Two years – or a hundred – or should that be thirty….

Two years ago – well, two years and two-and-a bit months, to be precise – I posted here about Noel Hodgson and the 9th Devons in January 1916.  I knew then that actually writing the book was going to have to take over from writing about the book – my deadline was rapidly looming into view. So I packed all of January 1916 into that one post, realising there would be no more posts for a long time. But by a curious symmetry I find myself drawn back to post here once again on the centenary of an event that came up in that January post. It was the ‘Alton-Winchester stunt’, which  happened during the 9th Devons’ training and told them a lot about the unfathomable nature of army command. It also became part of their folklore.

A hundred years ago today, on 9 April 1915, the battalion was still ‘in the war but not of the war‘, as one of its subalterns said. Mid-stunt, they spent the day resting at Alton in Hampshire, having marched there in heavy rain three days earlier from Haslemere, paused overnight and then marched on to Winchester, only to be turned round and marched right back to Alton again, like some bizarre re-enactment of ‘The Grand Old Duke of York’. After their day’s rest in Alton – had someone, somewhere spent the day trying to work out where they were supposed to be? – they were marched back towards Haslemere, finally ending their journey at Bordon Camp, where they would stay until orders came for France.

There are times when this book has felt like that march. Deliberate, apparently purposeful, ending uncertain. Over thirty years ago I found a copy of Hodgson’s Verse and Prose in Peace and War in a second-hand bookshop in Bath (£3.50, first edition). In the course of a long search for it I’d amassed a collection of other war poetry and memorial books to other men killed in action – no one seemed to regard them much in those days. But the real prize was elusive. Having been haunted intermittently from childhood by Hodgson’s poem ‘Before Action’ I wanted to know more about him and finding his book, which had seemed like the end of a journey, turned out to be a beginning. I wanted to know more. If the book I wanted to read about him didn’t exist then I would have to be the one to write it. And that set me on a trail of research which was as challenging and exciting and circuitous and frustrating as such things always are – but I never dreamed how long it would last. Thirty years and more. It was meant to be my first book: instead there were times when it felt like the book I would never write at all.

And now it exists. Published. That’s still quite hard to believe. In William Nicholson’s play ‘Shadowlands’ C.S. Lewis has the line “We read to make sure we’re not alone.” I think we write for the same reason – I know I do. So hearing now that some people are reading this book that has been part of my life for such a ludicrously long time is a feeling to conjure with – but there’s more. One of the most interesting contacts to date has been from a man who found his father in one of the group photos in the book AND has a story to tell about Hodgson – another little piece of the puzzle. That’s the thing about Alton-Winchester stunts. You never know where they might take you or where or when they might end….

6 thoughts on “Two years – or a hundred – or should that be thirty….

  1. Charlotte – I am so pleased to see that Before Action has been published and am looking forward so much to reading my copy when it arrives. I have been monitoring this site almost from when it was originally created. In the late 90s when visiting my great uncles grave near Montauban my wife and I had stopped at Hodgson’s grave. My mother had many years earlier given me a copy of Robert Graves Goodbye to all that. A book which had a profound effect on my understanding of WW1 and the impact of wars generally. I often speculated that rather than being a title representative of Graves situation at the end of the 1920s that perhaps instead he was referencing Hodgson’s Goodbye to all this line from Before Action. In the end it probably doesn’t really matter but I’ve often wondered about it. Since that first visit I have never since missed the opportunity to visit and pay tribute before Hodgson’s grave if I am in Northern France. They were glorious young men – highly educated – brave – but realistic as well. I am so much looking forward to reading in depth about Hodgson. Best regards and thank you.

  2. Thank you.

    I’ve often wondered the very same thing about Graves and ‘Goodbye to all That’, as you’ll see. I know that Hodgson’s poem was far more familiar then than it is today.
    Best wishes, and I hope you enjoy the book.

    • Hello Charlotte – thank you from the bottom of my heart for ‘Before Action’ – a story of the Great War. It was a demanding book for me to read. Not because of its style but because of the subject and the inevitably of the end. When I reached Duncan Martin’s death I had to put the story down for two days before I could continue. I remarked to you in a previous post that my WW1 familiarisation started in my youth when my mother gave me Robert Graves “Goodbye to All That” to read. Since then I’ve found out I had two grandfathers and two great uncles in WW1. One of them (only 19 years of age) rests at Montauban, just up the road from the Devons at Mametz though he was killed on 31 December 1916 – shall we call that “The Last Day of the Somme”. When Armistice was declared poems were written of the loss felt by those who loved him. So, the stories of these young men have become very personal to me. I must say I loved the integration of the letters, prose and poems with your narrative. My favourite novel of the past 20 odd years – Possession by A S Byatt – achieves that masterfully. You achieve that too. Credit too as well to Miss Hedley and Miss Amy Hawthorn (and to you) in recognising the brilliance in these young men and ensuring it has been recorded whether it took days, a year or 30 years. Finally, to close using Hodgson’s father’s own words … “They deserve that we should remember them”.

      • Thank you for this. It was a demanding book to write, too. Your response to it means more than I can say. (By the way, ‘Possession’ is one of my favourite books also!)

        • Hi Charlotte – for Christmas I gave my mother a beautiful Folio Society copy of “Goodbye to all That” and a copy of “Before Action” with instructions to read them in that order. I mentioned to you previously that in my teens my mother had given me a copy of “Goodbye to all That” to read and the profound effect it had on me. My mother loved re-acquainting herself with Graves book some 45 years after she first read it but when I spoke to her on the weekend her comments were all about your book and how much she had enjoyed it. I knew she would like it. She has been to the Devonshire Cemetery so knew something of the story but she remarked just how much she now knew and how much there was to admire in such a short life.

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