Sunday, January 26, 2014

H.W., A.H., and the Death of T.E.L.

I think it is common knowledge that Henry Williamson, best known as the author of Tarka the Otter, was an active fascist, and admirer of Hitler.  The association of ultra-conservatism and a ruralist, roots-patriotic frame-of-mind has long been a distinct but tricky current in British culture (there's a very interesting, if tendentious, essay "The Hangman's Ancient Sunlight", which should be compulsory reading for all folkies), but one which was conveniently blurred-over by the events of the Second World War.  Support for Hitler's ideas had been quite widespread among the aristocracy and upper-middle classes in the 1930s, but this was trumped by a more deep-seated, gut-level patriotism when Nazi Germany threatened invasion of these hallowed shores.

What is perhaps less well-known is that Williamson's support for Hitler in the 1930s was, in effect, responsible for the death of T.E. Lawrence.  The story goes like this:

In the mid-1930s, Williamson believed that Hitler could be appeased, at least in his intentions towards Britain, by appealing to the spirit of the legendary Christmas Truce in the trenches of 1914. For him, it was clear that Germans and Britons were brothers, as symbolised by that game of football among the turnips and frozen corpses, and should never again fight each other. You see, by one of those odd turns of events, Williamson had actually been there that Christmas, in the London Rifle Brigade, and had been deeply affected by it.  Crucially, he was convinced that Gefreiter Adolf Hitler had been there, too, and that they had almost certainly met that day in No-Man's Land.


In fact, although Hitler's regiment was there at the front, Hitler himself was not -- he was in reserve, several miles away, and as an atheist of the Scrooge persuasion resolutely not celebrating Christmas.  His view, recorded later, was that such open fraternization was disgusting, and showed a distinct lack of honour (that word again) on the German side.

To bring off the appeasement overture, Williamson thought that what was needed was an intermediary, a bona fide war hero and free-thinker, with whom Hitler could feel an affinity.  So he wrote to Lawrence in May 1935, proposing that they should meet, although it is not known whether the true agenda for this meeting was declared in advance.  Lawrence immediately sent Williamson a telegram, agreeing.

Now, to say that Lawrence was a complex, conflicted man is to state the bleedin' obvious.  Quite what his political views or ambitions were in the 1930s is hard to say.  His attempt to retreat into anonymity as a humble serviceman in the RAF and the Tank Corps seems to have been both genuine and constantly undermined by his gift for "backing into the limelight" (did you know, by the way, that the RAF recruiting officer who interviewed Lawrence was W.E. Johns, later the author of the Biggles books?).  It is known that Oswald Mosley, leader of the British Union of Fascists had approached him; as a hero-worshipped radical with authoritarian leanings, Lawrence would have been a highly-prized asset.

Anyway, it was on the way back to his cottage at Clouds Hill in Dorset, after sending the telegram to Williamson on 13th May, that Lawrence skidded his motorbike* -- either avoiding two boys on bicycles, or after being deliberately run off the road by secret agents in a black van which sped from the scene, according to your taste -- and died of his injuries six days later.

What Lawrence's response to Williamson's proposal would have been, we'll never know.  Just as we'll never know how Hitler might have responded to Lawrence, had the two of them agreed to meet.  Though if the subject of a Germany vs. England football fixture at Christmas 1914 had come up as an ice-breaker, I expect things would have got as frosty as a frozen turnip rather quickly.

Lawrence's Brough Superior
(Imperial War Museum, London)

* Incidentally, for bike fans, Lawrence's ride was no ordinary motorcycle.  He owned a succession of eight powerful Brough Superiors, hand-built to order in Nottingham by George Brough himself.  He died on the one named by him "George VII", 1000cc, which can be seen on display at the Imperial War Museum in London.  I must admit, I was surprised to learn that any pre-WW2 "touring" bike existed which was capable of exceeding a "ton".

11 comments:

Dave Leeke said...

Interesting one, Mike. You might be interested to have a chat with Richard Goddard as Lawrence appears to have been a family friend.

What about the "Hitler died in 1984 in Bolivia" stories? Plenty more conspiracies left for the theorists yet!

Mike C. said...

Really? Good grief, talk about "degrees of separation" -- apart from the many illustrious friends who crashed on his floor (apparently he had two sleeping bags, labelled "meum" and "tuum"), Lawrence used regularly to drop round Thomas Hardy's house for lunch (the way you do...).

Mike

Zouk Delors said...

Now that I know Hitler was an atheist "of the Scrooge persuasion", I realize the man was quite beyond the pale!

Mike C. said...

Zouk,

I know! Fancy not liking Christmas! Who'd have thought it?

Mike

Huw said...

Clouds Hill, Lawrence's final home, is well worth a visit if you're near.

Mike C. said...

Huw,

Yes, fairly near -- I often pop over to Swanage during the winter months. I've never been to Clouds Hill, but expected it to be rather underwhelming. I'll give it a visit.

Mike

Huw said...

Mike, I guess it depends what you're expecting. It's small (so could be underwhelming) but retains the atmosphere of its owner in a way that other NT properties don't. You can also see why he found it a retreat; it's the opposite to the Arabian desert.

Huw

Mike C. said...

Huw,

I will certainly give it a go (if nothing else, it's been 50 years since I last visited the Tank Museum!). But I'd always imagined it as, "And this is the very garage in which Bill Gates and the other one came up with the DOS operating system!!"

Mike

Huw said...

Oh, the garage is a bit rubbish! But the house itself has that curious mix of spartan and decadent (not quite the right word) that Lawrence embodied.

Huw

Martyn Cornell said...

I was surprised to learn that any pre-WW2 "touring" bike existed which was capable of exceeding a "ton".

The Vincent Rapide, made in St*v*n*g* from 1936, was, I believe, capable of 110mph.

Mike C. said...

Martyn,

Not just built in Stevenage, but in the shed next to the Grange! We walked on hallowed (if oily) ground.

Mike