Thursday, 13 September 2012

WDYTYA? Series 9 - Hugh Dennis

Last night's episode of Who Do You Think You Are? had a military theme again, which is in no way a bad thing. The subject was Hugh Dennis, or more specifically his two grandfathers. Both experienced the harrowing death and destruction of the First World War.

Hugh's first story to unravel was that of his paternal grandfather, Ronald Dennis. Ronald was born in 1899 in a village called Wales, situated to the south of Sheffield in Yorkshire. This was an area synonymous with coal mining, and Ronald's father, John, worked at the coal face down a pit. Rather than following in his father's footsteps as most boys did however, Ronald showed enough educational potential to be awarded a grant to attend a grammar school.

Attending grammar school gave Ronald good prospects for the future, and a professional career seemed likely. However, world events conspired against him, as they did for so many young men. In January 1917 he joined the Army, and was sent to St. John's College in Cambridge for officer training. In addition to being taught how to fight, the men were also educated in the manners befitting of a "gentleman." In fact, officers from the lower classes, such as the coal miner's son Ronald, were called "temporary gentlemen," only considered to be of a sufficient social standing until the war was over and they were no longer officers. I found it disheartening to see the snobbery being shown to men who would go on to risk their lives during the war.

A visit to the Imperial War Museum in London revealed that Ronald was sent to France in October 1918, unbeknown to him only one month before the end of the war. Nevertheless, the nineteen year old officer could not escape the horrors and danger of war, and was injured by shrapnel while defending the village of Futoy. He was sent home to recover, and left the Army after the war had ended.

After researching Ronald, Hugh turned his attention to his maternal grandfather, Godfrey Hinnels. Godrey's war experience was quite different to Ronald's, and involved some ferocious battles as well as the loss of a brother. 

One battle was particularly bloody. Godfrey was stationed near to the village of Neuville-Vitasse with the Suffolk Regiment in April 1917. Originally tasked with burying the dead from previous battle, the regiment were soon involved in an attack on the Hindenburg Line as part of the Battle of Arras. Combat involved the soldiers working their way along the German trenches, throwing grenades ahead of them before advancing with bayonets. 

It must have been horrific. After almost achieving their goal, they were pushed back along the trenches. Of the 700 men that began the attack, only 350 survived, and no territorial gains were made. Godfrey was one of the lucky ones. 

His next major engagement was at Passchendaele in July 1917. Under intense German artillery bombardment many lives were lost. Godfrey and the rest of the survivors were removed from the front line. Then, in the spring of 1918, Godfrey and his new Lincolnshire Regiment had to defend the town of Wytschaete from a heavy German attack. Within a few hours the battalion had been decimated. Less than ninety survived, with once again Godfrey being one of the few who made it out alive.

Neither of Hugh's grandfathers spoke of their experiences during the First World War. Like so many others they sacrificed so much, and were forever affected as a result. 

Hugh Dennis' thoughtful, moving episode of Who Do You Think You Are? can be viewed on the BBC iPlayer.

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