Trenches

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’.

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