As we look ahead to the centenary of the end of the Great War in November, we should pause to celebrate one of its most extraordinary survivors, a man who was probably the greatest explorer of the 20th century…
On St Valentine’s Day, this year, an anniversary passed, unremarked by the wider world, but one to which many yachtsmen and mountaineers across the world tipped their hats. On that day, had he lived so long, H W ‘Bill’ Tilman would have been 120 years old
Had he lived! Well, given the nature of the man, his extraordinary toughness combined with a hard-edged frugality, he might well have reached the ton at least.
But Bill Tilman died at sea, drowned somewhere off the coast of South America forty years ago this autumn, on his way, in his eightieth year, to Smith Island in the Antarctic. His last mission – and he knew it would be his last, whatever the outcome – was to help others climb a mountain he had, unusually, failed to reach in 1966. He had gone reluctantly, but he had promised the inexperienced young skipper, Simon Richardson, that he would – and Bill never broke a promise.
Tilman is in the top rank of explorers of the twentieth century – an era that he had increasing contempt for. Arguably – and I would strongly argue it – he was one of the greatest British explorers ever. In an age which deals hyperbole as casually as a card game, I do not stake my claim on his behalf lightly. Mindful, too, of his lifelong pursuit of personal obscurity, writing these words gives an uncomfortable sense of his legendary contemptuous snort for any pretension on his or anyone else’s behalf.
Tilman became the man he was through his experiences in the First World War, into which he was plunged before his eighteenth birthday as an artillery officer. He won the Military Cross twice, was seriously injured but, most significantly, survived two and a half years of front-line action at a time when the average life expectancy of officers was measured in weeks and months. In many respects, the rest of his life was an expiation of the guilt of that survival. It explains why an outgoing youth, who loved dancing and had an easy way with girls of his age, turned for fourteen years into a recluse in Africa, between 1919 to 1932, and then turned toward the remote places on earth to continue a search for peace and tranquillity.
Amongst many other things, Bill Tilman was a stoic – and he expected the same from others. No doubt death, when it came would be seen by him as a door opening on a new adventure, not closing on one. He was a romantic, witty, clever man who might have lived a very different life had it not been for the carnage of Flanders. Pam Davis, his niece, said he was the embodiment of Rudyard Kipling’s poem ‘If…’ In other mouths that would be a cliché, but she was a Tilman through and through and, from her, it stands out, like a pennant in a stiff ocean breeze, hard and true.
To read more about Bill Tilman, pick up Tim Madge’s “searching, affectionate, yet honest biography” (Liverpool Daily Post) HERE