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.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *