December 1915 found the 9th Devons in billets at Ailly-sur-Somme, getting to know a new area and a new (and unwelcome) role as the Divisional Pioneer Battalion. The order for this was given a few days after their arrival by train from the north and it meant a new phase of training in mining, road and railway construction and other heavy labouring work – all essential to the Army’s progress but not what they had imagined doing when they joined.
It was hard and depressing work so Christmas came as a really welcome break. Hodgson was one of the old hands now, so many had been killed or injured at Loos. He had taken or been given a whole catalogue of responsibilities, as mess president, bombing officer, scout officer, officer in charge of athletics and OC Headquarters Company. His family sent a case of Christmas treats for the battalion which was opened on Christmas Day, and he told his sister the cake and the tin trumpets were especially popular. ‘When I went round dinners I was greeted with ‘For he’s a jolly good fellow’ played on cornets and lustily sung, and one gentleman in a voice husky with beer and emotion assured me that if ever I wanted a man to follow me into a tight place, 11132 Private Harry Gay was the man in question.’
In July 1913 three Oxford students were climbing in the Lake District. Hodgson was one; the other two he had known since they were schoolboys. They started out on a morning of early mist walking from Rosthwaite to Seathwaite before climbing into the hills. They watched bathers in Styhead Tarn. One of them stepped aside from the path to allow a woman to pass and almost fell over a precipice – the others thanked him for keeping his footing as it save them the trouble of carrying his body down. He wasn’t impressed. They laughed at tourists (isn’t it funny how no one ever thinks of himself as a tourist…) and watched a distant waterplane on Lake Windermere.
They descended by Tongue Ghyll to Wasdale Head and after stopping for tea, crossed Black Sail Pass into the head of Ennerdale, heading ultimately for the Buttermere Hotel and supper. They saw two buzzards fighting and paced themselves on the last leg of the journey by singing an improvised setting of ‘Jabberwocky’.
Within three years they would all be dead, one at Gallipoli, one in a base hospital from an illness contracted in the trenches, one on the Somme. Vera Brittain’s experience of loss in the Great War was far from unique, and piecing together Noel Hodgson’s story it strikes me how much of the early part of the war is covered simply in recounting what happened to him and the people he cared for. Two of his cousins were O.T.C. trained officers in the regular army. One went to France in the very first shipload of British soldiers in August 1914: he was invalided home in the retreat from Mons. The other died of wounds received in the first Battle of Ypres. Then Gallipoli. Hodgson himself fought at Loos and won the M.C. there. Then the Somme. He even had a friend whose eyesight was too bad for the British army but, being determined to enlist, managed to wangle his way into the Serbian army. A whole pattern of individual experiences threaded together through the life of one man; a novelist would hardly dare invent it.