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…..