The Wet Flanders Plain: Publishing history & Critical reception



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Publishing history


Critical reception



wfp Beaumont prospectus



Publishing history:



There is no background detail to explain the circumstances of any contact with Cyril Beaumont, but one has to wonder – by association – whether he had been recommended to HW by Kit Williams. HW returned from the Pyrenees on 16 January and must have immediately sent his manuscript off to Beaumont, as a letter from Beaumont dated 23 January acknowledges receipt of the ‘M.S. of the small travel diary’, followed on 26 January with:


I have read the M.S. of your travel diary “They Only Fade Away”, and I have been much impressed by its beauty and sincerity. I should be very pleased to publish it in my Beaumont Press Series, subject to my usual terms being agreeable to you. My editions consist of 300 on h.m. [hand-made] paper and 80 on parchment vellum, the latter signed by the author.


All his letters (there are about 13 of them in the archive) are handwritten in very fine and small script, with an attractive sage green heading at the top of the page.



wfp Beaumont



  Beaumont’s terms were basically 10% royalty of the trade price ( which was 25% off published price). HW nearly blew this opportunity by querying these terms: 30 January brought a tart reply:


... up to the present I have published 22 books in my press series, by writers such as Conrad, Blunden, De La Mare, Drinkwater, Lawrence etc and this is the first time I have had my terms questioned... . These books are hand-set and printed on a hand-made paper specially made for me, decorated with one or more wood-blocks. The special copies are printed on Japanese vellum or parchment vellum ...


But he did increase the terms to 12½% of the trade price. HW caved in, and Beaumont’s next letter enclosed an agreement for signing, returning the MS and suggesting several ideas for a title (which HW had obviously asked him to do). One of these was ‘After Ten Years’, and HW has written in green ink at end ‘Ten Years After’. His diary entry for 12 February states:


Sent Ten Years After, mss, registered, to C.W. Beaumont for publication.



wfp title page original


wfp Ten Years After page



Beaumont duly acknowledged its receipt the following day, and forged ahead with all the work involved in setting the book up ready for publication. On 27 March, with this process well under way, a rather plaintive letter from Beaumont shows that HW wanted to change the title. The book was already set with ‘Ten Years After’ as the running page header, so this presented a big problem, adding considerably to the production cost, but Beaumont agreed to do this. His letter also reveals that HW had informed him that he had arranged for a cheap edition of the book (this was the Faber ‘trade’ edition) and Beaumont asks him to keep this quiet as it will possibly affect sales of the limited edition.


Meanwhile Schwabe had produced his design for the title page – to be the Menin Gate Memorial at Ypres (inaugurated in July 1927 but already in situ on HW’s June visit, of course). HW had not liked the first drawing (see Jeremy Archer, ‘A Literary Collaboration: The Wet Flanders Plain’, HWSJ 44, September 2008, p. 88), finding it too frivolous, so Schwabe modified it to HW’s own ideas – and subsequent approval.



wfp beaumont title1929



A further letter, on 16 May, reveals Beaumont’s anxiety about the timing of HW’s proposed trade edition. HW had said it would appear in October – Beaumont rather agitatedly asks for that date to be later, adding that the book is printed and being bound. Then a letter of 3 June states:


Enclosed I send you two copies of “The Wet Flanders Plain” Special Edition... . The book will be published on June 6th ...


He asks that the trade edition waits six months, the usual time lapse, thus 6 December, but ‘if necessary’ as late in November as possible. A letter of 17 June reveals that this limited edition of WFP was actually published on 12 June, and that some royalties are due; but ‘in view of the heavy corrections 2½% be deducted’ [as you agreed]. (Thus back to the original 10% net.) HW was incensed by this, felt he was being cheated, and sent the letter with his own typed acid comments (obviously having forgotten about the increase to 12½%) to Richard de la Mare at Faber. (Dick de la Mare – son of Walter de la Mare – was his friend and had been best man at his wedding, as well as being his publisher at Faber.) Faber of course would have wanted to catch the Christmas market.


In the accounts section of HW’s 1929 diary he notes:


1 August: Beaumont for W.F. Plain £40-8-9d


2 Oct.: Fabers for W.F. Plain £45 - - 


The Wet Flanders Plain was published by the Beaumont Press in a limited edition of 400 copies. The first 80 copies (of which five were not for sale) were bound in quarter vellum with a decorative board design of rifles and ploughshares; the cover and title page were designed by Randolph Schwabe; it was signed by the author, artist and publisher, and published on 12 June 1929, priced at £2/10/- (£2.50).


The remaining 320 copies (numbered 81-400), were bound in quarter buckram, with same decorative board design, published in June 1929 and priced at £1/5/- (£1.25).


wfp beaumont1929wfp beaumont ltd1929


There is a Beaumont Press ‘colophon’ at the end of the book:


wfp beaumont end1929



Out of 122 pages there are only 90 pages of actual text (there are a lot of ‘extravagant’ blank pages between sections). Most text pages probably contain about 300 words, making 27,000 words in total: a relatively short book – especially for HW!


Cyril Beaumont (1871-1976) was a quite extraordinary man who, although he became the owner of a bookshop in 1910 and set up the Beaumont Press in 1917, is chiefly known for his work in the world of ballet (where he is very famous), writing many books and articles on the subject (including a manual of the Cecchetti system of classical ballet). His prestigious Beaumont Press series of books included such names as D. H. Lawrence and Joseph Conrad.


Randolph Schwabe (1885-1948) was a well-known artist mainly of architectural subjects who was an official war artist. He succeeded the famous Tonks as Professor of Drawing at the Slade School of Art and was one of a small group of artists regularly used by Cyril Beaumont.


(For background information about the Beaumont Press, see Jeremy Archer, ‘A Literary Collaboration: The Wet Flanders Plain’, HWSJ 44, September 2008, pp. 83-90, reprinted with some changes in Stand To! (the journal of the Western Front Association), 93, Dec. 2011/Jan. 2012.)




Faber & Faber: trade edition, slightly revised, autumn (probably early November) 1929; 5/-; 2990 copies (according to Waveney Girvan’s A Bibliography and a Critical Survey of the Works of Henry Williamson (1931) – but as HW supplied much of the information this is not necessarily accurate – more probably the actual round figure of 3000!). This edition has a small deletion and rephrasing within the ‘Apologia’ which improved it a great deal. The dustwrapper is a classic Faber design of the period:


wfp faber1929


This edition also carries a quotation on its title page:


‘... lost forever in ancient sunlight, which rises again as Truth’ 

(unattributed but from Richard Jefferies, The Story of My Heart).


It is dedicated ‘To C. R. W. Nevinson’.


Christopher Richard Wynne Nevinson (1889-1946) was a well-known artist with a flamboyant and fiery character, who had been a founder of the Futurist Movement. He was an official war artist and his work was very powerful. HW was taken to a party given by Nevinson by another friend, John Heygate, soon after HW had won the Hawthornden Prize. An account of that party can be found in The Power of the Dead (Vol. 11 of A Chronicle of Ancient Sunlight) chapter 9, ‘Bottle Party’, where Nevinson is called ‘Channerson’. But HW also records in his 1929 diary on 2 May: ‘Nevinson, Cocktail Party 5 p.m.’. A cutting from the Daily Mirror dated 4.5.29 tells us more:




Mr. C.R.W. Nevinson hit upon a novel idea for a party when he invited his friends to his studio on Thursday to inspect a pear tree which had just burst into bloom in his garden. Among those who came to admire Mr. Nevinson’s tree and drink his cocktails were Mr. Williamson (the winner of last year’s Hawthornden Prize), Mr. A. Neil Lyons, Mr. Ernest Milton, Mr. Morris Harvey and Miss Kathleen Hilyard.


This would seem to be the occasion when Nevinson gave HW a drawn (or etched) version of his famous painting ‘A Group of Soldiers’; it may well be that HW’s subsequent dedication in The Wet Flanders Plain later the same year was in return for this most generous gesture. The soldier facing the front bears a distinct resemblance to HW, which may have been remarked upon at that party. (Further discussion of this can be found in AW, ‘A Group of Soldiers’, HWSJ 44, September 2008, pp. 94-6.) 


wfp nevinson





American edition: Dutton (USA), as Faber text, (seemingly end of December) 1929.



wfp dutton





Reprinted by Gliddon Books, hardback & paperback, 1987, in their ‘Great War Classics’ series, with an Introduction containing interesting background by Richard Williamson, and also including HW’s 1964 articles for the Evening Standard, ‘Return to Hell’, commissioned to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the First World War for which he made a further visit to the battlefields, and a selection of photographs from HW’s own archive. The front cover of the hardback featured a photograph of the young Henry in early 1915, back from the Front, and with torn greatcoat; while on the back cover was a photograph of Henry on the battlefields in 1964. The paperback edition, on the right below, reversed these two photographs.



 wfp gliddon1987 wfp gliddonpb1987




Currently available at Faber Finds, 2009; also available as an e-book. This is a reprint of the Gliddon edition.




Critical reception:


Referee (W.E. Hayter Preston), October 1929. In a column which covers several war volumes the reviewer opens:


Mr Henry Williamson’s passionate hatred of war finds expression in all his books; but in The Wet Flanders Plain his hatred is orchestrated to sublime power. It is a record of nine days which he spent in Flanders as a “soldat retourné” – a record of remembered horrors and ghostly glory – set down in a beautiful and sensitive prose. So many War books are merely skilful reporting; but here the creative element is always at work like yeast beneath the details and debris of battle; and the tragic evil of it all is presented with glowing menace ... As the record of the spiritual effect of war on a sensitive personality the book is unrivalled. It should be read by all who, for the betterment of the world, would sound the full depths of human folly.


The reviewer continues here most fortuitously with Plain Tales from Flanders (Longman, 3/6d) by the Rev. P. B. Clayton, MC – ‘Tubby’ Clayton of the Toc H Chapel at Poperinghe:


They are tales filled with that inner light which shines like a torch above all the filth and beastliness of war.


Glasgow News, 10 October 1929. Ten column inches of excellent summing up of the content ends with:


Through this little book of many fine passages and of deep understanding and feeling runs the note of tears unshed that so much should have been lost and so little should have been learned.


Aberdeen Press and Journal, 21 October 1929:



A Soldier Returns to Flanders


(The text is very similar to the Glasgow News review above but ends:)


... We do not know of a stronger anti-war book written in English than this of Mr. Williamson’s. Through his eyes we see the waste, the wickedness and the folly of war; that so much should have been done and so little learned.


“Once these were men who, having marched where they were ordered, and having done what they were commanded, after endurance and suffering, fell, and were lost.”


No fitter words could be written as a memorial to them.


The Observer (Hubert Wolfe), 28 July 1929. Four war books were reviewed:


Ludwig Renn, War (Secker 7/6d)

Ernst Jünger, The Storm of Steel (Chatto & Windus, 7/6d)

Charles Edmonds, A Subaltern’s War (Peter Davies, 7/6d)

Henry Williamson, The Wet Flanders Plain (C.W. Beaumont, 25/-)


A very interesting review, quoted here at length because the analysis broadens the concept of ‘war-book’ and further, lays down a perceptive marker for HW’s ‘moral’ character:


Books about the war have again, after a period of extreme disfavour, become the fashion. But they are different books. The earlier ones were written by the leaders – exalting and defending their failures. The new are being written by the led, and they do not exalt, and rarely defend their leaders... . I believe it is the duty of every man, who can get an instant of public attention, to do his utmost to discredit everything that makes war possible.


[But such a book must not be flabby or insincere or sham. Note Wolfe is somewhat dubious about Remarque’s All Quiet on the Western Front, as HW was also.]


War-books, unlike other forms of literature, may be judged by two standards – one of morals and one of art.


[Wolfe judges Renn’s book to be the best, but he questions its absolute validity:] I cannot help asking myself if Renn is not at bottom criticising failure rather than the principal of war itself.


[He does not rate either Jünger’s The Storm of Steel or Edmonds’ A Subaltern’s War:]


Both from different angles sentimentalise war. Mr Mottram argues in his preface to Jünger’s book that it is the very blindness of his author to the facts he recounts which makes him a testimony against war. I do not believe it. I think on the contrary that the effect of both these books – neither of them of any literary value and both therefore to be judged by the first standard [the moral standard] ... [but both these authors] encourage [the idea] that ‘bad as war is, there is a worse thing – to lose one’s own soul. That is a fallacy. It will profit a man nothing to win the world and lose his soul and as little to save his soul and lose the world. If the cost of rejecting war is to reject one’s own salvation, that price must be paid.


And Mr. Henry Williamson, in easily the best anti-war book written in English, would be willing to pay even that price. [I have underlined that as I consider it to be of importance as a (very percipient) marker for HW’s personal moral code – integrity – particularly with regard to the future.] But as he himself knows, he is not a soldier, but a ghost returning – a gentle, wise, unembittered ghost, with a little of the sanity and some of the knowledge that we must suppose waits for us beyond the grave. Through his ghostly eyes he sees the waste, the wickedness, the folly in blessed proportion. He has suffered too much to judge; he records, leaving sentence to the conscience of all good men.


The Nation and Athenæum (Robert Graves), 10 August 1929:


[Two] More War Books: A Subaltern’s War, Charles Edmonds

The Wet Flander’s Plain, Henry Williamson


I cannot like either of these war books though they are written from exactly opposite points of view. [Graves sees many faults in Edmonds’ book and ends:] Mr. Edmonds is still war-minded and writes about “Russia deserting her allies” in 1917 and about the “yellow streak” of pacifism.


Mr. Williamson’s book is an all-yellow anti-war tract, the nine-days’ diary of a recent visit to the battlefields. It is beautifully printed, so beautifully printed in fact that it is a little difficult to read. He has made the not very remarkable discovery that Belgian peasants feel no sentimental friendliness to ‘soldats anglais retournes’ ...


Graves continues in this scathing tone though he does allow that the author ‘seems to have been a stout trench-fighter in his day’. [Graves was of an extremely irascible temper and nature, and this animosity around HW was to surface again over the publication of HW’s The Gold Falcon in 1935.]


G.K.’s Weekly (A. M. Currie), 9 November 1929. Headed ‘Evolution of Pacifism’, this review opens with an analysis which Currie then uses as a criterion for his conclusions:


It provides a key to much of the pacifism which has sprung up since the war – I mean the honest pacifism of men who fought bravely and were sickened of the whole business – that the issues in which it originated were so tremendous, so involved, and in some part so obscure that it is not always easy to select the salient facts and to keep them constantly in mind.


[Currie decides that England was right to go to war and that] her rulers at that time were for the most part, impelled by honest motives in deciding for war. But I recognise that a case can be made on the other side [and he gives some argument for this].


[Currie then proceeds to compare Commando by Deneys Reitz, the memoirs of a Boer about the Boer war, with HW’s book, ‘a medley of memories of France and Flanders’. He finds HW ‘writing in a spirit of railing against his people for their folly and their iniquity in having fought’ – it being inconceivable that a Boer would do such a thing. It is obvious that Currie finds the Boer volume full of deeds of ‘derring-do’ written in ‘clean, straight English’.]


To come to Mr. Williamson’s book ... I just don’t like it. Mr. Humbert Wolfe is said to have described it as “easily the best anti-war book written in English” ... I ... will say “Tiggers don’t like anti-war books.”


There is a gelatinous quality about Mr. Williamson’s style which, admirably as it suits the more tricksey of his work, makes for heavy going in an essay of this sort... . I disagree with Mr. Williamson [but] I am sure the book will be read with pleasure in that market for which it was written.


The Times Literary Supplement, 11 July 1929 (unsigned):


Mr. Williamson ... is no ordinary tourist, but a ghostly revisitor, a revenant, a spirit come back to haunt the place where it received its deepest impress... . This is only a book of scraps, of disjointed observations and reflections, but there is throughout this accent of intermittent deep seriousness, making for eloquence. This eloquence is most sustained in the introduction, an ‘Apologia pro vita mea’, which defines an emotional attitude almost too unrestrained to be effective. [The reviewer quotes the sentence about HW’s father calling him a traitor – which was indeed removed from the later trade edition.]


Good writing ... must be impersonal: it must attempt to be universal... . [Mr. Williamson] tells us in this diary that he is writing a War novel, or series of novels... . It is difficult to disguise one’s spleen in a diary; but a novel should be a stricter discipline and the very defects of the present slight work are an earnest of strength for the greater task in hand. 






Reviews of the US Dutton edition follow. It might seem rather a strange book to be published in the USA. The text seems rather particularly British, and the many place names possibly obscure even to British readers other than WWI enthusiasts then, let alone now (hence my rather detailed commentary), and I have wondered what Americans would have made of it: but to use today’s jargon – obviously ‘no problem!’


Washington News (L.A.M.), 9 January 1930 (also reprinted in other newspapers):


Probably most of us are getting a bit case-hardened about war books ... Nevertheless we recommend Williamson’s work to you, and recommend it very emphatically. It is unlike the rest of the war books. It is very short and very beautifully written – two qualities which few other books have ...


Williamson fought with the British, in the Ypres sector and to the South. He simply tells what he saw, what he felt, when he revisited the scenes of his war-time experiences. He writes like one of those favoured few who are born into this world for no other purpose than to put words together on paper; his book ... is one of the very best war books yet written.


TOPEKA, Kansas, 29 December 1929 (quoting from a review by Herschel Brickell):




Just as we had finished reading “Wet Flanders Plain” we came upon this review of the book by Herschell Brickell, the distinguished literary editor of the North American Review [Unfortunately that review is not in the archive collection, but a large section of it would appear to be quoted here.]


... Henry Williamson has added a poignant protest to the flood of argument against the cruelty, brutality, and futility of warfare. [Suggests The Pathway and the nature books have shown this, then describes the book’s content – the attitude of the Belgians to a “soldat anglais retourné”.]


And what a contrast between Mr. Williamson’s kindly attitude toward the greyclad men in their scuttle helmets, once known as Huns, and now sleeping in uncared for cemeteries! Or between the popular conception of the character of the enemy, and Mr. Williamson’s touching description of [the careful burial by the Germans of an airman ‘who fell in Battle July 14, 1916’.]


[The father of a small boy] asking: “Shall the world return again to its supreme folly as a dog to its vomit? [The answer will be no] if enough people read and understand such books as “The Wet Flanders Plain”. It is a war-book of a different sort from most, and it deserves to be read for its intelligence and fine spirit.


Star Telegraph, Fort Worth, Texas (Mary Sears), 5 January 1930:


[WFP] is a study of contrasts, quietly and sensitively written by a supreme literary artist... . The book is so skilfully written and so delicately etched that the past and present mingle with each other; that the hideous scenes of the past mingle with the complacent scenes of the present, quietly and naturally, giving the reader the feeling of double vision.


It has been said that a book of the war that would also be a work of literary art must surely come and those who have read “The Wet Flanders Plain” whether they were a part of the vast horde of German or Allied armies, seem of the opinion that this is the book.


-------- (unreadable). Portland, 28 December 1929


Henry Williamson, whose reputation as a beautiful writer ... whose love of nature is ever apparent in his writings has ample opportunity in this book to express himself nobly and sensitively. It is not a blaring attack upon war. Mr Williamson does not rave ... in quiet fashion he presents his observations, his impressions, and blending these with his memories, forces one to deeper conclusions [than others of lesser artistry]... . There are beautiful pictures of the countryside which a decade ago was laid waste by war. Mr. Williamson looks ... and thinks: ‘I will renew the truths which have quickened out of their deaths ... We must free the child from all things which maintain the ideals of a commercial nationalism’ ... [but] He sees that old race hatred still exists in the hearts of many and he sorrows.


Raleigh Times, N.C. (North Carolina), 1 January 1930 (34-inch column, signed ‘D’). This enthusiastic reviewer relives his own experiences: I only wish we could print it all. Note that he uses HW’s headings with his own additions.



Henry Williamson Visits Spots on Return Pilgrimage to Belgium and France

Where North Carolinians Fought in Summer and Fall of 1918


... Henry Williamson has written a little volume that is a thing of beauty... .


[WFP] will go at once to the heart of many North Carolinians ... who were members of the 30th Division. Few of them have returned to view the scenes of their conquests but in Henry Williamson’s little book they will find the next best thing to a return pilgrimage ... The author follows the same trail as the Old Hickory took in its war journeying through the summer and fall of 1918.


Calais, Bombs and Waacs 

Who in the 30th could forget Calais ... the old Sand Camp ... a British diet, mostly jam and tea ... bombs dropped like rain ... Waacs – and romance, if you can call it that ... for many a Tar Heel Doughboy ...


St. Omer Recalls a Hike 

Mr. Williamson stops overnight at St. Omer just as the men of the 30th did on that late June and July hike in 1918 [where they met] ‘A Scotch Captain attached to the 60th Brigade [who had been out since 1914 and was going around with a cart full of Scotch whiskey] This dapper little man in kilts found his war easier to digest with a wee dram or two along the bumpy roads that ran serpentine courses to and from the lines.


Mr. Williamson goes to Poperinghe and recalls the old “Pop” as he knew in the war days and as the men of the 30th Division remember it ... Mr Williamson tells us about a town restored and going about its daily business of living a normal life.


About a Famous Road 

Not far away is Ypres, the “Wipers”of 1918 where the first German gas killed thousands. Members of the 30th Division remember that duck-board road that leads from “Pop” up to Ypres, a road through the wilderness of mud and destruction. There is Vlamertinghe, wiped off the face of the earth by artillery, Dickebush, Rifle Farm. Hill 60 in the distance. Death Corner and a long list of other spots that will forever be sacred to men who knew them in the days of their greatest tragedy... .


The author trekked down the old line of the Western Front ... We wonder what has ever become of the British Captain we saw one afternoon in an estaminet in St. Pol, dressed in the panties of a French bar maid, a Sam Browne belt and nothing else... .


The Wet Flanders Plain is choice meat for those who served in Belgium and with the British in France. The book is done seriously and writing that is not seen every day shines from its every page. We hope Mr. Williamson will pardon us for the personal reminiscences, but we hasten to thank him for the fond recollections recalled by The Wet Flanders Plain after staying dormant in our thinking machine for so many years.


There are in particular two letters in the archive which are practically reviews of the book. One is from Coley Taylor, who worked for Dutton Publishing, but who also sent HW personal letters as a friend. Dated 5 June 1929, the letter is therefore before publication of the book, but he has obviously had a proof copy (sent out for Dutton’s to work from) and sends a measured response.


... I think you have written a splendid book, a fine, ironic record that is revealing in its contrasts, and we need that record just as it is. I’m afraid it will not be very popular. [gives some reasons for that – present attitudes to war books] ... Flanders Plain is as beautiful as it is unique. I delight in you for writing it... .

[He continues with a paragraph about the American elections and Hoover] ...


If only the U.S. would cancel all war debts of every kind, and insist on the relinquishment of reparations, I think there might be very good chances for real international friendship. There are a great many Americans that believe that and want it badly, but it won’t come, if ever, for some years yet... .


In reading Flanders Plain I winced at your portrait of the Americans you met – winced knowing that it, and they, were only too true, and too often true. I apologize for them. There are a lot of them, God knows. I hope some day you will know a different sort of American ... if ever you come to see us ...


     Yours most sincerely, Coley Taylor.


It is surprising that no USA reviewers mentioned HW’s rather pointed references to the behaviour of Americans he met on his visits!


The second letter is reproduced below as it deserves full coverage.



wfp stuckey letter



But there was one review which HW obviously really treasured above the others as he pasted it into the back of his file copy of the US edition. It had appeared in the New York Times on 8 December 1929. The writer (not named) truly understood the book’s content and what HW was trying to achieve.



wfp review a


wfp review b


wfp review c 



It is noticeable that many of these reviews refer to HW as ‘pacifist’: a concept that needs to be taken into account in one’s over-view of HW.






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