Monthly Archives: November 2012

“The Awful Price”

On the night of 16 November 1915 the 9th Devons were relieved at the end of a 3-day stint in trenches near Givenchy, which the 2nd Battalion of the Border Regiment on their left had shared. Now another Brigade was to take over while they moved out of the line. There was a sharp frost that night, so the sky was probably clear.

As the 2nd Borders marched away towards billets and safety the Grenade Officer, Lieut. Adamson, turned back. He needed to explain something to his counterpart in the relieving battalion about the whereabouts of the bomb store: whether he had forgotten to do this, or some message had reached him, is not recorded. But he turned and went back. He was on his way to rejoin his battalion when a sniper or stray bullet hit him. He died on the spot.

Noel Hodgson rejoined his battalion from leave the next day. He may not have heard about it immediately, but would surely have picked up the news before long. As the Grenade Officer in the next battalion in the line, appointed to the job at about the same time, his path and Adamson’s must have crossed often. Besides, he and Francis Adamson went back a long way – to Durham School in fact, and the autumn of 1906, when Adamson joined him in School House. In 1908 they played together in the House cricket team: in 1910 both played for the School. There is nothing to say that they were particular friends, still it must have been good to find a familiar face so far from home.

Hodgson was in regular contact with friends from Durham and with the School, and he scanned the casualty lists for names of boys he knew. The Old Boys were also part of the School community and it’s clear from his letters that he knew several of them. Their deaths had a particular resonance for him, and he saw at least something of how they affected the School.

The first  to die was Captain Arthur Shafto, a regular in his thirties, killed in the retreat from Mons. His father died a few months later: ‘his memory, and the memory of his son, who was also our son, will long remain in the School.‘  On 26 October 1914, Lieutenant Cyril Hosking, in his twenties and a pilot in the R.F.C., was shot down over Gheluvelt while observing for the artillery.  A few days later, Lieutenant Martin James Richardson was killed near Ypres serving with the 21st Field Ambulance. A well-respected doctor in his late forties, Richardson volunteered for the R.A.M.C. at the start of the war. The School magazine printed the lengthening lists with a tight-lipped stoicism; ‘We know, and understand, what their loss means to their families, and we share, so far as we may, their sorrow.’

Sometimes news took longer to reach the school. Captain Gerald Sadler of the Dragoon Guards died of wounds at Messines on 1 November, two days before Richardson, but this was not reported until the next issue of the magazine. In the next, the School mourned three victims of the Second Battle of Ypres: Major Clement Arthur Wilkinson of the King’s Shropshire Light Infantry, a veteran of the South African War in his forties; 2nd Lieutenant Henry Reed, who had been a teacher at Cheltenham before the war; and another Richardson, 2nd Lieutenant Basil Hulton Richardson of the Durham Light Infantry, who was still young enough to have been a schoolboy. Born in 1896, he left Durham from the Vth form in December 1914 and went straight into the army. He was reported killed at Ypres on 25 April. Later it emerged that he had been left for dead and taken prisoner: he died in the Bruderhaus at Paderborn in Westphalia. ‘His prowess on the river and on the football field is still fresh in our memories.’

By December 1915 two more casualties of the fighting at Ypres were reported. Another Old Boy turned teacher, 2nd Lieutenant Thomas William Callinan, was killed there six days after arriving in France, and an architect, Captain Frederic Henry Lawson of the Northumberland Fusiliers, died at Ypres in May. On 9 August, Captain Ralph Hawksworth Legard of the Durham Light Infantry was killed near Hooge; that same day, far away in Gallipoli, saw the death which touched Noel Hodgson most deeply, that of Nowell Oxland, his friend.

Gallipoli also claimed three contemporaries of theirs: Captain Arthur James Dingle of the East Yorks had returned to Durham as a teacher just before the war began. Lieut. George Kenneth Hampton of the Norfolk Regiment worked for the Norwich Union, and the third, Harold Winch, had followed a very different path. Leaving school in 1913, he dreamed of farming in Australia, and was at Agricultural College there when the war began. He volunteered for the Australian Infantry, took part in the landing at Anzac Bay, and was killed during the charge on Lone Pine on 6 August, laying telephone wires.

Captain Wynn Guest-Williams of the Royal Berkshire Regiment was another regular soldier, killed near Bois Grenier on 25 September. Lieutenant Peter Gedge was preparing to take Holy Orders when the war began and was killed at Loos, as was 2nd Lieut Cave Bradburne Dodds of the Northumberland Fusiliers. Next came Francis Adamson.

Eighteen deaths reported by the end of 1915. Larger schools would report many more, but in 1914 Durham only had about 130 boys on the roll, and everyone knew everyone else. It is impossible to imagine now what those eighteen names and stories must have meant to the boys who were still at School and wondering what their own future would bring. Or to the teachers who remembered at least some of the dead as schoolboys. ‘We do not add the comments which affection and sorrow prompt us to add to the above list…’ And these were only the first. By the time the war ended, almost 80 more names had been added to the list – including Noel Hodgson.

Poor old Cockburn

The first of Hodgson’s prose sketches of the war to make it into print was published in early February 1916, but it relates to the events of the previous October and November, in the aftermath of Loos. It begins with three men talking over dinner. One is a lieutenant, newly arrived in England on leave, the other two are fellow officers of his battalion, at home recovering from wounds.

During dinner the man on leave had delivered an epic. It had traced the adventures of the faithful few who remained over when the regiment marched back in the grey hours of Friday’s dawn from the chalk lines before Vermelles, to be flung back to trenches thirty-six hours later. It followed them through the Givenchy craters and Festubert marshes, on marches southward and northward, among shellings and bombings, short rests and heavy labours. . .

This is a precise description of the 9th Devons’ movements and experiences after the battle. Next, the two wounded men ask about the fate of particular soldiers; their second question introduces the real subject of the piece:

“What exactly happened to that rum old bird in No. 10 platoon, Cockburn, W.J.?” asked the junior listener. The young adjutant took out his cigar and examined the end carefully, with a tightening of his clean-shaven lips. “It’s a rotten story,” he answered slowly.

He goes on to describe how, on the night of 25 September at Loos, Cockburn was close to him in Gun Trench. In the early morning a shell killed a group of men: ‘Cockburn was the only one left alive, and he was up to the ankles in blood.‘ The man was unhurt, though, and struggled on with the battalion through nights of trench digging and shelling, dealing with the ever-present dead and the unending rain. ‘Old Cockburn wasn’t well at all; he was coughing and spitting blood all night, and shivering when the bullets went over. Poor old thing, I was damned sorry for him.’

After this, Cockburn is sent to the Field Ambulance for a spell, but has the misfortune to return on a night when the battalion is being shelled in billets. The adjutant can see how shaken he is, ‘but of course ‘there’s no release from the War’ and up he went into the trenches two days later.’ That night the trenches are bombarded. ‘It was a pretty fair mess; our traverse was blown clean in and a man was buried under it; in the next bay were two bodies, both smashed up – we never found the head of one – young Henry, that used to be Francis’ batman – nice boy he was too. Then there were one or two men wounded with splinters and suffering from shell shock.‘ They do not find Cockburn, who was last seen in the shattered bay, so assume he has been killed, until some hours later a ration party find him wandering near battalion headquarters: he tells them he is looking for a shovel. The ration party report him to his Company commander; Cockburn now says that he went to see the doctor. When the doctor denies this, Cockburn is put under arrest.

I took the summary of the evidence, and the things he said made me sure he was a bit cracked. But we had a perfectly monumental idiot as M.O. then, and he swore that there was nothing organically wrong, and that therefore the man was compos mentis. So the application went in, and old Cockburn was kept under guard.

Cockburn now expects to be shot, ‘and the swines who were on guard used to twit him about it and say the firing party had been told off to do it.’ They tell him that the sound of the pioneers making a sentry box is his coffin being made, and in desperation, Cockburn manages to get hold of one of their rifles, intending to shoot himself. But his courage fails at the last moment, and he shoots himself in the foot…

At this point one of the listeners interrupts; surely this is too far-fetched – it has to be invention. The adjutant says no, Cockburn shot himself in the left foot and though he should have been put on a second charge, for deliberate wounding, the pain and shock made him so ill that he was sent to hospital, where he died a few days later from septic poisoning.

There was a prolonged silence, broken by the youngest: “It’s worse to think of the old chap going out like that than to hear of half the battalion getting scuppered in a show.”          “Poor old Cockburn,” said Hardy slowly.

That was the story Hodgson told.  But did it happen?  Curiously, all the circumstances fit. The details of where the battalion was and what was happening; Hodgson’s own period as adjutant, the end of which did coincide with his first home leave. Even the replacement medical officer, whom the others found rather useless: he turns up in some of their letters. Then, the CO. who took over the battalion after Loos was a stickler for discipline. And I do think that at some point Hodgson had the job of preparing evidence for a man facing trial; he refers to it elsewhere and it obviously worried him. But as for Cockburn, it seems unlikely that Hodgson would repeat the details of an actual case in a published piece, even with an assumed name.  It is interesting, though, that he chose to tell the story at all…..