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A War Poet's Compass

 Captain Richard Dennys compass 1916

Captain Richard Molesworth Dennys, The Somme, July 1916


"No need for me to look askance,
Since no regret my prospect mars,
My day was happy—and perchance
The coming night is full of stars."

This compass is engraved with the name and regimental details of it's original owner, Captain Richard Molesworth Dennys (1884-1916), one of the forgotten poets of the First World War. The compass is a model known as "The Guide", which was a development of the "Glow Needle" design patented by F. Barker & Son in June 1906. "The Guide" combined features from several different Barker patents and first appeared in 1907. It was not standard military issue, and would have been a private purchase item, quite distinct from the more common Verner's Patent prismatic service compass which most officers carried. It was most probably acquired by Captain Dennys sometime between late 1914 and his departure for France in July 1915. With it large luminous-painted needle and robust hunter case it would have been well suited to use in the trenches. The compass has survived remarkably well, considering its history. It would almost certainly have been with Richard Dennys on his last day in the line in July 1916, as he looked down the slope towards the vast mine crater outside La Boiselle.

Richard Dennys served with 'A' Company of the 10th Loyal North Lancashire Regiment. Before the war he had studied medicine at St Bartholemew's Hospital in London, qualifying as a Doctor in 1909. But he never practised, and by the summer of 1914 he was in Florence working in Gordon Craig's theatre school. As soon as war broke out he returned to England intending to join the Royal Army Medical Corps. For some reason he was told that medical men were 'not required' at the moment, so he sought a commission elsewhere and joined the 10th Loyal North Lancashire Regiment. To the surprise of his friends, he proved to be an exceptional soldier, promoted to Captain before the end of 1914 and being given command of a Company within a few months of his arrival in France. As his first Company Commander wrote: "He was such a fine type. . . a splendid officer, for that I can better vouch than anybody else." And his friend and fellow officer Desmond Coke wrote: "No work was too hard, no physical misery too great for him, if it made for the comfort or welfare of his men."

Richard Dennys had been a poet long before the First World War. When his collected work was published in There is No Death (Bodley Head, 1917), several of his early poems were included. E. A. Osborn felt that some of them bore comparison to the work of Robert Louis Stevenson, sharing that great writer's "sincerity and simplicity". Dennys had clearly always wanted to be a writer, but he was also a painter, actor and musician. Like Wilfred Owen and many of the other war poets, Richard Dennys' life, and his art, seem to have been brought into sharp focus by the war, inspiring him to create his best work. As E. A. Osborn wrote in The New Elizabethans, a study of some of the lesser-known poets of the war, published in 1919, "But for the War we might never have known the true worth of Richard Dennys." During his year at the front, he produced several fine poems, including Ballads From Belgium, which has echoes of Sassoon and Owen:

'Last night within the crowded trench
I and a friend lay side by side,
Waiting through fitful dreams for dawn

To bring the flood of battle-tide.

To-night upon the moon drenched plain,
'Mid those who did not fear to die,
The friend I loved is lying still,

His wide eyes staring at the sky.'

These lines, describing a dream of a ghostly column of dead soldiers, are reminiscent of Owen's Strange Meeting:

'Before my eyes there passed a throng,
A pale procession of the lately dead.
Haggard with blood and sweat they moved along'

Better Far to Pass Away is the poem for which Richard Dennys is best remembered today:

Better Far to Pass Away

While the limbs are strong and young,
Ere the ending of the day,
Ere Youth’s lusty song be sung.
Hot blood pulsing through the veins,
Youth’s high hope a burning fire,
Young men needs must break the chains
That hold them from their heart’s desire.

My friends the hills, the sea, the sun,
The winds, the woods, the clouds, the trees-
How feebly, if my youth were done,
Could I, an old man, relish these !
With laughter, then, I’ll go to greet
What Fate has still in store for me,
And welcome Death if we should meet,
And bear him willing company.

My share of fourscore years and ten
I’ll gladly yield to any man,
And take no thought of "where" or "when,"
Contented with my shorter span,
For I have learned what love may be,
And found a heart that understands,
And known a comrade’s constancy,
And felt the grip of friendly hands.

Come when it may, the stern decree
For me to leave the cheery throng,
And quit the sturdy company
Of brothers that I work among.
No need for me to look askance,
Since no regret my prospect mars.
My day was happy and perchance
The coming night is full of stars.

The Battle of the Somme began on 1st July 1916. At the end of the first day, the British forces had sustained more than 57,000 casualties, with almost 20,000 killed. By November, when the offensive finally ground to a halt, casualties on all sides had reached a staggering one million killed or wounded. In June 1916, just before the start of the battle, Richard Dennys had written to Desmond Coke, who was in hospital with trench fever, describing a recent lucky escape:

"We've been having a fairly lively time in the trenches — two raids on the Boche by people close on our left with resulting bombardment on their part. Unpleasantly warm! My head-quarters dug-out was smashed to pieces the day before we took over, and during the 2nd bombardments the other to which I had repaired was buried in debris. A shell burst just near the door and you never saw such a mess! Bed a foot deep in earth, door blown in and utter confusion of all papers and things. Two shells through the mess kitchen and others in profusion all round. They have got Company H.Q. marked all right! There is much in the wind. You should have news of this part of the world at no distant date. . ."

This prediction proved to be very accurate. A few days into the battle, the 10th Loyal North Lancs were sent down to Albert and remained there in reserve. On 11th July they moved up to the trenches of the Tara Redoubt on Usna Hill, a low ridge directly opposite the German positions around La Boiselle. The battalion was ordered to send out offensive patrols with the aim of occupying enemy trenches near Contalmaison. Almost immediately, under sustained machine gun fire, they suffered heavy losses. On 12th July six officers became casualties, including Richard Dennys. He was evacuated to Hospital at Rouen where he died from his wounds on 24th July.

It was a tragic end to a life full of promise, like countless others lost in that brutal summer of 1916. But at least Richard Dennys seems to have been at peace with himself. The poems he left behind show that he had come to terms with, and accepted, whatever fate awaited him.

"With laughter, then, I'll go to greet
What fate has still in store for me,
And welcome Death if we should meet,
And bear him willing company"


Captain Richard Dennys, Barker compass, 1916Captain Richard Molesworth DennysCaptain R. M. Dennys compass caseCaptain R. M. Dennys "Guide" compass  and case


Richard Dennys, There is No Death: Poems by Richard Dennys (1917), The Bodley Head
E. A. Osborn, The Muse In Arms (1918) John Murray
E. A. Osborn, The New Elizabethans (1919), The Bodley Head