George Parsons Denham

Born: 1880

Died: 14 April 1917

Studied at the RCA: unknown, ARCA Diploma c.1907.

Although no student file has been found for Exmouth-born George, newspaper reports note that he had already won numerous prizes locally, and had begun teaching art in his home city of Exeter before arriving to study in London. On leaving the College he stayed in London, becoming something of an all-rounder, painting portraits, providing decorative friezes for sumptuous interiors, poster art and illustrations for books, most famously Alfred Perceval Graves’s The Irish Fairy Book (1909).

Like some of the other College students, he had already gained some experience of soldiering before the war, as a young volunteer in his local Devon regiment. He enlisted on 15 September 1914, first serving in the 18th (Service) Battalion of the Royal Fusiliers, and gaining his commission as an officer in November, his application having been supported by Augustus Spencer, Principal of the College. In January 1915 he joined the 10th Battalion of the Argyll & Sutherland Highlanders, part of the 9th (Scottish) Division, and was soon promoted to lieutenant, and then to captain. He remained with this battalion for the rest of his service, first departing for France in May 1915. But he did not forget either his West Country roots or the fusiliers, arranging for his former battalion to receive excess mittens supplied by Exeter knitters to the A&S Highlanders (presumably because George was well known to them), thanking the knitters for their generosity in the local newspaper.

The 9th (Scottish) Division is viewed now as one of the most effective of the war. They fought at the Battle of Loos in 1915 and in numerous actions during the Battle of the Somme the following year. Wounded at Mametz Wood, George seems otherwise to have thrived. He appears to have had a gift for planning and organisation, with the battalion’s war diary entries, such as one for a daylight raid on 6 January 1917, noting the ‘great credit due to him’. This barely hints at the trust soldiers must have had in him, evident in this instance when he responded to an accidental detonation of a grenade in the cellar where his platoon had gathered by immediately briefing other soldiers to take their place, so that despite the injury, confusion and shock the raid was able to go ahead. His last reconnaissance mission was just a few days before the Battle of Arras began, and concerned a very troublesome German outpost known as ‘the Parrot’s Beak’ (perhaps because of its appearance on surveys). Evading fire from elsewhere, George returned to the British trenches to report that the Beak was not currently held, helping to firm up plans for action.

The situation, however, had changed by the very first day of the battle. On 9 April George was shot, with some precision, probably from the reoccupied Parrot’s Beak. The war diary notes briefly that all the German team found there were killed. This could well be the act of instant revenge taken by George’s infuriated platoon, mentioned in a book written by a fellow officer published after the war.

As George lay ‘dangerously ill with gun shot wound head and right side’ in the 20th General Hospital in Dannes Camiers, France, his family desperately tried to arrange for his older brother, Albert (living in Essex), to visit. But Albert could not afford the expense and had to take a War Office telegram to his nearest police station to see what could be done. Eventually a temporary pass was granted for 17 April, to allow Albert ‘to give instructions regarding the kit & effects’. George had died three days earlier.

George’s will named Albert as his executor, with all his money and belongings to be divided between his four sisters, Louisa, Sarah, Jessie and Annie, all of whom lived in Exeter.

He is buried at Etaples Military Cemetery, Pas-de-Calais, France, and commemorated on Hele’s School War Memorial in Devon.