On this day, 1 June, in 1916 the 9th Devons were encamped in Treux Wood, south-west of Albert, and spent the day training over demonstration trenches at Heilly in preparation for the Somme battle. It was a Thursday; it was also Ascension Day and this gave Noel Hodgson a subject for his last account of life at the front.
In ‘Ascension Morning’ the narrator – Hodgson himself? – is riding beside a column of marching men when an overheard remark about the day stirs the memory of another Ascension morning at school years before, when he and a friend climbed out of the window before sunrise to go bird-nesting – breaking all the rules, of course, but they enjoyed it. They out-ran pursuing gamekeepers and persuaded someone to give them breakfast before the realisation that they must be back at school quickly or be in trouble spurred them on to the cross country run of their lives.
The friend is dead now but reliving the memory brings such pleasure that the narrator turns his horse back along the column to say so to a fellow officer. He finds him in the grip of despair because for him too a memory has been revived. The officer describes a walking holiday in Cumbria with two close friends, up the Sty Head Pass to the Gable, over the Gable and across Ennerdale to Buttermere, ‘and it was a great, still, clear evening as we came singing by the lake; and we talked and smoked late the time under a great night of stars.‘ One of his friends is already dead, killed at Gallipoli, and he has just learned that the other has died in hospital. For him there is no consolation in remembering and the day seems a cruel irony.
Soon the landscape opens up before them – a peaceful summer landscape of French farmers at work in the fields – and the narrator is struck by a third memory, of a similar morning when he sat watching French civilians going about their daily lives outside a house where a soldier was facing court martial and a death sentence. Finding he has no words left to say to his friend, he spurs the horse and rides on alone.
There are fictional elements in ‘Ascension Morning’ but all the memories it describes are fact and they are Hodgson’s memories: surely too that blend of emotions the sketch draws together: nostalgia, grief and pain – what the poet Wilfrid Gibson called ‘the heartbreak in the heart of things‘ – the incongruity of war in a peaceful landscape, the implied questions of faith and doubt – ‘what are we doing here?’ – all summed up in the one piece of writing.
On 1 June 1916 Noel Hodgson had precisely one month left to live.