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.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *