William Noel Hodgson (3 January 1893- 1 July 1916, pen name Edward Melbourne), is the author of one of my favourite poems (which you will find below). Known as “Smiler” to his friends, Hodgson volunteered for the British Army on the outbreak of the First World War in 1914 and served in the 9th Battalion of the Devonshire Regiment. His first major offensive came on 25 September 1915 during the Battle of Loos. He was mentioned in despatches and awarded the Military Cross for holding a captured trench for 36 hours without reinforcements or supplies during the battle and he was subsequently promoted to lieutenant.
Having returned to England after Loos, Hodgson was positioned with his Battalion opposite the town of Mametz in April 1916. The trench was named Mansell Copse, as it was in a group of trees. As the week long preliminary bombardment commenced for the Battle of the Somme, Hodgson and others in his Battalion grew worried that the British shelling would not destroy a German machine gun, which was perfectly positioned to gun down British troops should they have to go ‘over the top’. Indeed, Hodgson’s commanding officer set off to British High Command to demonstrate the futility of their attacking, armed with a plasticine model he had made demonstrating the location of the gun in relation to the British trenches.
Unfortunately, the Devonshires were told that they were to attack in any case, regardless of whether or not the gun had been eliminated, in order that all the Battalions participating in the Somme Offensive advanced as a line. So, at 0730 hours on July 1st, 1916, the men from the Devonshire Regiment, 9th Battalion went over the top. They 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. The gun had not been destroyed, and men were cut down in swathes as soon as they left the comparative safety of their trench. Hodgson was a Bombing Officer, responsible for keeping the men supplied with grenades. He died within half an hour of the attack.
Hodgson’s Battalion lost some 167 men, including all but one of their officers. In spite of the horrendous casualties suffered by the 9th Battalion, Mametz was captured by troops from the British 7th Division. The attack was a success.
Hodgson is buried with the rest of the 9th Battalion’s casualties in Mansell Copse. As you enter the cemetery, which you’ll find in the very corner of an unassuming field, a plaque reads as follows: ‘The Devonshires held this trench, the Devonshires hold it still.’
This poem was written two days before Hodgson’s death. To me it speaks of an awful sense of playing one’s part, even when one’s death is all but certain, which was prevalent throughout the British army in the First World War. It provided the inspiration for my own ‘They Called It Mametz’, a story tracking the Devonshires on the eve of the attack.
Before ActionBy all the glories of the day And the cool evening’s benison
By that last sunset touch that lay
Upon the hills when day was done,
By beauty lavishly outpoured
And blessings carelessly received,
By all the days that I have lived
Make me a soldier, Lord. By all of all man’s hopes and fears
And all the wonders poets sing,
The laughter of unclouded years,
And every sad and lovely thing;
By the romantic ages stored
With high endeavour that was his,
By all his mad catastrophes
Make me a man, O Lord. I, that on my familiar hill
Saw with uncomprehending eyes
A hundred of thy sunsets spill
Their fresh and sanguine sacrifice,
Ere the sun swings his noonday sword
Must say good-bye to all of this; –
By all delights that I shall miss,
Help me to die, O Lord.