"Let those who come after, see to it that his memory is not forgotten."
Fourth Supplement to The London Gazette of Tuesday, the 31st of July, 1917.
War Office, 2nd August, 1917.
His Majesty the King has been graciously pleased to approve of the award of the Victoria Cross to the undermentioned Officers, Non-commissioned Officer, and Men:
2nd Lt. John Spencer Dunville, late Dragoons.
For most conspicuous bravery.
When in charge of a party consisting of scouts and Royal Engineers engaged in the demolition of the enemy's wire, this officer displayed great gallantry and disregard of all personal danger.
In order to ensure the absolute success of the work entrusted to him, 2nd Lt. Dunville placed himself between an N.C.O. of the Royal Engineers and the enemy's fire, and, thus protected, this N.C.O. was enabled to complete a work of great importance.
2nd Lt. Dunville, although severely wounded, continued to direct his men in the wire-cutting and general operations until the raid was successfully completed, thereby setting a magnificent example of courage, determination and devotion to duty, to all ranks under his command.
This gallant officer has since succumbed to his wounds.
Second Lieutenant John Spencer Dunville VC (1896-1917) was the second son of Colonel John Dunville Dunville CBE DL (1866-1929) and Violet Anne Blanche Dunville née Lambart (1861-1940). Colonel John Dunville was the fourth chairman of Dunville and Company, which was one of the largest whisky distillers in the UK at the beginning of the twentieth century.
John Spencer Dunville was born on 7th May 1896 at the family's home in London, 46 Portland Place in Marylebone. He was educated at Ludgrove School and Eton, where he was a member of Mr Williams' House and then Mr Robeson's House, and a member of the Officers' Training Corps from May 1912 to July 1914. He passed matriculation for Trinity College, Cambridge, but joined the army instead, serving as a Second Lieutenant in the 5th Reserve Regiment of Cavalry. In April 1915 he applied to join the Royal Flying Corps and was accepted, but his course of instruction in aviation was cancelled a few days before he was due to start. He transferred to the 6th (Inniskilling) Dragoons and went to France in June 1915. There he took part in the Battle of Loos in September 1915, and transferred to the 1st (Royal) Dragoons in January 1916. In April he contracted trench fever and was invalided to England. He returned to the 1st (Royal) Dragoons in France in December 1916.
Second Lieutenant John Spencer Dunville was fatally wounded during a raid on the German lines near Épehy in France, part of the Hindenburg Line, on 25th June 1917. The German trenches were between Canal Wood and Ossus Wood, about 800 yards in front of the British outposts. Dunville was a scout officer for the raid, and had been working with his scouts in No Man's Land for a week before the raid, making himself acquainted with the ground over which the raid was going to take place.
The men practised the raid behind their own lines three nights a week for three weeks. The raid consisted of two parties each of fifty Royals, a dozen scouts, half of which were North Somerset Yeomanry and half were 3rd Dragoon Guards, a covering party of the 3rd Dragoon Guards with Hotchkiss rifles, and two parties each of three sappers (Royal Engineers) carrying Bangalore torpedoes to destroy the enemy's barbed wire.
The Bangalore torpedo consists of several connected tubes, each five feet long and the first of which contains an explosive charge. The tubes are threaded, and screwed together using connecting sleeves to make a longer tube. A smooth nose cone is screwed onto the front end to enable the tube to be pushed smoothly over the ground. When it is detonated, the explosive charge in the first tube creates a five feet wide gap in the barbed wire.
Each raiding party had to move forward in a long file, on a compass bearing, to the point in the wire to be attacked. The left party consisted of men of B Squadron, under the command of Lieutenant R. Bernard Helme. The right party consisted of men of Dunville's squadron, under the command of Lieutenant Ronnie H.W. Henderson. Half the scouts were under the command of Second Lieutenant V.C. Rice of the North Somerset Yeomanry and half were under the command of Second Lieutenant John Dunville. The covering party was under the command of Lieutenant John Burgon Bickersteth of the 1st (Royal) Dragoons. One of Dunville's duties was to show one of the two parties of sappers where to place a Bangalore torpedo, and to lay a tape to the gap made by the explosion to show the assaulting party the way through.
When it came closer to the day of the raid, the butt plates were taken off the men's rifles, their identification discs were handed in, and they were scrutinised so that nothing on them could disclose their unit. They carried the old gas-mask type of haversack, with no regimental markings on it, and in it they each carried six No. 5 Mills bombs (hand grenades). They handed in their leather bandoliers and anything else that might creak. They were each given twenty-five rounds of ammunition in a cloth bandolier. Their faces were blackened and they wore cardigan jackets. At dusk on Sunday 24th June the two raiding parties assembled and each man was given a ration of rum.
They set off at one a.m. on Monday 25th June. The scouts at the front unrolled tape for the men to follow in the dark, and to assist their return journey. The ground was rough and covered with dense thistles and long grass. Each man followed the man in front and the tape at his feet, and soon a good track was beaten.
Just before they reached the main wire, the advance party of Dunville and his scouts found a narrow belt of low wire, which they cut by hand. Dunville then ran forward with the three sappers. At the main wire they found that one of the joints of the Bangalore torpedo was bent. The torpedo could not be assembled and had to be repaired. This extended the operation from the two minutes it had taken in practice to over five minutes. Meanwhile the enemy became aware of the activity, sent up red and white flares, and opened fire with rifles and hand grenades. While the sapper Corporal was repairing the torpedo, Dunville urged him to keep cool and assured him that he was in no danger. Dunville placed himself between the enemy and the sapper Corporal, to give the latter the confidence to carry out the task.
The assaulting party withdrew before the bomb exploded, and then advanced, but they were not able to proceed through the gap because of the increase in the enemy's fire. As the leading men reached the gap, Dunville was wounded, his left arm badly shattered by a bomb, and he had to be taken back. Despite the dreadful wounds, he walked all the way back to the outposts.
Second Lieutenant Rice and his scouts had also found some wire, old and rusty, before the main wire, and had also cut it by hand. The main wire was more formidable, recently erected with three rows of pickets. However they found some white posts marking a track into the enemy trenches, and they entered by this track. Some Germans opened fire, killing one of the scouts and wounding Rice, his arm broken by a bullet, but he returned the fire, killing one or two Germans, and carried on until the completion of the raid. One prisoner was taken, but died before he could be brought back. Several identifications were obtained, showing the enemy belonged to the 2nd Battalion 124th Infantry Regiment.
Lance-Corporal Jull worked from shell-hole to shell-hole, clearing them in turn, and disposing of several Germans. He was awarded the Military Medal for his actions. Sergeant Howell of the left party successfully bombed a dug-out.
Lieutenant Helme had brought up his raiding party, but while he was looking for a gap in the main wire, he was wounded in the head by a German using an automatic rifle, and died. The German was bombed, and then the withdrawal rocket, a blue flare, went up. Lieutenant Robert Bernard Helme was born in Pulborough, Sussex. He was the son of Lieutenant Colonel Robert Masterman Helme and Ellen Helme of Wisborough Green, Sussex. His younger brother, Lieutenant Guy Masterman Helme, died from wounds four months later, on 30th October 1917, in the Military Hospital in Étaples, northern France.
Dunville was attended to by his squadron commander, Captain Billy Miles, placed on a stretcher and taken by motor ambulance to a hospital in Villers-Faucon, where his left arm was amputated. The doctors held out very little hope for his recovery, and found another wound in his chest, which might have been caused by a fragment of the bomb which wounded him in the arm, or by a bullet. When Captain Miles saw him in the evening, he was conscious and the doctors were more hopeful. A second operation was performed in an attempt to overcome the poison, but Dunville died at three a.m. on Tuesday 26th.
Of Lieutenant Henderson's raiding party, four men had also lost their lives: Lance Corporal Alexander Nisbet (26), Private Richard Grizell (28), Private James Allan Barr Leitch (22), and Private John Henry Miles, and seven were missing.
The Victoria Cross which Dunville was posthumously awarded was received by his father Colonel John Dunville Dunville CBE DL from King George V at Buckingham Palace on 29th August 1917. It is now on display at the Household Cavalry Museum in Horse Guards, London. He was also awarded the 1914-15 Star, the British War Medal 1914-20 and the Victory Medal 1914-19.
John Spencer Dunville was buried in Villers-Faucon in France, in the Communal Cemetery on the north-west of the village, in Row A, Grave 21. Lieutenant Bernard Helme was buried in Row A, Grave 23. There is a memorial stone in Holywood Priory Cemetery to commemorate John Spencer Dunville. The inscription on the memorial stone reads 'To commemorate John Spencer Dunville, V.C., 2nd Lieut. Royal Dragoons, second son of John and Violet Dunville; he gave his life for his country in the Great War and died of his wounds in France on 27th June 1917 aged 21 years, buried at Villers-Faucon, was awarded the Victoria Cross for conspicuous bravery. Let those who come after, see to it that his memory is not forgotten.' (The date should be 26th June 1917.) Part of a ligustrum (privet) bush from his grave in France was planted next to the memorial stone in Holywood Priory Cemetery.
Other memorials dedicated to John Spencer Dunville included a memorial plaque in Holywood Parish Church and a magnificent stained glass window in the grand entrance hall of Redburn House.
'Arras & Messines 1917' by Gerald Gliddon, published in 1998 in the 'VCs of the First World War' series of books published by Sutton Publishing. This book includes a transcript of a letter from John Spencer Dunville's commanding officer, Colonel F.W. Wormald of the 1st (Royal) Dragoons, to John's mother, and two excerpts from the book 'Scarlet Fever' by John Cusack MM and Ivor Herbert. Other sources used by Gerald Gliddon include the Household Cavalry Museum, Windsor and the Public Record Office, Kew, which is now known as The National Archives.
'History of the Royal Dragoons 1661-1934' by C.T. Atkinson, published by Glasgow University Press in 1934 and printed for the Regiment by Robert Maclehose & Co. Ltd.
'History of the 6th Cavalry Brigade, 1914-1919' by Lieutenant J.B. Bickersteth MC, published by The Baynard Press in 1920.
'Scarlet Fever, A Lifetime with Horses' by John Cusack MM and Ivor Herbert, published by Cassell and Company Ltd in 1972.
Letter written by John Spencer Dunville's commanding officer, Colonel F.W. Wormald of the 1st (Royal) Dragoons, on Saturday 30th June, to John's mother.
Dear Mrs Dunville,
I feel I must write to you to express my deep sympathy, and that of all ranks of the regiment, to you and your husband in your irreparable loss.
Since writing first to your husband the sad news, much has come to light to emphasize your boy's gallantry and devotion to duty. We, his brother officers, whilst we shall always mourn the loss of a cheerful companion and friend whom we could ill afford to lose, are justly proud of the gallant way in which a brother officer met his death. The record of his daring and devotion must always remain an incident in the history of the regiment of which all connected with it will look back with pride.
All this is, I am afraid, small consolation to you and his father, and I can add that you have my whole-hearted sympathy in your sorrow.
I must give you an account of what happened to enable you to appreciate his bravery.
A raid was ordered to be undertaken on the German lines about 800 yards in front of our outposts, and 'The Royals' were detailed to carry it out. Two parties, each consisting of 50 Royals and two parties of three Sappers carrying torpedoes for destroying the enemy's wire, were told off. The right party consisted of men of Johnie's squadron and were under command of Ronnie Henderson. The left party of similar numbers consisted of men of 'B Squadron' under Bernard Helme. Each party had to march on a compass bearing to the point in the wire to be attacked. The parties moved through our lines at one a.m. on the morning of the 25th, and under cover of our artillery barrage moved on to their objectives. Johnie, who was Scout Officer, had the direction of the right party, and brought them right up to the place to be attacked, arriving there punctually at the scheduled time. Having got to the wire, it was his duty to direct the Sappers where they were to place the torpedo, and lay a tape to the gap made by the explosion to show the assaulting party the way through the gap. Just before reaching the main wire the advanced party came upon a narrow belt of low wire, which Johnie and his scouts cut by hand. Johnie then ran forward with the three Sappers, and when they reached the main wire they found that one of the joints of the torpedo had got bent in some way, and it could not be put together and had to be repaired. This occasioned some delay and the operation, which in practice had taken under two minutes, took them over five minutes. Meanwhile the enemy had detected our intentions, and opened fire with rifles and hand grenades. The Sapper Corporal, a very gallant boy, states that during the whole of this time Johnie was urging him to keep cool and kept assuring him that he was in no danger. He further stated that Johnie deliberately interposed his own body between the enemy and himself, and that by his example and bravery he gave him the necessary confidence to carry out his task. The whole party then withdrew until the bomb exploded, when Johnie told them they could go back. The assaulting party then advanced, but, owing to increase in the enemy's fire, were unable to get through the gap. As the leading men got up to the gap Johnie was wounded, his left arm being badly shattered by a bomb, it is thought. He then had to be taken back. And despite a dreadful wound, he walked back the whole distance to the outposts. A man of less grit could not have accomplished it. He was quite calm when he reached my headquarters and talked cheerfully to the doctor who attended to his wounds, and apologized to me for not having been able to get into the trenches. I saw him again that morning in hospital about three miles back; the doctors held out very little hope of his recovery, so I got the division to send a wire to your husband. The doctor told me that he had another wound in his chest, which might have been caused by a fragment of the bomb which wounded him in the arm, or might have been from another bullet. Capt. Miles saw Johnie that evening; he was quite conscious, and the doctors were more hopeful. That night a clever surgeon called Lockwood was called in. The poor boy passed away at three a.m. on the morning of the 26th, quite painlessly. I don't think he suffered much pain at any time; and when I last saw him, he only complained of not being able to get his breath. This discomfort passed off during the afternoon and he slept peacefully for some time.
I won't go into details of what happened to the other party. They got through the wire and killed some Germans, and obtained valuable identifications, but poor Bernard Helme was killed. Poor little Johnie, I feel his death very deeply. I had seen a great deal of him lately and realized what a splendid boy he was. Quite apart from his gallant end, he had been working indefatigably with his scouts in 'No Man's Land' for a week before the raid, and was out nearly every night making himself acquainted with the ground over which the raid was to take place. He did everything that human power could do to make a success of the raid, and I cannot put into words the admiration which we all feel for him, and the respect in which we shall always retain him in memory.
I can only repeat how truly sorry I am for you and his father.
Yours very sympathetically,
[Signed] F.W. Wormald.
Photographs of John Dunville Dunville, CBE, DL (1866-1929), father of John Spencer Dunville
Photograph of Violet Anne Blanche Dunville née Lambart (1861-1940), mother of John Spencer Dunville
Photographs of Robert Lambart Dunville (1893-1931), elder brother of John Spencer Dunville