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.

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