Great Gable – But some men love the Ancient Hills….
Nowell Oxland’s poem Outward Bound would have been lost to us without the foresight of his close friend Miss Amy Hawthorn. In forwarding his last poem to the editor of The Times for publication just 18 days after his death she created a legacy however small for his work. Published anonymously on 27 August 1915 with an amended title, Nowell’s Farewell would be reprinted numerous times and identified in later anthologies.
Nowell had entrusted all his manuscripts, poems and stories into Amy’s care prior to his departure with permission to publish as she saw fit, yet his parents were unaware of his poetic gift and sensitive to their grief she made arrangements in 1917 for his earlier poems and short stories to be published for private circulation only.(1) As a friend of the family this Newcastle schoolmistress, who had encouraged Nowell in his writing, keenly wished for Oxland to gain the recognition she felt he deserved, however, she was desperate not to compound the failing health of his Father.
In her quest to find out what had happened to Nowell, she wrote to the Rev. Lys, Bursar of Worcester College following Oxland’s obituary in the Oxford Magazine. She had been in communication with a Private McCreedy who was last to see Oxland on the battlefield. McCreedy had fallen injured and Oxland had gone over to him to apply a field dressing to his wound before attending to a Captain Cunningham nearby. The order to retreat was sound, but Nowell almost immediately received a wound to his head and fell; death was instantaneous. None one could verify where or if indeed Lieutenant Oxland was buried.(2) Only much later were his family advised of the location of his grave in the Green Hill Cemetery, on the high ground rising from the Eastern shore of the Salt Lake at Suvla. As foretold in his poem Nowell Oxland would return only in spirit to his beloved Cumberland.
The Wild for us! our sensuous palate tires
With surfeit of insipid battening:
Give us the North – and keep your level shires –
The high wet North, lit by a gleam of Spring
And all aglow with opalescent fires
Great fells and leap of waters glittering. (3)
The arrangements for the posthumous publication of the works of Nowell’s closest friend, William Noel Hodgson, could not have been more different. His Father, Henry Hodgson, was adamant that his son’s work would be published under his own name. He gave permission for the The New Witness to issue a notice to its readers of the death of Lieutenant William Noel Hodgson, who was a frequent contributor to this paper over the signature of “Edward Melbourne” …. and arranged to publish 1,000 copies of Verse and Prose in Peace and War as a tangible act of remembrance. The first edition sold out in two months and the publishers, Smith, Elder & Co, approached Henry to produce a second and third edition, proving testament to Noel Hodgson’s popularity.(4)
Before Action had been written by Noel during preparations for the Battle of the Somme. He was amongst the many young officers who led their men forward on the 1 July 1916 aware of how slender their chances were. The poems published in the The New Witness follow the order of his documented experiences precisely and this was to be the last. He sent the draft home to his Sister for publication in the week before the battle urging her to use the profits from the sale of his N.W. works for his newly born Niece.
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,
Ere 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. (5)
Hodgson fell in the opening minutes of the advance just yards from the front line trench held by the Devons. Leading his party of bombers forward he was believed to be hit in the leg and then neck by bullets from a low firing machine gun. At his side his faithful servant, Weston, was found dead with a half-opened bandage in his hand.(6) Two days later their bodies were brought back to the foot of Mansel Copse and buried in the very same trench. Later the following epitaph was added to the simple notice marking their cemetery “The Devonshires held this trench: The Devonshires hold it still“.
There was a time when William Noel Hodgson had been one of the most celebrated poets of the Great War alongside Rupert Brooke, Siegfried Sassoon, Robert Graves and Wilfred Owen, but with the bitterness and political division of the post-war years poets who expressed anger at the War began to take precedence and Hodgson fell from favour. Although remembered for Before Action, much of his work expressed his love of the countryside and the places that mattered to him, Hills most of all.
….Now men there be that love the plain
With yellow cornland dressed,
And others love the sleepy vales
Where lazy cattle rest;
But some men love the ancient hills,
And these have chosen best. (7)
In the last untroubled summer of the pre-war world July 1913 found Noel fell walking in Cumberland with Nowell Oxland and James Tombs. In a series of postcards to his Mother he described their climb up Helvellyn, progress over the Old Man of Coniston and the ascent from Rossthwaite to the Peak known as Scaw-piece. In the descent via Tongue Ghyll they took tea in the hotel at Wasdale Head and remembered the Scawfell disaster with talk of death and epitaphs only to be distracted by James Tombs capacity to consume large amounts of liquid including two pints of water, one shandy, seven cups of tea and some whisky. They set back out to the hills and onto the Black Sail Pass and headed for Buttermere. After reaching their destination for supper, they returned outside to the lake where they sat talking late into the night. The next day they parted company.
At home his sister Stella – ‘Star’ in his letters – was perhaps the closest to Noel. She remembered him in her own way, naming her children, Penelope Noel and William. A published novelist, under the name of ‘Faith Wolseley’, Stella continued writing books including characters that appeared to echo her lost brother. Throughout the 1920’s, year on year, she retraced the route of his ‘Farewell Walk’ …climbing from Rosthwaite over the Sty Head Pass to Wastwater, taking a day to explore the Screes and the little church at Wasdale Head, continuing next morning back up Sty Head to the gully he described and the path, and up to the top of Great Gable, his favourite summit. (8)
Images: Great Gable over Windy Gap from mudandroutes.com
(Header quotation – W.N. Hodgson) Zeepvat, Charlotte, William Noel Hodgson and the 9th Devons, Pen & Sword (2014)
(1) Zeepvat, Charlotte, Before Action: William Noel Hodgson and the 9th Devons, Pen & Sword (2014), p211
(2) Cooper, Stephen, The Final Whistle: The Great War in Fifteen Players, The History Press, Stroud (2012), p95
(3) Oxland, Nowell – From Cumberland – Poems and Stories, privately published 1917
(4) Zeepvat, Charlotte, Before Action: William Noel Hodgson and the 9th Devons, Pen & Sword (2014), p208
(5) Hodgson, Noel William – Before Action – first published in The New Witness, 29 June 1916
(6) Zeepvat, Charlotte, Before Action: William Noel Hodgson and the 9th Devons, Pen & Sword (2014), p200
(7) Hodgson, Noel William – From The Hills – Published in The New Witness, 23 August 1913
(8) Zeepvat, Charlotte, Before Action: William Noel Hodgson and the 9th Devons, Pen & Sword (2014), p214