There and Back

The attack of fever kept Hodgson in hospital almost two weeks. His battalion had been in the trenches facing Fricourt when he left them on 3 March; two days later they were relieved and after five days of fatigue duties they returned to the trenches. ‘Situation “normal”, the Battalion War Diary records on the 12th, ‘a few rifle grenades and light shells were sent. . . 2 men wounded‘, the quotation marks around “normal” adding a hint of irony to a reported day that was very far from the norms of ordinary life.

But at least the weather had eased, the heavy snow and biting winds beginning to give way to something much more springlike. For Noel Hodgson, comfortably far from the front line in a landscape untouched by the fighting, illness had provided escape and a chance to think. Once he was well enough to be classed as convalescent he did as he always did – found the nearest hill and climbed it. But let him take up the story:

Up the slope of that tall ridge which encloses the southern aspect of a little hospital town in the Somme country was climbing an officer entering on the last week of a blessed term of convalescence. His hard worn khaki with a small ribbon on the left breast, and a certain grimness of the mouth, indicated that for some months his way had been in stony places of war. Even now his enjoyment showed in his eyes only.

It was one of those incomparable mornings after rain, when every line is clear and every colour vivid almost beyond belief. . . . and for the first time in many weeks the sun was warm on his neck. . . .

No sign or sound of conflict broke the spell of that healing quiet; not the echo of a gun, not the distant vision of a hovering ‘plane.  But all the sounds of the living country mingled: the rippling song of the larks, the chirping grasshoppers, the rumble of a farm cart on the valley-road, and, as it were the motive and spirit of it all, the delicate melancholy of a far-off church bell.

For a long time he lay and watched the shadows chase over the wide-breasted hills. . .

The quotation is from ‘There and Back‘, one of the regular descriptions of trench life  Hodgson wrote for Cecil Chesterton’s weekly paper The New Witness. In 1916 he seemed to find prose an easier vehicle than poetry to express the realities of life at the front. He changed names and other details – the 9th Devons, for example, become the 9th Downshires – but it was certainly his own experience he was describing. On the afternoon of 13 March the 9th Devons came under heavy shelling in the Fricourt trenches, with rifle grenades and trench mortars. One officer, 2nd Lieutenant Butland, was wounded and two  men. In ‘There and Back‘ the officer finally leaves his hill and on his walk back to the hospital meets a man from his battalion, who tells him that a fellow officer, ‘Mr Holland’, and the sergeant were brought to the Casualty Clearing Station the night before, wounded by a rifle grenade:

The officer looked thoughtful, and tapped his leg with his cane. . .

“I must go and see them – that leaves Mr. Gibson in command of the company?”

“Yes, sir.”

“And only Mr. Sands to help him?”

“Yes, sir.”

“Last night you arrived, eh? Yes – well, I’m very sorry.  Thank you, Taylor.”

The man saluted, and the officer continued his walk. In the hospital grounds he met the Doctor.

“Doctor,” he said, ” I think I’m fit enough to rejoin the regiment to-morrow.”

On 15 March Noel Hodgson rejoined his battalion.

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