Dame Judi Dench’s “Who do you think you are?” and Captain Reginald Arthur Dench MC

If you have watched the edition of “Who do you think you are?” that featured actress Dame Judi Dench, you will have met her father, Captain Reginald Arthur Dench MC. I’m pleased to say that I was invited by TV production company Wall To Wall to assist in researching him for the series: here’s his military story, based on my initial report on 1 November 2019.

Commission as an officer and training at home

The story of how Reginald came to be an officer is straightforward. He had no previous military experience and based on his own statement when applying for a commission he had not served with an Officer Training Cadet unit. He was what we might these days call a “direct entrant”. As such, it was his own decision to join the army and to do it this way. He signed his application on 9 November 1915 and next day also completed a medical form before he underwent a medical examination. The examining officer said that the examination took place at Portobello. This is likely to mean Portobello Barracks in Dublin. It is quite possible that Reginald had initiated his application by reporting there, although this is not certain.

He was commissioned as a Second Lieutenant (initially on probation) of the Special Reserve of Officers of the Prince of Wales’s Leinster Regiment (Royal Canadians) on 29 January 1916. This was announced in the “London Gazette” (LG) of 28 January 1916.

Reginald sustained an injury to his knee during training in May 1916. This may have been while serving with the regiment’s 3rd (Reserve) Battalion, located at Cork (but information found since my initial report suggests it may have been with 7 Officer Cadet Battalion at Fermoy). During June 1916 he underwent surgery, but later medical notes suggest that his knee continued to give trouble. During his time overseas – certainly from October 1916 onwards – he was forced to leave his unit for a few days on several occasions, and to use a stick to walk.

Service in France and Flanders

He joined regiment’s 7th (Service) Battalion in billets near Bailleul, Nord, France on 23 September 1916 (War diary, TNA WO95/1970), having crossed the English Channel to Boulogne a few days before.

He had a period of home leave between 19 January and 1 February 1917.

Reginald was confirmed in his rank, according to the “London Gazette”, on 25 January 1917 (an unusually late confirmation of passing the probationary period).

On 9 March 1917 he is mentioned in battalion war diary having especially distinguished himself during an (enemy) attack. There is no doubt that this corresponds with the subsequent award of the Military Cross (see below). An annotated copy of the “London Gazette” (TNA WO391) confirms date and location. The “Irish Independent” of 5 April 1917 reported that he also received a parchment from Major-General Hickie (commanding 16th (Irish) Division) and a personal letter of thanks from Brigadier-General Pereira (commanding 47th Infantry Brigade).

On 4 June 1917 Reginald was absent from a list of battalion officers present at Locre Hospice and cannot be assumed to have participated in the battalion’s action in the Battle of Messines (7-10 June 1917). The war diary offers no clues regarding his absence. He is not named in the war diary again until 15-16 October 1917, making it difficult to determine exactly during which of the battalion’s operations in the intervening period he had been present. He is however likely to have participated in the Battle of Langemarck, a phase of the Third Battle of Ypres, in August 1917.

On 1 July 1917 he was promoted to Lieutenant (LG 15 December 1917) although the Army List then shows, and continues to show, 28 July 1917. This would be more likely, as it was a standard promotion after eighteen months at the lower rank.

20 July 1917 he was promoted to the Acting rank of Captain (LG 16 October 1917). This was while Reginald was placed in command of one of the battalion’s companies.

He had a period of home leave between 15 August and 4 September 1917.

The war diary of 15-16 October 1917 names Reginald as being one of a trench raiding party and by implication he was in command of it, the other officers being junior to him. A subsequent report confirms that he had trained and led the raiding party. He is also reported to have shot a German soldier during the raid, although the citation to the award he received for this action refers to him also killing others. On 14 December 1917 the award of the second Military Cross was announced and the citation appeared on 23 April 1918 (LG).

He had another period of home leave between 11 and 28 November 1917.

On 16 February 1918 he relinquished the Acting rank of Captain on ceasing to command a company (LG 14 June 1918). His battalion was being disbanded. Reginald was posted to the regiment’s 2nd Battalion. The battalion’s war diary mentions his arrival.

Back in England

On 15 March 1918 he was returned to England for six months, in a scheme in which officers were rotated. It is usually a sign that the officer was exhausted. He was posted to join the 2/1st Kent Cyclist Battalion, a reserve unit of the Territorial Force. The exact date of his joining is not stated

9 May 1918 he was promoted to the Acting rank of Captain whilst in command of a company of a Cyclist Battalion (LG 8 June 1918). This may be when he joined the 2/1st Kent Cyclist Battalion.

On 23 July 1918 Reginald relinquished the Acting rank of Captain on ceasing to command a company of a Cyclist Battalion (LG 4 September 1918). Details are not given but this appears likely to be connected with his knee trouble.

On 31 July 1918 he was assessed by a Medical Board held at Helena Hospital at Shorncliffe Barracks near Folkestone. He was rated as unlikely to be fit at the “A” or “B” medical classifications (the former being required for front line service) for six months, and it would even be a month before he was at “C” (a low category which effectively would keep him at home and on administrative work). Reginald was granted twelve days leave and would then report back to his battalion, which was now located at Lydd in Kent.

Reginald was demobilised at the Number 1 Dispersal Unit at Oswestry in Shropshire on 24 January 1919. This unit handled the demobilisation of men resident in Ireland, following which they would return home and resume civilian life. His final medical classification was “Ci”.

He relinquished his commission on 1 April 1920 and was allowed the continued honorary use of the rank of Captain.

His British War and Victory Medals were issued on 2 December 1925. (The issuing roll incorrectly gives his forename initials as “R. H.” and the medals may have been inscribed as such).

Military Cross

The award of the Military Cross was announced in the “London Gazette” of 26 April 1917. Reginald was then a Second Lieutenant. The associated citation reads, “For conspicuous gallantry and devotion to duty. He set a magnificent example to his men, and himself fired a machine gun which inflicted many casualties on the enemy. He has previously done fine work.” It relates to an action at Spanbroekmolen on 9 March 1917.

Spanbroekmolen was the site of a windmill that stood on a promontory or spur of high land jutting westwards from the Wytschaete-Messines ridge, south of Ypres in the Belgian province of West Flanders. It had been captured by the Germans in November 1914 and had remained in their hands ever since. The ridge and the spur gave the Germans excellent observation across the British trenches and rear areas, all of which could be overlooked from the east. The British front line snaked around the spur and lay close to it. The Germans constructed a strongpoint, a redoubt or complex of trenches, dugouts and barbed wire defences, on the spur. The position did not change hands until 7 June 1917 but in the intervening period was a hotspot of continual harassing fire, sniping and raiding. There was particular reason to defend this sector of the British front line, for behind it a number of deep tunnels had been dug in 1916, burrowing below the Spanbroekmolen position and other points in front of the ridge. They had been packed with enormous quantities of explosives, ready to detonate. This took place in the early hours of 7 June 1917, the first day of the Battle of Messines. The resultant crater is still there, full of water and known as the “pool of peace”.

The 7th (Service) Battalion of the Leinster Regiment came under command of the 47th Infantry Brigade of the 16th (Irish) Division. The division had moved to the sector facing the Wytschaete-Messines ridge after taking part in the Battle of the Somme in 1916 and was already there when Reginald Arthur Dench arrived to join the battalion.

The action

The war diary of the General Staff of the headquarters of the 16th (Irish) Division includes detailed after-action accounts (TNA WO95/1955). They can be summarised as follows:

At 3.30pm on 8 March 1917 heavy German artillery and mortar fire began to fall on a sector held by the division’s 48th Infantry Brigade to the immediate north of that held by 47th Infantry Brigade. It was soon followed by three simultaneous but fairly small raids against the front line held by the 7th Royal Irish Rifles and 8th Royal Dublin Fusiliers. One of the raining parties was driven off by fire before it had reached the British trenches, but the others succeeded in penetrating the British front, causing casualties that included 8 killed, 37 wounded and the capture of some 25 NCOs and men, not least as the bombardment destroyed four Lewis machine guns upon which the defence strongly relied. A counter-attack was organised and the enemy parties eventually ejected and the situation was quiet by 7pm.
Throughout the night, The Germans kept on shelling the British front line but the 7th Leinsters noticed what appeared to be a deliberate attempt for it to cut their barbed wire defences in front of a particular spot in the line. It was that part of the line held by platoons of the battalion’s “B” and “D” Companies. The battalion disposed its men and guns in anticipation of another raid coming in from this direction. At about 4am on 9 March 1917 a hostile bombardment reopened on the whole of 47th Infantry Brigade’s front and 30 minutes later a German raiding party of about 130 soldiers advanced on the front between “Kingsway” and “Bull Ring” (map below). The battalion fired “SOS” rocket signals that brought British artillery and machine gun fire down on pre-arranged target areas. This attack was beaten off by that and by fire from the 7th Leinsters and made no progress: two wounded men of 181 Infanterie-Regiment were left in “no man’s land” and brought in by the battalion. Eight of their dead were also discovered. By 5am the situation was back to normal. On the battalion’s left, a raid of about 50 Germans managed to capture the garrison of ten men of the 6th Connaught Rangers who had been holding an advanced post.


Map 1: present day. Note the location of Wytschaete (now known as Wijtschate in modernised Flemish), south of Ypres (Ieper).

Map 2: topography. Note that Spanbroekmolen lies on a spur of higher ground that just westwards from the north-south ridge line on which lies Wytschaete.

Map 3: trench map at 1 April 1917. German trenches shown in red. British trenches in blue. The German strongpoint and front line of Spanbroekmolen is clear. The 7th Leinster Regiment was holding the front line between the communication trenches “Piccadilly” and “Durham Road”: in other words, south west and south of Spanbroekmolen. I have marked the extent of the battalion’s front with red flags. Some platoons of the battalion were in support posts SP6 to SP9 and in “Regent Street dugouts”. Reginald’s exact position is unknown but was evidently within the area depicted.

Map 4: the battalion’s front line overlaid onto a present day map. It is easy to locate on the ground, aided by the location of the “Pool of peace” mine crater and the “Lone Tree Cemetery” which dates from the British attack of 7 June 1917 but is in what had been “no man’s land” on 9 March 1917. Much of the position of the front lies on private farmland, but it can be stood upon at two points: the lane at the northern red flag, and the on the yellow road near the southern flag.
Image 1: Google Maps street level view. We are on the yellow road exactly where the battalion’s front line trench crossed it. The “pool of peace” is surrounded by trees on the slightly higher ground in the centre of the image: this was the site of Spanbroekmolen. The battalion’s trench ran away across the field in front of us, and bent to the left just before the farm building that can be seen in front of the “pool of peace” trees. Reginald’s MC was earned somewhere within our field of view.

Bar to Military Cross

The award of the second Military Cross was announced in the “London Gazette” of 17 December 1917 and the citation eventually appeared in the edition of 23 April 1918. Lieutenant and Acting Captain Dench received the bar for “conspicuous gallantry and devotion to duty during a raid on the enemy trenches. He was the only officer to reach the front line, and showed great skill in leadership. He killed two of the enemy with his revolver and one with a bomb. With great skill and initiative he beat off a strong party of the enemy, after which he led his men back to our own lines, under heavy rifle fire, himself remaining out in “No Man’s Land” until all his men were safely back.” It relates to an action near Bullecourt (Pas de Calais, France) on 16 October 1917.

In the spring of 1917, the German Armies carried out a strategic withdrawal from the Somme sector where they had been involved in the great battle of 1916. They moved eastwards to a pre-prepared defensive system that they called the Siegfried Stellung. The British name for it was the Hindenburg Line. British forces, once it was detected that the Germans were withdrawing, advanced until they ran up against the outer defences of this system. The Hindenburg Line was a formidable position, several miles deep and consisting of successive lines of concrete bunkers, tunnels, dugouts, trenches and emplacements with deep and complex barbed wire in front of each. During April and May 1917, the British attack known as the Battle of Arras had largely failed to penetrate deep into these defences and the position remained until March 1918. The 16th (Irish) Division, having just taken part in the Battle of Langemarck at Ypres, was moved south in late August 1917 into one of the sectors facing the Hindenburg Line. It incorporated the village of Bullecourt, which had seen intensive fighting in May 1917.

The 7th Leinster Regiment first entered this sector of front line on 3 September 1917 and although had several short tours of duty there (being rotated in turn with other battalions) over the next few weeks. It was in this same sector that the raid took place on 16 October. The Third Battle of Ypres was still going on but the raid was not connected with it; it was one of many such raids, designed to identify the enemy, observe the defences at close quarters and cause damage and disruption.

The action

On 9 October 1917 the battalion was relieved in the front line and moved to a support position about half a mile behind. It reported the next few days quiet. The battalion provided daily working parties for carrying material, digging or repairing trenches. Reginald and a detachment of four officers and 100 men did not participate, for they used this time to train and prepare for a raid. The battalion’s war diary defines the frontage of the raid as being between grid locations U.14.d.25.00 and V.20.b.80.40. This is described and illustrated in maps, below. The diary includes a narrative that describes the raid as an “unpretentious one” designed for reconnaissance and identification purposes. A party of Royal Engineers accompanied Reginald’s detachment.

The raid began on time at 2.10am on 16 October 1917. It succeeded completely in its objectives and earned thanks and praise from higher command. Of particular note is that a ruse was played, apparently successfully, to use 30 cylinders of compressed air to simulate the sound of a release of poison gas. When the raiding party entered the German position they found Germans wearing their anti-gas respirators (which reduces their visibility, especially at night). The raid was typical of its time, being co-ordinated with the firing of an artillery and machine gun barrage to form three sides of a box around the raid area, cutting off any escape and preventing reinforcements entering. The enemy unit was identified as a battalion of 228 Reserve-Infanterie-Regiment: its casualties are unknown. During the raid the German artillery began to shell their own front line. At this point the recall signal was given and the raiding party successfully returned to their own line.

The raiding party suffered the loss of one man killed, three officers and five men wounded (none seriously). Private 5172 Andrew Maguire has no known grave and is commemorated at the Arras Memorial. His role had been as signal runner for Lieutenant Macahy.


Map 5: a present day map. Bullecourt can be seen to the south east of Arras.
Map 6: part of a map that describes British progress during the Battle of Arras in April and May 1917. The red line shows the front line of the Siegfried Stellung system in the Bullecourt area.
Map 7: the British attacks of earlier months had seized the front line of the German defences but now faced the second line, known generally as the “Hindenburg Support [Line]”. The battalion’s war diary defines the frontage of the raid as being between grid locations U.14.d.25.00 and V.20.b.80.40. I have marked the extent of the raid frontage with blue flags corresponding to these references. The map dates to 4 September 1917: this may account for the lower flag to be in what appears to be an area of barbed wire defences between the two main trenches (perhaps the situation was slightly different by mid-October). Note that the part of the support line to be raided was known as “Tunnel Trench”.

Map 8: the after action narrative mentions “Mars Sap”: this was a short trench leading from “Tunnel Trench” to a concrete bunker. The diary refers to this as a “mebu”, a phrase in common usage with British forces at this time and from the German “Mannschafts-Eisen-Beton-Unterstand” (Personnel-Iron-Concrete-Shelter). It was somewhere within the vicinity of this that Reginald Dench was called upon to kill at least one (other reports say more) of the defenders.

Map 9: the two front lines and the extent of the raid overlaid onto a present day map. Note the location marked “79”.

Image 2: a Google Maps street view image. Point “79” is the junction with a lane going off to our right, near to the camera. The two front lines snaked away veering leftwards across our view. The white, chalky marks in the ground are vestiges of the old defences of the “Hindenburg Support” line and the trees on the left are very close to where Reginald led his men into the raid.

Addendum

Since I added this article to the site, people have asked about the medal group that they saw on screen.

Screen shot from the BBC broadcast. Left to right: Military Cross and Bar; decoration of the Commander of the Most Venerable Order of the Hospital of St John of Jerusalem ( a non-military decoration); British War Medal; Victory Medal; Defence Medal 1939-45 (for service in the Second World War).

Links

Leinster Regiment

Kent Cyclist Battalion