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In one of his unpublished sketches of life in the company mess, Noel describes the moment when a fellow officer finds the name of a man they both knew and liked at Oxford in the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.