Before Action

William Noel Hodgson and the 9th Devons

By Charlotte Zeepvat

Pen & Sword, 2015

Before ActionThe story of the 9th Devonshire Regiment on 1st July has 1916 has become one of the legends of the Somme, thanks in part due to Martin Middlebrook’s seminal ‘The First Day on the Somme’. This recounted that the fate of the Devons was foretold by one of the officers. Captain Duncan Martin had constructed a model relief of the terrain and realised that the battalion would be exposed to heavy fire. However, his warnings were ignored and the prophecy was fulfilled, with Martin amongst the casualties. Many of the men were buried in their own frontline trench, the mournful epitaph of ‘The Devonshires held this trench: the Devonshires hold it still’ cementing the tale as one of the iconic stories of the day. Yet as Charlotte Zeepvat expertly unpicks, the story is not quite as clear cut as this.

Ultimately this is not just an account about the 9th Devonshires and the events of 1st July 1916. It is a biography of William Noel Hodgson (known as Bill), the officer who wrote the poem ‘Before Action’ and who was also killed in the attack. But what it achieves is wider than this still – it is a commentary on Victorian/Edwardian England and the social background of a not untypical young man who became a junior officer, the core element of the British Army during the war.

Zeepvat almost effortlessly pieces together Bill’s formative years, from his family background to his time at school and university. She deftly show how his world-view and attitude developed, reflected in his prose and poetry. In this she is aided by a wealth of source material from school and university records to Hodgson’s own notebooks. We gain a wonderful insight into his character and how he was shaped by his upbringing and education.

Hodgson volunteered for a commission within a few days of war breaking out, although his poems from the time show he was not particularly enthusiastic about the war. He joined the 9th Devonshires on the 16th September and went overseas at the end of July 1915. His initiation into the horrors of war came at Loos, with the battalion suffering heavy casualties just trying to get through to the frontlines. Hodgson proved himself on the battlefield and was mentioned in despatches and awarded the Military Cross.

In February 1916 the battalion moved to the Somme, and held a position near Mametz from April. The position was known as Mansel Copse – a precarious position jutting out from the British lines, on the slope of a hill and exposed to enfilade fire.

Hodgson penned his best known poem ‘Before Action’ shortly before the opening of the Somme offensive, although by this time several pieces of his work had already been published under a pen-name. It was also at this time that Captain Duncan Martin’s model of the terrain to be attacked was made. Zeepvat convincingly argues that many of the aspects of the tale – that Martin was ignored by senior officers; that he was solely focused on the 9th Devons and the impact a machine gun located at the village shrine would have – are incorrect. On 7.27am on 1st July the battalion advanced from the reserve trench; many of them, including Martin and Hodgson, were killed before they even reached their own front line.

Zeepvat does an excellent job of piecing together the sometimes confused and contradictory accounts of the attack. She looks at the accounts of Hodgson’s death and teases out the likely scenario of his final moments as he led his bombing party into the attack. The fact that the battalion eventually achieved its objectives was perhaps some small consolation to the loved ones of the deceased; certainly so for Hodgson’s family. After his death Hodgson’s father published a book of his prose in November 1916, immortalising Before Action.

Over 30 years research and writing has gone into this work – longer than Hodgson’s life. Hodgson’s prose and poetry is included where relevant, with some analysis, but does not dominate. Charlotte Zeepvat’s passion and knowledge shine through, and she has brought us a balanced and reverent account not only of the 9th Devon’s and the attack on 1st July, but of Hodgson’s life and how his background and upbringing helped shape him into a well-liked, respected, and effective young officer.

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Before Action – William Noel Hodgson and the 9th Devons, a Story of the Great War