Growing up, Hugh Dennis knew both his grandfathers. Both fought on the Western Front in the First World War, a time in their lives neither spoke about. “I’ve always assumed it was one those things, in that generation, you just simply didn’t talk about,” says the comedian.
Hugh wants to learn about his grandparents’ wartime service. A visit to his parents reveals that both men suffered because of the conflict. Hubert ‘Ron’ Dennis had scars from a battle wound, while in later life, a confused Godfrey Hinnels relived experiences from the trenches.
Hugh begins by researching how Ron became an officer. It’s a story of social mobility because, as the 1901 census reveals, Ron’s father, John, was a ‘hewer’, someone who worked underground digging out coal at Kiveton Park Colliery in South Yorkshire. It was dirty, dangerous work at a time when miners’ sons expected to work down the pit too. Ron, though, was a bright lad who won a grammar school scholarship.
In 1917, he joined the army as a private soldier. However, with the life expectancy for junior officers on the Western Front six weeks, the army was no longer able to recruit officers solely from public schools. Ron was sent for officer training at St John’s College in Cambridge, where his grandson would later take his degree.
He arrived at the front in October 1918. A platoon commander, he almost immediately led seasoned men into action in a bid to take a village, Futoy, from the Germans. Ron was injured by shrapnel, one of 13 officer casualties that day, and was sent home to recover. He became a teacher and died in 1990 at the age of 91.
Next, Hugh researches the military career of his maternal grandfather, Godfrey Hinnels. In 1917, he saw first action at the first Battle of Arras. Here, Godfrey’s unit had to advance along cramped German trenches on the fortified Hindenburg Line. This was close-up fighting of the most brutal kind. Later, Godfrey came under intense artillery bombardment at Passchendaele.
At least this earned him some respite, and he spent time at Talbot House in Poperinge, Belgium, a ‘home from home’ for soldiers founded by chaplain ‘Tubby’ Clayton. Was it here that Godfrey developed a lifelong interest in gardening that helped him cope with all he’d seen?
Godfrey still had to return to the front, and in April 1918 at the village of Wytschaete he was among troops who faced an attack by the Germans on both flanks in heavy fog. Here may be the root of a story that Godfrey escaped a battlefield by using the dead bodies of fallen comrades as a bridge across the mud.
Godfrey lived until 1974. Hugh’s glad he’s seen the land where his forebears fought, because it’s helped him understand how the Great War was conducted in bloodstained, muddy farmland. He understands why neither grandfather much wanted to discuss what happened: “Why would you want to talk about the war?”