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.

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