Monthly Archives: September 2012

Loos: the Second Day

Some were able to snatch a few hours’ sleep, but darkness also allowed a freedom of movement impossible in daylight. Wounded and alone, Captain Nation had hidden in a dugout during the German counter-attack. Once it was over and the attackers withdrawn, he emerged and struggled back to Gun Trench. He could go no further and was in a bad state, so two of his company volunteered to take him back to British lines. They had 200 yards of open ground to cross, still at risk of machine gun and shell fire, but they succeeded, using a trench ladder as a stretcher.

From the adjutant’s party north of the Vermelles-Hulluch road, Lieutenant Pridham set out on a similar journey with a small detachment of men in search of ammunition, bombs and much-needed food. The others waited. In the early hours the officers patrolled the trench to check on their men. Noel Hodgson found six men from his company killed by a single shell while they slept. About 100 men survived the night in that part of the line, with him, Captain Brindley and 2nd Lieutenant Rayner. To the south of the road, 2nd Lieutenant Smyth had perhaps another 90 men.  It must have been a huge relief to them all when, at first light, their own reserves arrived led by Captain Martin, second-in-command of A Company.  He took over command of what remained of the battalion.

For the rest of the day the Devons stayed where they were. During the morning Captain Martin was able to establish a reliable line of communication between the two groups. At mid-day a runner brought news of an impending attack on Cité St Elie, but despite a heavy bombardment which lasted all afternoon, no attack came. As darkness fell, another runner warned the Devons to expect relief from the 2nd Royal Scots Fusiliers. Hours passed and nothing happened. It was after midnight when the relief at last arrived and the depleted battalion was able to move back by companies to the British front line. By 3 am they had taken up the positions which they would hold for the next three days, moving forward to dig trenches or stand to arms when ordered. Finally, at 2.30 am on 30 September, they began the march back to rest billets.

They were still marching at dawn, when the clean air, the rustling trees, and the early bird song, seemed much sharper and more vivid than ever before. Noel Hodgson found a poem forming in his mind – as he often did on the march. When the body is fully occupied the mind can roam free, and that morning his mind was processing his first experience of battle: both the horror of it, and the fierce pride he felt in his companions and all they had achieved.

25 September 1915; 9th Devons at Loos

In the early hours of 25 September the 9th Devons took up position in the support trenches and waited. Three hours, then the bombardment intensified. Fifteen minutes, gas and smoke were released along the British lines. At 6.30 am the attack began. The 8th Devons, in the first wave, left their trenches and the 9th began to move forward. Before long, though, their designated route through the communication trenches was so congested with returning wounded that progress became impossible. They climbed out and advanced across the open.

Hard to imagine, now, that first moment of exposure to actual battle. Under intense bombardment and enfiladed by machine gun and rifle fire, in a smoke and gas cloud which the light wind was barely moving, the open ground ahead of the Devons was already  littered with dead and wounded.  No time, though, to watch or wonder. Perhaps the uncomfortable gas hoods they wore were almost a mercy at first, impairing vision and fixing each man’s view on the way ahead – until they became so uncomfortable and unpleasant they had to be taken off.

Advance. Before reaching no-man’s-land the CO, Colonel Storey, his second-in-command and three of the four company commanders had fallen victim to shell or machine gun fire. Several subalterns were also down and a substantial number of men. The survivors pushed on as best they could. By 8.15 two groups had reached the former German front line. South of the Vermelles-Hulluch road the remnants of A company, with Captain Nation and two subalterns, continued to move forward until they linked up with men from the first wave of the attack.

North of the road, the adjutant, Captain Brindley, and three junior officers led what was left of B, C and D companies across open ground to the site of four captured German artillery guns; the position would become know as Gun Trench. Noel Hodgson and his bombers diverted briefly to help the battalion on their left but soon rejoined them. Later, Brindley would tell the official historian of the war that he had too few men to attempt any further advance. A reconnaissance led by the bombers had found thickets of uncut wire ahead; they had no choice but to dig in where they were. So they set about digging a new trench right under the guns, knowing this was the safest option: German gunners in the rear could range fire accurately on what had been their own trenches but they would avoid hitting the guns. Given a chance, they would want to take those back intact.

Safest, but not safe. Snipers from the village of Cité St Elie to the left punished every careless movement. Shells were still falling. During the morning Captain Brindley was talking to 2nd Lieutenant Davies when a shell landed near them. Brindley was stunned for a few moments. Davies disappeared. Around mid-day a company of the Wiltshire regiment attempted to reinforce and the Devons looked on helpless as over half of the would-be reinforcements fell to machine gun fire from the village.

It was a miserable afternoon. The light drizzle of early morning had turned to a steady, unremitting downpour. Few were equipped for rain; in his own account of the battle Noel Hodgson described how he tried to take a dead man’s waterproof. The waterproof groundsheets they had were given to the wounded. Exhausted, hungry, soaked and very muddy, the officers gradually managed to sort their own men out from the survivors of other battalions and to organise the best defence they could, knowing that a counter attack must come.

And it did, falling particularly hard south of the road. Captain Nation was badly wounded and had to be left behind as the survivors of A Company, together with remnants of other battalions, were pushed back to Gun Trench and beyond. For a few moments there was chaos as the defenders north of the road realised that part of Gun Trench had fallen, but they held on and kept firing. 2nd Lieutenant Smyth of A company rallied the survivors to the south and re-took the trench, and with the help of some well-aimed British artillery fire on the road the counter attack petered out.

It was long past midnight when the survivors paused to draw breath and wondered what the dawn would bring.


Before Loos: Battalion and Family

On 17 September the 9th Devons moved by companies to Fouquereuil, west of Béthune, for the last few days of preparation before the coming battle.

In the year they had spent together, the 9th had formed a tight-knit community.  A family almost. A family that included men as well as officers. Writing to his original platoon commander a year later, on behalf of the 19 members of that platoon still at the front, Corporal Paget would tell his officer, ‘It is a distinction that has given us much pleasure, seeing that you were associated with us. . . for so many months in England. We are unanimous in our opinion, that during those months . . . we spent the best period during the whole two years we have been connected with the army. Those glad times will always be recalled with pleasure by the members of your old platoon.’

The officers were, for the most part, like Noel Hodgson, sons of professional men, with public school and university backgrounds which had given them a shared language and culture. But there were a few more exotic birds among them. One company commander was American, born and raised in New York.  His father was a noted tenor and he had had a few of his own songs published before the war. The others called him ‘the Ragtime cat’. One of the subalterns was Australian by birth, though Fettes College and Oxford had probably obliterated all traces of the outback. Another was a grammar school boy, just turned 18 at the start of the war.  Another had already seen front line service in 1914 as a private in the 28th London Regiment, while others still were in the regular army before the war.

But whatever their origins, a year in billets and under canvas had drawn them together more strongly than perhaps even they yet realised. Like all families, the 9th had its characters. One lieutenant would eat anything that wasn’t hidden, one could be pompous if not shouted down. One of the captains was forever drawing plans for new gadgets to improve life in the trenches. One was an artist. Noel Hodgson made his place among them by being easy-going and willing. If a job needed doing he would take it on – but he was also in the forefront of any mischief they planned. They called him ‘Smiler’; ‘Always, to me, my Smiler,‘ one of the others would later write. His existence as a published poet he kept secret, but his fellow officers knew he had a good line in comic verse and they appreciated his spoof menus for Mess dinners and skits on the official language of the army.

At Loos the family would face its first test, which began even before the battle. On 13 September their avuncular CO, Colonel Davies, was sent home. A veteran of many campaigns, in photographs Colonel Davies looks like a man in his 70s; in fact he was in his late 50s. His second-in-command, another veteran, was sent back to England the day before; the younger officers seem to have missed him rather less. The adjutant was given a platoon to command and a new adjutant brought in from the Warwickshire Regiment and on 19 September another pillar of the original battalion, the formidable regimental sergeant major, RSM Grubb, returned home. The officers stood him a dinner before he left. One company commander had accepted the offer of a transfer to the Royal Engineers; he was horrified when it came through three days before the battle, with immediate effect. He tugged on every string he could think of for permission to stay with his company, but to no purpose. He was told very firmly that if any bullet had his name on it was a bullet for an engineer, and that was that.

On 23 September the battalion moved to Verquin where their final day was taken up in inspections of kit and equipment. Noel Hodgson took his bombers to Sailly-le-Bourse to draw grenades. At 11 pm on the 24th the battalion marched from Verquin to take up position for the next morning.

Interminable land

The first two weeks of September were a strenuous time for the battalion. The 9th Devons were out of the line and were often kept on the move in daytime. When they stopped, their nights were taken up with working parties at the front, digging new trenches, building parapets and filling sandbags, often in pouring rain. In late August British High Command had finally agreed to the full-scale offensive the French demanded and the whole area was buzzing with preparations. Noel Hodgson told his sister that often he was so exhausted that he fell asleep walking along, and he depended on Jones, his servant, who always managed to find straw for him to collapse on at the end of the march and hot water for shaving when he woke.

But he was writing. Nowell Oxland’s death had crystallized a change that was already becoming apparent in Hodgson as he saw the war at first hand. He was looking to prose as well as poetry to pass on the experience and his writing was taking on a new sense of urgency, born of the unspoken knowledge that like his friend, he might not have long to live. He told his sister that he was going to send her some articles on life in the company mess, which he hoped she might be able to sell. He seemed hesitant, unsure whether the time was really right for this, yet still determined to try.

The two ‘Company Mess’ articles were not published, though almost all of his subsequent trench prose was, and was very well received. Perhaps these first articles contained too little war for the home market. In the first, six young officers – including Hodgson himself, thinly disguised as ‘Smiler’, the Grenade Officer  –  return to the mess in the evening to open their post, talk over the events of the day and grumble about brigade orders. In the second, the company has just come out of the trenches and four of them snatch a few hours out in the countryside, collapsing on the grass and remembering the summer before the war, and what they might have might have been doing if there had been no call to arms.

Folded with the second article there was also part of a poem, a work in progress with the words ‘to be continued – WNH’ scrawled down one side. In the complete version which Noel’s father later included in ‘Verse and Prose’ the four verses encapsulate the emotions of the first six weeks in France; his longing for Cumbria and the fells; his memories of Durham and school; the physical strain of his new existence in France and his grief for Oxland and his other friends.



By the last week of August 1915, the four companies of the 9th Devons had completed their 48-hour tours of instruction in the trenches. They were assigned a sector of their own to hold, to the east of Festubert on land that had been a battlefield the previous October.  It was an area where ground water was too close to the surface to permit deep digging and the line was protected with breastworks of sandbags. Noel wrote to his sister describing his new existence: the smells, the snipers, the shelling, and the uncomfortable, cramped conditions. No-man’s-land was busy on both sides during the hours of darkness and on his very first time out, he told her, he had just emerged from the sap when a bullet hit the ground inches from his foot: ‘that cheered me up a lot of course.’ One night, believing that they had seen a sniper, he and another officer crawled out, pistols in hand, only to discover that what they had seen was a dead Highlander with no legs, staring sightless at the moon.

These were experiences no amount of training could have prepared them for. They coped by assuming an air of detachment and by a shared streak of gallows humour. Remarks that would have been callous and unthinkable at home were a survival mechanism at the front. He coped, privately, by hoarding souvenirs of the places where he really wanted to be. ‘Your PC of the Gable. . . made me long for the untainted air of my own country. Send another if you have it.’

In one of his unpublished sketches of life in the company mess, Noel describes the moment when a fellow officer finds the name of a man they both knew and liked at Oxford in the casualty lists for Gallipoli. They exchange a few words about the dead man before returning to what they were doing, ‘it is so common, one cannot mourn them all.’

But some news could penetrate even the strongest defences. On Saturday, 4 September, it was Noel Hodgson himself who was scanning the casualty lists when he discovered that his friend Nowell Oxland had been killed at Gallipoli weeks before. ‘One cannot mourn them all‘, he had said, but sometimes the pain was too insistent to ignore. They had known one another since boyhood with Oxland, two years older, always the leader. They had shared a love of Cumberland and the fells; shared their holidays and climbed together; shared the ambition to write. Now Oxland was dead, and it hurt most of all to think of him caught out of time in a landscape so alien and so very far from home. There were three other school friends in the same list and their deaths haunted Noel for weeks, but it was Nowell Oxland he really mourned. In a symbolic gesture of farewell he took one of his treasured souvenirs, some moss from the Gable which his sister had just sent, and set fire to it, like a tiny funeral pyre. For the rest of his life – all ten months of it – the loss of Nowell Oxland would echo through his writing.