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.



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