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….