The Battle of the Somme began on 1 July 1916. The British generals were confident of success as they sent 100,000 men over the top to attack the German positions. But on the first day the British army suffered 57,470 casualties, including 19,240 killed. The Battle of the Somme lasted 5 months and more than a million soldiers from the British, German and French armies were wounded or killed.
One of the young men in the trenches was 23 years old Lieutenant William Noel Hodgson. He had graduated from Oxford University with first class honours and was a fine athlete. His father was the Bishop of Saint Edmundsbury and Ipswich. William was known as “Smiler” to his friends. When war broke out he volunteered for the British Army. He had already fought in the Battle of Loos and had been awarded the Military Cross for his bravery. He was killed in action at Mametz by a single bullet to the neck on 1 July 1916.
He wrote a poem, entitled “Before Action”, which was published two days before he died. It gives a powerful and deeply moving insight into the hearts of the men in the trenches.
“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.”
Like William Hodgson, many men in the trenches in the Somme must have prayed to God for help as they faced imminent death. God always hears such prayers and, in Jesus, speaks comfort to our hearts. “Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil, for you are with me; your rod and your staff, they comfort me … and I shall dwell in the house of the Lord forever.”