“…a pretty near squeak…”

This is the last of a 4-part series of the analysis of articles relating to Private Frederick Hodson, who served with the 18th Battalion. Special thanks to Annette Fulford (@avidgenie) Lizbet Tobin, and Sharon Munro for assistance with this article.

Private Frederick Hodson, M.M. of the 18th Battalion.

Hodson is well established in England, as his visits during his leaves attest. His wife and daughter are resident at the family home in Rushden and was now getting to experience his second at total of four leaves he was granted during his tour of duty with the CEF. He has earned the Military Medal for actions leading from the attack by the 18th Battalion as part of the 2nd Division CEF attempt to take Flers-Courcelette. The outcome of that action of September 15 and 16, 1916 resulted in his actions as a stretcher-bearer to be recognized and officially sanctioned for the valour those actions represented which had been faithfully reported on by the newspaper.

But it wanted more. Hodson was modest about his martial endeavour’s and the paper was going to correct that gap in the story and they wanted more information for their valiant Rushden son. The war had carried on, and Hodson had participated in the attack on Vimy on April 9, and yet, the Rushden Echo appears to be more interested in the battle at the Somme. Perhaps this reflects the English-centric perspective of the people of Rushden. The Somme was a singular battle for its mass of casualties and the involvement of the BEF with approximately 1.5 million men engaged representing 50 divisions, a massive undertaking resulting and almost a half-million casualties. The more recent Battle of Arras, by contrast, was of shorter duration (a month compared to 5-months) and involved half the divisions utilizing 23 divisions during the battle. Its impact, compared to that of the Somme, to the English public was less, not only because of the relative length and size of the conflict, but after 3-years of war the public was getting weary of war and the story relating to earning a medal would be of more interest to the readers of Rushden, than the exploits of a foot soldier engaged in routine service at the front-line with a Canadian unit in an successful engagement largely recognized as being Canadian. Or, perhaps, the colonial make-up of the Canadian troops with their reputation of being a little rough around the edges compared to their English brethren was of little interest to the people of this industrial town. Vimy was not of interest from the author’s perspective as far as this article relates. It wants to know more about Hodson’s service at the Somme.

The article’s title lends to its intent – the creation of interest in the subject. It highlights the story about to be related. As has been related in the first article, the 18th Battalion’s War Diary for the events of September 15 and 16 is bereft of detail about the action on those dates – “Not much help to a historian”. Hodson’s reflection of his involvement illuminates some of the activities of the Battalion from his perspective. What is of note is the fact that Lieutenant-Colonel Milligan had given permission to men who where stretcher-bearers to retire from the battle before the main body of surviving soldiers returned from the engagement to be relieved. If Milligan had offered this early relief to these men, it indicated the extreme level of shell-fire and the general intensity of combat. Milligan was no stranger to combat having been a senior officer of the Battalion from its inception. He had experienced all the combat, including the confused and ineffective action at St. Eloi Craters, that led to his eventual command of the Battalion[i]. He would have been aware of the casualties suffered that day and he felt that these men who retrieved the wounded and the dead deserved a chance to live after all they had experienced during those two days.

Yet, despite the risks, Hodson and Worsfold[ii] stay and it is this action that directly contributes to their Military Medals.

As the Battalion is relieved Hodson relates quiet accurately the activities, but not the duration of these activities, of the Battalion during September 16 to 30. The Battalion appears to be shunted from Tara Valley, to resting at Brickfields to a series of marches, a “soldier’s holiday”, to Vandencourt, Lavicogne[iii], St. Leger Les Dormarts[iv], back to Lavicogne, then Vandencourt, to Albert until it relieved the 21st Battalion in the line on September 30.[v]

Map of 18th Battalion Travels after September 15 16 1916 The Somme

The approximate route of the 18th Battalion during its “soldier’s holiday” after the engagement at Flers-Courcelette, September 15/16, 1916.

Hodson moves into the line and relates how he had, “…a pretty near squeak…” when a German shell lands near the German ammunition storage dugout they are repurposing as an aid station. A shell lands nearby and he and his comrades beat it down the stairs 30 to 40 feet under-ground when another shell makes a direct hit and they are temporarily buried. All this occurs before the main attack and the work of the stretcher-bearers and medical staff carry on. They have established an aid post, advanced, not because of its technology, but because it is as close to the front-lines as they dare. It is partially destroyed, and these men carry on with their important and essential duties. The line is now 500 yards away and Hodson and seven other men head to the front when he is hit by shrapnel and wounded. He returns to the rear by “hanging onto the strings” a possible reference to rope strung up along the unfamiliar enemy trenches so recently taken used by soldiers to navigate back and forth to their aid, command, and ammunition stations and depots.

Hodson got off lucky. Two days later, on October 3, 1916, the Battalion suffered 24 soldier’s deaths. This day accounted for 69% of that month’s dead for the Battalion. Another example of the awful toll the Somme excised from the Battalion in dead and wounded.

The “blighty”, a wound that had the potential to get him sent to England for treatment, results in his evacuation from the line, along with a comrade. His comrade’s wound is terminal, and he later dies in a base hospital, while Hodson is transferred to the 4th Canadian Field Ambulance, hence to No. 3 Canadian Stationary Hospital at Doullens. His path to recovery is relatively short, indicating the nature of the wound, as he is out of service from October 1, 1916 to January 6, 1917. As he relates:

“How the remainder of us escaped the Lord only knows. I was disappointed in regard to the ‘Blighty’ trip, as they only took me as far as Boulogne, and from the high ground where the hospital is built I could see ‘Blighty’ in the distance, so near yet so far. However, better luck next time. I was in the hospital two weeks, and when i found that I was not marked for ‘Blighty’ I wanted to try my luck again, and so I asked that I might be sent back to my battalion. On discharge from hospital I was sent to the base and there I did two weeks’ fatigue, after which I was sent up the line again to an entrenching battalion. I remained with them as a bugler for about two months; on returning to my old battalion, I joined the band and am now playing the cornet.”

He is so close to England he can see it. He recovers and he is assigned to the Battalion band. It is not clear why, as he was an effective stretcher-bearer, but his sentiments, as expressed in the article, may indicate that he was placed there in recognition for his efforts as a stretcher-bearer. He is obviously pleased as to this near “bombproof” assignment as:

“You can believe me it is better to play a tune behind the lines than to go up the lines and play another sort of to make Fritzy ‘dance.’ I have played all the tunes I want to play up there for over a year, and am quite prepared to give somebody else the chance now.”

Hodson has “done his bit” and he has earned his new assignment. With his prior experience of being a member of Rushden’s Temperance Band before he immigrated to Canada, he can readily accept this assignment and does not mind to state publicly that being in the band is almost “bombproof” – less likely to be exposed to combat – than being a stretcher-bearer. He may have also recognized that the stress of combat was wearing on him and his unit acknowledged his honourable service with an assignment in which he could serve his Battalion faithfully and have a reasonable chance of surviving the war.

The connection with Rushden is further evidenced as he relates that he has met other men from Rushden, particularly Private Roger Walter Helsdowne[vi], another resident from Rushden and now with the 18th Battalion as a replacement having come to the Battalion on July 14, 1916.

As to the way the war ended Hodson was not far wrong. The war would last into the latter part of 1918 and both sides would come to an agreement under the terms of an armistice. The war would not end by the bitter defeat of the enemy in the field, but “by all belligerents coming to terms.”

Having served in Europe and having four leaves where he was able to meet his family in the comfort of a home and town that he was familiar with the Hodsons decided that Canada was still in their future. Hodson, with a clean service record returned to Canada via Liverpool boarding the S.S. Caronia May 14, 1919. He was discharged with other men of the 18th Battalion on May 24, 1919 at London, Ontario with a notation on his discharge papers the he had “scar back of head right side”, a souvenir of the Somme. His proposed residence was Hespeler, Ontario.

Above: Private Ernest Hodson, D.C.M. and, possibly, the factory he worked at when he lived in Brantford, Ontario.

He was not to stay in Hespeler though as we find him and his family of wife Elizabeth, daughter Minnie, and himself moved to Branford, Ontario. There was good reason. His brother, Ernest Hodson[vii], had worked in Brantford before the war. Private Ernest Hodson D.C.M., had worked at the erecting department of Massey Ferguson at Brantford, Ontario. Though a reservist with the Dufferin Rifles of Canada, he felt that his calling was to return to England to enlist with the 2nd Battalion, The Bedforshire Regiment.

It appears that Ernest’s experiences in Brantford motivated his brother Frederick to move to Brantford to continue his life in Canada. The 1921 Census finds him, his wife, and daughter being enumerated in that city. Interestingly, his brother Ernest does not appear in this census at all. He may have stayed in England after the war.

1921 Census contributed by Sharon Munro

Census sheet showing Hodson in Brantford. Courtesy of Sharon Munro via the 18th Battalion Facebook Group.

The articles in the Rushden Echo give a range of details about Private Frederick Hodson’s service. It helps detail the experience from a personal perspective from a man that was most certainly in the thick of it. From these articles we get some idea of the intensity of combat the Battalion suffered through. It gives sense and tenor to the terror that was that day of September 15/16. It may explain why the War Diary is bereft of any detail. It was to horrible to relate and there were not many men left to relate this action, or would want to. Hodson’s near “blighty” wounding on October 1 was, perhaps, a miraculous intervention creating the circumstances of his removal from the front line two-days prior to a large number of men in the Battalion being killed on October 3. This wound leads to his re-assignment with the Battalion band. He maintains his connection to the Battalion and is able to survive the war and be discharged due to demobilization as part of the last group of men who were released from service with the Battalion at London, Ontario

We see that the Battalion commander, Milligan, was empathetic and concerned for his men during September 15/16. But his actions, if interpreted correctly, also indicate the horror of that day. Milligan was going to let men, including Hodson, a stretcher-bearer, retire from a battle still raging. Thus, the role of retrieving the wounded was going to be denied the men still in the line in active combat. The support of these men was an important element of their motivation to fight. To be wounded and have a reasonable expectation of someone searching out and recovering the wounded was a reasonable expectation of a soldier. The environment of the realities of combat during the Great War made this a challenging task. As a leader Milligan would know this and his order to allow men to retire, some of them stretcher-bearers, indicates that the risks of retrieving the wounded were unacceptable in his mind. He was not willing to order men to step into the front-line to do their duty as the risk was to great. He may have felt he was sending men to certain death. Hodson and others volunteered for this hazardous duty and, as volunteers, was overtly accepting the increased risk, if not an impossible task, of getting the wounded back safely. This interpretation brings the selflessness of Hodson and the other stretcher-bearers’ actions and we will never know how many men owe their lives to the men who, in effect, refused an order from a superior officer to save these men. They had a chance to retire to the rear. They went forward anyways.

The articles also express the idea of being English. The interest in the Rushden Echo to expand on Hodson’s experiences at the Somme so soon after Vimy, in which Hodson took part, coupled with his brother who returned to Canada to serve with an English unit. Though he was also living in Canada before the war and with the Dufferin Rifles in Brantford and would have had an opportunity to enlist with a CEF unit he returned to his native land to enlist. There also is a natural inclination for Hodson to search out and find other former citizens of Rushden and this city’s industrial heritage with shoe and boot-making is expressed in the trades these men have – they are shoe and boot makers.

Private Frederick Hodson, of Rushden, England, late of Galt, Ontario, was a Battalion Original. He served virtually everyday the 18th Battalion existed, save for the time he as on leave or wounded. He was an Englishmen, yet the draw of Canada brought his English born wife and child back to Canada. He was a brave and modest man and one hopes that the life he led reflected the efforts and risks he took on the behalf of others so others may live – That he live a happy and prosperous life and became part of the Canadian mosaic and a definite expression of Canada’s military heritage.

[i] There is some controversy regarding the assignment of some of the battalion commanding officers of the 4th Brigade after April 1916. Lieut.-Col. Wigle was, ostensibly, allowed to return to Canada as his wife was ill but that may have been cover as there was other personnel assignments that appear related to the 4th Canadian Infantry Brigade’s performance at St. Eloi.

[ii] Worsfold, Howard:  Service no. 53178 (Military Medal).

[iii] La Vicogne.

[iv] Saint-Léger-lès-Domart.

[v] If this information is correct this route would have required approximately 450 km of travel during these days. It would be interesting to know the reasons for so many billets.

[vi] Helsdowne, Roger Walter:  Service 158113.

[vii] Ernest Hodson | Great War Centenary Association, www.doingourbit.ca/profile/ernest-hodson.

Original News Article

Military Medallist at Rushden – How Will the War End?
Local Man Enjoys a “Soldier’s Rest” – Hot Time in “Death Valley” – Nearly a “Blighty”

Bandsman Fred Hodson, M.M., of the —Canadian Infantry, son of Mr and Mrs C Hodson, of 14 Crabb-street, Rushden, has been spending ten days’ leave at home with his wife, daughter and parents, this being his first visit to England since he won the medal. Interviewed by a representative of the “Rushden Echo” he gave some interesting particulars as to how he won his distinction.

“It was on September 15th and 16th last year,” he said, “during the fighting on the Somme that I and a comrade of mine, (Drummer Worsfold) obtained a Military Medal apiece for good work as stretcher bearers, and for remaining in the trenches until all the battalion was out. The Colonel told us we could go out if we chose, as the battalion was being relieved that night, but we elected to remain, and stayed there until our battalion had moved back. At that time the Germans were giving us hell, their artillery dropping shells into us thick and fast. By a miracle I got through without a wound, although I did receive a thump in the back from a piece of spent shrapnel, which inflicted no injury except one or two bruises.

We then moved about 15 miles to the rear of the line for ten days to enjoy a “soldier’s holiday,” which means being on the march all the time. We moved up again in reserve about September 25th, and had a fairly quiet time so long as we remained in the reserve line. It was on September 30th that we were sent up to the front line and I had to report at the dressing station. Whilst moving up, I had a pretty lively time, as the Germans were making a special mark of the place where the dressing station was situated. I spent the night in the dressing station, and the next morning four of us were ordered to proceed to an old German Dug-out just behind the front line, and this old Boche dug-out we were instructed to turn into an advanced dressing station. It had previously been a bomb store for the Germans, and was about 30 or 40 feet deep. The enemy had abandoned these stores in their rush to get out before our chaps reached them, and we found the old dug-out absolutely full of grenades and bombs.

“We had a pretty near squeak here. We were standing at the top, and a shell burst about six yards in front of us, but fortunately the force of the explosion was away from us. We beat it down the steps as fast as we could hop it, and had only been under cover two or three minutes when another shell fell right on the top of the entrance, and blew in the woodwork which covered it. However, we experienced little difficulty in getting out.

“At this point , which was known as ‘Death Valley’ we had many trips up to the front line to bring in the wounded, and as the Germans were on the high ground surrounding, they had good observation, and consequently we had a hot time. It was about 3p.m. on Sunday, October 1st, when my battalion had the orders to go ‘over the top.’ They went forward for about 500 yeards and dug themselves in, but did not see any Germans, although the German snipers were responsible for quite a few casualties on our side. It was about 7p.m. the same day that I got a wound that was nearly a ‘Blighty.’ There were about eight of us in a stretcher-aprty, and we were about 200 yards from the dressing station on our way to the front line. A shell came over and fell right amongst us, and I and another chap were wounded. A piece of the shell struck me on the back of the head, and knocked me silly for a minute or so, but as soon as I came round I clapped the field dressing on my head and hanging on to the strings I beat it as hard as I could pelt for the dressing station, with visions of ‘Blighty.’ The other poor chap, I am sorry to say, died later in the base hospital, from his wounds, whick were in the back.

“How the remainder of us escaped the Lord only knows. I was disappointed in regard to the ‘Blighty’ trip, as they only took me as far as Boulogne, and from the high ground where the hospital is built I could see ‘Blighty’ in the distance, so near yet so far. However, better luck next time. I was in the hospital two weeks, and when i found that I was not marked for ‘Blighty’ I wanted to try my luck again, and so I asked that I might be sent back to my battalion. On discharge from hospital I was sent to the base and there I did two weeks’ fatigue, after which I was sent up the line again to an entrenching battalion. I remained with them as a bugler for about two months; on returning to my old battalion, I joined the band and am now playing the cornet. This is a good job, not quite bombproof but next door to it. You can believe me it is better to play a tune behind the lines than to go up the lines and play another sort of to make Fritzy ‘dance.’ I have played all the tunes I want to play up there for over a year, and am quite prepared to give somebody else the chance now.

“Whilst I have been out there I have met many Rushden chaps, including Roger Helsdown, who formerly lived in Rushden. We often had a good talk about Rushden, and I used to lend him my ‘Rushden Echo’ whenever I received it.”

Asked for his opinion as to how long the war would last, Bandsman Hodson said that he could not see the end in sight. He did not think fighting would finish and the only manner in which the fighting might be brought to an end would be in his opinion, by all the belligerents coming to terms.

Source: https://www.rushdenheritage.co.uk/war/hodsonF1917.html


Rushden Echo & Argus, 3rd August 1917, transcribed by Kay Collins

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