Monthly Archives: July 2012

Leaving England

Turn back the clock just a year from the Somme to July 1915: so short a time, Noel Hodgson’s war. On this day, 25 July 1915, after ten months in training, he and his battalion were finally about to leave for the front.

The 9th Devons had been at Bordon Camp in Hampshire attached to the 9th Highland Division when the order to mobilize reached them. The next few days were spent in last-minute preparations. Stores were drawn and the ‘supernumeries’ – those officers and men who were not to go overseas yet – were despatched to the reserve battalion at Wareham.

On 20 July Noel Hodgson wrote his will. This was something many younger single men did not do. His friend Nowell Oxland, who had sailed for Gallipoli in June, left no will, nor did his cousin George, already killed in action. Perhaps that was the point. So many friends and acquaintances from school and college had been killed already. Sending the will and a few small bequests to his sister – their father was only to be given them ‘if necessary’ – Noel was intent on handling the business as lightly as he could while making sure that  it was done. He seems to have shared the feeling that comes very strongly through Vera Brittain’s wartime writing, that his own generation would cope with whatever was to come. It was their parents, the generation left at home, who would need support and protection.

Knowing that his sister was holidaying in the Lake District made him nostalgic and more than a little envious, and his mind turned over every detail of his favourite walk. He described it for her, asking her to go as his representative and take his regards to the hills.

On 25 July the battalion learned that they had two days – less – before leaving and the next day ammunition was issued. At 1.45 am on 27 July, Hodgson’s company fell in and marched to Bordon Station, leaving from there by train to Southampton. Shortly before 6 am they arrived: they would spend the whole day confined to the docks, kicking their heels in the dock sheds and waiting. Someone had a camera and took a photograph of their formidable sergeant major, a veteran of the regiment whom even the officers feared, sitting on the docks with three  other N.C.O.s. At 4 pm, with the rest of his company, Noel Hodgson embarked on a former Isle of Man paddle steamer and sailed for France.

Name and memory

The War Office telegram with news of Noel Hodgson’s death is dated 5 July. The words ‘regret to inform you that’ were stamped or printed on the telegram form; the clerk who wrote in the details softened the brusqueness of this by adding ‘Deeply’, so the message read, ‘Deeply regret to inform you that Lieut. W.N. Hodgso* Devonshire Regiment was killed in action 1 July. The Army Council express their sympathy.’

And with those words a world ended, for his family as for tens of thousands of others. Life would go on but it would not be the same life, and it was left to the living to make sense of what had happened and find their own way forward.

Death in battle was curiously intangible for families at home, its only evidence a piece of paper. With no body, no funeral to arrange or attend, no grave, and none of the accepted rituals of mourning, it was hard to grasp and hold onto the reality that they knew must be all too real.  The first published notice of Noel Hodgson’s death was placed by the Hodgsons themselves in the ‘Death’ column of The Times on 8 July. With over 57,000 killed, wounded or missing on one day it took time for the full lists to be compiled and the newspaper had actually appealed for details from families. The 9th Devons officers, Noel among them, did not appear in the Roll of Honour for another four days.

But members of the regiment must have had their own ways of finding out. On 6 July one of Noel’s friends, a fellow officer wounded at Loos the previous September, wrote to Noel’s sister with his condolences. She must have replied asking if he could find more information about her brother’s death and he wrote back a few days later; he had sent all the news he could collect to her father. But with only two days remaining before he returned to France himself, he was determined to do more. On 11 July he led all the Devons from his local military hospital up to the top of the nearest hill as an act of remembrance for Noel – which shows just how well he knew his friend.

The longing for more information to fill out the story behind the flat ‘killed in action’ of the official notice was general and understandable. Ernest Crosse wrote to the Bishop from France on 8 July and the next day the 9th Devons’ commanding officer wrote; both added more details.  In August Stella contacted another of her brother’s friends who was wounded on 1 July and he provided her with an account of their final hours together before the battle and a promise to tell her more when they could meet in person and so, steadily, the picture built.

Meanwhile her father was working on his own act of remembrance, to lift his son’s name from the unbearably long lists of dead and create something for him that would last. Even before the war, published work by ‘Edward Melbourne’ had begun to attract critical notice. The war gave Noel a platform and a readership but only a select few knew that he was E.M. Now whatever future he might have had as a writer was gone and it was time for what he had achieved already to be recognised under his own name. There is a suggestion that he knew that his father would do this, that it had been discussed between them.

By August Bishop Hodgson had selected the poetry and prose he wanted to include in his son’s book and he approached the publisher Smith, Elder & Co, for a price. He chose to have an edition of 1000 copies printed for £50. Verse and Prose in Peace and War came out in November and had sold out by the end of the year: in January the publisher approached the Bishop for permission to produce a second edition.  He agreed readily, adding two more poems to the selection. By June this edition too was exhausted. Smith, Elder had been taken over by John Murray, who approached the Bishop for permission to reprint. Once again he agreed, adding corrections and more material: through the last two years of the war and into the 1920s and ’30s, William Noel Hodgson was regarded as one of the leading poets the war had produced.


*as in the original

4 July 1916: ‘The Devonshires held this trench’

At 3.30 pm on 1 July the machine guns ahead of the Devons in the German lines were still active. A company from the 8th Devons was ordered forward but when the leading platoons came under heavy fire by Mansel Copse their lieutenant pulled back and took them across no man’s land further up the hill. The Devons’ Chaplain Ernest Crosse had fretted in Battalion HQ all day, waiting his chance to go out and help the wounded, and it was at around the same time, 3.30 pm, that his patience finally broke. He made his way down a little track road to the back of Mansel Copse. At its upper end it was protected by rising ground but further down, close to the road, he found a scene of devastation. The first casualties of the morning, Captain Martin among them, were scattered on and near the road, victims of the German guns to their right, in Mametz Trench. Searching among them for wounded must have kept Crosse and the Medical Officer busy for some time: by the time they reached the front of the copse Mametz had fallen and the danger passed. From his new position Crosse could see that there were wounded as well as dead men strewn across the valley, and he was determined to bring in as many as he could before nightfall, for fear of a counter attack. He went in search of stretcher bearers, found about thirty men, and set to work. When there were no more stretchers left they used trench ladders and before dark they had cleared the ground as far as the German lines.

Their search continued the next day over the torn and featureless landscape that had once been the German trench system. In looking  for the wounded, Crosse could not help but find the dead, among them friends he had known and loved, like Martin and Hodgson, but the living had to come first. It must have been agonising for him to have to leave the bodies of his friends so long. Three weeks later, weeks of further fighting, danger and loss, Crosse would write that he tried not to think of them, yet missed them constantly.

But on Monday, 3 July, he had at last been able to do one final thing for them. Chancing on an officer from the Divisional Staff he requested and was given permission to use part of the front line trench at Mansel Copse as a grave. He set up a collecting station at the foot of the copse and began the task of bringing in the dead, with working parties from the 8th and 9th Devons to assist. They continued until 9pm, when the 9th battlion was ordered out of the line.

The next morning, Tuesday, 4 July, Crosse carried on with thirty men from the 8th Devons. They buried all those they were able to bring in: 161 dead from both battalions including one officer of the 8th Devons, 2nd Lieutenant Gethin, who had been killed three days before the battle in the enemy bombardment of the front line trench. Gethin was Irish and a gifted engraver and illustrator. At 42 years old he could have avoided military service but had chosen not to. Ten of the dead were not identified, except by regiment. In the early afternoon work was held up by a fierce thunderstorm but at 6 pm Crosse was able to read the funeral service in the presence of the General, the Brigade Major, the former C.O of the 9th Devons, and sixty representatives of the two battalions. Afterwards his exhausted working party covered over the bodies.

For Ernest Crosse, though, the work was not done.  The next day he had the area wired off and a board put up identifying it as the burial place of the Devons killed on 1 July. There were twelve crosses, each bearing a list of tin-tape names. Once this was done he began to draw up plans for the final cemetery; the Salvage Company would put everything in order according to his instructions. Later someone would write the famous epitaph now immortalised in stone at the cemetery entrance:

“The Devonshires held this trench, the Devonshires hold it still”

Martin’s model, Hodgson’s poem, the Devonshire Cemetery: by 4 July 1916 the three parts of one of the most familiar and enduring stories of the Battle of the Somme were all in place.

1 July 1916

The 9th Devons spent Friday, 30 June, resting in the Bois des Tailles. In the evening the officers built a bonfire from old boxes and they sat around it singing and exchanging stories. Echoes of a school outing or boy scout camp still linger round accounts of their last few hours before the battle; deliberately so, perhaps as these things would have been comfortingly familiar. Before they left for the line the men were issued with sandwiches and told to make sure their water bottles were full, but they were strictly forbidden to eat the sandwiches or drink the water on the way. Watering points were provided along the route to the trenches and the sandwiches would be their breakfast, and something to occupy them in the final hours.

They left the wood at 10.30pm, 22 officers and 753 men, leaving the rest in reserve. Noel Hodgson was with his bombers. It would be their task to ‘mop-up’ after the first lines of the attack, dealing with pockets of resistance and countering enemy bombers and machine guns; Hodgson, as their officer, answered directly to the C.O. and had his own copy of Battalion orders.

The original front line trench, running down the hill to Mansel Copse and turning to follow the tree line, had been damaged by enemy shelling in the last few days and was too dangerous to use, so the battalion had been given new forming-up positions 250 yards back. This caused some confusion and delay as the carefully planned timings and routes through the trenches no longer applied, but by 2.35am everyone was in place with a few hours ahead to snatch whatever sleep they could.

At 6.25am the bombardment became intense. The very air is said to have vibrated with the sound and the ground throbbed. Hodgson, Captain Martin and ‘Babe’ Freeland, stood on the firestep to watch the bombardment of Mametz, knowing how critical its result would be. The enemy was firing in retaliation – in itself a worrying sign – but as the shells were carefully ranged on the original front line they were able to watch them in safety. Then Hodgson was called away by the C.O, perhaps with some last-minute change of plan. According to the surviving battalion orders, the bombing parties were to go over with the third and fourth lines but he went with the second.

All along the British front line the attack began at 7.30am but the Devons, with 250 yards of extra ground to cover, went over the top at 7.27am, three minutes before the barrage lifted. On the left, protected by the contours of the land and what was left of the trees of the copse, the advance went well. Before 8 am the first exhausted and relieved prisoners had been brought back to battalion HQ. The realisation of how badly wrong things had gone lower down, especially close to the road, seems to have taken some time to sink in. By 9.30am the regiments to left and right were beginning to report problems because the 9th Devons who should have been supporting them were simply not there. It was as Captain Martin had foreseen. The machine guns to the right in Mametz Trench and in a complex of positions clustered around the road and railway line ahead had survived the bombardment and now had an unobstructed view of the ground over which his men were supposed to advance. He was one of the first to die. Before mid-morning only one of the officers who led the advance was still standing and many of the men who survived were pinned down in the low ground in front of Mansel Copse, taking advantage of whatever cover they could find. Movement on the road was impossible.

It was a matter of pride to the battalion – those who survived – that by the end of the day their Division did achieve its objectives, one of the few to do so. But the cost would live with them.

And Noel Hodgson? His body was identified in the afternoon, hit in neck and leg by machine gun bullets before even reaching the Copse, and his servant was dead by his side, an opened bandage in his hand. A few months earlier, Hodgson had written a piece for the New Witness in praise of his servant, the redoubtable ‘Pearson’, whose powers seemed unlimited: ‘if he were Commander-in-Chief the war would be over in a week. But I should get no baths, so I’m glad he isn’t. . . . There are many like him, I am sure, though I prefer to think of him as supreme.’ The tribute had been well repaid.