatcoat. He realises that if he had not turned at that moment he would have been killed.


They move again. Phillip’s thoughts turn to the happy visit he had made to Belgium at Easter 1912 when his sister Mavis was at school at the Thildonck convent – and now ‘Baldwin dead and nearly four hundred others in the battalion’. He faints momentarily, and is helped by the kindness of Corporal Douglas (the ex-Colfeian previously briefly mentioned).


Phillip learns they have been attached to the 1st Guards brigade – the Grenadiers (known as the ‘Bill Browns’ – hence the chapter heading ‘The Brown Wood Line’), under General Fitzclarence (a hero for his counter-attack at Polygon Wood at Hallowe’en) and remembers that’s where Horace Cranmer, pal of his boyhood Bloodhound Patrol, was. He learns Cranmer is in the trench, and as he is sent in they meet up. They go out on patrol into No Man’s Land, Cranmer cheerful, and being a proper Cockney lad finally gets Phillip a rifle, also a Mauser and Zeiss field-glasses. We learn Cranmer’s brother had been killed in the Battle of the Marne in September.


They are in a German attack on the Brown Wood Line: the Germans advance and find their way blocked by barbed wire which they have to cut. The Grenadiers hold fire until the very last moment and then let rip, killing all the Germans. (This incident was reported and remarked upon officially. Also at this time a Corporal Adolf Hitler won the Iron Cross for rescuing a wounded officer under fire at Messines.)


After this attack the Grenadiers move on, Cranmer with them. Phillip’s unit moves to Klein Zillebeke Wood (about 3 miles directly south of Hooge) and occupy an abandoned trench while the Guards counter-attack again – successfully. Cranmer appears again. The pair cook up tea and fry their rasher of bacon on a camp fire, just like the old scout days. In a poignant scene Cranmer gives Phillip his most treasured possession – a coke-bucket he has ‘obtained’. The fighting continues. Cranmer goes ‘on ahead’: we do not see him again.


Meanwhile back in London there is complete contrast. Thomas Turney attends the Lord Mayor’s Banquet, with a superb menu and an address by the Prime Minister, the Right Honourable H. H. Asquith, whose rousing speech gave rise to cheers.


Another attack: this time by the dreaded Prussians. The battalion is relieved by the French, but when they return to the Menin Road they turn away from Ypres back towards the line.


Men moving from a moment of chaos into a moment of chaos.


In ‘Pause’ (Chapter 29) the tone moves away from first-hand account to a reporting mode, breaking the tension and giving an overview of the battle so far. And it is here that we learn that the Kaiser had never made the remark about ‘walking over the contemptible little British Army’ and its real source. And that the Marquess of Husborne, heir to the Dukedom of Gaultshire protested about this calumny: to Richard Maddison’s rage as he read his Daily Trident – calling him a traitor. This is a reference to the son of the then current Duke of Bedford, who was a pacifist and with whom HW had some contact. This relates back to HW’s childhood visits to his Bedfordshire cousins – and, indeed, forward to his attachment to the Bedfordshire Regiment as will be shown in due course. But it is from this greatly publicised phrase that the army was nicknamed ‘The Old Contemptibles’.


The scene returns to the reality of the battle: the London Highlanders face a scene of disaster. Another attack, the men go forward, swearing and coarse: the Germans overcome them. Phillip’s gun bursts and he is knocked unconscious. As he recovers he sees the body of General Fitzclarence, hero of Gheluvelt and thrice VC of the Boer War, being stretchered away. We also learn that Field Marshal Lord Roberts had died of a chill at St Omer, aged 82. Field Marshal Lord Roberts, KG & string of other letters, who had won the VC in 1857 in the Indian Rebellion, fought in Abyssinia, Afghanistan, and the Second Boer War, had been visiting Indian troops at the Front and caught pneumonia, dying on 14 November 1914. He was given a lying-in-state at Westminster (the only other non-Royal to be so honoured was Sir Winston Churchill) and buried in St Paul’s Cathedral. Richard Maddison mentions him as prophesying the war in one of his typical tirades earlier in the book (p. 115 – for once he was right!).


The battalion remains in support on fatigue duties:


Life had the actuality of nightmare, thick with tiredness in a slow, dragging world; a deadness of living only just endurable from moment to moment by the thought of relief.


They are relieved in the third week of November and march back to St Omer through mud for eight hours, exhausted, many losing their boots and becoming barefooted, including Phillip. At St Omer Phillip learns that he has just missed the LRB – and so his cousin Willie – on their way up the line. (This was HW’s own real-life movement forward to the Front Line.)


Rumour abounds that they are to be an Officers Training Corps. But all goes on the same:


This was the life! — And this the death!


In London Hetty and Thomas Turney watch the funeral procession of Lord Roberts at St Paul’s Cathedral. They go into St Paul’s and Hetty prays for her son.


She sat up, her eyes gleaming in the candles that burned for the dead in that cavernous stillness of marble and stone, murmurous with the remote traffic of the city, the dull thudding of a drum, its aisles whispering with the feet of the bereaved coming to their seats, and the flutters of a solitary rock-dove high up in the dome, lost within vast space, seeking a way to freedom.


And on that symbolic note this volume ends.






The intensity of the writing within these scenes of the opening phase of the war has an immediacy and at the same time an ageless, almost dream-like, quality that give it immortality. HW’s writing gives us reality: we experience what Phillip experiences, and we know that what Phillip experiences has its own truth.


The contrast between the happy-go-lucky days of that pre-war summer and of Phillip’s naive and innocent pursuits, all understated and not blown up with the rhetoric of hindsight, with the gradual realisation that the war is not actually a jolly lark, coming suddenly and forcefully into the horror of war in the trenches, shows the skill of a great writer.


We begin to see what HW is trying to do in this series of Chronicle novels: not just to recreate the past but to give us the inner essence of that past. This gives HW’s work a universal appeal: we can all relate to that essence, and it is that factor which lifts HW’s writing out of the ordinary into the echelon of the great.





Index and Chronology to How Dear is Life


Between 2000 and 2002 Peter Lewis, a longstanding and dedicated member of The Henry Williamson Society, researched and prepared indices of the individual books in the Chronicle of Ancient Sunlight series (the first three volumes being indexed together as 'The London Trilogy'). Originally typed by hand, copies were given only to a select few. His index to How Dear is Life is reproduced here in a non-searchable PDF format, with his kind permission. It forms a valuable and, indeed, unique resource.






Go to Critical reception.






Book covers:



The dust wrapper of the first edition, Macdonald, 1954, designed by James Broom Lynne



hdl 1954




Other editions:


hdl panther 1963a       hdl panther 1963b  

Panther, paperback, 1963; and back cover. The cover is inaccurate,

showing soldiers in the steel helmets introduced later in the war.




hdl macdonald 1984       hdl zenith 1985       hdl sutton 1995
Macdonald, hardback, 1884   Zenith, paperback, 1985   Sutton, paperback, 1995






Go to Critical reception





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