Born in 1893, Harold Hall Hodkinson was the fifth son born to James and Mary Ellen Hodkinson of Wigan, Lancashire. James Hodkinson was a successful entrepreneur, building his bedding and mattress-making business into a full-scale upholstery firm. Two sons died in childhood during the 1890s, but the elder two took up apprenticeships in carpentry and upholstery. Harold Hodkinson entertained ambitions within the church and progressed from school to Dorchester Missionary College, which then offered a four-year course leading to the priesthood. He became an unattached member of Durham University, entering as a student of Theology, in the Easter Term 1914. Students at Theological Colleges associated with the university at this time were permitted to register and be examined at Durham and in this way obtain University of Durham degrees.
When war intervened, Hodkinson was anxious to play his part, but the Durham University Journal reports that his enlistment in the Oxford and Bucks Light Infantry came only after twenty vain attempts owing to his deficient eyesight. He was gazetted a temporary second lieutenant in April 1915, and, as the Journal later reports, promoted to second lieutenant for meritorious conduct at the front.
On 23 August 1915 Second Lieutenant Hodkinson joined 4th Battalion, King’s Own Royal Lancaster Regiment, and was attached to A company. The regimental diary reports the battalion was engaged in trench warfare interspersed by periods in billets behind the lines for some months, and Harold Hodkinson’s service was interrupted by an accidental injury sustained at Riding School and on another occasion, a spell in hospital, due to illness. One year on, in August 1916, the battalion found itself in trenches near Arrow Head Copse in a sector south of Trones Wood and Guillemont Road. The trenches were in poor condition and needed constant repair, all under “very brisk artillery activity all day and night”.
The regimental diary chronicles that during the night of 7/8 August a plan was executed to attack in waves supported by artillery. At 03:45 a.m. the first wave left its trenches, followed by the second wave at 04:10 a.m. At 04:15 a.m. the enemy targeted a very heavy barrage on the battalion’s position, just as the first and second wave forces crept towards the enemy trenches. At 04:20 a.m.
"Battalion made the assault; but were met by a terrific Bomb fire. This was unexpected & caused heavy casualties. Enemy also opened a very heavy machine gun fire. The attack was arrested. Further advance being impossible the Battalion retired out of Bombing distance & started to dig in 50 yards in front of our trench. Very heavy enemy fire & our own Artillery fired short. Battalion retired into our Front Line Trench, & rest of the day was spent in working on our Front Line Trench. Casualties were very heavy: 17 officers & 254 O[ther]R[ank]s killed."
War diary of the 1/4th Battalion, King's Own Royal Lancaster Regiment, 8 August 1916 (TNA WO 95/2922/1)
Second Lieutenant Harold Hodkinson was amongst them; his body was never found or identified.
The war diary includes first-hand reports by three NCOs who took part in the engagement. They highlight the problems faced by the Lancasters including: communication difficulties – relying on runners; enemy barbed wire untouched by the allied artillery; supporting regiments not in expected positions; enemy barbed wire having bombs attached which exploded when the wire was touched; the enemy, very strong in numbers, waiting until the first wave was almost upon them before opening a “terrific bomb fire”; friendly fire casualties. In the same war diary Major Balfour, commanding officer of 1/4th Battalion, Royal Lancaster Regiment, confirms:
"Stokes guns were ordered to destroy barricade on SUNKEN ROAD leading to GUILLEMONT. They bombarded this place but did no damage. ... Our own artillery kept up an intermittent bombardment the whole time. The Heavies, however, were falling short and many casualties caused through them."
Harold Hodkinson’s sacrifice is commemorated on the Thiepval memorial and his name is recorded in his home town on the Wigan Conservative Club war memorial, and in Durham, on the University’s Roll of Service. After the war a reredos was dedicated in the requiem chapel in Dorchester Abbey by the Missionary College there to its students lost in the conflict.
Both Hodkinson’s two elder brothers, Carlton James and Allen Hall Hodkinson, also served in the Great War. Each received the Silver War Badge after being wounded in action, and survived the war.