Monthly Archives: June 2012

29 June 1916: ‘Before Action’

On Thursday, 29 June 1916, readers of Cecil Chesterton’s weekly paper New Witness were the first ever to see the poem ‘Before Action’ by Edward Melbourne. It was to become one of the most loved and remembered poems of its time.  Edward Melbourne was a regular contributor to the paper but apart from Chesterton himself and the Hodgson family only a handful of people knew who he really was. Since the summer of 1914, Noel Hodgson had used the pen-name on all the manuscripts he sent to the New Witness. Increasingly, as the war progressed, he used ‘Edward Melbourne’s writing as an outlet to describe his experiences and express his feelings, often in ways his letters did not, and for his family these poems and sketches must have been an important line of contact with him. But they also had resonance for any parent, sibling, or friend anxious for someone in the firing line. And none more so than ‘Before Action’, his prayer for courage in the face of death.

The poem struck a chord because it was real. There were so many people then – tens of thousands more families in that summer alone – who longed to reach out to a son or brother, lover or husband, and know how he had felt before the end. ‘Before Action’ was not especially comforting. It offered no promise of heaven or of any form of afterlife. In it he took the conventions of lyric poetry, the sunrises and sunsets and beauties of nature, the lovely cadences of language that he handled so well, with all his memories and hopes for the future, and he set them down in front of the enemy machine guns that he knew would be waiting. What he said, very simply, was ‘I’m not a soldier, I’m too young for this, but I will go through with it,’ and in 1916 that resolve was what people wanted and needed to hear.

The coincidence of the poem and Hodgson’s death, first revealed in print by Cecil Chesterton on 13 July 1916, increased ‘Before Action’s poignancy and power. Soon a legend grew up around it. This was started accidentally by Noel’s father later that summer, when he added dates to some of the poems and prose sketches in the book he produced of his son’s work. They were dates of publication but he never explained this; readers assumed they were dates of writing. As the story was handed on down the years, so the idea of Noel Hodgson writing ‘Before Action’ two days before his death took firm hold.

The next question has no definite answer. If not 29 June 1916, then when? When was ‘Before Action’ really written? It might have been at any time, but the New Witness pieces follow the order of Hodgson’s documented experiences precisely and the evidence of both Cecil Chesterton and Bishop Hodgson confirms that this poem was the last. A weekly paper allows for a very fast turn-over of material; even so some days must have elapsed between the poem being posted in France and arriving in England. My best guess – and it can only be a guess – is that it was written during the last nine days the battalion spent in trenches before the battle; nine quiet days when they had time on their hands, Martin’s model and its revelations in mind, and the deadly hillside stretched out before them. If Hodgson had posted it on their return to Grovetown it could easily have reached Chesterton in time for publication on the 29th: knowing what he knew, Noel might even have requested publication that day: that we will never know. But with the publication of ‘Before Action’ another piece of the familiar story falls quietly into place.

The Last Week

The 9th Devons left Grovetown the next day, Thursday, 22 June, marching west to billets in Bonnay. Their commanding officer now held provisional orders for the battle and they would spend the next two days training over the trench theatre at Vaux, using the knowledge gained from their nine days of observing the hillside and from their study of Captain Martin’s model.

The date of the battle had been decided the previous Saturday. The advance was to begin on 29 June, preceded by five days of heavy bombardment. This was meant to wear down the enemy’s nerves, obliterate his defences, and give the attacking battalions an easy passage across no man’s land. It began on 24 June, the Devons’ second and last day of training at Vaux, each morning beginning with a concentrated barrage lasting 80 minutes followed by a steady barrage throughout the day. The intensity lessened at night when half the guns were rested. The sound could be heard as far away as south-eastern England but in France, behind the lines, it was possible to ignore: just a dull, thudding accompaniment to the day’s work. Only at night, when the flashes from the guns lit the sky and other sounds were quiet, did it begin to pervade the senses.

The next day, Sunday, 25 June, was fine, warm and cloudless. The battalion left Bonnay and marched to the Bois des Tailles, passing a large new dressing station at the roadside: rows and rows of camouflage tents set up to receive casualties from the coming battle. Their next few days would be taken up with last-minute preparations, inspections of arms and equipment and light training: even some physical exercises and drill, perhaps intended simply to keep the men occupied.

Noel Hodgson had written to his sister from Grovetown on the 21st to congratulate her on her baby’s birth and to tease her about the names she might choose. He was overjoyed and endearingly humble in his reaction to the news that he was to be the baby’s godfather; he  thought one of his brother-in-law’s friends had already been chosen, and ‘surely a lady baby doesn’t have two god sires.’ On Monday, 26 June, he sent his sister a gift, and a French cigarette lighter for the proud father, apologising that he could find nothing better. Of the situation in France and the battle to come he said nothing – but he had already sent a message home in the form of a poem, which as yet they had not seen. At around this time he also wrote to his former headmaster with a cutting of the poem ‘Durham’, which had appeared in the New Witness on 8 June.

Heavy summer storms set in on the 26th, continuing through Tuesday and soaking the trenches and the roads going up to the line. On Wednesday the battalion’s packs were put into store and a last draft of young officers joined, but the battle was not to go ahead the next morning as planned.  At 11am the army commanders decided to postpone the advance for 48 hours. Some accounts say they wanted to give land time to dry out, others that the combined evidence of raids, patrols and aerial observation suggested that the bombardment had still to achieve its effect. Perhaps both factors played a part. Either way, the Battle of the Somme was now to begin on 1 July.

Martin’s model

The Battalion spent the next day, Wednesday, 21 June, at Grovetown. The new draft of men had to be brought in and allocated to their platoons and the Company commanders busied themselves inspecting clothing and equipment. Working parties were detailed to return to the trenches to assist the Royal Engineers. And on this day a familiar element in the story of the 9th Devons on the Somme first appears in the official record. On 21 June the Brigade Major sent an order to all the units in 7th Division. From 9 o’clock the next morning a contoured model covering the entire front over which 20 Brigade was to attack would be available at the Grovetown HQ. Battalion Commanders were to make an appointment to see the model and the officers of each and every company due to be involved in the battle must study it together.

The model showed how vulnerable advancing troops in the area of Mansel Copse would be to machine gun fire: not just from the one position always identified in connection with the story, the shrine in Mametz village cemetery, but in fact from German trenches in three directions; on the right, straight ahead in the line of advance, and above on the hillside. Accounts of the first day of fighting on the Somme always represent Captain Martin of the 9th Devons, who made the model, as a lone voice, pointing to a danger which his superiors refused to recognise.  Some even imagine him making a formal complaint and being told that it was his duty to advance no matter how many machine guns were waiting.  But the Brigade Order puts a different complexion on the story. Whether Martin had made the model on his own initiative, or had been asked to make it to demonstrate the dangers that could be expected in 20 Brigade’s line of advance, the Brigade order is evidence that his superiors were listening. Far from trying to silence Martin, they were using his insight and skill to help his fellow officers prepare.

The order’s timing must also be significant. With the model ‘going public’ just two days after the battalion’s return from the only sector of British trenches that could give a clear view of the hillside, it seems certain that Martin had checked out the landscape on the ground as well as he was able and had made final adjustments to the model on returning to Grovetown. He would also have discussed his findings with those closest to him, including Noel Hodgson. Hodgson, like Martin, was one of the dwindling number of original 9th Devon officers who had been together since their battalion was formed. With a major attack imminent, Martin is known to have been concerned about the capabilities of the new officers coming out from England as replacements; only one of the four platoon commanders in his company had even served in trenches before.

The pieces were falling into place. For Hodgson, Martin, all those remaining from the original battalion who had fought at Loos, the magnitude of the task ahead was now painfully clear.



At its highest point, the front line trench the 9th Devons held held on and off since April – their starting point in the coming battle – looked north-east across a shallow valley to the hill-top village of Mametz – not that anyone would have cared to stand on the parapet to take in the view. Mametz and neighbouring Fricourt were heavily fortified and lay behind a network of enemy trenches and barbed wire entanglements which stretched across the valley and up the slope towards the British position. At the top the two lines were painfully close in places, neither side wanting to concede the advantage of the higher ground.

Through the foot of the valley ran the road from Albert to Carnoy, beside a light railway line. As the trenches curved north-east to encircle the village, following the slope downwards towards the road, they pulled further apart. The gap was at its most pronounced where a steep bank at the roadside surmounted by a small wood had forced the British line back on itself almost at right angles, following the shape of the wood and only dipping down to cross the road and resume its original course where the trees ended. The army called this wood ‘Mansel Copse’.

By 11 June the battalion’s officers were aware that the trenches on the downward slope as far as the Copse would be their front line in the coming attack. Their last spell in trenches before the battle – nine unusually peaceful days – gave them an opportunity to study the whole hillside from afar and assess its dangers. Little else was happening. On the first day one man was injured and a new draft of five men joined them. A much bigger draft of sixty arrived on the 18th but remained out of the line with the transport. Otherwise the days passed and the adjutant had nothing to report in the official diary at all, save a note of where they were.

Noel Hodgson may have been with them physically but his mind was miles away in Ipswich with his sister, whose first baby was due any day. He had been excited and slightly awed by the prospect ever since February, when she first told him. Just before leaving for the trenches he had found time to scribble a pencilled note wishing her luck in the week ahead and adding, ‘I think much of you.’ She gave birth to her child, a daughter, on Friday, 16 June, and their father wrote immediately to tell him. The letter must have found Noel when the 9th Devons handed the trenches over to their sister battalion and marched back to Grovetown: on the 20th, or perhaps the next day when he sent his congratulations. He was thrilled and must have told everyone the news. Perhaps he never stopped telling them; his fellow officers even began to call him ‘Uncle’.


The 9th Devons spent the first four days of June at Treux Wood, training on the demonstration trenches at Heilly. On the 3rd they practised bomb throwing. As Bombing Officer Noel Hodgson would have been at the forefront of this and it was a responsibility he took very seriously. Friends would later pay tribute to the effort he put into training his bombing sections and it isn’t hard to understand why he took so much care. Within weeks he would have to lead them into battle and not all of them would survive. There was no way out of this, so the best he could do for his men was to make sure that they knew what to do: in one of his sketches of life at the front published just a few weeks earlier, he had explained how important this could be:

‘. . . one of the most startling features of the horror known as a heavy bombardment is that men will carry out the rules of “the book” and find comfort from doing so, though death is taking both the calm and the distraught equally.’

The 4th was a Sunday so it brought some relief, with a service led by the Chaplain followed by Battalion sports – and organising this was another of Hodgson’s duties, all that school rugby and running put to good use.

The next day the Battalion left Treux Wood and marched due east to the Bois des Tailles, another stretch of woodland just off the road to Bray-sur-Somme which would be their base for a week. They spent the next three days digging cable trenches.

When he was free to think, Hodgson’s mind was still on Durham and the sense that if that world could only continue, even without him and his friends, then something worthwhile would survive the war years. He had a small black pocket notebook with him which he had used at first for lists of officers and men, and for practise messages. Now it was full of ideas for poems. The last, written perhaps at the end of May and titled simply ‘Durham’, appeared in the New Witness on 8 June. It spoke, as did so many of his poems, of the healing power of time and the endurance of stone and river, set against the transience of individual lives. He played with several ideas for the closing line – ‘God’s spirit broods upon His courts of peace’ – but settled in the end for something much gentler and further from the Somme: ‘God’s kindness dwells about these courts of peace.’

On the 9th and 10th the Battalion marched north to 20 Brigade HQ at Grovetown for further training, returning to the wood at night. The next day, Sunday, 11 June, they left the Bois des Tailles, marching north-east past Grovetown for their last spell of front line duty before the battle. They would send the next nine days in trenches facing both Mametz and the hillside across which their advance would take them.