Inspiration for W N Hodgson's Poem Before Action
Serving with the 9th Battalion the Devonshire Regiment, Lieutenant William Noel Hodgson was on the Somme battlefield in June 1916 preparing for the Battle of the Somme. The scheduled date for the start of the battle was originally to be August 1916, but had been brought forward to the 29 June 1916. Owing to bad weather in the week building up to the battle the date of the attack was postponed at 11.00 hours on 28 June and moved by two days to the morning of 1 July 1916.
The poem Before Action by Lt Noel Hodgson, MC was published on 29 June 1916 in the weekly paper The New Witness.
In the early hours of the morning of Saturday 1 July 1916 William Noel Hodgson was in position with his comrades, anxiously waiting for Zero Hour at 07.30 hours. Due to the severe damage from German artillery fire the British Front Line trench was unsuitable for the battalion to assemble in ready for the attack, so the men were about 250 yards behind the British Front Line trench. At Zero Hour the men of 9th Devons advanced from their position behind the Front Line trench, with the 2nd Battalion Border Regiment on their left and the 2nd Battalion the Gordon Highlanders on their right.
The 9th Devons had about 400 yards of No-Mans-Land to cross in the Carnoy valley before they could attempt to break into the German Front Line south of Mametz village. As soon as the first men of the Devons reached No-Mans-Land they were exposed to fire from German machine guns. Many were cut down in No-Mans-Land and the battalion suffered heavy casualties. Lieutenant Hodgson was Bombing Officer in the attack. He was responsible for keeping the men supplied with grenades during the attack, which would be especially important if they got into the German positions. Within an hour of the attack it is said that Lieutanant Hodgson was killed. He was aged 23. He would never again see a sunset.
In spite of the heavy casualties lost by the battalion the Devons had progressed with their attack and the German-held village of Mametz was captured by the British 7th Division. All but one of the officers of the 9th Devons were killed or wounded. The British Front Line position did, therefore, successfully advance to a new position by the end of the day.
“The Devonshires Held This Trench”
That night Lieutenant Hodgson's body was retrieved and brought back into the British Front Line position, along with over 160 of his comrades. They were buried in the vicinity of a little wood called Mansell Copse which was in the British Front Line trench position at the start of the day.
A ceremony was held at the burial site on 4 July. A wooden cross was put up at the time by the survivors of the 9th and 8th Battalions of the Devonshire Regiment. Carved on the cross were the words: “The Devonshires held this trench, the Devonshires hold it still.” The graves were left in this position when the cemeteries were rebuilt after the war. 163 graves are now contained in the cemetery which is named “Devonshire Cemetery”. All but one of the casualties are men of the Devonshire Regiment. Lieutenant Noel Hodgson is buried in Grave reference A. 3.
Before Action Poem
Before Action - William Noel Hodgson and the 9th Devons, a Story of the Great War
by Charlotte Zeepvat
Published by Pen & Sword Military (5 Dec 2014); ISBN-10: 1783463759 and ISBN-13: 978-1783463756
Find out more about Noel Hodgson and the book about him, published in December 2014, by author Charlotte Zeepvat. Charlotte has researched Noel and the 9th Devons for over 30 years.