The Wilson family legend is that when Dennis’ father Alexander was playing cricket in the Oxfordshire village of Cuddington in 1921 word got to him at the crease that his wife Gladys had given birth to his second son and he went on to score fifty runs and win the match.
It is fitting that Dennis would score in life 101 years and make a significant contribution to his country with courageous service at the Battle of Normandy in 1944 and to literature with a lifetime of writing exquisite and elegant poetry.
His Elegy Of A Common Soldier is one of the most important poems of the Second World War.
He wrote it during the terrible fighting in the Bocage countryside after D-Day, sending pages back to his mother in England in case he never returned.
He was able to complete it in hospital after he was riddled and disabled by Wehrmacht shrapnel on 1st July 1944.
He had been leading his infantry platoon back to safety after becoming surrounded by German troops during the Battle of Rauray.
His service in the campaign to liberate France was recognised with the award of the Légion d’honneur.
In his late eighties and early nineties Dennis’ poems would be published in five volumes: Poetry of a Marriage 2008, Haughtyculture or the gardening muse 2011, Elegy of a common soldier : and other poems 2012, A celebration of children also in 2012, and From bard to verse and poetic epics 2013.
Elegy of a common soldier: and other poems would become a best seller particularly with people who had experienced and had relatives living through WWII.
With his characteristic modesty he described the appellation of ‘The Wilfred Owen of the Second World War’ as a gross exaggeration.
But his achievements were being recognised nationally with extensive coverage in the local, regional and national media.
And there would be international appreciation when in 2012 John Lundberg wrote for the Huffington Post: ‘Britain Discovers a New (Yet Very Old) War Poet. Like famed World War I poet Wilfred Owen, Dennis Wilson paints a harsh and unflinching portrayal of war from a soldier’s perspective.’
Mr Lundberg wrote: ‘In another similarity to Owen’s work, Wilson’s poetry offers insight into the psychological turmoil that soldiers have to endure in wartime. In “Aftermath,” Wilson asks what war has done “to the Youth of the World.” He answers, in part:’
It has taught him to gaze on the friend who fell beside him in battle,
With less compassion and anger than inward relief:
Relief that the bullet found a heart other than his own;
But relief followed instantly by guilt that will never go away.
His growing reputation as a poet would lead to being invited as guest of honour to her Majesty the Queen and HRH Duke of Edinburgh for the Royal Reception on Contemporary poetry at Buckingham Palace in 2013.
He was interviewed by John Humphrys on BBC Radio 4’s Today programme and read an extract from Elegy live which was heard by millions of listeners.
Dennis would also be awarded an Honorary Fellowship from the University of Southampton for his services to literature in 2015.
Dennis was a man who quietly collected records including a 48-year-career with Encyclopaedia Britannica International Limited, where he had been their longest serving sales representative.
Last year he celebrated his 100th birthday with a garden party organised by friends that he had made at the Immaculate Conception Catholic Church. He told his regional local newspaper the Southampton Echo: ‘We had a lovely party’, and added ‘I don’t feel any different.’
Dennis was also a lifelong supporter of the Saints- Southampton’s premier league soccer club. He could accurately remember goal line action from FA Cup fixtures of the 1930s and all the highs and lows of the club’s fortunes.
Family and early life
Dennis’ parents were running a theatrical touring company putting on performances in village halls and repertory theatres across England’s home counties when he was born in Thame on 25th June 1921.
His family had a distinguished military tradition and history. Great grandfather Hugh had been one of the founding members of the Army Hospital Corps, had received a medal in one of the Victorian wars with China, but had died from fever at the age of 31.
Dennis’ grandfather, Alexander, effectively joined the army at the age of eight when sent to Dublin to be educated at the Royal Hibernian military school. At 14 he was enrolled into the Royal Army Medical Corps at Aldershot. In his 47 year career he rapidly rose through the ranks, was commissioned as an officer for service during the Boer War and promoted to Lieutenant Colonel for the Great War where he was mentioned in dispatches for effectively equipping all the medical services on the Western Front during the last months of the conflict for which there was the highest casualty rate.
Dennis excelled in English and History at his school in Southampton and when leaving at 15 worked for Ocean Pictures, a firm supplying photographers for ocean liners. Every fortnight he went aboard the Queen Mary after she docked to process all the photographs taken during the voyage. He loved roaming the ship to his heart’s content.
In 1938 Dennis spent six months on the Canadian Pacific liner SS Montcalm doing fortnightly cruises out of Tilbury Docks that took him to virtually every city in Europe with a port, and exotic and faraway places such as Helsinki, Algiers, Casablanca, Madeira, Tenerife and Naples.
He later worked as a commercial artist for an illuminated signs company and then for his Auntie May when she moved her nursing home for retired ladies from Southsea to Topsham in South Devon. It was there he was called up for service in the Second World War.
World War Two
Dennis joined the Royal Artillery in a light Ack Ack and search-light unit for the early part of the Battle of Britain. When the British Army was recruiting infantry officers in 1943, he was commissioned into the Middlesex Regiment, serving in the first Battalion Kensingtons, and then the Black Watch Tyneside-Scots.
Dennis had been pooled into the First Line Reserve when D-Day happened on 6th June 1944. He was borrowed from the reinforcement camp by another regiment, the 11th Royal Scots Fusiliers, which saw action for about a fortnight, and then allowed to rejoin the Tyneside Scots after they had been in action and taken many casualties. He was given a depleted platoon of about 15 to 20 men.
On the 1st of July, Dennis and his men found themselves surrounded at the top of the triangle which was the front line of the Battle of Rauray and had to literally crawl back to escape annihilation or being taken prisoner of war.
Dennis had an acute poet’s and writer’s eye for description and this sensibility has left one of the most poignant descriptions of being wounded in battle- reminiscent of George Orwell’s iconic account of being shot by a sniper during the Spanish Civil War:
We all managed to get back to our forward lines and I made sure all my men were safely in slit trenches and I thought I’d better report to the local company commander. This was about midday on the 1st of July 1944. At this moment a shell landed. A shell doesn’t make a banging noise, it makes a clanging noise. I’ve always found that rather interesting. It’s a bit like a giant hitting a huge piece of corrugated iron. I took one look at this arm, my right arm, and it was a horrible mess.
It was actually one of the happiest moments of my life. Because although I thought I was probably going to lose the arm, I was really happy as a lark. I would be out of it, and with a clear conscience. Then unfortunately another shell landed and I realised that the Germans hadn’t actually got the message that for me the war was already over and I was on my way home. I got hit in one or two other places. I crawled over to where Sergeant Ford was. I crawled into his slit trench, and I felt an agonising need to urinate. My right arm was out of action. My left hand was out of action as well because I had been hit in the wrist. I couldn’t do anything so Sergeant Ford had to do the honours. It does sound rather ridiculous doesn’t it? Well what actually came out was blood because it turned out the shrapnel had gone clean through my bladder into the pelvic region and it’s still there; the size and shape of a large hazelnut. An inch and a half to the right I would never have been able to have any children.
I was by this time bleeding rather a lot and unable to move and Sergeant Ford and another soldier very kindly took hold of each of my elbows and ran me to the nearest first aid station. It was really rather brave of them because they exposed themselves as well as me, and any Germans taking aim could have finished us off. There I was lying on a stretcher with tourniquets applied in various places and waiting to be carted off to the field hospital.
Now I had been a non-smoker all my life and an RAMC corporal came along, saw me there and you know it was the kindest action any man could have done. He lit a cigarette and put it between my lips because as you know both my arms and hands had holes in them and he helped me smoke a cigarette. It was such a kind action. I really didn’t have the heart to tell him I was a non-smoker. In fact I really didn’t like cigarettes at all. I had tried one or two when I was seventeen and detested the taste and everything that went with them. After I had puffed away on half the cigarette thankfully he got called way to attend to some other poor chap who had been brought in and I could at last breathe some fresh air. They then took me to a field hospital where I was given the last rites. I don’t believe it was because I was in any serious danger. Just a precaution you understand. Really very thoughtful of them.
It is characteristic that Dennis could find some element of comedy or farce in the most tragic and terrible of situations. Like many of his generation he reached for the light-hearted tone in the filtering of memories which for most people needed burying.
But the courage of his leadership and composure on that day in Normandy has been recorded by the historian of his battalion, the 1st Tyneside Scottish Black Watch. Kevin Baverstock had obtained an eye witness account of the battle in Normandy in 1944 when a young officer was felled by two blasts of Wehrmacht shrapnel and while lying wounded ‘was trying to get up and rally his men.’ This account related to the exact location where Lieutenant Dennis B. Wilson had received his appalling wounds on 1st July 1944. Kevin Baverstock later wrote to Dennis Wilson: ‘…it is astonishing to think that you survived such a dreadful ordeal.’
Dennis was demobilized as a Captain in 1947 and would soon embark on his career in Encyclopedia Britannica where his philosophy was that the Encyclopedia was a provision of information and enlightenment.
Extraordinary family history
Coinciding with his discovery as a longstanding poet in his senior years, Dennis B. Wilson became part of a family history narrative that would require an entire series of Who Do You Think You Are? to come anywhere near explaining.
He exalted his mother Gladys who for most of her married life brought up her three children as a default single parent. Father Alexander Joseph Patrick Wilson was away most of the time working as an academic in British India in the middle to late 1920s, and then as a glamorous thriller, spy and romantic novelist in London during the 1930s. During WW2 his father was clearly working in the intelligence world and it would be later confirmed he had been an MI6 officer for three years.
It would be his father’s predilection to concomitant as well as serial relationships and marriages which would cause hurt and consternation.
The first clear evidence of this was when Dennis had to manage the arrangements for his father’s funeral in Portsmouth in 1963 when it was apparent there were two widows and two children from a later bigamous marriage.
In 2006, Dennis would be contacted by a researcher representing Mike Shannon, a Royal Shakespeare Company actor and poet who was the son of another of his father’s parallel lives and marriages. There would be more.
Dennis became the patriarch of a much larger extended family and deployed the great reserves of emotional courage, compassion, human dignity and kindness of his loving and generous soul to welcome everyone and take great joy in kindling all of these new and fascinating family relationships.
His niece from his father’s relationship with MI6 secretary Alison McKelvie is the award-winning actor and producer Ruth Wilson. They would be interviewed together for a Sunday Times magazine feature, and Dennis’ role in the story would be characterised and dramatised in the BBC Television Drama series Mrs Wilson which has been broadcast all over the world.
Ruth executively produced and starred in the series playing the part of her grandmother.
Dennis Wilson has left an important and significant legacy to British poetry.
He has consistently committed himself to the highest standards of the literary art and craft of traditional metre, rhyme and scansion.
His influences are Shakespeare, Tennyson, Keats, and the 20th century’s Georgian poets.
His discipline is the Sonnet which if a painting would have the chiaroscuro and colour scheme of Renoir, Monet or Manet, the humanity and humour of Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec, and the draughtsmanship and geometrics of Piet Mondrian.
His language is accessible, with emotions, thoughts and ideas that are complex, powerful and also at the same time so everyday and part of the common experience of the changing vicissitudes of human feeling.
He is able to explore the big subjects of the 20th century arising from his direct, visceral and traumatic experience of war on the home front and in the front line.
His poetry expresses the paradox of loss, loneliness and misunderstanding in marriages whose course sometimes runs dislocated in the search for love and companionship.
He writes of the beauty, joys and fun of gardening.
He celebrates everything that is wonderful and memorable about childhood and a vast range of social observation in his long life spanning the most dramatic, frightening and exhilarating decades of the twentieth century going into the twenty first.
Dennis B Wilson was a poet for his age and all the ages of his life, writing in his nineties with the same high skill with words, enlightening and gentle insight, and tranquil thoughtfulness that he expressed in his late teens on the threshold of adulthood.
Dennis Bruce Wilson born 25 June 1921. Died 28 June 2022.
Married ‘Maisie’ Hannah May Potts 1951 who predeceased him in 1999.
He is survived by his children John and Patricia and grandsons Jonathan and Timothy and his wider extended family.
The recording of the funeral of Dennis B. Wilson at the Southampton – Immaculate Conception Church, Portswood 20th July 2022.
Obituary in the Times newspaper ‘Dennis Wilson, 101: War poet who mused on love, friendship and gardening.’
Obituary in the Telegraph newspaper ‘Captain Dennis Wilson, Normandy veteran whose war poems were ranked alongside Wilfred Owen’s and Siegfried Sassoon’s.’
BBC Radio 4 Last Word, September 2022 ‘Jean-Luc Godard, Barbara Ehrenreich, Dennis Wilson, Mavis Nicholson’ (Captain Dennis Wilson Born 25 June 1921; died 28 June 2022 aged 101. Last Word spoke to Professor Tim Crook of Goldsmiths’ College, University of London.)
Sunday Times Magazine Relative Values: the actress Ruth Wilson and the poet Dennis B Wilson (2015)