Dawn on the battlefield: what happened after 25 September

What happened to the battalion after 25 September?: the following extract is taken from my book Before Action: William Noel Hodgson and the 9th Devons, a story of the Great War, Pen & Sword, December 2014, pp. 128 – 130

Dawn brought the welcome sight of Duncan Martin and the other officers and men who had been held back from the first day’s fighting. Pridham was with them too. They joined Brindley, Hodgson and Rayner under the captured guns. Captain Martin assumed command and set about organising the defence of their position. It was not over yet. They were still tired, wet and hungry. They were still in the middle of a battlefield, closer to the enemy than they were to their own side and out of reach of any support the Army could give, save artillery. The Quarries at the end of Stone Alley, yards north of their position, had been lost during the night leaving them completely exposed. At 9.50am Lieutenant Brindley sent another message to Brigade HQ which emphasises their tension and uncertainty: ‘The enemy are working along from pt 70 to pt 54 [the southern edge of the Quarries leading into Stone Alley] from where they can enfilade our position in GUNPITS 22 – 57. . . It appears as if a flank attack were meditated . . .. Could you please get the artillery to fire on the QUARRY area . . . We are badly handicapped by the lack of a wire to Hdqtrs . . . Capt Martin is now in command. He says that there are about 80 of the 9th Dev on the other side of the HULLUCH Rd but we are not in touch with them . . .Will you please inform me what arrangements have been made about water tonight. . . Our artillery has sent a good many premature bursts into our trench.’

The Germans did not attack. During the morning Duncan Martin was able to establish a reliable line of communication with the Devons south of the Hulluch Road. At mid-day a runner from Brigade HQ brought news of an impending attack on Cité St Elie, but despite a heavy bombardment which lasted all afternoon, no attack came. As darkness fell, another runner warned the Devons to expect relief from the 2nd Royal Scots Fusiliers. Hours passed and nothing happened. It was after midnight when the relief at last arrived and the depleted Battalion was able to move back by Companies – what was left of them – to the original front line. But they were still in the battle. By 3am they had taken up positions in Old Support and Curly Crescent – the very positions they had been aiming for on Saturday morning at the start of the battle, when the crush of wounded men in the trench forced them to climb out and advance in the open. Later in the morning saw the return of the Prodigal – Jack Inchbald and his handful of men, after their visit to 1st Division.* ‘I didn’t know what on earth had happened to our battalion and when I eventually rejoined them on the Monday morning I was quite relieved to find Prid, Smyth, who did magnificently and saved both Anderson and Nation, Smiler, Brindley & Nibby. We six alone were left after the strafe. Of course Thompson, Iscariot [Captain Martin] and Findlay came up the next day.’

For the next three days they remained in the line, moving forward to dig trenches or stand to arms when ordered. ‘We had stuck in Curly till Thursday in misery,’ Harold Rayner wrote, ‘being wettish, and the chalk mud awful. The men never complained and were splendid. We got no rations, and despite all, stuck it. The officers who came through were very popular with the men. I was plastered with mud. My tunic badly torn with wire, my fingers very tender from crawling on the ground, and my beard terrific.’ Finally, at 2.30a.m. on 30 September, their relief came and they began the march back through Vermelles and Noyelles towards rest billets in Beuvry, just east of Béthune.

[*Jack had lost sight of his own platoon when he was sent forward to observe. Seeing one of the other officers wounded he rounded up his men and took them across the battlefield, in the right direction, he thought. In fact the ended up a long way to the south, in another divisional area.]

Leave a Reply

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