They became friends at school. Two boys, Nowell Oxland and Noel Hodgson, two years apart in age but evenly matched in abilities both in and out of the classroom. They had a number of things in common but the two passions that really united them were writing and a love of Cumberland. For Oxland, younger son of the vicar of Alston, the wild border landscapes were his playground from the age of ten. For Hodgson, who never lived there, the Cumberland fells were home to generations of his father’s family and the one place on earth he wanted to be.
Their school careers ran together until the late spring of 1910, when a prank by the pair of them – a bound-breaking expedition – brought Nowell Oxland’s schooldays to an abrupt end. At 19 years old and as Head of School he was expected to show more responsibility, and as the older boy he bore the brunt of the punishment. He was sent down and spent the next year in a crammer making up the qualifications he missed, while Hodgson entered his final year at school. October 1911 saw them reunited at Oxford, in different colleges but still friends, sharing their climbing and fell-walking expeditions in the long vacation.
Then came the war. Noel Hodgson applied for a commission in Oxford on 9 August 1914, feeling more apprehension than excitement. War in Europe was already a fact and it was coming closer: he believed Britain had to be involved but had few illusions about where it might lead. From the age of sixteen he had been writing about war’s ultimate futility and waste. Nowell Oxland filled in his army forms at the Oxford Delegacy on 17 August and nine days later his commission came through, to the 6th Battalion of the Border Regiment.
This threw Hodgson into some confusion. It is clear from his application form that he had given no thought to the regiment he wanted to serve with. But with Oxland gazetted to the local regiment for Cumberland, and still no news of his own commission, he made a last-minute attempt to serve with his friend. On 9 September he filled in a second application at Carlisle Castle, the headquarters of the Border Regiment. He was too late. Before anything could come of it his first commission came through, to the 9th Devons.
By the spring of 1915 they were both nearing the end of their training, Oxland with the 6th Borders at Frensham in Surrey, Hodgson and the Devons about six miles away at Bordon. Oxland’s battalion received their orders for overseas service at the end of June. They entrained for Liverpool, where they embarked on the transport ship Empress of Britain for the long voyage to Gallipoli.
It took just over two weeks, passing Gibraltar on the night of 5-6 July and making brief stops at Malta and Alexandria, arriving at Mudros harbour on the 18th. On the 20th they left for Cape Helles and a temporary attachment to the Royal Naval Division. This would give them their first taste of the front lines. After nine days in trenches and on fatigue duties they were moved back, and on 31 July sailed to Imbros, to prepare for their part in a large-scale attack.
They left Imbros at 5 pm on 6 August, landing at Suvla Bay shortly after dawn the next morning. As divisional reserves the 6th Borders were not in the forefront of the action. They were sent in to the battle at around 5pm on the 7th in support of the 6th Lincolns, to capture a position called Chocolate Hill. This being achieved, at 9am on the 8th they were withdrawn to the beach in preparation for another attack.
They moved forward in darkness to a starting position below Chocolate Hill. This time the 6th Borders were to be one of the leading battalions, with Nowell Oxland’s ‘D’ Company in the firing line. The advance started at 5 am on 9 August and began well, but as the men neared the Turkish positions they were to attack they came under heavy enfilade fire. ‘D’ company, on the left, was driven back; ‘A’ and ‘B’ companies, sent in to support, lost all their officers. With the survivors scattered and no support able to reach them, at 11am the Colonel pulled back as many men as he could to a line which they held until the late afternoon; then he withdrew them to a less exposed position. When the roll was taken the next morning he had only 5 officers and 120 other ranks left from the 22 and 696 who went over in the morning.
Nowell Oxland was one of the many known to have died. But the precise circumstances would never be certain. The official telegram told his family only that he had been killed some time between 7 and 11 August, and as late as 1918 the official papers in his War Office file still give the date of death as 10 August. That it had been 9 August emerged early on thanks to a desperate search for news conducted by and on behalf of his parents. Their son-in-law, Major Arthur Derry of the Welsh Regiment, was on the staff at Gallipoli: he was told death had been caused by shrapnel. One early story was that Oxland was being carried off the battlefield on a stretcher when he and the bearers were killed by machine-gun fire. Two surviving officers were contacted by a family friend: one said Oxland had been shot and lay wounded, and in the retreat was shot again and killed, the other that he had been shot once in the chest and died instantly. Another described seeing him attending to a wounded captain just as the first retreat was called, and being shot in the head. In the confusion that morning, under heavy fire for the first time and with so many dead and wounded, it must have been almost impossible to take in and remember what was happening, and there were things that families at home would never be told. The adjutant of 6th Borders had lost his brother in the attack, an officer in Oxland’s company. He described going out to look for the pair of them and finding nothing. And there the trail ended.
Nowell Oxland’s name appeared in the published casualty lists at the end of August. Noel Hodgson, in France preparing for his own first battle, found it in a newspaper in early September. And though seeing names of friends in the casualty lists had become a commonplace for them all – in one of his war sketches Hodgson captured the moment and the way that feelings had to be suppressed, ‘one cannot mourn them all‘ – still, this death really hit him. He took some moss from the summit of Great Gable that his sister had sent him – a treasured souvenir of home – and set light to it as a symbolic funeral pyre for his friend. When I first read the letter in which he describes this it reminded me of the Viking’s funeral in ‘Beau Geste’: years on I realise that he would have been thinking of Achilles’ pyre for Patroclus. The closeness of Gallipoli to the plains of Troy was a coincidence not lost on a classically educated generation.
On the troopship on the way to Helles Nowell Oxland had written his one war poem, a farewell to the beloved landcapes of Cumberland which he did not expect to see again in life. But he imagined something of himself being carried back afterwards on the wind;
‘Mixed with cloud and wind and river, sun distilled in dew and rain,
One with Cumberland for ever, We shall go not forth again.’
Sent home in a last etter to a family friend, the poem was published anonymously in The Times at the end of August. Noel Hodgson saw it, and recognised or was told whose poem it was. Not not long before his own last battle he wrote his answer, a long poem in praise of Cumberland and its people which ends with the image of a bereaved mother mourning her son and the promise,
‘The South Wind blows to our own place, And we shall see the hills again.’