“A true son of Empire” – Arras North – Page 295

One of the men featured in ‘Arras North’ is Lieutenant Colonel Michael Frederic ‘Fred’ Beauchamp DENNIS, DSO & Bar. In a sense, his military career started when he was seven years old. He would often stand guard at the foot of the stairs leading to the nursery at Newacott, the family home in Devon. Dressed in a red flannel tunic, he would stand there for hours on end in a show of self-discipline worthy of the Brigade of Guards. Soldiering ran through his blood and that of his family. His mother, Mary Ann Forbes, was of Scottish descent and her ancestors included a number of military men dating back to the turbulent days of late thirteenth century Scotland.

John de Forbes was killed at Urquhart Castle in 1303 and his son is said to have fallen at the Battle of Dupplin Moor in 1332. Another of Fred’s ancestors, ‘Black Jock’, first laird of Inverernan, was wounded and captured at the Battle of Sheriffmuir in 1715 fighting for the Jacobites. Once the Stuart cause was finally lost, another relative, John Forbes, also known as ‘Red Jock of Skellater’, left Scotland to serve in the army of the King of Portugal.

However, by far the greatest influence on young Fred was his maternal grandfather, General Sir John Forbes, CMG, whom Moltke the Elder referred to as ‘the finest cavalry leader in Europe’. At Khushab, Forbes had led a full-on cavalry charge against a Persian defensive square bristling like a porcupine. Having broken the square, Forbes and his men had fought on foot, resulting in the rout of the enemy’s forces; two of his officers were awarded the Victoria Cross for their part in the action. He later went on to serve in Italy, as part of a British mission, where he led a cavalry charge at the Battle of Solferino. Fred was very close to his grandfather, whom he used to visit at Inverernan in Aberdeenshire, and it was here, at first hand, that he would have heard great tales of soldiering, and of Empire.

In later life, another member of the family also became a key influence. His uncle, Gordon Forbes, had gone to live in South Africa, and both men had served during the Boer War. Prior to the conflict, Fred had joined the Royal Munster Fusiliers, serving with the 4th Battalion, part of the old militia. However, as the battalion was not scheduled to go to South Africa, Fred decided to volunteer his services, and so he joined the 22nd Imperial Yeomanry instead.

At Klips Drift he was badly wounded as his unit was withdrawing from a position which had become untenable. The Boers were quick to take advantage of the situation and advanced against the rearguards protecting the retirement. Fred left his column and returned to the action where he found just one officer, Captain Nesham, operating a solitary gun against overwhelming odds. Nesham was soon shot through the head. The Boers called on Fred to surrender, but he responded by taking aim at one of the enemy who appeared to be in charge, only to hesitate, as the man was wearing British sergeant’s stripes on his tunic. At that moment, Fred was shot in the leg. As he fell to the ground, Boer mounted units galloped over him in an attempt to follow up the British withdrawal.

Badly wounded, Fred was able to raise his leg on a nearby ant hill and the bleeding eventually stopped, though it was clear that he could do nothing more to ease his predicament. A while later, he heard a horse approaching; it was one of the Boers involved in the earlier action. In a brief act of chivalry, the man gave Fred his hat to protect him from the blazing sun before riding off. Later on, the Boer commander, General De la Rey, passed by and stopped to talk with Fred, and before leaving he promised to send his own doctor as and when he could. Meanwhile, vultures had begun to circle overhead and Fred, who by now was exhausted, began drifting in and out of consciousness. It was at this point that another Boer came by on horseback. The man dismounted and went up to him, at which point he began removing Fred’s boots. When it came to removing the boot from his injured leg, Fred piped up:

“I’d rather you left that leg alone, if you don’t mind”

The man was startled, but replied by asking him what he would do if he were in his position.

Smiling, Fred replied: “I’d give you a drink and that peach”, pointing to the piece of fruit in his opponent’s pocket. (Another account insists it was a pear rather than a peach, but no matter; it was enough to break the air of tension between the two men)

The man then left, but not before giving him his water bottle and the peach, and Fred also got to keep his boots! Later, as his condition began to deteriorate, he became aware of English voices. His own voice was too weak for him to call out, and it looked at one point as if the search party was about to leave when eventually they found him. Although he was now in safe hands, the condition of his wound was a grave cause for concern.

He made it back to Kimberley, but gangrene had already begun to set in. As he was about to undergo an operation, he overheard the surgeon telling one of the other doctors that, in all probability, the leg would have to come off. Whatever transpired, Fred got to keep his leg, but it took another eighteen months and several more operations before he could walk. In any case, his war was now over. Back in England, he underwent further surgery during which a large piece of gravel was removed. Prior to the operation he had been on a milk diet, but the night before ‘going under the knife’, he insisted on having lobster and champagne for dinner.

Even prior to the action at Klips Drift, Fred had demonstrated his leadership and his ability to command men. He and his troop had been detailed to move some bricks at the top of a hill. Most of his men were clearly disgruntled, believing this was not a role for ‘cavalry’. Fred said nothing as his men continued grousing, but once at the top of the hill, he picked up a brick, threw it to the man next to him, then picked up another; and so it was that the bricks began to make their way down the hill as they passed from man to man. A key part of leadership is credibility, and Fred knew that if he led by example others would follow him.

At home he continued his recovery, though he was never to walk without a limp. It was also back in Devon where he had first met Louise Bosanquet, the woman who was to become his wife; in fact, the two had known each other since childhood. With no apparent prospect of renewing his military career, he went into partnership with Louise’s cousin, Nicolas, and another man, setting up a mushroom farm near Enfield. The venture was not a success. He then tried his hand at dairying and poultry farming, but this fared little better than the previous attempt. Sometime later, and with marriage looming, he was persuaded to join his uncle Gordon in South Africa, who helped him to acquire a farm. In 1908, he returned to England where he married Louise, and soon after that, the couple set off for their new life abroad.

The journey was not without incident; Louise suffered from chronic sea-sickness and Fred contracted blood poisoning. Furthermore, having delivered both of them safely, the ship on which they had sailed to South Africa sank on its very next voyage. They eventually met up with Gordon, and after a short stay with him, they moved into their first home together, an old post house on the road to Mafeking. This time, the farming venture proved successful and the couple was further blessed by the birth of their first child. Louise and their daughter, Dorothy, returned to England in August 1911, and the following January their son, Nigel, was born. Fred briefly rejoined the family back in England, but after a brief stay, he and his wife set off again for South Africa, this time leaving the two children behind with her father and sister.

Once back in South Africa, they found the rent on their farm had been increased during their absence, and so the couple decided to move. They did manage to purchase a plot of land, but there was no accommodation with it. Undeterred, Fred hollowed out a large, abandoned termite mound and the couple lived within its shelter until their personal effects arrived, after which he built a shack using the empty packing cases. He then set about building a brand new home, which he managed to complete with some local help. The result was a handsome eight-room bungalow, which they named ‘Mosali’. Life was comfortable enough, but perhaps with an eye to the children joining them at some future date, Fred embarked on a new venture transporting copper ore along the Kafue River. Louise was often left in charge of the new farm while he was two hundred miles away up river. However, with some local help, she was able to manage the three hundred head of cattle, and Fred’s business might have developed into a profitable enterprise over time had it not been for the outbreak of war in Europe. The couple heard about the declaration of war while on a trip to a farmers’ meeting. Without further ado, they decided to return to England to answer the call, accompanied by his uncle Gordon.

The journey home was also fairly eventful. The cruiser escorting them intercepted an Austrian collier en route and sank it after taking its crew and passengers on board. At Gibraltar, their ship, the “Edinburgh Castle”, picked up the 2nd Wiltshire Regiment, as well as a German citizen suspected of spying. Between there and England, Fred used his time profitably by learning the rudiments of the machine gun and new infantry drill. Once ashore, he and Gordon Forbes wasted no time securing a commission in the King’s Own Scottish Borderers. Even so, Fred had to undergo a further operation before setting off for France, but with typical determination he managed to get himself passed fit for active service. Sadly, his uncle Gordon was killed by a shell on the 21st July 1915 during his first tour of duty in the trenches. He is buried in Fouquières Churchyard Extension, outside Béthune.

At this point we arrive at Fred’s service on the Western Front, which I’ve already covered in ‘Arras North’. Fred often wrote to his wife, whom he always addressed as ‘My Darling Goddess’. While researching the book I had the privilege of reading his correspondence with her and it’s clear that he was always keen to underplay the dangers of trench warfare, though she was clearly no fool. Fred was never free of discomfort from his old injury, but he endured life on the Western Front until his death in May 1918 from fragments of an enemy trench mortar. Courageous, resourceful, and determined, are all fitting adjectives to describe this remarkable officer whose sense of loyalty to Britain and the Empire was always uppermost in his thinking. His grave at Écoivres Military Cemetery is one of many there worth a visit.