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.

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