The last day before Loos

From my book Before Action: William Noel Hodgson and the 9th Devons, a story of the Great War, Pen & Sword, Dec. 2014, pp. 120-122 [ISBN 1783463759]

During the day on 23 September the Devons rested. At 7pm they paraded as a thunderstorm broke, and they marched through torrential rain to Verquin, the sudden, sharp bursts of lightning a grim forewarning of what was to come. They arrived just over three hours later. After breakfast the next morning, Major Storey called the officers to Battalion HQ to go over their orders for the attack. ‘I sat with Tracey in the window, where it was difficult to hear because of the traffic passing constantly over the cobbled streets below’ – this was John Upcott – ‘We are to be in support of the Gordons & 8th Devons. . . . The final objective is unlimited, but we are to make for Pontavendin Bridge if we get through.’ The rest of the morning was given over to kit inspections and the testing of smoke helmets. In the afternoon Hodgson marched his bombers to Sailly Labourse to draw grenades from Brigade stores. Then there was nothing to do but wait.

We had our last supper together in the back room of a little shop at the end of the street. A parcel had just arrived from home & we did our best to finish it; especially the salted almonds which mother had sent. Many of the men asked for a service. It was too late, poor chaps; there were plenty going before. The R.C.s had one in the village church. All the time we were having supper, a 15 inch howitzer was making the whole crazy little house rock.’

At 10pm the Battalion left Verquin, Noel Hodgson at the back in D Company with his Welsh-speaking platoon and his bombing sections. John Upcott, ahead of them with C, and riding now that he commanded his Company, captured the scene in his diary:

There was a full moon; the guns had stopped & the open fields looked glorious in the moonlight as we followed the tracks across the stubble; once a gun limber at full gallop nearly rode into the column at right angles, but I rode out of the line & stopped it. My sensations were such as I had never felt before – a curious detached feeling combined with a great peace of mind – as someone put it “as though we were all on the brink of the next world.” I used the T[homas] à Kempis Prayer, I remember, as I rode. “Defend & keep the souls of thy servants among so many perils of this corruptible life & Thy grace going with us, direct us to the country of everlasting clearness.” And yet I was sure that my time had not come. At Noyelles the column halted & I dismounted & sent my horse back by my groom, giving him my greatcoat & spurs.’

Now the Companies moved off one by one along the Vermelles Road at fifteen minute intervals, walking in single file through the ruins of Vermelles. Major Storey watched them pass before going forward himself. Being at the back, in support of the other Battalions, the 9th Devons took up positions in trenches just beyond the railway line to the east of Vermelles, some distance from the front line. By 2am they were all in place. The final timings for the attack were received at 20 Brigade HQ at 3.40am, and messages were sent round the various units.

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