Two weeks after his time in hospital – two weeks of alternating between the Fricourt and Becordel trenches and fatigue duties when out of the line – Noel Hodgson was granted a week’s leave. He set off for home on 31 March, leaving the 9th Devons in billets at Meaulte: he might just have had time to meet, in passing, a new subaltern who joined the battalion that day. But there would be no chance to get to know him. A few days later, Lieutenant Cole was shot in the head and died. The C.O., writing to his widowed mother, must have struggled to find the right words, or any words for such an occasion. ‘He had been with us only four days,’ he told her, ‘but I saw how keen he was on his work, and his loss to the battalion will be great.’
Life was short then and time precious. Hodgson would probably have snatched the opportunity for some fun in London, passing through. He had his photograph taken at the Langfier studio in Bond Street and might well have met Cecil Chesterton to hand over more work for the New Witness. Then his priority was Ipswich and a chance to see his parents and sister again. Stella was expecting her first child in the summer and already he was setting aside all the earnings from his published writing to start a bank account for the baby. But close as he was to his family, the bishop’s house in Ipswich would not have felt like home to him because it had never really been his home. Gaining a two-day extension to his leave he made his way north to Durham, and the school that had given him so much and still meant so much to him.
Like all schools, Durham had been changed by the war. Tiny by modern standards and small even in its own day – there were 91 boys on the roll in 1905 when Hodgson started, the same when he left six years later – Durham School had not had an Officers’ Training Corps until the war began. It prepared boys for university and the professions (and rugby teams), not for war. But the demands of 1914 were inescapable and by the end of the year there were at least 164 Old Dunelmians in the forces. Seven months later the list had grown to 281: nine were known to have died and there was uncertainty surrounding the fate of another, 2nd Lieutenant Thomas Callinan of the 8th Durham Light Infantry. At first reported killed in April 1915, six days after arriving in France, he was later re-classified as ‘wounded and missing’: in fact, the first description was correct.
Being small, Durham escaped the long casualty lists of larger schools. The price was a lack of anonymity. In a small community every loss was personal, and by the time Noel Hodgson visited in April 1916 those losses included close friends and boys he knew known well – Nowell Oxland, Jimmy Dingle and George Hampton, killed at Gallipoli; James Tombs, died of pneumonia in a base hospital at St Omer only weeks before; Francis Adamson, bombing officer, like Hodgson, in the battalion next to his in the line, shot by a sniper the previous November. Some of the memories would have been touched by sadness: even so, Hodgson’s visit was not a mournful one. He was glad to be back. He found real strength in the school’s continued existence: strength and a source of hope. He was amused to see the boys alight with excitement over the visit of another returning hero, his friend Robert Parr. To him Parr was ‘Nestor’, the teller of tales, and this time there really was a tale worth telling. Barred from the British forces by chronically weak eyesight, Robert Parr had taken himself off to the Serbian Embassy in London and calmly talked his way into the Serbian army – the very first step in a long career in the diplomatic service. Whatever Parr had said to the boys at Durham, it made a lasting impression. A few weeks later Hodgson would tell him in a letter that there was a new catchphrase at the school, ‘Ask Parr’, ‘indicating a veil of dark and abysmal secrecy.’
For just a short time he could lay aside the responsibility and remember a life with nothing more worrying than the next cricket score, and that was good. The school would be on his mind a lot in the weeks that followed and his writings are full of it. And though he saw the gulf between home and the front which was becoming ever deeper as the war progressed, it made him smile as much as it hurt him. When the Headmaster wrote to invite him to play in a cricket match that summer – around the time the Battle of the Somme was due to start, he remarked, ‘Think of it; white flannels, drinks, and delightful smooth-haired children with brown faces; what an irony!‘
Hodgson rejoined his battalion on 11 April in new trenches to the east of their previous sector, facing the village of Mametz.