This is the first of a 4-part series of the analysis of articles relating to Private Frederick Hodson, who served with the 18th Battalion.
476 days had passed since the enlistment of Private Hodson and the publishing of his letter in the Rushden Echo.
Frederick Hodson, a shoemaker from Galt, Ontario, had joined the 18th Battalion and became part of what was to be termed “The Great War”. His heritage was that of an Englishmen from Rushden, Northampton, England who had emigrated to Canada in 1912 and his ties to his birth country was so strong that he was one of the first men in Galt to join the 18th Battalion[i], part of the 2nd Contingent being formed in the Fall of 1914 to serve with Imperial Forces on the Continent. Private Hodson shoemaking abilities came from his father, Charles, who worked in the shoe industry and was later to own a boot manufactory in Rushden.[ii]
At the time of the interview, Hodson had been serving at the front since the 18th Battalion arrived on the Continent in mid-September. Going into the line later that month it had been involved in very wet and sordid conditions in a relatively inactive part of the front at Ypres. It happened that Hobson was granted eight-days leave on February 7, 1916 and he went home to Rushden to be with his family. His service record shows he returned to duty on February 16, so he was interviewed during this time by a correspondent from the Rushden news.
Rushden Man in the Mud – Praying or Cursing
Some Narrow Escapes – Meeting with Rushden Schoolmates
Interviewed by a representative of the “Rushden Echo” he said:
“I saw Sergt. Sheffield’s experiences in the ‘Rushden Echo’ and was very much interested in the account he gave, but I noticed that he said a good many fellows say their prayers out there who never think of saying them at home. If that is the case with his battalion they must be a different lot of chaps from ours, as if a chap can get through the mud and other things we have been through this winter without cursing he must be a saint. So far as I am concerned I have never heard so much cursing and swearing in my life as I have heard out there, and you can trust a Canadian to be emphatic.[iv] Of course, I am not guilty!
“The most prominent part I have played in the war up to the present is filling sand bags in the rain to the tune of the bullets from machine guns and rifles, and we have lost more men on fatigues and in going in and out of the trenches than we have in the trenches. I can give you my word that the trenches are the safest place. This winter the communication trenches have been flooded, and we have had to wade up to our waists in water in some places. We have a new communication trench now, I am glad to say. One Saturday morning, when I was passing through a communication trench, I sank up to my waist in mud. After about a quarter of an hour’s struggle I succeeded in getting one leg out, and went to put it on what I thought was solid ground, and I got in deeper than before. It took me half-an-hour of the hardest struggle I have ever had in my life to get out, and it made by pals laugh some, but ‘Ish ka bibble’ (comprez). This is Canadian slang for ‘I should worry.’ Another chap tried to pull me out but got in as bad a plight as I was.
“The worst experience I have had under shell fire was on Sept. 25th. We had orders to stand to in the reserve trenches at 4.30 a.m.[v] When we had been in the trenches about half-an-hour the Germans began to shell us, and we were at that time about 300 yards from the German trenches. For half-an-hour the shells came over like rain, and I thought my number was up, but I am glad to say that none of my company was hit. How we escaped is nothing but a miracle, as afterwards pieces of shell were picked up from the parapet, most of them as big as your fist. Our Major collected over 200 such pieces. This was, of course, the day of the Loos battle, and we expected that the enemy might attempt a general attack.
“I had another narrow escape about the beginning of November, when the wet weather started. We were in brigade reserve at the time, about a mile behind the lines, and there were four of us in a dug-out, where we had only about a square yard of dry ground, the other part being about up to your knees in slush. Some other chaps in another dug-out nearby told us of a comfortable barn in a field close to us, so we made up our mind to flit. Two of us went across the fields, carrying our blankets right in view of the Germans. We hadn’t been in the barn more than two hours, and were just going to boil some eggs which we had got from a farm close to, when the Germans dropped a shell right in front of the door. How we escaped I don’t know, but we picked up our blankets and skipped, never mind about the eggs. I never ran so fast in my life, and as we ran across the field the Germans dropped about a dozen shells right close to us, and how we got through I don’t know, but we beat the Germans on that game all right.
“On another Saturday morning, we were on fatigue in the first line, building up dug-outs, when the Germans sent a rifle grenade over, and this fell in the mouth of a communication trench, about 20 yards from me, where a party of the 21st battalion was working. It was a miss, and one of the chaps waved his shovel signalling a miss. The Germans then sent three more right on top of them, killing four and wounding one.
“One night when on fatigue we were carrying the frames for dug-outs up to the first line, and we were going by road, as the communication trenches were impassable. The Germans must have been wise to it, as every two or three minutes they kept sweeping the road by machine guns, and they accounted for six of our men, two being killed and four wounded. When we came out of the trenches we returned a different way and when we got to the officer in charge of the party he told us that we were to leave the remainder of the kit where it was. The corporal came up and told us that one of our comrades was lying out there dead. Four of us volunteered to go out and fetch him in, and when we got to where he was we found about 20 more of our chaps lying in a ditch too scared to move. We put him on a stretcher and carried him back; passing through mud up to our knees, and this was the only time I ever ploughed through mud without grumbling. Our comrade whom we brought back had been killed by two machine gun bullets through the head.
“On October 6th we had a proper exciting time. Our artillery made a steady bombardment of the German trenches for about two hours. As a kind of bluff we threw over smoke bombs, but the wind seemed to change and blew the smoke back on to us, so that we couldn’t see two yards in front of us. We had the order to open up a rapid fire as we didn’t know whether the Germans would attempt an attack. Although they were pretty lively with their whiz-bangs they couldn’t get the range, as their shells were dropping about 50 yards behind us, but in one part of the line they found it, and four were killed and seven wounded.
“About the end of October the 7th Northants came to our part of the line. There were only two regiments between us and I would have loved to have got by the side of those chaps, as a lot of my old school-mates are amongst them. Their rest camp was only just behind ours, and one Sunday morning I went across to try and find them, but found they were in the trenches. However, I met one Rushden chap, ‘Toddles’ Gell, of Rushden, who is on sanitary police. I hadn’t seen him for about seven years, and he didn’t recognise me for a start, but I knew him. I said ‘Hello, Toddles,’ and as soon as he recognised me we had a good handshake.
“About a week after that the Northants were in the reserve, just at the back of us, and that was the opportunity I had been waiting for, I and another old Rushdenite went to hunt them up, and the first one I saw was Lce-Corpl. Frank Smith, of Rushden, one of my old school chums. I hadn’t seen him for about six years but he recognised me straight away. I met several other old school mates and we had a good talk about good old Rushden. This was the best three hours I have had since I was out there; it seemed just like being at home, you bet your sweet life it did. They are a fine lot of fellows. It was the day before Geo. Perkins, of Higham, was killed. We had passed them on the road that very day and had heard that five of the 7th Northants had got it, through a shell bursting, but we didn’t know who. I knew Geo. Perkins very well. I also met Ray Cooper, of Rushden, out there, and he must have been wounded the next time in the trenches, as he was all right when I saw him.
“In regard to the duration of the war, I think it is going to last much longer than most people think.”
The Rushden Echo, 11th February 1916, transcribed by Gill Hollis.
This interview is a straight-forward autobiographical relating of Private Hobson’s experience. There are several instances that cannot be corroborated with the War Diary. At this time there were two war diaries, the Battalion (military) and the medical officer’s diary. Both diaries do not mesh with the dates that Hobson gives for the events relating to the shell-fire incident on September 25 and October 6. This is probably an issue with the war diarists as opposed to Hobson, specifically in regard to the events on September 25. The Battalion was just freshly introduced to front-line service that very night and the attack at Loos would have been a major experience for the soldiers of the B.E.F. and C.E.F. at the time. This would have been a seminal moment for many of the soldiers of the Battalion, and not soon forgotten.
The interview further illustrates some social trends in relation to the emerging Canadian identity in the guise of the amount of praying and swearing the Canadian troops did compared to English troops. Hobson was most likely thoroughly English in identity. Having emigrated to Canada in 1912 he had only 3-4 years exposure to Canada and being from a bastion of British values in South-Western Ontario he would have had exposure to uniquely Canadian practices but the prevailing cultural, religious, and political forces where Empire driven and influenced. He even distances himself from this practice as he is “not guilty” of the practice of swearing. It may be that in Rushden stories about the differences between the Canadian troops and those of the United Kingdom were of note and interest. The following excerpt gives some indication on how the difference use of swearing was identified as uniquely Canadian:
‘Two of our scouts who were wearing German caps, souvenirs of the recent fighting, were to their dismay, arrested by the battalion next-door, and had a deuce of a time proving an alibi.
Their innocence was eventually established, and their identities proved by sheer force of profanity.
You may face an identity-disc and a pay-book, but army English, Canadian army English, can only be acquired through lone experience and incessant practice.
After they had put on the third record, (you know the one) “Holy, sufferin, systematic..” the officer who was questioning them leaned weakly against the parados and said: “S’enough boys. Your characters are cleared. Go!”’[vi]
It is interesting to note that Hobson diminishes his role in combat a, “The most prominent part I have played in the war up to present is filling sand bags…” as he tells later of volunteering to recover a wounded comrade from an area that is exposed and being swept by German machine gun fire. The fire is effective as witnessed by the wounding of the four soldiers and two were killed outright. Hobson wanted to help retrieve one of the wounded soldiers and during the stretcher-bearer party’s advance to retrieve the man 20 men are discovered who had gone to ground and were immobilized by the threat of this machine gun fire. Sadly, the wounded comrade did not survive but this action speaks to Hobson’s bravery as he was to later earn a Military Medal for similar actions at the Somme.
There is also an aspect of grim trench humour during the telling of the rifle grenade incident. The irony expressed by the act of a 21st Battalion soldier signalling a “miss” by the Germans firing the rifle grenades ends in a result that kills some of the men who taunted the Germans by their signal.
His identity with his birth country is expressed by his visits with the 7th Northants (7th Battalion of the Northamptonshire Regiment) and the interview relates in some detail his visits with former school chums. He seeks out these men, some who he has not seen in six-years to reminisce and share memories and these visits contribute to, “the best three yours I have had since I was out there; it felt like being at home, you bet your sweet life it did.
This interview of a recent immigrant to Canada, returned to his homeland and fighting for his county and the Empire it possesses gives a glimpse of the face of England and her sons at that time. Rushden, a town of approximately 12,000 people had a flourishing shoe and boot manufacturing base, perhaps having its growth propelled forward by the war. The local paper was interested in keeping it readers aware of the “boys” serving in Imperial and Colonial forces and Private Hobson furnished the paper with an account of his experiences while giving some sense of the differences between British and Canadian units culturally. Colourful as swearing may be the act of difference was a defining effort by Canadian solider to be different from their British compatriots and cousins. Hobson want to be the same and almost a sense of longing to be with the Northants emerges during the interview.
But, being a trades-person with no chance of advancement to become an officer and transfer to an Imperial unit, Hobson would serve have to serve with a Colonial unit, the 18th Battalion C.E.F.
[i] Frederick Hobson enlisted on October 23, 1914. Some enlistments were recorded on the day prior for this Battalion.
[ii] In the mid-1900s Rushden had over 100 footwear manufacturers.
[iii] Private Hodson’s regimental number was 53896.
[v] This is mostly likely the morning of September 26, 1915 as the Battalion was called up on the night of the 25th to occupy reserve trenches.