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The official War Diary of the 9th Devons begins only in mid-September, but the unpublished diary of one of Noel Hodgson’s fellow officers recovers the lost details.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.

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