Before Action - A Poet on the Western Front

William Noel Hodgson and the 9th Devons

Charlotte Zeepvat

Date Published :
February 2015
Publisher :
Pen and Sword
Illustration :
16pp b/w plates
No associated books available.


The Great War may have made Hodgson’s reputation as a poet but it also killed him. Like so many of his generation he was an unlikely soldier and this first groundbreaking biography explores his early life and his reasons for abandoning it and volunteering for the Army. Today Hodgson is remembered as one of the ill-fated 9th Battalion The Devonshire Regiment whose fate in the opening moments of the Battle of the Somme has become one of the emblematic stories of the most costly day in British military history.

Before Action draws on Hodgson’s own writing and letters of his fellow officers to recreate the life and demise of a volunteer battalion from its formation in 1914 to its virtual destruction. Through their eyes and words we experience war: the Battle of Loos, where Hodgson won the Military Cross and the buildup to the Somme.

At the same time the Author uncovers the hidden meaning of Hodgson’s poetry. Its themes of family, friendship, grief and remembrance strike cords a hundred years on.


"The story of William Noel Hodgson is quite well known and he is an easily recognized, tragic figure. He was born in 1893 and was killed on 1 July 1916. Before he volunteered in 1914, he had gained a first class honors degree from Oxford and during the first years of the war he proved his bravery by winning the Military Cross at Loos in 1915. He was already writing poetry using the pseudonym, Edward Melbourne and his posthumous verse, published in 1917, contains his most famous poem, written, as far as we know a few days before he was killed, 'Before Action'. Charlotte Zeepvat has done a brilliant job in bringing this young officer to life. The text itself is filled with extracts from all kinds of personal papers and letters and the dozens of photographs act as a perfect balance and give us some vivid and interesting contemporary images. Charlotte Zeepvat brings him to life in what is an analytical, detailed, yet very readable book. She starts with his childhood, describes his early life within his close family in late Victorian and Edwardian England and tries to understand why he and millions of others took the decision to fight for their country. She uses some very interesting and personal primary sources to describe the battles of Loos and the Somme and how Hodgson's battalion, the 9th Battalion, The Devonshire Regiment was affected. One of Zeepvat's qualities as a writer is her ability to use a vast range of primary sources. She not only uses and analyses Hodgson's own writing, but the unpublished letters and diaries of his friends and fellow officers. In fact she has found some important documents that describe, first hand, the horrific conditions during Loos and the Somme. There are dozens of excellent examples that describe awful, yet common, day to day incidents in a very stoical, understated way. The detailed descriptions of raids, skirmishes, wounds, deaths and battles are thoughtful and precise. It is a readable, well researched and scholarly book with a wide range of clearly listed sources as well as a useful bibliography. This story of a cheerful, sociable, kind hearted volunteer is, a 'universal' story of the war and should be widely read. It is a welcome and extremely useful addition to anyone's library."

- Western Front Association

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