Before Action: William Noel Hodgson & The 9th Devons by Charlotte Zeepvat
(Pen & Sword 2015, ISBN 978 1 78346 375 6,237pp, hardback, illustrations, maps, £19.99)
Devonshire Cemetery on the Somme, which sits beneath the leafy glades of Mansel Copse opposite the village of Mametz, is probably one of the most visited on the battlefields of Picardy. The story of a lost poet and the man who made the plasticine model of the battlefield where he knew he would die, and the fact that the ‘Devonshire Regiment held this trench, they hold it still’ has resonated down the decades ever since Martin Middlebrook included it in his book on the First Day of the Somme in the 1970s. But what do we really know of these men and what happened here in 1916?
This new book is in essence a biography of the lost poet: William Noel Hodgson. The son of a vicar, the book takes us through Noel’s Edwardian childhood in Berwick-upon-Tweed to his education at Durham and later Oxford. Noel Hodgson wanted to write but the war interrupted his hopes and he was commissioned into the 9th Battalion Devonshire Regiment. Decorated for bravery at Loos in 1915, he was among the many officers of his regiment to fall in the Somme advance of 1st July 1916 having written a prophetic poem in which he asked God, “help me to die, O Lord”.
But that is not just the scope of this book; it tells a much wider story of the war itself and that eventful moment at Mametz at the start of the Battle of the Somme. Indeed I found the chapter on the attack quite riveting and the best, and most detailed account of the assault ever published. We learn about Duncan Martin, who had made a plasticine model of the battlefield showing where all the positions were, and we discover perhaps that much of what we thought we knew about this part of the Somme perhaps deserves to be challenged.
This was a book I was eagerly awaiting to read and proved not to be disappointing and while the WW1 Centenary has seen a huge number of titles published, this fine book is already in my top ten. A totally absorbing read.
The book is available from the Pen & Sword website.