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Corporal Frederick Hodges, 10th Lancashire Fusiliers
The Last Veteran of the 10th Lancashire Fusilliers
Born in July 1899, Fred Hodges was raised in Northampton, the son of a dairyman. He was a Grammar School boy aged fifteen when war broke out, and he recalled seeing the town’s racecourse suddenly filling with Territorial soldiers, and enviously watching older boys at school as they enlisted into the army.
As working men left for the war, local firms were suddenly starved of employees and so Fred left school in December 1914 to take a job in a local office.
In March 1917 he enlisted and was called up on his eighteenth birthday. Exactly a year later, in response to the great German offensive, Fred Hodges along with thousands of other eighteen year olds was rushed to the Western Front to stem the enemy advance. He served in the 10th Lancashire Fusiliers on the Somme throughout the spring and summer of 1918, quickly rising to the rank of Corporal.
After the war, Fred returned to civilian life and a career as an accountant in Northampton. He married his sweetheart in 1925 and had two children. His marriage to Olive lasted 77 years and the couple briefly held the title of Britain’s longest surviving married couple.
Fred returned to the battlefields on several occasions in the 1980s and 1990s, recalling with ease the places where he had fought and visiting the graves of mates who had fallen. Fred died in February 2002 aged 102.
War, to my mind, was a kind of super sport. We were used to hard knocks in football and rugby, and healthy competition in cricket and running, getting into the first three and all that, and war was just an extension of this manliness. If I’d been put down as Class B as a soldier, I would have been ashamed of myself.
War was something noble, and we were anxious that it shouldn’t stop before we got there. When we took the train down to Dover, we passed a train of German prisoners and they laughed at us. They were safe, going into captivity, and we were youngsters, who didn’t know what we were going into.
First time in the line
I got into the front line and it was all chalk. I sat there on the fire step, and the man I relieved gave me a two-inch square mirror to clip onto my bayonet on order to look over into No Man’s Land. I sat there and thought:
“Oh, I’ve got this mirror, I’m not much of a sentry if I don’t use it”
so I pushed it up over the parapet and all I could actually see was coarse grass and barbed wire. But the mirror must have glinted in the sun because in no time at all a salvo of shells began to burst near the trench, stones rattling off my helmet.
As I sat there, a great lump of jagged shrapnel, as big as my hand, thumped beside me and like a fool I touched it and burnt my fingers, I didn’t realize such things would be hot. I looked around and felt like the only man in the trench. I went round the next traverse and people were set writing letters or playing cards. The sergeant just looked at me and grinned:
‘That’s reet lad, ta’ake no’a’tice, Jerry’ll geet fed oop sooner or la’ter’.
The boys were quite fantastic, and during a shelling most people kept quiet and out on a bold front:
‘That’ll do, Jerry. You keep on, you’ll hurt somebody.
We had only been there a few hours when we were subjected to a very fierce bombardment. Captain Drummond came along and said:
‘Now do what I’m doing,’ and he sat on the firestep and he pulled his feet up so his heels were touching his backside and he put his arms around his head and shoulders and said:
‘Now you’ve covered your vital parts, so there’s nothing more you can do. If you’re going to die, if you do stop some shrapnel, what better place to die than in the front line in defence of your king and country?’
Everybody put on a bold front and shut off feeling. You wouldn’t face reality, you were there and you could be killed at any minute, it’s no use dwelling on it. I always went to look at bodies to see if I knew people. Twice I saw a dead officer and I picked up the corner of the ground sheet covering the body and I thought:
‘Your parents don’t know you’re dead’.
Aren’t those queer thoughts? I knew what his own people at home didn’t know.
When you passed a body of dead men, the pockets were always empty, hanging out. I’ve met men with four wristwatches taken off dead officers, two on each wrist.
On another occasion, I discovered that two London boys in the Regiment had been looting graves, getting rings off corpses. That shocked me. It didn’t matter whether they were British or German, if they were dead and there was money, they’d take it.
Oh, it was quite callous.
I had a policeman under my command and on one occasion he was wounded in the backside. I slit his trousers open with a jack knife and told him he’d got a nice blighty wound that would get him back to England and I would send for a stretcher. But what he was most concerned with was what was in his two breast pockets.
He’d got the very best quality German cutthroat razors, he’d made a collection of them, and he was most anxious that they should accompany him on his way home.
War and nature
At night you’re all alone, you might be the only man in the world. Your battalion’s fairly near you, but you and your mate are the only two sentries awake and you look around and there’s nothing going on. I would look up and notice the stars, and I’d try and remember the names of the constellations.
Similarly, in the day you’d see white clouds lazily drifting over the battle front, hear larks singing overhead, and nature just getting on with life, a bank of poppies sheer red, yet all around men were dying, and you couldn’t help but be struck by the contrast between the horror that man had created for over four years and nature which proceeded in its quiet, beautiful way, stars, birds, flowers, the humming of bees. I had never lived so close to nature and was acutely aware of life, the abundance of colour and scent.
One of my officers came along one day and gave me a cup to fit on my rifle from which to fire a rifle grenade. I removed my bayonet and placed it back in its sheath and fitted the cup onto the rifle barrel, and then I picked a bunch of poppies and put them in the cup, like you would a vase. I kept them there for a few minutes, but I knew if my officer came back he’d tick me off, so I pulled them out again.