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The Devonshire Held This Trench; The Devonshires Hold It Still

by Jeremy Archer

When on a battlefield tour in Tunisia in 2000, I was made to feel uncomfortably aware of my ignorance of Regimental History; particularly so since I had instructed three consecutive Junior NCO's Cadres on that very subject. My fellow traveller had returned recently from a trip to the Somme and assumed that I must have heard of Devonshire Cemetery. Although I am ashamed to say that I had not, I determined then to visit the Cemetery when driving back through France later in the year.

It would be easy to miss Devonshire Cemetery completely, were it not for the brown Commonwealth War Graves Commission sign. Turn off the main road, drive up a steepish track with a cornfield on your left and a dense copse on your right and a flight of steps curving into the wood catches your eye. It is a lonely spot and yet is still much visited - as the crosses in the accompanying photograph testify.

The Devonshires held this trench; the Devonshires hold it still - click for enlargementWhy is it such a deeply moving place? The portland stone memorial, which replaced an earlier wooden cross, is both a proud and a sad statement. It was unveiled by His Royal Highness The Duke of Kent, not only our Colonel-in-Chief but also the President of the Commonwealth War Graves Commission, on 1 July 1986, the seventieth anniversary of the opening day of the Battle of the Somme. That battle, fought primarily by Kitchener's New Army, was one of the most futile and costly actions ever fought by the British Army. On the first day alone the British suffered 57,740 casualties: 21,392 killed, died of wounds or missing, 35,493 wounded and 585 prisoners of war. Although Devonshire Cemetery contains the bodies of only a small proportion of those cathartic losses, it is most unusual to find a cemetery in which over 98% of the interments are from a single Regiment albeit, in this case, two Battalions - the 8th and 9th Service Battalions, The Devonshire Regiment. However, war is - and always must be - far more than simple statistics: Devonshire Cemetery and those who lie there embody the tragedy of that terrible day and the long struggle that followed.

These two Battalions were formed in August and September 1914 and served together in 20th Brigade, 7th Division. They were blooded at the Battle of Loos on 25 September 1915 when many casualties were suffered by both Battalions. In December 1915 20th Brigade moved to the Somme sector, the northern part of which had been taken over from the French in mid-1915. In February 1916 the German Army launched an all-out attack on the fortress city of Verdun and it was largely to relieve the pressure there that Sir Douglas Haig conceived the idea of the Somme offensive.

The preparations were extremely thorough and this is exemplified by the 'most wonderful and accurate ... contoured model in plasticine' produced by Captain D. L. Martin, an artist, while on leave. The Brigade Major ordered that 'officers commanding Battalions will arrange for all officers to inspect this model. The officers of a Company should all arrange to see it together'. Looking at the ground today, although there are few marks and scars of a battlefield upon it, it is clear why the Brigade's task was so demanding. The countryside is gently rolling and strikingly similar to Salisbury Plain. However, the first two or three hundred yards of the advance were downhill before the ground rose steadily towards the objectives, the villages of Mametz and Fricourt on the other side of the valley. Mansel Copse, in which Devonshire Cemetery lies and which is reputedly named after Second-Lieutenant S. L. M. Mansel-Carey, 9th Devons, who was mortally wounded there in February 1916, proved to be a serious bottleneck in full view of the German trenches.

Martin had apparently pointed out to his fellow-officers the location of a machine-gun post with the potential to command the whole of the Brigade's advance by firing into the right flank of the attack. The main axis of the attack was along the road but the rolling countryside was cross-crossed by small re-entrants. At the top of one of these - called Shrine Alley by the British - the Germans had sited at least one machine-gun. It is possible to see the location of that position today by the new cross in Mametz Cemetery.

Despite seven days of preparatory bombardment, the deeply-dug German fortifications had survived well and much of their wire was still uncut, resulting in fearful slaughter for the British troops going 'over the top'. Although 20th Brigade was one of the very few to have achieved its objectives that day, the losses were prodigious. 9th Devons were in the vanguard and they paid for that honour with 463 casualties out of the 775 men who went into the assault, with just one Company officer unwounded. 8th Devons, despite being in reserve, were committed within three hours of the attack commencing and suffered 208 casualties. Much of the destruction had been wrought, exactly as Martin had predicted, by that well-sited machine gun in Shrine Alley.

Three days later the Rev Ernest Crosse consecrated a part of Mansel Copse and one hundred and twenty-tree of the 9th Devons dead and thirty-eight of the 8th Devons dead of 1 July now lie there. He wrote later to a fellow officer: 'Nearly all the casualties were just by the magpie's nest ... I buried all I could collect in our front line trench.' Over the wall of the cemetery it is still possible to see where the trench continues within the copse until the traces vanish where the trees end. The Commission register reveals that nearly all those who lie in Devonshire Cemetery were natives of the county. There are just three non-Regimental graves.

Captain Duncan Martin is buried in Devonshire Cemetery, as is Lieutenant W. N. Hodgson MC. Noel Hodgson was the Bombing Officer of 9th Devons and had been awarded the Military Cross for his gallantry during the Battle of Loos. Known as 'Smiler', he was the son of the first Bishop of St. Edmundbury and Ipswich and was educated at Durham School and Christ Church, Oxford, where he was awarded a First in Classical Moderation. Hodgson was also a writer and, as well as prose published under the pseudonym Edward Melbourne, he wrote poems about the war. A biography including a selection of those poems, William Noel Hodgson the Gentle Poet by Jack Medomsley, was published in 1989. Just two days before the battle, Hodgson's poem Before Action was published:

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 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,
Ere the sun swings his noonday sword
Must say goodbye to all of this: -
By all delights that I shall miss,
Help me to die, O Lord.

Less than three weeks later, on 20 July 1916, Private Theodore William Henry Veale, 8th Devons, performed successive acts of bravery, which led to the award of one of The Devonshire and Dorset Regiment's four Victoria Crosses. Following that day's attack east of High Wood, Veale went back into 'No Man's Land' no less than four times, accompanied at one stage by the Rev Ernest Crosse, in order to rescue Lieutenant Savill, commanding 'C' Company, 8th Devons. On a number of occasions Veale's companions were either killed or wounded but still he persevered, and prevailed.

I claim no originality in this brief article but offer due credit to Bill Aggett's excellent History of the Devonshire Regiment as well as Martin and Mary Middlebrook's authoritative guide, The Somme Battlefields.

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