January on the Somme

On 3 January 1916 Noel Hodgson turned 23 years old. It was a Monday and a working day for the battalion. At 9 am ‘C’ company – now officially known as ‘No. III’ – paraded and marched away to Talmas, some 11 miles north of Amiens, to work under the Royal Engineers. This set the pattern for the rest of the month. A week or so later ‘D’ company was also claimed for engineering work, leaving the rest of the battalion at Ailly-sur-Somme, occupied with route marches, rifle practice and training in attack formations. But not Hodgson. Towards the end of 1915 he had been given command of a new Headquarters Company, consisting of 170 men and two other officers. They were the specialists of the battalion: his own bombers, the machine gunners and signallers. While the other companies were kept busy with general duties and training, HQ company concentrated on their own particular skills.

They did march, though. Often over long distances for no reason they could discern. The day after his birthday the battalion marched 25 km to Ailly-le-Haut-Clocher. They were on the road all day; the officers of ‘B’ company amused themselves by composing limericks about one another, with a blood orange as the prize. Noel Hodgson told one of their friends in England that he was reminded of a time before France, when they were ordered to march from Alton to Winchester, only to be sent back to Alton again. This was quite home-like, he said, and sure enough, on 9 January the order came to march back to Ailly-sur-Somme and their previous billets.

Among his friends there was a sense that he had missed out; that he deserved more from the army after all that had happened at Loos and in the weeks that followed. This was part of a general feeling – unease, perhaps, resentment is too strong – that almost all the company commands and other positions left vacant by the casualties of Loos had gone to officers new to the battalion and to France. Sympathy from the others focused on Hodgson; if he minded for himself, he never said. He was frustrated for the others who had proved themselves at Loos and were still 2nd Lieutenants, commanded by new and less experienced men. But as Bombing Officer, Scout Officer, Officer in charge of Athletics, Mess President, and commander of the small HQ company, he did have plenty of responsibility if no actual promotion, and his time was very full.  And January brought him one mark of official recognition which pleased everyone: the Military Cross, announced in the London Gazette on 14 January.

No citation came with the award. It was published in an honours list, simply ‘for distinguished services in the field’; in the event he would never see or touch the medal itself. But he wore the ribbon on his tunic and it meant a lot to him, though he also laughed at himself for minding. The prose accounts of life at the front which he wrote with increasing frequency from this time onwards often featured the medal ribbon. A few weeks after the award was announced his tunic was drying over the stove when it caught fire; he told his sister that he had to resort to gambling to make good the loss.

Plum Pudding with Givenchy Sauce

The first weeks of January can be a leaden time, the days short, the nights prolonged and dark. Chill and gloom pervade as Christmas and New Year slide away into the past and spring feels very far away. It was no different for Noel Hodgson and the 9th Devons, on the Somme in the early weeks of 1916.

But what a Christmas it had been. One to write home about – except that very few loving parents would have been told everything. Writing to his sister a few days later, Noel described the men’s dinner on Christmas Day, when the officers served the food, and treats sent from home helped add to the party atmosphere. His own parents sent a case of goodies, with sausages, cake and tin trumpets proving the most popular. ‘When I went round dinners I was greeted with ‘For he’s a jolly good fellow’ played on cornets and lustily sung, and one gentleman in a voice husky with beer and emotion assured me that if I ever wanted a man to follow me into a tight place, 11132 Private Harry Gay was the man in question.’ But did not tell her about the officers’ party held the evening before, which he himself had arranged.

At 7.30 pm on Christmas Eve, about 20 officers squeezed into their mess room. There was a large stove in the centre and three tables, each about 18 inches wide. For Christmas decorations the walls were hung with Raphael Kirchner nudes and the gramophone played ‘Any old night is a wonderful night if you’re there with a wonderful girl.’ The menu listed eight topically named courses, including Hulluch oysters and Festubert soup, roast turkey à Boyau 15 (one of the most dangerous communication trenches in their previous sector) and plum pudding with Givenchy sauce.

At first there was an awkwardness in the air: the CO. was a strict disciplinarian and too many of the officers were new to the battalion. But the atmosphere warmed during the meal, and that was nothing to what followed. As the ‘old men’ (in their thirties, mostly) withdrew to drink port quietly in a corner, the ‘B’ company officers’ orchestra set up to play, one conducting, one on tambourine, one on castanets, one triangle, and Hodgson, who wasn’t even in ‘B’ company, on ‘any instrument he can get hold of.’ The gramophone was supposed to provide the tune, but one of the others kept stopping it and changing the speed, while everyone else cheerfully pelted the ‘orchestra’ with bread.

By 10 pm some of the youngest and least experienced were the worse for drink and needed to be steered gently to their billets. The CO. went to bed too, but for the others the party continued with singing around the piano. The adjutant, a promoted Sergeant Major from the 1st Battalion, played a prominent part, leading the company in some drunken hymns before starting a wrestling bout with the mess president of ‘B’ company, who couldn’t stop giggling. He – the mess president – then took up the triangle and tried to play but couldn’t find the metal rod to strike the note. He stumbled round the room searching for it, the others unhelpfully offering him everything but the rod.

Now the ‘old men’ decided to join in, and emerged from their corner with a bottle of vinegar. The game was to see how many of the others could be persuaded to drink a toast, thinking it was champagne, and each success was greeted with glee. But the greatest amusement, which the others would dine out on for days, was the machine-gun officer, who spent his whole evening gazing in silent devotion on the daughter of their French host.

They were all very young and very far from home, enjoying a few hours of complete freedom from the weight of responsibility they had accepted when they volunteered. Their letters describing the party are irresistibly funny. A century on, the humour is inevitably touched by the knowledge that many of those mentioned would not live to see another Christmas, but they were not thinking of what the future might hold. They were out of the line and enjoying themselves, knowing full well that within days they’d be back at work, training and marching under the dull January skies.

“The Awful Price”

On the night of 16 November 1915 the 9th Devons were relieved at the end of a 3-day stint in trenches near Givenchy, which the 2nd Battalion of the Border Regiment on their left had shared. Now another Brigade was to take over while they moved out of the line. There was a sharp frost that night, so the sky was probably clear.

As the 2nd Borders marched away towards billets and safety the Grenade Officer, Lieut. Adamson, turned back. He needed to explain something to his counterpart in the relieving battalion about the whereabouts of the bomb store: whether he had forgotten to do this, or some message had reached him, is not recorded. But he turned and went back. He was on his way to rejoin his battalion when a sniper or stray bullet hit him. He died on the spot.

Noel Hodgson rejoined his battalion from leave the next day. He may not have heard about it immediately, but would surely have picked up the news before long. As the Grenade Officer in the next battalion in the line, appointed to the job at about the same time, his path and Adamson’s must have crossed often. Besides, he and Francis Adamson went back a long way – to Durham School in fact, and the autumn of 1906, when Adamson joined him in School House. In 1908 they played together in the House cricket team: in 1910 both played for the School. There is nothing to say that they were particular friends, still it must have been good to find a familiar face so far from home.

Hodgson was in regular contact with friends from Durham and with the School, and he scanned the casualty lists for names of boys he knew. The Old Boys were also part of the School community and it’s clear from his letters that he knew several of them. Their deaths had a particular resonance for him, and he saw at least something of how they affected the School.

The first  to die was Captain Arthur Shafto, a regular in his thirties, killed in the retreat from Mons. His father died a few months later: ‘his memory, and the memory of his son, who was also our son, will long remain in the School.‘  On 26 October 1914, Lieutenant Cyril Hosking, in his twenties and a pilot in the R.F.C., was shot down over Gheluvelt while observing for the artillery.  A few days later, Lieutenant Martin James Richardson was killed near Ypres serving with the 21st Field Ambulance. A well-respected doctor in his late forties, Richardson volunteered for the R.A.M.C. at the start of the war. The School magazine printed the lengthening lists with a tight-lipped stoicism; ‘We know, and understand, what their loss means to their families, and we share, so far as we may, their sorrow.’

Sometimes news took longer to reach the school. Captain Gerald Sadler of the Dragoon Guards died of wounds at Messines on 1 November, two days before Richardson, but this was not reported until the next issue of the magazine. In the next, the School mourned three victims of the Second Battle of Ypres: Major Clement Arthur Wilkinson of the King’s Shropshire Light Infantry, a veteran of the South African War in his forties; 2nd Lieutenant Henry Reed, who had been a teacher at Cheltenham before the war; and another Richardson, 2nd Lieutenant Basil Hulton Richardson of the Durham Light Infantry, who was still young enough to have been a schoolboy. Born in 1896, he left Durham from the Vth form in December 1914 and went straight into the army. He was reported killed at Ypres on 25 April. Later it emerged that he had been left for dead and taken prisoner: he died in the Bruderhaus at Paderborn in Westphalia. ‘His prowess on the river and on the football field is still fresh in our memories.’

By December 1915 two more casualties of the fighting at Ypres were reported. Another Old Boy turned teacher, 2nd Lieutenant Thomas William Callinan, was killed there six days after arriving in France, and an architect, Captain Frederic Henry Lawson of the Northumberland Fusiliers, died at Ypres in May. On 9 August, Captain Ralph Hawksworth Legard of the Durham Light Infantry was killed near Hooge; that same day, far away in Gallipoli, saw the death which touched Noel Hodgson most deeply, that of Nowell Oxland, his friend.

Gallipoli also claimed three contemporaries of theirs: Captain Arthur James Dingle of the East Yorks had returned to Durham as a teacher just before the war began. Lieut. George Kenneth Hampton of the Norfolk Regiment worked for the Norwich Union, and the third, Harold Winch, had followed a very different path. Leaving school in 1913, he dreamed of farming in Australia, and was at Agricultural College there when the war began. He volunteered for the Australian Infantry, took part in the landing at Anzac Bay, and was killed during the charge on Lone Pine on 6 August, laying telephone wires.

Captain Wynn Guest-Williams of the Royal Berkshire Regiment was another regular soldier, killed near Bois Grenier on 25 September. Lieutenant Peter Gedge was preparing to take Holy Orders when the war began and was killed at Loos, as was 2nd Lieut Cave Bradburne Dodds of the Northumberland Fusiliers. Next came Francis Adamson.

Eighteen deaths reported by the end of 1915. Larger schools would report many more, but in 1914 Durham only had about 130 boys on the roll, and everyone knew everyone else. It is impossible to imagine now what those eighteen names and stories must have meant to the boys who were still at School and wondering what their own future would bring. Or to the teachers who remembered at least some of the dead as schoolboys. ‘We do not add the comments which affection and sorrow prompt us to add to the above list…’ And these were only the first. By the time the war ended, almost 80 more names had been added to the list – including Noel Hodgson.

Poor old Cockburn

The first of Hodgson’s prose sketches of the war to make it into print was published in early February 1916, but it relates to the events of the previous October and November, in the aftermath of Loos. It begins with three men talking over dinner. One is a lieutenant, newly arrived in England on leave, the other two are fellow officers of his battalion, at home recovering from wounds.

During dinner the man on leave had delivered an epic. It had traced the adventures of the faithful few who remained over when the regiment marched back in the grey hours of Friday’s dawn from the chalk lines before Vermelles, to be flung back to trenches thirty-six hours later. It followed them through the Givenchy craters and Festubert marshes, on marches southward and northward, among shellings and bombings, short rests and heavy labours. . .

This is a precise description of the 9th Devons’ movements and experiences after the battle. Next, the two wounded men ask about the fate of particular soldiers; their second question introduces the real subject of the piece:

“What exactly happened to that rum old bird in No. 10 platoon, Cockburn, W.J.?” asked the junior listener. The young adjutant took out his cigar and examined the end carefully, with a tightening of his clean-shaven lips. “It’s a rotten story,” he answered slowly.

He goes on to describe how, on the night of 25 September at Loos, Cockburn was close to him in Gun Trench. In the early morning a shell killed a group of men: ‘Cockburn was the only one left alive, and he was up to the ankles in blood.‘ The man was unhurt, though, and struggled on with the battalion through nights of trench digging and shelling, dealing with the ever-present dead and the unending rain. ‘Old Cockburn wasn’t well at all; he was coughing and spitting blood all night, and shivering when the bullets went over. Poor old thing, I was damned sorry for him.’

After this, Cockburn is sent to the Field Ambulance for a spell, but has the misfortune to return on a night when the battalion is being shelled in billets. The adjutant can see how shaken he is, ‘but of course ‘there’s no release from the War’ and up he went into the trenches two days later.’ That night the trenches are bombarded. ‘It was a pretty fair mess; our traverse was blown clean in and a man was buried under it; in the next bay were two bodies, both smashed up – we never found the head of one – young Henry, that used to be Francis’ batman – nice boy he was too. Then there were one or two men wounded with splinters and suffering from shell shock.‘ They do not find Cockburn, who was last seen in the shattered bay, so assume he has been killed, until some hours later a ration party find him wandering near battalion headquarters: he tells them he is looking for a shovel. The ration party report him to his Company commander; Cockburn now says that he went to see the doctor. When the doctor denies this, Cockburn is put under arrest.

I took the summary of the evidence, and the things he said made me sure he was a bit cracked. But we had a perfectly monumental idiot as M.O. then, and he swore that there was nothing organically wrong, and that therefore the man was compos mentis. So the application went in, and old Cockburn was kept under guard.

Cockburn now expects to be shot, ‘and the swines who were on guard used to twit him about it and say the firing party had been told off to do it.’ They tell him that the sound of the pioneers making a sentry box is his coffin being made, and in desperation, Cockburn manages to get hold of one of their rifles, intending to shoot himself. But his courage fails at the last moment, and he shoots himself in the foot…

At this point one of the listeners interrupts; surely this is too far-fetched – it has to be invention. The adjutant says no, Cockburn shot himself in the left foot and though he should have been put on a second charge, for deliberate wounding, the pain and shock made him so ill that he was sent to hospital, where he died a few days later from septic poisoning.

There was a prolonged silence, broken by the youngest: “It’s worse to think of the old chap going out like that than to hear of half the battalion getting scuppered in a show.”          “Poor old Cockburn,” said Hardy slowly.

That was the story Hodgson told.  But did it happen?  Curiously, all the circumstances fit. The details of where the battalion was and what was happening; Hodgson’s own period as adjutant, the end of which did coincide with his first home leave. Even the replacement medical officer, whom the others found rather useless: he turns up in some of their letters. Then, the CO. who took over the battalion after Loos was a stickler for discipline. And I do think that at some point Hodgson had the job of preparing evidence for a man facing trial; he refers to it elsewhere and it obviously worried him. But as for Cockburn, it seems unlikely that Hodgson would repeat the details of an actual case in a published piece, even with an assumed name.  It is interesting, though, that he chose to tell the story at all…..

After Loos: ‘the old 9th’

The 9th Devons had not suffered so badly at Loos as their sister battalion, the 8th.  But 3 officers had been killed and 12 wounded, 59 men were dead and a further 76 missing, 326 were wounded. In all conscience it was bad enough. By 30 September, when the survivors were finally taken out of the line for a morning’s rest in billets before moving on to another sector of trenches, the fighting strength of the battalion was down to 12 officers and 325 men.

They managed as best they could, with Captain Martin in command and the others doubling up to make sure all jobs were covered. 2nd Lieutenant Thompson, who at 18 was not much more than a schoolboy, found himself in charge of a Company, or what was left of one. He loved it. Later he would look back on this time as his ‘best days of soldiering‘.

On 2 October a major from the 2nd Battalion joined the survivors at Cambrin as their new CO. The adjutant was recalled to his own regiment and Noel Hodgson took over until a replacement came. He joked to his sister a few days later that he hoped he would hold the position long enough to justify buying a proper pair of riding boots (he didn’t). He also began to ape the official language; ‘Your letter has been received and noted this day and action taken accordingly.

From 9 October onwards officers from the home-based 11th Battalion – some of them old friends – and new drafts of NCOs and men began to fill the vacant places. But it was not, could not be the same. Friends were missed. The signalling officer had spent 7 hours on the battlefield with a stomach wound before he could be brought in; he had died soon after. Mervyn, the Australian, had been blown into oblivion by a shell, and letters to the battalion from the distraught fiancée of 19-year-old 2nd Lieutenant Tracey, another whose body  could not be found, were hard to read and much harder to answer.

Then there were the wounded, scattered around the hospitals. It took weeks to find out where they were and to re-establish communication: the person most active in bringing this about was their old CO., Colonel Davies. Removed from the front line before the battle to serve on a travelling Medical Board, ‘Uncle Tom’ sought out his former officers and men and put them in touch with one another, passing on addresses, messages and news. His replacement had taken a bullet in the shoulder which severed an artery; he might have died had it not been for the prompt help of one of the subalterns and the soldier who dragged him to safety. The second-in-command was shot through the chest. Most of the others had leg wounds, though one captain was shot in the face. As the weeks passed letters were exchanged between officers and men, at home and still at the front. The wounded were determined to recover and return to the fighting and the idea of ‘the old 9th’ as a lost ideal took hold and grew.  ‘The 9th isn’t what it was‘…. ‘Ours is a fine Battalion – but it is not the dear old 9th. . .

These voices would echo down the years. New friendships formed, there were good times as well as bad and real pride in dangers faced and battles fought. The cause still seemed worth the sacrifice.  But as more of the originals were killed or moved on, or were invalided home, the ghost that began to haunt the survivors after Loos was never entirely silent.  ‘At times I could lie down and cry almost when I compare the present with the past and yet the Battalion has done damned well.’