In April 1918 a British Tommy, my father Herbert Hodgson, was going 'over the top' in battle near Messines in Belgium when he stumbled into a shell hole and fell upon a mud-encrusted book. He stuffed into his tunic pocket and climbed out of the hole when he was knocked unconscious by a shell exploding nearby. Regaining consciousness later in a field hospital he examined the book and was amazed to find it was a Bible. He showed it to an officer asking for his advice. The man, doubting he could find the owner, told him to keep it adding, ‘it might bring you luck'. Dad did keep it and it certainly did that. Although he survived the war and lived a very full, interesting and rewarding life he died in 1974 aged 81 not knowing the identity of the Bible's original owner or what happened to him. One of my brothers remembers Dad holding the Bible and musing 'I wonder what happened to the poor b….r who lost this'? The mystery continued for the next 92 years and was finally solved in 2010.
During his retirement years Dad had written his memoirs and due to the help, editing and sheer dedication of one of my brothers these were published in August 2010, ‘Impressions of War' – The Memoirs of Herbert Hodgson 1893-1974. Although Dad's finding of the Bible was only a small, albeit intriguing, incident in his life-changing experiences on the Western Front, the publisher of the book, Geoffrey Hodgson (no relation), was fascinated and wanted to find out more. So, with the help of what looked like a service number written across the closed pages of the book he trawled the wonderful internet. His painstaking searching finally paid off when he matched the number as belonging not to a British soldier as we all assumed but to a certain Private Richard Cook from Colac Bay, Southland, New Zealand who was serving with the Otago Regiment of the New Zealand Expeditionary Force in France and Belgium at the same time as Dad in the Royal West Surrey's and later The Irish Fusiliers. More detective work strongly indicated that Cook had lost his Bible around June 1917 in The Battle of Messines Ridge, the same area where Dad found it ten months later! Sadly, it also showed that on October 4th 1917 Richard Cook received two gunshot wounds in another battle near Passchendaele. He informed his parents on October 7th back home in New Zealand that he was wounded in his left hip and right shoulder and was in an Army Hospital in Etaples France. Tragically, the next day October 8th he died on a stretcher from loss of blood and was buried in the Military Cemetery in Etaples.
So, finally, we knew the identity of the Bibles original owner and what had happened to him.
We were able to find information about Richard Cook's family and descendants still living in New Zealand and these wonderful revelations were quickly passed on to them. Naturally, they were amazed and thrilled to hear the story. It became known as the 'Lost Bible' story in the media in both New Zealand and Britain, with newspaper headlines such as ‘British Tommy finds Kiwi’s Bible’
My brother Bernard and I decided we wanted to pay our respects to Richard Cook, so on October 8th 2010, which was the 93rd anniversary of his tragic death, we, along with members of our families plus publisher Geoff Hodgson and his wife travelled over to the Military Cemetery at Etaples. Here we met up with two of the fallen soldier’s descendants, great-nephew Richard Cook, (named after him), who had flown over from Australia where he works, and great great niece, Devon Jenkins from her workplace in Paris. With the Bible and television cameras from Britain and New Zealand present, we held a very moving short service at his graveside. A very special and emotional moment and one which we think both soldiers would have appreciated.
Readers, particularly in the U.K. and New Zealand, may remember reading the story in the press and seeing the televised broadcast of the ceremony from Etaples in France.
After Etaples we visited many of the Battlefield sites including High Wood on the Somme, where my brother and I, responding to a request from the guide of a party of British schoolchildren also visiting the site, had the pleasure of showing them the Bible and relating its story. It was so nice to find youngsters genuinely interested in the story, asking questions and even wanting to touch the Bible. From there we moved on to Messines, where the Bible was lost and found and then to Passchendaele and Ypres where we attended the nightly ceremony of Remembrance at the Menin Gate.
Because Richard Cook had never married there are no direct descendants so we, as a family wanting to return the Bible to its rightful and final resting place, suggested to the Cook family, that we donate it to the National Army Museum in New Zealand where it's very poignant story could be read by future generations of the Cook family as well as other visitors to the Museum. So, in March 2011, my brother David and Geoff Hodgson travelled to New Zealand and in a televised ceremony, attended by some of Richard Cook's descendants, the Bible finally came home and was handed over to Colonel Raymond Seymour, Director of the Museum in Waiouru, North Island, New Zealand.
This heart-warming finale to the story only came after my father's book was published but you can read it and see the full story including newspaper and television coverage plus still photographs taken at Etaples and a short video film made by Geoff Hodgson and myself by visiting
www.martlet-books.co.uk click onto IMPRESSIONS OF WAR and follow all the linksAlternatively, Google ‘Herbert Hodgson – The Bible in the Mud’ and follow all the links.
THE BIBLE IN THE MUD POEM FOLLOWS HERE :
THE BIBLE IN THE MUD
The story of this Holy Book is one of death and blood,
A tale of two brave soldiers and the Bible in the mud.
They never met, these defenders of the Crown,
A soldier from New Zealand and one from London town.
They rushed to join the battle with a loyalty inbred,
To fight for King and Country, just as the posters said.
The Empire's men responded as alarm bells briskly rang;
Their kitbag's packed with troubles, they marched and smiled and sang.
But the battlefields of Europe were soon a sea of blood,
As waves of men were slaughtered into a human flood.
The Kiwi soldier lost his book in nineteen seventeen,
It fell into a shell hole near the battle of Messines.
For months it lay, in weary clay, amidst the killed elation
Of shattered dreams and final screams, this book of revelation.
The Kiwi fell in battle, from wounds he later died,
Because he'd lost the Bible, its comfort was denied.
The British Tommy found it whilst going o'er the top:
He fell into the shell hole and quickly tried to stop.
With arms spread out to ease his body's thud,
He fell upon the word of God, the Bible in the mud.
He put it in his pocket, before a shell nearby,
Exploded with a vengeance that made his senses fly.
He woke up in the hospital, a little worse for wear,
But relief soon overcame him to find the Bible there.
He showed it to an officer – after cleaning off the muck,
The man said, “Better keep it, it might even bring you luck”.
The Tommy took the book and carried it with pride,
He made it through - to the end, the Bible by his side,
Was this just luck, a mere coincidence?
Or the unseen hand of God, an act of providence.
The Tommy brought the book back to London town;
He tried to trace the owner from a number written down.
But its secret stayed a mystery for ninety years or more,
Until another Englishman decided to explore.
His labours were rewarded through trawling through the 'net',
He found the Bible's owner in army records set.
The soldier was the Kiwi from far across the sea,
A world away from battlefields, death and misery.
Could it be that now we see God's message all too plain,
That the life he took stayed in this book for other soldiers gain.
So, rejoice in this their story and proudly hand it down,
Of the soldier from New Zealand and the one from London town.
Though strangers in the battles, through death and holy blood,
Are comrades now forever, through the Bible in the mud.
The website also gives full details and reviews by eminent people of my father’s book which, covers his life growing up and witnessing the social injustices in London during the early 1900s, his life as a printer before and after WW1, his vivid account from the viewpoint of a Private soldier of the horrors of trench warfare, then after the war his association with T.E. Lawrence (Lawrence of Arabia) and printing the original, subscribers only, copy of Lawrence's book 'Seven Pillars of Wisdom' which in turn led to him moving to the world-famous Gregynog Press in Montgomery, Mid Wales where during the years 1927-1936 his wonderful fine art book printing he did there earned him the accolade of 'one of the finest printers of the twentieth century'. Not a bad epitaph for a cockney who described himself as 'just an ordinary bloke'!
--End of Part Fifty-Six –