Charles Hudson (The Green, 1905-1910) was Sherborne’s highest decorated soldier of WW1. His actions as a platoon commander at the Battle of the Somme in 1916 had resulted in him being awarded a Military Cross and a French Croix de Guerre. In 1917, he again distinguished himself at both Messines Ridge and at Passchendaele gaining a DSO and Bar. That autumn, he took command of the 11th Battalion Sherwood Foresters. Early 1918 was a precarious time for the allied forces as the German Spring Offensive was to stretch resources on the Western Front, whilst the Italian capitulation at Caporetto (12th Isonzo) had left the North-East of Italy exposed to the Austro-Hungarian army. Hudson’s Battalion was ordered to Italy where they dug in on the Asiago Plateau. One of the officers under his command was Edward Brittain, another veteran of The Somme where he too had been awarded a Military Cross.
In a war that saw so many families and groups of friends devastated by loss, Edward Brittain’s sister, Vera, had suffered even more than most. She was very close to her brother and also his closest friends at Uppingham, Roland Leighton and Victor Richardson. On the outbreak of war, the three men immediately applied for commissions and Vera abandoned her academic career at Somerville, Oxford to join the Voluntary Aid Detachment (VAD) as a nurse. Working in Camberwell, she witnessed the horror of the suffering of the wounded soldiers in her care. By now engaged to Roland Leighton, who was due home on leave for Christmas 1915, she received the news that he had been killed whilst commanding a wiring party. Roland’s loss brought her even closer to her brother and Victor Richardson, whilst she also forged a close friendship with Geoffrey Thurlow to whom Edward had introduced her. Vera remained in regular correspondence with all three after being posted to Malta in September 1916 but returned to England after the devastating double-blow of Geoffrey Thurlow’s death at Monchy-le-Preux in April 1917 and the grievous wounds suffered by Victor Richardson in the same month. She held hopes of caring for life for the blinded Richardson, but he succumbed to his injuries in June. Vera had only her brother left.
In the early morning of the 15th June 1918, the Austrians launched a surprise attack on the right flank of the 11th Sherwood’s position on the San Sisto ridge of Asiago. Edward Brittain’s company was in the thick of the fighting and he led a counter-attack to clear the enemy from the British trenches. Exposing himself to enemy fire, he was shot in the head by a sniper and killed instantly. Charles Hudson personally led a successful charge that cleared the enemy from the ridge altogether suffering a serious foot wound from an exploding bomb which nearly resulted in the loss of his leg. Eventually evacuated to a London Hospital, he learned that he was to be awarded the Victoria Cross. Vera Brittain, distraught with grief, convinced herself that Edward’s commanding officer would be able to shed light on his last hours and tracked Hudson down. The Colonel tried to console her by saying that Edward would have suffered little pain but Vera was convinced that he was holding something back. She suspected that Hudson was concealing some act of gallantry of Edward’s so that the limelight would be focussed on him and continued to pursue him, even attending Buckingham Palace to see him receive his VC. She penned a four verse poem entitled ‘To a VC’, a very thinly veiled reference to the wrongs that she believed Edward’s memory had suffered through Hudson:
‘Tis not your valour’s meed alone you bear
Who stand the object of a nation’s pride,
For on that humble Cross you live to wear
Your friends were crucified.’
With Hudson serving abroad, the matter rested for many years until the publication of Vera’s much-vaunted Testament of Youth in 1933 where she made further acerb comment on their meetings in 1918. After much soul-searching Hudson wrote to Vera, confessing that he had indeed held information back at their earlier meetings but had done so in order not to cause her further suffering and was fearful that what he had to tell might do more good than harm. Still determined to learn the truth, Vera asked Hudson to come to her Chelsea house where he explained himself. As Battalion Commander he had received a letter from the Provost Marshall around 12th June 1918 stating that a letter between two officers in the 11th Battalion had been intercepted by the base censor. The letter left no doubt that the two officers had been involved in homosexual activity with men in their own company. The senior of the two officers was Edward Brittain. Hudson was instructed by the Provost to say nothing whilst the matter was investigated. In his memoirs he states that he could not play ‘cat and mouse’ with an officer who had served him so well so he alerted Edward by saying that he did not realise letters from the front were censored at base. Edward did not comment but turned white and no doubt knew to what the Colonel referred and that court martial proceedings would be inevitable in due course.
Did Edward expose himself deliberately to enemy fire at Asiago? Vera was certainly not over-surprised to learn of his homosexual tendencies as she had suspected for a long time that Edward was ‘uneasy with women’. Would things have been easier if Charles Hudson had not waited 15 years before telling Vera the full story? It is surely understandable that he did not wish to add to the burden of one so laden with grief.
John Harden (g 70)
Secretary, Old Shirburnian Society.
Patrick Francis, Vivat Shirburnia: Sherborne School and the Great War, 1914-1918 (2014)
Online resources for Sherborne School and the First World War
Sherborne School & the Greenhill VA Hospital
Posted 21 March 2018 by Sherborne School Archives.