One of the most poignant poems written about World War I was penned by the son of a Berwick vicar two days before he died on the battlefield.
The poem ‘Before Action’ described by some as “one of the most beautiful pieces of writing to have come out of the First World War trenches” was written by William Noel Hodgson. Known as Noel he moved to Berwick in 1897, at the age of four when his father, Henry Bernard Hodgson, became Vicar of Berwick. Noel attended school in the Avenue, Berwick, before gaining a King’s Scholarship at Durham School when he was 12 years old.
Noel’s father went on to be Rural Dean of Norham and Archdeacon of Lindisfarne between 1904 and 1914, and had been appointed Bishop of St Edmundsbury and Ipswich when he tragically lost his youngest son Noel in 1916.
But not before Noel made his mark as an outstanding athlete and a promising poet - he and his fellow Durham schoolmate Nowell Oxland finding lasting fame with their poetry. Noel wrote under the pen name of Edward Melbourne for all his war time publications.
Hodgson’s posthumous volume Verse and Prose in Peace and War’, published in London by Murray in 1917, ran into three editions.
At the beginning of August 1914, as war was looking increasingly likely, Hodgson, by then an Oxford graduate was passed fit in a medical and applied for a commission in the territorials and joined the newly formed 9th Battalion of the Devonshire Regiment. By July 1915 Lieutenant Hodgson was in France, landing at Le Havre and his battalion settled into the trenches at Festubert. They were involved in the first major battle at Loos, Hodgson awarded the Military Cross at the battle in September 1915.
The 9th Devons moved to the Somme in December 1915 and spent the winter and spring months digging trenches, mining and laying roads. By then Hodgson had lost two of his closest school friends to the war and the realisation was dawning that his own chances of survival were not great. It is thought he wrote ‘Before Action’ two days before he died, the last heartbreaking line of the poem ‘Help me to die, O Lord’.
‘Before Action’, the prayer for courage, became his most famous poem, one critic describing it as “undoubtedly one of the most beautiful pieces of writing to have come out of the First World War trenches, and is deserving of its place in the history of the conflict”.
The 9th Devons were literally in the firing line when the Battle of the Somme broke out on July 1, 1916, Hodgson dying withing 50 yards of the British front line.
Lieutenant Hodgson’s body was retrieved and brought back into the British Front Line position, along with over 160 of his comrades. They were buried in Mansell Copse and a ceremony was held at the burial site on July 4.
A cross was put up at the time by the survivors of the 9th and 8th Battalions of the Devonshire Regiment. Carved on the cross were the words: “The Devonshires held this trench, the Devonshires hold it still.” The graves were left in this position when the cemeteries were rebuilt after the war - 163 graves contained in the cemetery which is named “Devonshire Cemetery”.
John Malden, who lives at Edington Mill, Duns, is an old Durham school boy and recalls Hodgson being “an iconic figure in the school from the moment he left”.
“A lot of pupils who followed him knew of him and he was the most noted of the 100+ old boys who were killed in the war,” added John. “It was quite clear that he would have been a great poet - his last poem was written two days before the Somme.”
John has written a book charting 600 years of Durham School, and is currently working on a second volume which will focus on old Dunelmians (Durham School pupils) lost in both world wars, The book, likely to be published this autumn, also includes all the prose and poetry written by Noel Hodgson and Nowell Oxland - two Dunelmians who showed such great promise but whose lives were cut short by war.
BEFORE ACTION, by William Hodgson
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 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,
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.