Siegfried Sassoon and Wilfred Owen are synonymous with the war, but they were not alone in capturing the pain and suffering of war in poetry

In response to the horrors of the First World War many young men took up their pens and wrote poetry, using the language, rhythms and similes to portray things in a way that prose never could.

THE words of some of Great War poets such as Siegfried Sassoon and Wilfred Owen are still well known and are some of the most recognisable and evocative literary works we have from the time.

Not all war poets went on to such fame, the work of some faded from the public consciousness, and some of these were local lads.

William Noel Hodgson was a pupil at Durham School from 1906 to 1911 and was the son of the vicar of Berwick, while Nowell Oxland started at the school one year earlier and his father was vicar of Alston in the High Pennines. The boys were both King’s Scholars and were in the same house at the school, School House. They were close friends.

Both had moved on to Oxford University when duty called and they ended up in the Army – Hodgson in the Devonshire Regiment and Oxland in 6th Battalion, the Border Regiment.

While at school, Oxland was head boy for an unusual two years, but he blotted his copybook with an incident only months before taking his final exams, setting his education back a year.

School historian John Malden described what happened: “It was Ascension Day in 1910. Very early in the morning they both [Hodgson and Oxland] broke out of the house and went for a long walk, breaking bounds. For the head boy that was really not good.

“They had cadged breakfast at a farmhouse when they heard the school bell -– they had to be back for roll call by a certain time. They sprinted back just in time. Everyone knew what had happened.

“The headmaster was faced with a quandary about what to do with Oxland particularly.

He was sent down, missed his exams and it set his academic career back a year. I don’t know what happened to Hodgson.

The Northern Echo:
The memorial window to Hodgson

He was a golden pupil in every sense, an athlete and a scholar; perhaps he was beaten.”

HODGSON began publishing his work during the First World War under the pseudonym Edward Melbourne. He had volunteered on the outbreak of war and joined 9th Battalion, the Devonshire Regiment, while he was still at Oxford studying Greats.

In July 1915 he landed in France and his first major engagement of the war was in the Battle of Loos. During the battle he held a captured trench for 36 hours and was awarded the Military Cross.

His exploits also earned him the honour of being mentioned in despatches.

In February 1916 he was back on the front line at Fricourt, moving to Mametz in April, where he was killed on the first day of the Battle of the Somme, taking grenades to troops in newly-captured trenches. Shot through the neck, he died instantly and his body lies in the Devonshire Cemetery, in nearby Mansell Copse.

Mr Malden added: “On June 29, Hodgson wrote his last poem which led to the belief he knew he was going to be killed. The refrain is ‘Help me to die, O Lord’.”

This was his best-known poem and the one which appears in anthologies of war poetry – it is titled Before the Action.

The Northern Echo:
The chapel and memorial green at Durham School. Below left, the foundation stone of the chapel

Nowell Oxland’s most famous work – Outward Bound – was written on the voyage from England to the Gallipoli landings. He had set sail from Liverpool and arrived at Sulva bay on August 7, 1915. Two days later he too was killed and he was buried in Green Hill Cemetary, at Sulva Bay.

Memorials can also be found in Alston parish church.

Hodgson was devastated to learn of his friend’s death and wrote a poem in his memory.

After their deaths, the friends and families of both men published their poetry as a memorial, but they soon dropped out of the public eye, although boys at Durham School would have more reason than most to remember Hodgson because he left money in his will for a poetry prize at the school.

With the interest in the First World War to coincide with the centenary there has been a surge in interest in the pair and their work will appear as part of a school publication in memory of all old boys killed in both world wars, which will come out later this year or next.

Oxland and Hodgson also feature in their own chapter in Mr Malden’s latest book, Floreat Dunelmia – 600 Years of Durham School, which commemorates the school’s 600th anniversary this year.

POETS may have a particular place in our memories of the First World War because they help us to understand the full horror of what happened, but they are by no means the only people worth remembering.

The Northern Echo:
The steps to the chapel which form part of the memorial to the school’s war dead

A reckoning after the conflict revealed that 500 old boys of Durham School –which had only 190 pupils at the time – fought in the war, of whom 104 died. The initial death count was 96, but several others died later as a direct result of their wounds.

The figure of 96 has taken on almost mythic importance at the school to this day as a result of total coincidence.

Mr Malden again: “The first memorial was a brass plaque in St Margaret’s Church, then the school decided there should be a war memorial on site. As the school didn’t have a chapel, it was felt that would be an appropriate thing. On July 26, 1924, the foundation stone was laid and the chapel was consecrated two years later.”

The building was completed except the west wall, which was added in 1956. The whole chapel cost £8,000, at least half of which was provided by the then head, Richard Budworth.

The chapel sits on top of a hill with spectacular views over Durham City and the cathedral. To reach the new building an flight of steps was constructed from wooden sleepers. Mr Budworth was walking up the hill one day when he realised that there were 96 steps, one for each former pupil killed in the war.

Today, the chapel, with the names of all the dead engraved on the walls and pillars inside, the steps and the lawns outside act as a war memorial which forms the centre of all school remembrance services.

Although the poetry of Oxland and Hodgson is appreciated today, the military exploits of their comrades were well appreciated at the time.

Between them the 500 old boys were awarded three DSOs, 61 Military Crosses, one Distinguished Flying Medal, two Distinguished Conduct Medals and one Military Medal.

Mr Holden said that two old boys were also recommended for Victoria Crosses, but the awards were not granted.

The Northern Echo:
The memorial plaques mentioning Hodgson and Oxland

He believes one of the most interesting awards was the Military Medal because it was awarded to enlisted men and the boys from the school would have been members of the officer class. This one man was very unusual for serving as an ordinary soldier.

Perhaps you know the stories of how some of these medals were won and could share them with Echo Memories.

Outward Bound
by Nowell Oxland

There’s a waterfall I’m leaving
Running down the rocks in foam,
There’s a pool for which I’m grieving
Near the water-ouzel’s home,
And it’s there that I’d be lying
With the heather close at hand,
And the curlew’s faintly crying
Mid the wastes of Cumberland.
While the midnight watch is winging
Thoughts of other days arise.
I can hear the river singing
Like the Saints in Paradise;
I can see the water winking
Like the merry eyes of Pan,
And the slow half-pounders sinking
By the bridges’ granite span.
Ah! To win them back and clamber
Braced anew with winds I love,
From the rivers’ stainless amber
To the morning mist above,
See through clouds-rifts rent asunder
Like a painted scroll unfurled,
Ridge and hollow rolling under
To the fringes of the world.
Now the weary guard are sleeping,
Now the great propellers churn,
Now the harbour lights are creeping
Into emptiness astern,
While the sentry wakes and watches
Plunging triangles of light
Where the water leaps and catches
At our escort in the night.
Great their happiness who seeing
Still with unbenighted eyes
Kin of theirs who gave them being,
Sun and earth that made them wise,
Die and feel their embers quicken
Year by year in summer time,
When the cotton grasses thicken
On the hills they used to climb.
Shall we also be as they be,
Mingled with our mother clay,
Or return no more it may be?
Who has knowledge, who shall say?
Yet we hope that from the bosom
Of our shaggy father Pan,
When the earth breaks into blossom
Richer from the dust of man,
Though the high Gods smith and slay us,
Though we come not whence we go,
As the host of Menelaus
Came there many years ago;
Yet the self-same wind shall bear us
From the same departing place
Out across the Gulf of Saros
And the peaks of Samothrace;
We shall pass in summer weather,
We shall come at eventide,
When the fells stand up together
And all quiet things abide;
Mixed with cloud and wind and river,
Sun-distilled in dew and rain,
One with Cumberland for ever
We shall go not forth again.

Before Action
by William Noel Hodgson

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.