Near Epehy, France, 24/25 June.
On 24/25 June 1917 2nd Lt John Dunville (1st Royal Dragoons) won a posthumous VC. Although he was a member of a cavalry unit, he won his award for his role as an infantryman in a 'quiet' sector held by the cavalry near Epehy, during a raid on the enemy trenches about 12 miles north-east of Péronne. The purpose of the raid was to obtain identification of their German opponents. Dunville's citation, gazetted on 2 August 1917, reads as follows:
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, Second Lieut. Dunville placed himself between an NCO of the Royal Engineers and the enemy's fire, and, thus protected, this NCO was enabled to complete a work of great importance. Second Lieutenant 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.
Dunville died in the small hours of 26 June and a few days later, on 30 June, his commanding officer Col Wormald wrote to his mother to express his deep sorrrow and to give her some details about her son's gallantry.
...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 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 can only repeat how truly sorry I am for you and his father.
Yours very sympathetically,
[Signed] F.W. Wormald.
The distance that Dunville walked back with his arm practically blown off and a hole in his chest was nearly 800 yards. After being attended to by Billy Miles, his squadron commander, he was placed on a stretcher and taken back by motor ambulance to Villers-Faucon where his left arm was soon amputated. He was seen by the 'best Consulting Surgeon in France', who was brought over from a large Casualty Clearing Station at Tincourt, and a second operation was performed in order to beat the poison, but the gallant officer died at 3.00 a.m., without coming round.
Letters for Dunville were brought up from regimental details while he lay with gunshot wounds to his shoulder and chest in hospital, but he was not up to reading them or to having them read to him. They were put with his revolver and compass and placed in a small bag, which was later sent back to his parents. Before he died, Dunville received Holy Communion.
Dunville was buried close to Lt R. Helme in Villers-Faucon Communal Cemetery, Row A, Grave 21, one of 227 British graves and 90 German. The cemetery is on the north-west side of the village of Villers-Faucon, which is about 10 miles to the north-east of Péronne. He had been first buried in the Communal German extension according to his service file. The village was captured by the 5th Cavalry Division on 27 March 1917, lost nearly a year later and retaken by III Corps on 7 September 1918. An extension cemetery is close by, as is a French civilian cemetery. Also buried in the communal cemetery is 2nd Lt Parsons VC.
Dunville's parents received a considerable number of letters of sympathy concerning the death of their son and these included a telegram from the King. Most spoke of Johnie's considerable charm and popularity; put in simple terms 'he was loved by all'. To quote a letter from J. Burgon Bickersteth, son of the Bishop of Leeds and a brother officer who joined up with Dunville:
After the war Dunville's brother 'Bobby' visited his younger brother's grave and cut the letters VC on to his brother's wooden cross. The posthumous VC was presented to his father, Flt Cdr John Dunville RNAS, on 29 August – the same day as Billy Bishop was awarded his. Dunville was the fifth man from the Belfast district to be awarded the VC in the Great War.
John Spencer Dunville was born at 46 Portland Place, Marylebone, London, on 7 May 1896. He was the second son of John Dunville CBE, chairman of Dunville & Co. Whiskey Distillers and Violet Anne Blanche (née Lambart). They also had two other sons, Robert and William, and a daughter who suffered from what is now called Down's Syndrome and was to spend her whole life in hospital. Both of John's parents had been aeronautical pioneers and, in addition, John senior had at one time been private secretary to the Duke of Devonshire, Secretary to the Lord President of the council and squadron commander. He also had an office address in Belfast. John's elder brother, Lt Robert Dunville, who was in the Grenadier Guards, was wounded by the Sinn Fein in Dublin during the Irish rebellion at Easter 1916.
Johnie Dunville was educated at Ludgrove School and Eton College.
The Dunville family lived in Redburn House, Hollywood, County Down and the local Priory Churchyard has the Dunville family grave and a memorial stone to John erected there (Grave 178/188). In Redburn Square in the town is the local war memorial and the area was laid out in John Dunville's honour. Dunville's name is one of those listed on this memorial. Lastly John is commemorated with a plaque and memorial window in St Mary's Church, Hollywood.
After the war, Violet Dunville arranged for a wreath to be laid every Remembrance Day in memory of her son on the family grave in the cemetery. On her death she left £196,569 and part of that sum is used to pay for this annual event, and, in addition, £500 was also left to Hollywood Parish Church to establish a trust to provide gifts to the needy on Armistice Day. A further £500 was left to the Royal Victoria Hospital, Belfast.
Dunville's VC and medals are kept with the Household Cavalry Museum in Windsor, who also provided the author with a lot of material on the life of their sole Great War VC holder.
The above is an abbreviated account of 2nd Lt John Dunville's life published in the 2012 edition of VCs of the First World War: Arras & Messines 1917. Available from the WFA's Online Bookstore (in conjunction with Amazon) and The History Press in paperback at £9.95.
Article kindly contributed by Gerald Gliddon.
Image courtesy Wikipedia