First World War Passendale Sign, 1917-18
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Length: 113cm (44.5in)
Provenance: Henry Williamson (1895-1977)
Gifted to D.J. Marks (1921-1975)
Painted wood sign board. White stencilled lettering on green ground, inscribed with the Dutch spelling of the West Flanders village better known to Allied troops as Passchendaele - a place synonymous with the mud and slaughter of the Western Front. Applied verso with a hand written note inscribed ‘This is the original sign / Bought back from the / Front by novelist Henry Williamson / a serving officer. It came into the / possession of Daily Express Editor Derek / Marks (Williamson’s friend) and when / Marks died the sign was taken from / his office to be dumped. I rescued / it from that fate.’
Passendale or Passchendaele was the scene of the Third Battle of Ypres, fought from the end July to November 1917. Passchendaele was ostensibly an Allied victory, but won at enormous cost for a piece of ground that was lost the following year. The author Henry Williamson served in the Ypres Salient and was profoundly affected by the experience. Best known for his never-out-of-print 1928 novel Tarka the Otter, Williamson contributed nature articles to the Daily Express while under the editorship of Derek John Marks between 1965 and 1971. Williamson’s status as a First World War veteran and distinguished author led to the invitation to write a foreword for a facsimile version of ‘The Wipers Times’ in 1973. ‘The Somme – just fifty years after’ was just one of the articles commissioned by Marks for publication in the Express in June and July 1966.
Henry William Williamson (1895-1977) was a pre-war Territorial with the 5th (City of London) Battalion of the London Regiment, he was mobilised on the outbreak of war in 1914 and went to France with 1st Battalion London Rifle Brigade. He witnessed the Christmas Truce of 1914. It made a deep and lasting impression upon his life, by which he believed war was created by greed, misplaced zeal and bigotry. In January 1915 he was invalided to England with trench foot and dysentery. He was afterwards commissioned into the 10th (Service) Battalion, Bedfordshire Regiment, and underwent training with the Machine Gun Corps at Belton Park, Grantham. He returned to France with No. 208 Company MGC in the 62nd (2nd West Riding) Division, in February 1917, serving as his company’s transport officer. In June 1917, he was gassed while bringing ammunition into the line. He was evacuated to England, spending the next few months in military convalescent hospitals. Judged unfit for active service in September 1917, he was appointed adjutant of the 3rd Bedfords at Felixstowe. Disillusioned with garrison duties he applied to join the Royal Air Force, but was rejected on medical grounds and was finally demobilised in September 1919.
The Great War left Williamson disgusted with what he considered to be the pointlessness of the war, blaming its causation on greed and bigotry. He like many others became determined that Germany and Britain should never go to war again. Williamson was also powerfully influenced by the camaraderie that he had experienced in the trenches, and what he saw as the bonds of kinship that existed between the ordinary British and German soldiers. Such led to unfortunate belief in post-war German aims and pro-German organisations in Britain. He told of his war experiences in The Wet Flanders Plain (1929), The Patriot's Progress (1930) and in the semi-autobiographical 15-book series A Chronicle of Ancient Sunlight (1951–1969).