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Richard Molesworth Dennys was born in Simla, Bengal, India on 17th December 1884. He was the son of Edward Augustus and Louisa Mary Dennys of 125 Coleherne Court, South Kensington, London.
Richard was educated at Winchester College and took his final degrees in medicine at St. Bartholomew’s Hospital, London. (M.R.C.S & L.R.C.P) in 1909.
When war broke out he was in Florence, Italy working with Mr Gordon Craig in his school for the improvement of the art of the theatre at the Areora Goldoni.
He returned to England and offered his services to the Red Cross and to the Royal Army Medical Corps but was informed that at that time medical men were not wanted. In October 1914 he accepted his commission with the Loyal North Lancashire Regiment and was placed in the 10th (Service) Battalion*.
Richard sailed to France with the Battalion on 31st July 1915.
Five days after the Battle of Somme had begun, the 10th Loyal North Lancs (with 112th Brigade) were transferred from the 37th Division and bused down the Albert in support. They had a few days in reserve then on 11th July 1916 the Battalion took their place in the trenches at Tara Redoubt on Usna Hill.
On 12th July 1916 Richard Molesworth Dennys was wounded in action.
12th July 1916
Today the enemy having machine guns active, we sustained many casualties including Capt Dryden, Capt Dennys, Lt Bee, Lt Atkinson, 2Lt Squibb and 2lt Woolley.
Richard died from his wounds twelve days later, 24th July 1916. He was 32 years old.
The following extracts from THE NEW ELIZABETHANS (published 1919) gives a fascinating insight into the character of Dennys.
THE TRUE AMATEUR
RICHARD MOLESWORTH DENNYS
“YOUTH and wisdom is genius,” says the strange poet who plays Elisha to the Elijah of Walt Whitman. If that be so, the gift of genius must have been given to Richard Dennys; for though he died in his thirty-second year of a wound received in the Somme advance of July 1916, he had long since made his peace with Death (which is the crowning act of human wisdom), and found out a way of living that was sufficient to all occasions.
England has always been full of these quiet, self-contained personalities who seek no public recognition of their happy qualities, but are well content to remain an occluded fire, as it were, at which a few chosen friends can find spiritual warmth and light.
These patient souls constitute the secret strength of England, that incalculable and inexhaustible reserve of spiritual power which has always baffled and amazed her mightiest enemies the latest of whom are all the more confounded because they had forgotten that war, as Napoleon himself confessed, is three-fourths a moral issue.
But for the War we might never have known the true worth of Richard Dennys, the shyest and most reluctant of our soldier-poets, and one of the most “Elizabethan ” in his single-hearted devotion to the quest of Beauty. “Of his artistic gifts,” wrote one of his closest friends, Captain Desmond Coke “it is not easy to write, because a curious quality, which seemed to be half diffidence and half inertia, induced him to hide their performance. He practised, it is true, in almost all the Arts he painted, he played the piano, he wrote in poetry and prose, he acted and there was nothing he touched that he did not adorn; but few, even of his intimates, were allowed far into this sacred corner of his life, and though he would sometimes speak of coming before the public as a writer, none who knew him ever took this saying seriously. He was an essential amateur, not in the vile modern sense, but in the fine old meaning of that terribly ill-treated word. Beauty in every form he loved, and his whole life was beautiful in a degree that could never be communicated to anyone who had not known him; nor is it easy to explain in what way he impressed one as possessing, far beyond those of more elaborate performance, the spirit and the splendor of rare artistry. He was a man above all to know and to be thankful for having known.”
In France nobody would find any difficulty in “placing” such a personality. Richard Dennys would have been speedily recognized as a member of that intellectual aristocracy which the greatest of French artists treats with deference, knowing as he does that it forms the ultimate court of appeal in all questions of artistic reputation. But why ? Because the members thereof see the artist’s achievement, whatever it may be, in its relation to the mother-art of living, and so are able to distinguish between the eternal and the ephemeral that which is a real addition to the amenities of human nature and that which is accidental and meaningless save for a moment In England the “universal man” the thinker who has discovered what underlies all the arts is a solitary creature, and his influence is invariably confined to a narrow circle. In France he is sought out and sought after, and in course of time he is co-opted into the fellowship of true amateurs, which constitutes an organized force of disinterested opinion in regard to all the issues of what used to be called taste in the eighteenth century.
Now and again men of this stamp, always provided they have practiced prose or verse with a measure of success, have exercised a sort of critical dictatorship in English literature, Johnson was by far the most famous in his day of our literary dictators; a less notable example was the late W. E. Henley during his editorship of the National Observer, which made or marred so many young writers. This one-man rule is apt to degenerate into a tyranny and there can be no doubt that it is better for art to be ruled by an intellectual aristocracy, which inherits and hands on its tradition, as is the case in France. Richard Dennys was not of the stuff out of which the tyrant of conversational criticism is wrought. There was not enough ego in his cosmos for such a part. If you wanted his opinion on a book or a play or a picture, it was yours for the asking; and, though he never laid down the law in his reply to such a request, his instinct for the deep-lying truth came to be implicitly trusted by an increasing circle of friends, some of whom were creative artists of repute.
His boyish ‘ambition was to be a poet, and some of the verse he wrote before entering his teens is remarkable both in form and matter. A Boys Thanksgiving (written at Bexley in 1896) has the sincerity and simplicity of R. L. Stevenson’s open-air poetry; indeed one would not have been surprised at finding it in that famous author’s collected works.
This admirable poem must be quoted in full, for it shows how deep-rooted in time was the philosophy that of a Christian and yet a Nature-worshiper by which he lived and died :
A Boys Thanksgiving by R. M. Dennys
God’s gifts so many a pleasure bring
That I will make a thanksgiving.
For eyes whereby I clearly see
The many lovely things there be;
For lungs to breathe the morning air,
For nose to smell its fragrance rare ;
For tongue to taste the fruits that grow,
For birds that sing and flowers that blow ;
For limbs to climb, and swim, and run,
And skin to feel the cheerful sun
For sun and moon and stars in heaven,
Whose gracious light is freely given ;
The river where the green weed floats,
And where I sail my little boats ;
The sea where I can bathe and play,
The sands where I can race all day ;
The pigeons wheeling in the sun,
Who fly more quick than I can run ;
.The winds that sing as they rush by,
The clouds that race across the sky ;
The pony that I sometimes ride,
The curly dog that runs beside ;
The shelter of the shady woods,
Where I may spend my lonely moods
The gabled house that is my home,
The garden where I love to roam,
And bless my parents every day,
Though they be very far away.
Take Thou my thanks, O God above,
For all these tokens of Thy love.
And when I am a man, do Thou
Make me as grateful then as now.
And here is a charming impression of frost, written a year or two later, which has the completeness of the tiny poems made by Japanese Nature-worshipers :
Last night at bed-time, cold and white
A fog breathed on my window-pane,
It hid the blinking stars from sight
And masked a moon upon the wane.
This morning it has gone away,
The fog whereon I looked last night,
But every tiny twig and spray
Is frosted with a coat of white.
But the time was at hand when school life was to absorb all his activities, and it was not until his twenty-fifth year that he once more wrote verse which seemed to him worth keeping. How many pieces he threw into the fire during his ‘prentice days will never be known ! He went to Winchester College where poetry, or at any rate prosody, is in the air just as at Shrewsbury School dust falling in the sixth-form library was found to consist of Greek particles ! The Winchester master who saw a small man reading Swinburne and could find nothing better to say than “Poor little devil ! ” was really outside the traditional picture. When his schooldays were over Richard Dennys went to St Bartholomew’s Hospital, where he took his final degrees (M.R.C.S. and L.R.C.R) in 1909. His heart, however, was not in the business of medicine, and he never practiced. Strange to say, nothing that he wrote in later years bears any trace of the knowledge he must have acquired at St Bartholomew’s of the mysteries of the human flesh and the half-explained powers that sustain it. Later on he went to Florence and worked at Gordon Craig’s school for the improvement of the Art of the Theatre.
And his many-sided mind had full play there, for the Art of the Theatre is, or ought to be, a synthesis of all the other arts. So far his life had been uneventful; the so-called ” practical ” man might have called it empty of urgent interests. His friends and relations ; the old houses in which he felt the action and atmosphere of past ages ; his own small store of seventeenth- and eighteenth-century treasures; above all, his never-ceasing, ever-increasing devotion to Art in all its manifestations these were the matters that filled his life through and through and gave him an unbroken happiness which was all the more real and vital, perhaps because he was always looking back on the youthful years that had been, and was visited by moods of an un-appeased melancholy which expressed itself in such lines as these :
I do not understand the eyes of the dead,
Nor the message of stillness
From lips that have loved
And hands that have given caresses.
He was at Florence when the War broke out, and he at once returned to England, Various attempts to get work in which his medical training would be useful were unsuccessful. He obtained instead a commission in the Loyal North Lancashire Regiment, and from that time on was absolutely absorbed in his military duties. Those who thought him too much of a dreamer and likely to fail in dealing with the rough, ugly, defiling necessities of war were astonished to find that he soon became an admirable regimental officer. After all, will-power is half the secret of military leadership indeed, nothing can compensate for the lack of it, either in a general or in a subaltern and no artist, no seeker after Beauty, ever succeeded in his quest without a full share of the spirit that will bear down all difficulties to achieve its end. The true artist, the true amateur, must have an iron will, as all Frenchmen and a few Englishmen very well know. It was so with Richard Denny s, who from first to last put his whole soul into the work that had found him; no labour was too hard or too tiresome, no mental or physical misery too great for him, if it made for the welfare and efficiency of his men. His extraordinary ability was recognized at once. He was promoted temporary captain before the end of 1914, and he got his company soon after he went to France.
The miseries of a wet winter in the trenches left him smiling and imperturbable. ” Under the most adverse circumstances,” wrote his C,O., ” he was always cheery ; nobody ever heard him grouse. The best interests of the men and traditions of the Battalion were always his chief concern”. ‘ No company commander was ever more indefatigable in screwing comforts out of the authorities for his men, who soon learnt to trust him and love him in spite of the habit of reserve which he could never overcome.
Physical courage is, of course, taken for granted, but Richard Dennys (who had long ago “given Death the lie” like the great Elizabethan soldier-poet)showed an inspiring coolness under the bombardments that accompanied the Somme advance of July 1916. Had he survived that great feat of arms there can be no doubt that he would have risen rapidly to high rank, for by that time his keen and many-sided intelligence had made him a master of his business.
His war poems, hastily written while he was resting in billets, are few in number. But they are ample evidence for the belief that his old philosophy of living and dying based on a bedrock certainty that God is immanent in Nature had proved sufficient for all his newer needs. In simple, soldierly verse he pays a tribute to the men he loved so wisely and so well :
Ted, Harry, Bill and John,
Cheery friends I know to-day,
Goodly lads to look upon,
Willing lads for work or play.
Duty claims a man entire,
With will and strength to pay the price,
Relinquishing his heart’s desire
To make the final sacrifice.
But the strangely beautiful tie of affection between the regimental officer and his men which prompted Lieutenant E. A. Macintosh, M.C., to say in a poem addressed to the fathers of his slain Highlanders ..
You were only their fathers,
I was their officer
..must have seemed to him too intimate and sacred a matter to be made the theme even of poetry. Yet in Better Far to Pass Away the veils of reserve are drawn apart, and the secret sources of his fortitude are shown in lines which have the true Elizabethan ‘ ring:
Better Far to Pass Away
While the limbs are strong and young,
Ere the ending of the day,
Ere Youth’s lusty song be sung.
Hot blood pulsing through the veins,
Youth’s high hope a burning fire,
Young men needs must break the chains
That hold them from their heart’s desire.
My friends the hills, the sea, the sun,
The winds, the woods, the clouds, the trees-
How feebly, if my youth were done,
Could I, an old man, relish these !
With laughter, then, I’ll go to greet
What Fate has still in store for me,
And welcome Death if we should meet,
And bear him willing company.
My share of fourscore years and ten
I’ll gladly yield to any man,
And take no thought of ” where ” or ” when,”
Contented with my shorter span,
For I have learned what love may be,
And found a heart that understands,
And known a comrade’s constancy,
And felt the grip of friendly hands.
Come when it may, the stern decree
For me to leave the cheery throng,
And quit the sturdy company
Of brothers that I work among.
No need for me to look askance,
Since no regret my prospect mars.
My day was happy and perchance
The coming night is full of stars.
In A Boys Thanksgiving and in this last poem of all his character is explained and his career justified.
In July 2017 Captain Denny’s marching compass was listed for sale on eBay.
Date of Death: 24/07/1916
Regiment/Service: The Loyal North Lancashire Regiment, “A” Coy. 10th Bn.
Cemetery: ST. SEVER CEMETERY, ROUEN
*It is worth noting the Commanding Officer of the 10th Battalion was Colonel William A. B. Dennys but I am unaware of the (possible) family connection.
Paul McCormick is the creator and administrator for the Loyal North Lancashire Regiment website. Since 2010 he has been researching the soldiers that served during the First World War and sharing their stories on his website. You can contact Paul through the website 'Contact Me' page or on Twitter and Facebook.
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