First World War: A journey to the grave of war poet Edward Melbourne, who had strong ties with Suffolk

William Noel Hodgson war poet William Noel Hodgson war poet

Monday, June 23, 2014
11:35 AM

William Noel Hodgson MC was known as Smiler to his friends.

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He volunteered to serve in the British army out the outbreak of the First World War, a century ago this year.

He served in the 9th Battalion of the Devonshire Regiment and he first saw action on September 25 1914 during the Battle of Loos.

It was then that 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.

Today Hodgson, who grew up in Northumberland and went to Oxford University, is perhaps best remembered for his war poetry which he wrote under the name of Edward Melbourne.

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His poem Before the Action is a haunting and poignant piece written just two days before he died.

Though he grew up in Northumberland, Hodgson’s family had Suffolk links. His father was Henry Hodgson, the first Bishop of the diocese of St Edmundsbury and Ipswich, also marking its 100th anniversary this year.

As you drive through the Somme today it is sometimes hard to imagine what it must have been like as the great powers of Europe waged war.

The trenches have been replaced by fields of wheat, the no man’s land is under the plough, the passage of time has healed much of the landscape, the horses, the machines, the barbed wire, the outposts and military installations have all but disappeared. Today, the Somme is a peaceful place.

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Save for the cemeteries it might be as if none of it ever happened.

But the dead still lay scattered across the region. They lie, row on row on row, in beautifully tended graves.

My father Duncan and I share an interest in the history of the conflict and every copse, every hill, every escarpment tells a story.

For example, the Gordon Cemetery – where the graves of nearly 100 men of the 7th division and 2nd Gordon Highlanders are arranged in a neat double semi circle – is accessed by a short walk through the ripening ears of wheat.

They all died on July 1 1916 - the first day of the Somme offensive.

The cemetery itself is on the site of a support trench and the height of the hedge is so maintained that when you stand close to it and look over the top you get the impression of standing in a trench.

It is an atmospheric place.

The nearby Devonshire Cemetery, just off a quiet country road – the D938 – near the small village of Mametz, tells another moving story.

It was near here, also on July 1 1916, that the men now buried in the Devonshire Cemetery died.

At the end of the first day of the Battle of the Somme over 160 of men of the 9th and 8th Devonshire Regiment were retrieved from where they had fallen in action in No-Mans-Land and the German positions.

They were carried back to the British Front Line trench position for the start of the day, and were buried in a section of this trench near a small wood called Mansell Copse.

Reverend Eric Crosse, the chaplain to the 8th and 9th Devons wrote later to a fellow officer: “Nearly all the casualties were just by the magpie’s nest. I buried all I could collect in our front line trench.”

The graves were left in this position when the cemeteries were rebuilt after the war. As we walked up the steps to the cemetery, which is shielded from view from the road by trees, it came on to rain.

The clay rich, chalky mud underfoot giving us a tiny hint of the conditions in which these men lived and died.

Hodgson himself is buried in Grave reference A. 3 and a wreath marked his grave when I found it. I read later that Hodgson was the bombing officer for his battalion during the attack, and was killed by a machine gun positioned at a shrine whilst taking grenades to the men in the newly captured trenches.

The bullet went through his neck, killing him instantly. He was 23.

When we left we spotted a stone plaque outside the cemetery gates.

It was inscribed with the following words: “The Devonshire’s held this trench, The Devonshire’s hold it still.”

Before Action

By 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 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 unfamiliar 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.

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