Monthly Archives: August 2012

Bombs, barbed wire and beer

On 9 August, the battalion’s first full day in the 20th Infantry Brigade, 7th Division, their training reached a new level of intensity. The Brigade Major, Charles Calveley Foss, who had won the Victoria Cross that spring in the Battle of Neuve Chapelle, lectured them on trench warfare. In the days that followed there would be further lectures and demonstrations on sniping, bombing and first aid, by officers and NCOs coming directly out of the line to pass on their experience. The Royal Engineers taught the Devons how to construct various types of barbed wire entanglement and on 14 August gas helmets were issued to them. The 7th was a regular division and the two Devon battalions were replacing two Guards’ battalions, the 1st Grenadiers and the 2nd Scots Guards. For units made up of wartime volunteers this was seen as an honour but it also loaded them with a heavy weight of expectation.

They were just one small part of a general strengthening of the British 1st Army in northern France that summer, with no actual offensive in view but the increasing likelihood that one would take place. For months the French had been pressing for a large scale British attack in that area to support planned offensives of their own in Artois and Champagne. On the British side there were considerable misgivings about  this, relating both to the nature of the ground and to the strength of their available forces.  But in the summer of 1915 the war was going very badly for the Allies. The Russian armies were in crisis and the British attempt to make a breakthrough in Gallipoli had proved a costly failure. It would be some weeks before Noel Hodgson found out, but on 9 August, the very day he and his battalion began training with 20 Brigade, his friend Nowell Oxland was killed in the fighting at Suvla Bay.

For Hodgson, the second week of August brought new duties. In addition to his role as a platoon commander he was now Grenade Officer, responsible for organising, training and equipping dedicated bombing sections in his battalion. On 12 August he told his sister he was on a course of instruction in explosives. He was also acting as an unofficial exchange bureau for his platoon, whose families kept sending them British postal orders. These were useless in France, so he handed out French money in exchange and sent the postal orders home to his sister, telling her to use them to fund her Cumbrian travel. Goodness knows how he found the money. Stella was still in the Lake District and was keeping him supplied with postcards of the fells, accounts of her climbs, books, and the inevitable Keswick toffee. In one of his unpublished sketches of life in the Mess his alter ego, ‘Smiler’, the Grenade Officer, pounces with delight on his post because it contains a larger than usual toffee tin.

On 17 August the weather changed, with heavy thunderstorms giving way to constant rain. The battalion began to trek south, one company going straight into the trenches while the others, including Noel, spent the night in the fields of a hamlet with the unlikely name of ‘Paradis’. Next day they moved on to the canal south of Locon to await their turn. On 19 August they demonstrated their new skills for Brigadier General Trefusis, commander of 20 Brigade, building wire entanglements and throwing live bombs while he watched and, in the words of one of Noel’s fellow officers, ‘Kitchener of Khartoum, CIGS, prowled round.’ Earl Kitchener, Chief of the Imperial General Staff and Secretary of State for War, was on the final day of a visit to France in which the full-scale offensive discussed for so long would at last be agreed.

For the Devons, though, it was just another day. Their first company came out of the trenches and passed on what they had learnt while the next went in. On 22 August Noel thanked Stella for books, writing paper and yet more Keswick toffee, and for some cigarettes she had sent for his servant. He pleaded for more postcards of the fells – the ones she had sent already were hanging over the roll of blankets that was all he had for a bed. He gave her another route to climb but for once, climbing was not the first thing on his mind. Nor was toffee. Knowing she was at Wastwater, his thoughts had turned to one of his favourite pubs; ‘by Jove I’d give something for a pint of good beer at this moment,’ he told her.



Keswick Toffee and French Spiders

After a ten-hour crossing from Southampton, the 9th Devons arrived off Le Havre at 2 am on 28 July. They spent another three hours on board before the order came to disembark. The sea had been rough and several of the men were sea-sick, so it must have been an enormous relief to touch dry land again. They marched to No. 5 Rest Camp – often the first destination for newly-arrived battalions. In July it was no hardship to spend a night under canvas, and several photographs were taken of officers from ‘C’ and ‘D’ companies posing outside their bivouac tents – one rather optimistically named ‘Claridges’.

The official War Diary of the 9th Devons begins only in mid-September, but the unpublished diary of one of Noel Hodgson’s fellow officers recovers the lost details. At first the experience was no more alarming than a foreign holiday. While the senior officers and Company commanders were busy with administration – one of their first tasks was to draw French money from the Field Cashier to pay the men – the battalion relaxed. Noel Hodgson’s company spent much of their first full day in France on the beach. The weather was fine, the sea inviting, and he sent his sister a postcard, telling her he hoped for a chance to meet their elder brother before moving on.

He had that day and most of the next, then the battalion marched to Le Havre station. After waiting there for some time – another scene some enterprising soul captured on film – they entrained at 7 pm, bound north for the First Army area, close to the French/Belgian border. Their journey lasted through the night and well into the next day, with the men travelling forty to a truck; only the officers had seats. On arrival at Wizernes, south of St Omer, they marched to their first real French billets. For two sets of Company officers, including Hodgson, these billets turned out to be a stable with a cobbled floor; they had been more comfortable on the train!

But comfortable or not, this was home for the next week. It was far enough behind the line to be safe, though with signs of damage from earlier fighting. On 2 August Noel wrote to his sister pleading for Keswick toffee. He must have known how anxious she would be. He told her he was fit and enjoying himself; three days later he wrote again describing an idyllic scene. He had the charge of an anti-aircraft gun for the day, and, knowing there was no chance of its being needed, was resting against a pile of corn husks catching up on letters while his platoon tried to help the farmer and his family stack the corn, neither side understanding the other and all perfectly content. He teased her about the size and hairiness of the local spiders and begged for descriptions of her ascent of Great Gable, Sty Head Pass and Sca Fell.

The battalion marched to new billets on 7 August and on again the next day, moving steadily south-east towards the front line. On 8 August they joined 20th Infantry Brigade at Calonne-sur-la-Lys, where their training would resume in earnest. The Keswick toffee, meanwhile, had arrived and disappeared again in no time.