Monthly Archives: January 2013

January on the Somme

On 3 January 1916 Noel Hodgson turned 23 years old. It was a Monday and a working day for the battalion. At 9 am ‘C’ company – now officially known as ‘No. III’ – paraded and marched away to Talmas, some 11 miles north of Amiens, to work under the Royal Engineers. This set the pattern for the rest of the month. A week or so later ‘D’ company was also claimed for engineering work, leaving the rest of the battalion at Ailly-sur-Somme, occupied with route marches, rifle practice and training in attack formations. But not Hodgson. Towards the end of 1915 he had been given command of a new Headquarters Company, consisting of 170 men and two other officers. They were the specialists of the battalion: his own bombers, the machine gunners and signallers. While the other companies were kept busy with general duties and training, HQ company concentrated on their own particular skills.

They did march, though. Often over long distances for no reason they could discern. The day after his birthday the battalion marched 25 km to Ailly-le-Haut-Clocher. They were on the road all day; the officers of ‘B’ company amused themselves by composing limericks about one another, with a blood orange as the prize. Noel Hodgson told one of their friends in England that he was reminded of a time before France, when they were ordered to march from Alton to Winchester, only to be sent back to Alton again. This was quite home-like, he said, and sure enough, on 9 January the order came to march back to Ailly-sur-Somme and their previous billets.

Among his friends there was a sense that he had missed out; that he deserved more from the army after all that had happened at Loos and in the weeks that followed. This was part of a general feeling – unease, perhaps, resentment is too strong – that almost all the company commands and other positions left vacant by the casualties of Loos had gone to officers new to the battalion and to France. Sympathy from the others focused on Hodgson; if he minded for himself, he never said. He was frustrated for the others who had proved themselves at Loos and were still 2nd Lieutenants, commanded by new and less experienced men. But as Bombing Officer, Scout Officer, Officer in charge of Athletics, Mess President, and commander of the small HQ company, he did have plenty of responsibility if no actual promotion, and his time was very full.  And January brought him one mark of official recognition which pleased everyone: the Military Cross, announced in the London Gazette on 14 January.

No citation came with the award. It was published in an honours list, simply ‘for distinguished services in the field’; in the event he would never see or touch the medal itself. But he wore the ribbon on his tunic and it meant a lot to him, though he also laughed at himself for minding. The prose accounts of life at the front which he wrote with increasing frequency from this time onwards often featured the medal ribbon. A few weeks after the award was announced his tunic was drying over the stove when it caught fire; he told his sister that he had to resort to gambling to make good the loss.

Plum Pudding with Givenchy Sauce

The first weeks of January can be a leaden time, the days short, the nights prolonged and dark. Chill and gloom pervade as Christmas and New Year slide away into the past and spring feels very far away. It was no different for Noel Hodgson and the 9th Devons, on the Somme in the early weeks of 1916.

But what a Christmas it had been. One to write home about – except that very few loving parents would have been told everything. Writing to his sister a few days later, Noel described the men’s dinner on Christmas Day, when the officers served the food, and treats sent from home helped add to the party atmosphere. His own parents sent a case of goodies, with sausages, cake and tin trumpets proving the most popular. ‘When I went round dinners I was greeted with ‘For he’s a jolly good fellow’ played on cornets and lustily sung, and one gentleman in a voice husky with beer and emotion assured me that if I ever wanted a man to follow me into a tight place, 11132 Private Harry Gay was the man in question.’ But did not tell her about the officers’ party held the evening before, which he himself had arranged.

At 7.30 pm on Christmas Eve, about 20 officers squeezed into their mess room. There was a large stove in the centre and three tables, each about 18 inches wide. For Christmas decorations the walls were hung with Raphael Kirchner nudes and the gramophone played ‘Any old night is a wonderful night if you’re there with a wonderful girl.’ The menu listed eight topically named courses, including Hulluch oysters and Festubert soup, roast turkey à Boyau 15 (one of the most dangerous communication trenches in their previous sector) and plum pudding with Givenchy sauce.

At first there was an awkwardness in the air: the CO. was a strict disciplinarian and too many of the officers were new to the battalion. But the atmosphere warmed during the meal, and that was nothing to what followed. As the ‘old men’ (in their thirties, mostly) withdrew to drink port quietly in a corner, the ‘B’ company officers’ orchestra set up to play, one conducting, one on tambourine, one on castanets, one triangle, and Hodgson, who wasn’t even in ‘B’ company, on ‘any instrument he can get hold of.’ The gramophone was supposed to provide the tune, but one of the others kept stopping it and changing the speed, while everyone else cheerfully pelted the ‘orchestra’ with bread.

By 10 pm some of the youngest and least experienced were the worse for drink and needed to be steered gently to their billets. The CO. went to bed too, but for the others the party continued with singing around the piano. The adjutant, a promoted Sergeant Major from the 1st Battalion, played a prominent part, leading the company in some drunken hymns before starting a wrestling bout with the mess president of ‘B’ company, who couldn’t stop giggling. He – the mess president – then took up the triangle and tried to play but couldn’t find the metal rod to strike the note. He stumbled round the room searching for it, the others unhelpfully offering him everything but the rod.

Now the ‘old men’ decided to join in, and emerged from their corner with a bottle of vinegar. The game was to see how many of the others could be persuaded to drink a toast, thinking it was champagne, and each success was greeted with glee. But the greatest amusement, which the others would dine out on for days, was the machine-gun officer, who spent his whole evening gazing in silent devotion on the daughter of their French host.

They were all very young and very far from home, enjoying a few hours of complete freedom from the weight of responsibility they had accepted when they volunteered. Their letters describing the party are irresistibly funny. A century on, the humour is inevitably touched by the knowledge that many of those mentioned would not live to see another Christmas, but they were not thinking of what the future might hold. They were out of the line and enjoying themselves, knowing full well that within days they’d be back at work, training and marching under the dull January skies.