March 1916: Illusion and disillusion

Through January and February 1916 the 9th Devons were on the Somme.  Their unwelcome role as 20 Brigade’s Pioneers lasted until late February, with incessant hard work fetching and carrying for the Royal Engineers, mending trenches which were shelled as fast as they were rebuilt, and on the most hated duty of all, mining fatigues. The area known as the Tambour, to the west of the German-held village of Fricourt, was a hotbed of mining activity on both sides and working parties were in constant demand to carry sandbags of mud away from the shaft-heads. On the evening of 22 February the Devons were summoned from rest billets to take up battle positions in the face of an imminent attack, that was preceded by intense bombardment. Three officers, including Noel Hodgson, and a composite company made up principally of his bombers, were sent to a reserve position behind the Tambour. They did nothing but wait, but nine of the men were wounded where they stood by a shell. The next five days were spent on mining fatigues and trench repairs before the battalion returned to the line. On 29 February they fought off another, smaller attack.

For Noel Hodgson this was the low point of the war. February 1916 was cold and wet, and by the end of the month rain had turned to heavy snow. Another of his fell-walking friends had died in hospital at St Omer on the 18th from an illness contracted in the trenches, and that seemed far worse to him than dying in battle. At least in battle you were taking action, while the enforced boredom and random danger of life in a ‘quiet’ sector of the Western Front simply sapped the spirit. For someone who had always been active, whose very idea of freedom was standing on the summit of Great Gable or Scafell Pike, a muddy hole in France had little to recommend it, and Noel fretted against a growing sense of futility.

He was depressed and he was also ill. On 3 March the Commanding Officer sent him out of the line to one of the Divisional Field Ambulance units, suffering from fever. The records say only ‘PUO’ [pyrexia, unknown origin], but Noel’s symptoms seem to have been gastric. Writing from hospital some days later he told his sister rather ruefully that he had just eaten his first solid breakfast and would soon be allowed up for a while; he envied the man in the bed opposite, so ill he was likely to be sent home. Noel said he would give his M.C. – and he was proud of his M.C – to be at home himself, with their mother to look after him. He knew that return to the front line was inevitable but vowed to put it off for as long as he could.

The First World War is often presented in terms of a very simple progression of emotions, from the patriotic enthusiasm of 1914 through a general disillusion that is said to have set in after the Battle of the Somme, to anger and bitterness. In fact, one man could feel as much in a single day and still pick himself up the next day and carry on. As so often happens with generalisations about history, it’s the individual differences from the supposed norm that are the most interesting and the most telling. Noel Hodgson had never been enthusiastic about the war. He simply believed that in the circumstances Britain faced in the summer of 1914 there was no honest alternative. And having reached a point of complete disillusionment with the whole business in the spring of 1916, he would be the one to pull himself back. When he returned from hospital to the front, it would be his own decision….



Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *