It took me by surprise this weekend to see Thornbury Church on the TV news. There was the path the Hodgsons would have walked so often, the door through which they carried Noel, their youngest son, into the church on Sunday, 12 February, 1893 – the day his father baptised him. There, too was the house where the Hodgsons lived (no longer the vicarage); the same house that one of its later children, another vicar’s son, remembered as a sort of earthly paradise. Eighty years on he could still draw plans of the interior and the garden, recalling even the flower beds and the trees – the planes, the cherry and the fig. How distressed they would all have been to see the quiet place that meant home to them, and echoed only happy memories, darkened by the murder of the current vicar. But places last so much longer than we do, and so many stories collect around them.
Back to the Hodgsons. On the night Noel Hodgson left for France with his battalion, 27 July 1915, his father woke the household with a nightmare. He was a very reserved man at normal times and this display of his underlying feelings made such an impression on his family that, generations later, they still remember. When I was told first about the Bishop’s nightmare I thought it simply echoed the anxiety any father might have felt when his son went to war. I know now that there was more to it. The Hodgsons were a close family. Bishop Hodgson had three brothers; he performed the marriage service for the eldest, William, the Rector of Distington, and they both went on to have three sons. The youngest of the Distington cousins was still at school when war broke out but his elder brothers were both soldiers already: the middle one was in the very first detachment of British troops to land in France in August 1914. He lasted three weeks before being invalided home at the end of the Mons retreat; he served out the rest of the war in England.
George, the eldest , was a 2nd Lieutenant in the Border Regiment and he landed at Zeebrugge on 6 October, joining the 20th Brigade, 7th Division (the very same brigade and division his cousin Noel would join the following year). George was a real charmer; good-looking, impulsive, and idle, with the idleness of the very gifted, who know precisely how much effort they need to put in to achieve a result. He was funny too; some of his exploits at Cambridge had me laughing out loud in the archive of his old school a few weeks ago.
From Zeebrugge George’s battalion was moved up by stages to Ypres, where battle was already underway, and after just over two weeks of fighting, on the night of 31 October, they took up positions at Klein Zillebeke. On 2 November, four days after his promotion to full Lieutenant, George was wounded in a German attack. He died four days later, in No.13 General Hospital at Boulogne.
‘Lord Kitchener expresses his sympathy’. In official papers relating to George’s death there is a list of the personal effects returned to his family. A very short list: a silver cigarette case; a gun metal cigarette case; a leather letter-wallet with letters; a safety pin, a locket and a farthing. I find something oddly touching about that farthing. The Army didn’t count it with his money, which was dealt with separately. Even in 1914 a farthing – quarter of an old penny – didn’t buy very much. It was found, with the safety pin, in one of the cigarette cases – perhaps George carried it for luck, or as a souvenir of something or someone – who knows? But once you know how much the war had cost the Hodgson family in just the first few weeks, the Bishop’s nightmare becomes so very easy to understand.