Monthly Archives: October 2012

After Loos: ‘the old 9th’

The 9th Devons had not suffered so badly at Loos as their sister battalion, the 8th.  But 3 officers had been killed and 12 wounded, 59 men were dead and a further 76 missing, 326 were wounded. In all conscience it was bad enough. By 30 September, when the survivors were finally taken out of the line for a morning’s rest in billets before moving on to another sector of trenches, the fighting strength of the battalion was down to 12 officers and 325 men.

They managed as best they could, with Captain Martin in command and the others doubling up to make sure all jobs were covered. 2nd Lieutenant Thompson, who at 18 was not much more than a schoolboy, found himself in charge of a Company, or what was left of one. He loved it. Later he would look back on this time as his ‘best days of soldiering‘.

On 2 October a major from the 2nd Battalion joined the survivors at Cambrin as their new CO. The adjutant was recalled to his own regiment and Noel Hodgson took over until a replacement came. He joked to his sister a few days later that he hoped he would hold the position long enough to justify buying a proper pair of riding boots (he didn’t). He also began to ape the official language; ‘Your letter has been received and noted this day and action taken accordingly.

From 9 October onwards officers from the home-based 11th Battalion – some of them old friends – and new drafts of NCOs and men began to fill the vacant places. But it was not, could not be the same. Friends were missed. The signalling officer had spent 7 hours on the battlefield with a stomach wound before he could be brought in; he had died soon after. Mervyn, the Australian, had been blown into oblivion by a shell, and letters to the battalion from the distraught fiancée of 19-year-old 2nd Lieutenant Tracey, another whose body  could not be found, were hard to read and much harder to answer.

Then there were the wounded, scattered around the hospitals. It took weeks to find out where they were and to re-establish communication: the person most active in bringing this about was their old CO., Colonel Davies. Removed from the front line before the battle to serve on a travelling Medical Board, ‘Uncle Tom’ sought out his former officers and men and put them in touch with one another, passing on addresses, messages and news. His replacement had taken a bullet in the shoulder which severed an artery; he might have died had it not been for the prompt help of one of the subalterns and the soldier who dragged him to safety. The second-in-command was shot through the chest. Most of the others had leg wounds, though one captain was shot in the face. As the weeks passed letters were exchanged between officers and men, at home and still at the front. The wounded were determined to recover and return to the fighting and the idea of ‘the old 9th’ as a lost ideal took hold and grew.  ‘The 9th isn’t what it was‘…. ‘Ours is a fine Battalion – but it is not the dear old 9th. . .

These voices would echo down the years. New friendships formed, there were good times as well as bad and real pride in dangers faced and battles fought. The cause still seemed worth the sacrifice.  But as more of the originals were killed or moved on, or were invalided home, the ghost that began to haunt the survivors after Loos was never entirely silent.  ‘At times I could lie down and cry almost when I compare the present with the past and yet the Battalion has done damned well.’

A Poem for National Poetry Day

When I heard that today was National Poetry Day I thought, ‘you’re writing about a poet – you have to find an update for that.’  But which poem to choose? ‘Before Action’, still among the most loved of the poems of the First World War?  ‘England to her Sons’, which the last of the war poets, Geoffrey Dearmer, considered an achievement beyond the skill of the other war poets; ‘It is better than Kipling,‘ he told me, ‘but Kipling wasn’t there.’

No, not that.  I’m plumping instead (lovely word, ‘plumping’) for what I think is one of Hodgson’s most remarkable poems; one which casts a huge question mark over all the things we think we know about the mindset of Britain on the outbreak of war. The moment has been pictured so often as Philip Larkin pictured it in his beautiful MCMXIV. The ‘August Bank Holiday lark‘, when a generation rushed to war grinning and tossing their caps in the air, expecting to be home by Christmas.

In the weeks leading up to the war, Noel Hodgson was climbing in Scotland. By the end of July, as he headed south for Cumbria and the fells he would already have known that war was inevitable. He paused somewhere on the journey to work through his feelings about what was to come, but you would have to look hard to find traces of patriotic excitement in the resulting poem. With the impeccable timing which characterised a lot of his work, ‘Roma Fuit’ [Rome is no more] was published two days after the declaration of war: