“Honour made us do no less”

In October 1914 Ascherberg, Hopwood and Crew Ltd published the latest song by Ivor Novello, with lyrics by Lena Ford.  “Keep the Home-Fires Burning (Till the Boys Come Home)” was a hit, reflecting the mood of the British people as sons, brothers and husbands rushed to enlist following the outbreak of war in August. One of the most common sayings that year was “It will be over by Christmas”, they did not foresee years of hostilities that would result in millions of deaths. Men continued to join up even as casualties began to arrive from the front. The numbers are astounding. In the period between late August and early September 1914 478,893 men were recruited, including 33,204 on one day in September. Most of us, in our more cynical age, would find it difficult to understand such levels of patriotic fervour, that urge to play a part in world events.

Lord Kitchener, Secretary of State for War, realising that there would be a need for many more of them over a far longer period than the general public imagined, began to develop plans for recruitment and employ illustrated posters. It is hard to imagine what it must have been like for eligible men who had not yet joined up. “Your KIng and Country need you!” “Come along boys before it is too late!” “Enlist today!” According to the Parliamentary Recruiting Committee’s Poster No. 75 the women of Britain said they should “Go!” .

I don’t know if Annie Dennis, nursing her youngest child in Hanwell, Middlesex thought that her husband Percy should “Go!” She was twenty-six years old and the mother of five children – Doris had followed Annie Matilda, Arthur, Horace and Annie Maria. The war must have seemed a long way from the small house in Rosebank Road that they shared with another family, where ten people occupied six rooms. Annie was born in Greenford where her grandparents were grocers, but her father, George Hunt, seems to have moved with the work, as a shoemaker and a barge hand on the Grand Union Canal while they lived close to what is now Greenford Broadway, and as a general labourer in Hanwell, as fields became building sites and brick terraces began to line the roads surrounding Ealing. The birth places of Annie’s eleven siblings indicate that the family were also in Southall for a time but it may have been while the Hunt family lived in Du Burstow Terrace in Hanwell that she met Percy. It was close to St. Mark’s Church where he had been baptised and both their families may have attended services there. In 1901 he lived with five other members of the Dennis family, his parents David and Emma, his brothers Frank and Walter, and his youngest sister May, in Boston Road, at what is now the car park for Wickes. His oldest sister, Evelyn, a servant, lived with her employers across the road.

David Dennis was fortunate in that he had a skill, he was a carpenter at a time when he could probably walk to work as new houses began to cover Hanwell, along with factories and shops. Born in Burghfield in Berkshire he eventually lodged in Maunder Road with other carpenters, marrying Emma, the daughter of a colleague, probably at St. Mary’s Church in 1884. The addresses at which the Dennis family lived are almost all within the area bounded by the River Brent, Northfield Avenue and the railway line that ran parallel to what is now the A4020, including Nightingale Road where Percy was born in April 1889.

This reflected the self-sufficiency within families in that income bracket, essential at a time when you had to work to survive or rely on those you trusted to assist you or return a favour. They moved from house to house as their needs changed, as members died or were born, as work became available. Long before the internet, telephones or even post there must have been a very effective word of mouth system within families that brought news of better tenancies and other opportunities. It was common for extended families to live close to each other or even in the same road, and census records reveal a number of children living with grandparents and other relatives, sometimes because there was neither the room nor the means to support them at home. An attachment to the area and the desire for proximity persisted for decades in the Dennis family, some of whose members emigrated to the USA but returned in later life to the same part of Hanwell.

The Dennis/Hunt family lived in Southall for a while and it was the Great Western Railway (GWR) that drew them there. Percy’s older brother Walter had found employment as an engine cleaner, often the first step in a career in the railways. Percy took the same first step in September 1906 and then became a fitter but resigned about four months later. The motive in seeking steadier, better paid employment was probably the birth of his first child (followed by a discreet marriage to Annie in Fulham) but work on the railways could be dangerous, accidents were common, and fitters, expected to carry out all kinds of tasks and repairs, may have been exposed to greater risks than those with other roles in the company.

David’s death in 1911 was followed a year later by the departure of Percy’s older sister Evelyn to America but, while the absence of two close relatives must have had a profound effect on the rest of them, small family dramas, funerals, baptisms and weddings would soon be overshadowed by the war. Percy’s younger brother Frank enlisted fairly early on in 1914, and he became a private in the Rifle Brigade. Walter had been promoted at GWR, becoming a fireman in 1914. This meant that he was in a reserved occupation and throughout the war he graduated steadily, becoming an engine driver four years later. Had he enlisted without permission it would have been regarded as a resignation, there would not have been a job waiting for him on his return even if it was “over by Christmas”.

Conscription was not introduced until 1916 and I have wondered why the father of five children would volunteer but cannot discount the notion that Percy came from a profoundly patriotic background and that news from France and Flanders, along with the impact of the war at home, influenced his decision. Perhaps he felt that, as in the words of that song “…a noble heart must answer, To the sacred call of “Friend”.” At the start of 1915 the posters began to say  “Remember Scarborough! Enlist Now!” following the raid by the German navy on the ports of Scarborough, Hartlepool and Whitby. One hundred and thirty-seven people died, hundreds more were injured. The number of recruits began to rise again and they included Percy. His name would be associated with one of the most controversial campaigns of the First World War. In the summer of 1915 Private Percy Dennis of the 2nd Battalion Royal Fusiliers went to Gallipoli.

Towards the end of 1914 there was deadlock on the Western Front and plans were laid to open a new one. Winston Churchill, the First Lord of the Admiralty led arguments that defeating the Ottoman Empire by taking Constantinople would assist the United Kingdom’s Russian allies and undermine support for Germany. In February 1915 British and French ships attacked the Dardanelles, the strait which led from the Aegean Sea to the Sea of Mamara and the city of Constantinople.

The Times commented on the 22nd February 1915: “The bombardment of the forts at the entrance to the Dardanelles on Friday by a powerful combined British and French Fleet, including several battleships, appears to mark the beginning of serious operations. At first sight it may seem to have a secondary character, and to be at variance with the familiar maxim that in war blows should be concentrated upon the defensive point. In reality a successful attack upon the Dardanelles might well become of the first importance, amd produce results which would quickly be felt in the main Eastern and Western theatres of war. Consider for a moment the present posistion of Russia. She is a vast Empire, with millions of men mobilised, and is crammed with surplus stores of wheat, yet for all practical purposes she is more cut off from the rest of the world than is Germany. The White Sea is ice-bound, and Archangel, which is indifferently served by its railway, will not be open until some time in May. The Baltic is hermetically sealed. The way to the Black Sea is closed by the Dardanelles and the Bosphorus. Vladivostock is too far away to be of much use. Russia is in bonds, and it is the duty of her Allies to burst them if they can.”

The naval force took heavy losses as the enemy proved to be far more capable than expected. Mines in the waters of the strait and artillery on vantage points on either side of it were used to devastating effect. The fleet was called off and, eventually, an amphibious attack was launched on the Gallipoli peninsula, the land to the north of the straits. Now it was the terrain that proved to be more challenging than expected. Higher ground was as much an advantage in this case as it had been with the naval assault. The 2nd Royal Fusiliers were part of the 29th Division which landed at Cape Helles in April. Their advance, and that of forces landing on other parts of the peninsula, was soon halted by the Ottomans and the trench warfare which had come to characterise fighting in France and Flanders took hold in this case as well.

As spring became summer the environment was now an enemy too. It was difficult to provide water and the extreme heat meant that food deteriorated very quickly. Flies were present in huge numbers partly because of the difficulties the Allied forces faced in burying their dead. Illnesses such as dysentery bore as much responsibility for casualties as the Ottomans. Private Harold Boughton, 2/1st Battalion London Regiment described what it was like in an interview many years later: “One of the biggest curses was flies. Millions and millions of flies. The whole side of the trench used to be one black swarming mass. Anything you opened, like a tin of bully, would be swarming with flies. If you were lucky enough to have a tin of jam and opened that, swarms of flies went straight into it. They were all around your mouth and on any cuts or sores that you’d got, which then turned septic. Immediately you bared any part of your body you were smothered. It was a curse, it really was.”

Percy entered that hell early in July after a two week sea voyage, passing through the Mediterranean and into the Aegean where the transport risked attack from enemy forces. He is likely to have received some training relevant to the situation once there. So many new men and officers were drafted into the battalion throughout the campaign that there were concerns about the continuity of command. At Suvla the enemy was often uncomfortably close, the battalion was at risk from snipers and bombs thrown over from their trenches. Supplies had to be moved around at night. Percy lasted less than three months. Based on the information available I believe that he received what was described as a gunshot wound to the head on the 18th September 1915, possibly at Suvla. Evacuated to a hospital ship he made the journey home in very different circumstances.

Percy was transferred to the 1st London General Hospital, housed in a college building in Cormont Road, Camberwell that had been adapted for that purpose, along with the school next to it.  If I take into account the probable date of his being wounded and the approximate length of time it would have taken him to reach London I believe it is possible that Annie and other family members managed to visit him. It must have been shocking to see him so changed by war, especially for his wife, who was now pregnant with the child conceived before he left. His injuries had had an effect similar to a stroke, he would have suffered a degree of paralysis, but in the end it was an infection that ended his life. In the days before antibiotics there was only careful hygiene and nursing available to help Percy recover from it and he died on the 28th October 1915.

On the Gallipoli peninsula autumn became winter, the intense heat gave way to cold rain, flooding trenches. Where men had been shot they now drowned. They tried desperately to hold their ground despite enemy action and the onset of bitter winter weather but eventually news came that they were to be evacuated. Percy’s youngest child, Elsie, was born as 2nd Battalion Royal Fusiliers made their way to Egypt. They left behind their dead and missing men, many of whose remains have never been found, the boys who could not come home. There are over twenty thousand names on the Helles Memorial, on the Gallipoli peninsula. Unlike Percy  whose grave is at Greenford Park Cemetery, and that of his brother Frank, killed in action in France in 1917, so many do not have personal memorials, something that marks a place that their relatives and descendants can visit.

Gallipoli has come to have enormous significance to Australia and New Zealand, men who were born or settled in those nations bonded under fire. Their descendants now flock to the peninsula to commemorate their sacrifice. Mustafa Kemal, later known as Atatürk, made his reputation as a commander of the opposing forces there, and founded modern Turkey. For the British it was a disaster and the man who took the blame for it was Winston Churchill.

“We think the contention of Mr. Asquith and other responsible members of the late Ministry, that the Dardanelles Expedition received long and repeated consideration before a shot was fired, is amply and finally demonstrated by Mr. Churchill’s disclosures. But Mr. Churchill’s speech appears to reveal two other phases of this great episode of the war. We see with painful clearness the great gulf between the War Office and the Admiralty which did so much to vitiate our efforts at the beginning of this year. The sailors were consulted, but the soldiers appear at first to have receded into the background, and then have been set in motion far too slowly. We hear nothing as to whether the War Council disinterred the plan laboriously prepared in time of peace for attacking the Dardanelles, plans which are understood to have precribed a joint naval and military attack. Mr. Churchill was absolutely convincing in his proofs that at every stage he was supported by the proper naval experts. We accept his assurances without the least demur; but we see also very clearly the second phase unveiled by bis statements, which was the very large part played by Mr. Churchill’s impetuous personality in all these transactions. We see a MInister able, courageous, daring, with his eyes fixed on the end to be achieved, and eager to attempt what he himself calls the “gamble”; and we seem to see also a number of sailors, perhaps a little overborne by his eagerness, willing to think the attempt might succeed, and most unwilling to thwart an enthusiastic Minister.”
The Times, 16th November 1915

I don’t know what Annie Dennis, with six children to support on a widow’s pension, thought of Churchill’s enthusiastic gamble as she stood at Percy’s graveside. It had taken him a long way from Rosebank Road, from Hanwell and his family, but perhaps the silver lining to the dreadful dark cloud of his loss was the certainty of knowing what had happened to him, and that, in his own way, her boy had come home.

In memory of Deborah Orr.

I am indebted to Peter Anderson for his help with this post and I am very grateful that he helped me tell Percy’s story.

Mike Esbester of the “Railway Work, Life and Death Project” and Sandra Gittins gave me some very helpful information about Walter Dennis.

Text © Albertina McNeill 2019 with the exception of quotations. Do not reproduce without written permission on each occasion. All rights reserved. Do not add text or images to Pinterest or similar sites as this will be regarded as a violation of copyright. 

“Forgotten Voices of the Great War”, Max Arthur in association with the Imperial War Museum
Lost Hospitals of London