I can’t claim to be a ‘James Bond’ fan, nor can I claim not to be, it’s just that I’ve somehow never managed to watch a ‘007’ film from beginning to end. However, if you are a bit of a ‘Bond’ aficionado you might want to read on.
It’s quite widely documented that Major Valentine Fleming DSO, whose son, Ian Fleming, created the fictional character ‘James Bond’, is buried at Templeux-le-Guérard British Cemetery (Plot II.E.40). The CWGC register makes specific mention of this, pointing out that the major also served as MP for South Oxon and died on the 20th May 1917, aged 35.
However, there’s another Ian Fleming connection buried out there on the Western Front, though it’s not at all obvious. One of the first articles posted on my website was a piece entitled: ‘A True Son of Empire’. It concerned the life and military career of Lieutenant-Colonel Michael Frederic Beauchamp DENNIS DSO & Bar, or ‘Fred’ as he was often called. Fred was one of four sons born to George Beauchamp Gore Dennis and his wife, Mary Ann Forbes. Ralph died, aged just 21, from tuberculosis, often referred to at the time as consumption. Stanley, like Fred, went off to seek his fortune in South Africa and became manager of a remote mine, a position secured for him by his uncle, Gordon Forbes, who fell during the Great War serving with the 7th King’s Own Scottish Borderers and is now buried in Fouquières Churchyard Extension. Sadly, Stanley contracted septic pneumonia and had to endure an agonizing journey by ox-waggon lasting forty hours along rough tracks to the nearest hospital where he died at the age of 28.
Fred’s youngest brother, Ernan, the only one to survive, enjoyed more robust health. He went on to have a brilliant career as a diplomat, which served as cover for his other role as a spy working for what we would now call MI6. Wounded in the Great War, he went on to serve as Head of Station in Marseille, and in the 1920’s his work took him to Vienna where he and his wife, Phyllis Bottome, later witnessed at first hand the rise of Hitler’s Nazi Party and its brutal treatment of Germany’s Jewish population. During their time there, he and Phyllis ran a ski and language school, ‘Tannerhof’, in Kitzbühel. It was there that they first met a lively young man who had recently been asked to leave Eton. That young man was none other than Ian Fleming and the three of them formed a very close bond (sorry for the awful pun) that lasted throughout their lives.
Phyllis, as it happened, was also a best-selling novelist, and with her encouragement the young Ian Fleming began to take an interest in writing, penning his first short story “Death on Two Occasions”, which he wrote specifically for her. It was around this time that Phyllis wrote “The Mortal Storm”, a book dealing with the plight of the Jews in the run up to the outbreak of the Second World War.
In 1947, Phyllis and Ernan visited Ian Fleming at his home, ‘Goldeneye’, in Jamaica. As ever, he and Phyllis were keen to talk about their current projects, including a novel that Phyllis had written a year earlier, “The Lifeline”. The work featured a British spy, Mark Chalmers, whose physical attributes were to bear an uncanny resemblance to Fleming’s subsequent creation when he introduced the world to his most celebrated fictional hero in “Casino Royale” in 1953. It is inconceivable that she and Fleming would not have discussed her latest work; after all, their love of writing was at the very heart of their friendship.
Quite why Phyllis never went on to develop the idea behind her own fictional creation in the way that Fleming went on to develop his is not at all easy to explain. One theory, put forward by the spy writer, Nigel West, is that Phyllis had used Fleming as the template for her hero, Chalmers. Fleming may therefore have felt completely justified in using the character of Chalmers for his own fictional creation. West suggests that this was probably the main reason why Phyllis never complained that Fleming had stolen her creation. But who knows?
At the time I was writing the “Visiting the Fallen” books, I was already aware of Ernan and Phyllis’s connection to Ian Fleming, and of their family connection to ‘Fred’ Dennis. Lieutenant-ColonelDennis is buried in Ecoivres Military Cemetery (Plot V.L.1) and fell in action on the 19th May 1918, exactly a year, barring a day, after Fleming’s father had died serving with the Queen’s Own Oxfordshire Hussars. I think I’ve mentioned previously that I was fortunate enough to meet Fred’s grand-daughter whilst researching and writing my books and that my wife and I have since become friends with her and her daughter. It’s thanks to the family that I now have a copy of “The Happy Warrior”, a memoir of Lieutenant-Colonel ‘Fred’ Dennis, privately printed in 1919 and written by Phyllis Bottome, among the many books on my shelves.
What prompted this particular article was a programme broadcast on BBC Radio 4 on Saturday the 12th December last year. It was titled: “The Woman Who Invented James Bond” and put forward the notion that, whilst there is no doubt that Fleming invented ‘James Bond’, Phyllis Bottome’s hero, ‘Mark Chalmers’, was almost certainly the blueprint, or at least the inspiration behind Fleming’s blockbuster creation. Fleming’s own biographer acknowledged that Phyllis had exerted an enormous influence on him, and Nigel West has also commented that the similarities between the two fictional characters are quite striking. In 1960, three years before Phyllis’s death, Fleming himself remarked: “My life with you both is one of my most cherished memories. Heaven knows where I should be today without Ernan.” Ernan died in 1972.
So it is that we have another ‘James Bond’ connection out there on the Western Front, albeit through the brother-in-law of the woman who was very likely responsible for sowing the first seeds of what has since blossomed into a global phenomenon.
Speaking of those with the initials ‘J.B.’, I have to admit that there is another individual whom I would have included in ‘Arras North’ had I known at the time who he was. The CWGC register entry for Lieutenant Alastair Ebenezer Buchan, 6th Royal Scots Fusiliers, notes only that he was the son of the Reverend John and Helen Buchan of Bank House, Peebles. Of course, I should have realized that he was the brother of the celebrated Scottish novelist, John Buchan, who created another of those dashing characters of 20th century fiction, Richard Hannay.
Alastair fell in action on the 9th April 1917, the opening day of the Battle of Arras, and is buried at Duisans British Cemetery where he died from his wounds, aged 22 (Plot I.N.14). Again, maybe I should have picked up on this, as I have visited Peebles more times than I care to remember; not only that, the preface of John Buchan’s “The History of the Royal Scots Fusiliers (1678-1918), penned by H.R.H. Edward, Prince of Wales, points out that the work also serves as a fitting memorial to Buchan’s brother who fell during the Great War, though it doesn’t mention Alastair by name, nor does it say when and where he fell.
That said, like any work of a similar nature, “Visiting the Fallen” was always likely to expand a little in response to new discoveries and people of interest. Alastair Buchan will certainly make it into any reprint should we ever get that far.
Buchan wrote of his brother: “He was one of those people who seemed to have been born especially for the Great War. Cheerful, dreamy, absent minded, he went creditably through the stages of school and college and decided on chartered accountancy as his profession. But he never seemed to take any of these things quite seriously, as if he were waiting for another kind of summons.”
During his short life Alastair had travelled to South Africa and Europe, and had visited London on a number of occasions. He was 20 years old when the war broke out. He joined the Cameron Highlanders and came south to England with his battalion where he completed his training. He was then commissioned in the Royal Scots Fusiliers and went to France towards the end of 1915. In spring the following year he was wounded and it was October before he was again fit for duty.
According to John, when Alastair was a child he was a devotee of ‘Cyrano de Bergerac’. His favourite scene was the one ‘under the walls of Arras’. John recalled how his brother was often heard to disclaim: ”Who are these men that rush upon death?”, before responding: “Cadets of Gascony are we”.