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.