Book Review - Before Action: William Noel Hodgson and the 9th Devons

Posted on on 23 February 2016
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Author: Charlotte Zeepvat
Publication Date: 05 December 2014

Publisher's Description:

'William Noel Hodgson never intended to be a soldier; he wanted to write. The Great War made his reputation as a poet but it also killed him. This groundbreaking biography traces his path through the pre-war world and explores why he set his own hopes and plans aside to join the army.'

The Author, Charlotte Zeepvat, has sent Centenary News the following explanation into the background of the book:

'The book is the story behind the defining poem of the first day on the Somme, William Noel Hodgson's three-verse prayer for courage in the face of death - 'Make me a soldier, Lord. . . . Make me a man, O Lord. . . . Help me to die, O, Lord'.  His death in the battle two days after the poem was published made him one of the best-known war poets. Through the inter-war years the poem was often broadcast, particularly on Armistice Day.

When I set out to research Hodgson's life over thirty years ago I was hoping to find enough material for a short biography.  What I found transformed the book into something much broader, in which the poet's life becomes a doorway into the pre-war worlds of family, school and Oxford; most of all into his battalion, the 9th Battalion of the Devonshire Regiment. 

I was given access to an extraordinary collection of unpublished material preserved by the family of one of his friends and fellow officers. There was a detailed diary; letters home and letters exchanged by members of the battalion after the battle of Loos, describing individual experiences of the fighting and its aftermath, as the wounded recovered in hospital and the battalion in France was rebuilt. 

There were photographs of the 9th Devons too - even a pocket sketchbook with drawings of the Somme in the spring of 1916  All this combined with Hodgson's papers and letters, official documents, and diaries and letters written by other 9th Devons, to create a detailed account of the battalion from formation until the the Somme, in their own words. 

The book also offers a very different account of the 9th Devons' action on 1 July 1916 in which Hodgson, sixteen other officers and 463 of their men became casualties, dead, wounded or missing, mostly in the first half hour.  I've done the best I can to tell their story.'


Review sent in by Centenary News Reader:

Review by: Tim Fox-Godden, PhD Candidate, University of Kent

As the centenary of the opening of the Battle of the Somme draws near those sacred spots of land, both collective and individual, will be drawn even more sharply into focus. The names of these places role of the tongue, like some morbid shopping list. It is precisely this familiarity that can obscure the meaning behind these places. One such location on the Somme is the relatively small cemetery nestled in what the trench maps called Mansell Copse; Devonshire Cemetery. It is a place that captures so many of the narratives of the Great War and one that, in its intimacy and isolation, draws the visitor back into the landscape of battle. Devonshire Cemetery is partnered by a regimental memorial to the men of the 9th Devonshires that fell on the 1st July 1916. The memorial, a stone replacement of the original wooden cross, reads ‘The Devonshires held this trench, the Devonshires hold it still’. One of the Devonshires still holding this trench is Lieutenant William Noel Hodgson MC.

Hodgson wrote one of the most enduring poems of the Great War, one that conveys something universal; the contemplations of a man who knows death is nearby and that he must face it. Yet, whilst this poem has become a staple for all anthologies of Great War poetry there has been scant little else known about Hodgson. This glaring gap in our understanding of one the seminal poems to come out of the war has now been filled, and comprehensively so.

Before Action, the title of Hodgson’s poem, is also the title of Charlotte Zeepvat’s new study of the life, loves and works of William Noel Hodgson. Zeepvat doesn’t just look at Hodgson’s war experience, but goes back to provide a detailed and well-researched biography of his entire life. It is difficult not to connect in some way with Noel, as has was commonly known, owing to the intimate nature in which his life has been reconstructed. That this has very clearly been a labour of love comes through in every chapter.

A particular strength of the book is the interweaving of both Noel’s physical growth alongside his poetic development.  Aside from the engrossing biographical nature of the book, this exploration of Hodgson as a poet brings a fresh look at how his most famous poem emerged. The skill in which Zeepvat blends biographic detail with analysis of his writing only adds to the sense of knowing Noel more and more with every turn of the page.

It is refreshing that Zeepvat devoted over a third of the book to Noel’s pre-war life. It would have been easy to dive straight into the Great War period of his life, making passing references to his upbringing. That she did not makes the telling of his military career that much more compelling. As the reader, you come to realise that Noel was not a soldier by design and yet you see how he develops in to one. At the same time Zeepvat shows how Noel managed to retain aspects of individuality, evident in his approach to the constraints of soldierly life and more specifically in the continuation of his writing.

Equally refreshing in a biography about a poet is the accuracy of military detail. Zeepvat’s knowledge of the movements and personnel of the 9th Devonshires recreates the world in which Noel lived. In this respect, it is as much a memorial to Noel’s friends and colleagues as it is to him himself. Even the most well-read of military historians will gain insight into the weeks and months leading up to the opening of the battle and to the land over which it was fought.

The story of Noel is not uncommon in the armies of the Great War and yet it is unique. Be it his love for the Lakeland hills, his emergence as a poet or in his premature death, Zeepvat has captured all the facets of Noel and his life in a way that you will not fail to connect with.

If you are intending to travel to the Somme, this year or in any other, Before Action, both the poem and this wonderful book, are both essential reading. Zeepvat’s beautifully constructed narrative of Noel’s life will open up his world to you. Her deep understanding of both Noel’s life and works will also open up his war experience and the landscapes of that experience. But, perhaps the greatest achievement of Zeepvat’s writing is that her telling of Noel’s story, Before Action, will make your next trip to Devonshire Cemetery feel like you are going to visit an old friend.

What do you think about this book or review? Please add a comment below.


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