Henry William Williamson (1 December 1895 – 13 August 1977) was an English soldier, naturalist, farmer and ruralist writer known for his natural history and social history novels. He won the Hawthornden Prize for literature in 1928 with his book Tarka the Otter.
Henry Williamson was born in Brockley in south east London. In early childhood his family moved to Ladywell, and he received a grammar school education at Colfe’s School. The then semi-rural location provided easy access to the Kent countryside, and he developed a deep love of nature throughout his childhood.
On 22 January 1914 Williamson volunteered as a rifleman with the 5th battalion of the London Regiment (“London Rifle Brigade”), part of the British Army’s Territorial Force, and was mobilised when war was declared upon Imperial Germany by the British Empire on 5 August 1914.
In November 1914 he departed England with the Regiment’s 1st Battalion and went to France, entering the Western Front’s trenches in the Ypres Salient, where he witnessed and took part in the Christmas Truce between British and German troops. In January 1915 he was withdrawn from the winter trenches with trench foot and dysentery and evacuated back to England.
After convalescence, he was commissioned on 10 April 1915 as a second lieutenant with the 10th (Service) Battalion of the Bedfordshire Regiment. In May 1915 he was attached for training to the 2/1st Cambridgeshire Regiment’s at Newmarket. In October 1915 he was transferred to the 25th Middlesex Regiment at Hornchurch. He volunteered to specialise in machine-gun warfare, and consequently in January 1916 joined No. 208 Machine Gun Company of the Machine Gun Corps at Grantham.
In May 1916 he entered hospital in London with anaemia, and was granted two-months medical leave. He re-joined No. 208 M.G.C. and in February 1917 departed England with it for the Western Front, the unit taking the field with the 62nd (2nd West Riding) Division, Williamson acting as his company’s transport officer.
In June 1917 he was gassed whilst transporting ammunition up to the front-line, and was returned to England, spending the next few months in military convalescent hospitals. In September 1917 he was attached for garrison duty as the adjutant of the 3rd Battalion Bedfordshire Regiment at Felixstowe.
Medically classed B1 by an Army Medical Board from the effects of the gas, he was judged to be unfit for active service. After a year at Felixstowe, and frustrated at the nature of garrison life, Williamson attempted to get back to front-line action in September 1918 with an application to be transferred to the Royal Air Force, but this was rejected due to his medical classification.
He then applied for a transfer to the Indian Army, which was granted, but the war was ending and the order was cancelled.
He spent a year afterwards on administrative duties demobilising soldiers from military camps on the south east coast of England, and was discharged from the army himself on 19 September 1919.
He became disgusted with the pointlessness of the war and was angry at the greed and bigotry he saw as causing it. He became determined that Germany and Britain should never go to war again.
Williamson was also strongly influenced by the camaraderie of the trenches and in particular what he saw as the bonds of kinship that existed between the ordinary British and German soldiers, despite their being at war with one another.
He told of his war experiences in The Wet Flanders Plain (1929), The Patriot’s Progress (1930) and in many of his books in the semi-autobiographical 15-book series A Chronicle of Ancient Sunlight (1951-1969).
After the war, he read Richard Jefferies’ book The Story of My Heart. This inspired him to begin writing seriously. In 1921, he moved to Georgeham, Devon, living in a small cottage. He married Ida Loetitia Hibbert in 1925. Together they had six children.
In 1927 Williamson published his most acclaimed book, Tarka the Otter; it won him the Hawthornden Prize in 1928, and made him enough money to pay for the wooden hut near Georgeham where he wrote many of his later books, often sitting alone there for 15 hours a day.
It also sparked a long-running friendship with T. E. Lawrence with both men sharing similar views about the need for a lasting peace settlement in Europe. The wooden writing hut was granted Grade II listed status by English Heritage in July 2014 because of its “historical interest”.
In 1936 he bought a farm in Stiffkey, Norfolk. The Story of a Norfolk Farm (1941) is his account of his first years of farming here.