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