As part of our series looking into the lives of the RUSI members who were Victoria Cross holders and fell in the Great War, we profile Bertram Best-Dunkley.
Bertram Best-Dunkley was born on 3 August 1890 in York. Educated in Germany, he joined the military in 1907 as a second lieutenant in the 4th Lancashire Fusiliers (TF). He became a schoolteacher at Tientsin Grammar School, China, before returning to his unit on the outbreak of the First World War.
In 1916, he married Marjorie Kate Pettigrew, and in July 1917 they had a son.
Best-Dunkley, the CO of the 2/5th Lancashire Fusiliers, was awarded the VC for his actions on 31 July 1917, near Wieltje, Belgium. In preparation for the British advance, the German artillery positions had been heavily shelled during the night. At 0840 hours, the men began to advance under intense enemy shellfire, which was pummeling the landscape almost featureless. Second Lieutenant Thomas Hope Floyd described the shells as landing all around the men with no predictable pattern: ‘one had to take one’s chance: merely go forward and leave one’s fate to destiny’. The noise alone was ferocious, let alone the sight of men and horses injured and dying all around. It was under these conditions that Floyd caught sight of Best-Dunkley ‘complacently advancing, with a walking stick in his hand, as calmly as if he were walking across a parade ground’.
After crossing the Steenbeek stream, enemy fire intensified. As they approached the Black Line, they were surprised by a fierce outbreak of fire from two enemy positions, as well as locations they believed had been captured that morning by the British: Capricorn Support, Spree Farm and Wine House. Men were being mown down and the 2/5th were thrown into disarray. Best-Dunkley, seeing the officers of C Company were all killed or wounded, rushed forward and took command of the group, leading from the front to bring his men through the onslaught. He then personally led attacks on the positions that should have been British-held. The locations were duly captured, but heavy casualties were incurred; the battalion had lost 50 per cent of those who had gone over the top that morning. Best-Dunkley briefly organised a headquarters at Spree Farm, but there was no time to take stock—to wait was to forfeit the protection of the artillery barrage.
They pushed on, the men of the 2/5th joining those of the 1/8th Liverpool Regiment to take control of a stronghold close to Schuler Farm. Together, they numbered 130 men, but following a German counter-attack in the early afternoon hardly a dozen remained. The German advance quickly pushed the British back towards the Black Line, which itself became endangered, along with Best-Dunkley’s headquarters, which was nearly inundated by Germans before he became aware of this. Best-Dunkley was forced to vacate Spree Farm rapidly and fall back. Having done so, he promptly consolidated his men and led a counter-attack, regaining the position. The German advance was stalled by British artillery action, but intermittent combat persisted for some hours. Best-Dunkley continued to command his men and defend the Black Line. At approximately 2000 hours, having been in combat for nearly twelve hours, Best-Dunkley was fatally wounded. He was the last of eighteen officers to become casualties that day, out of the nineteen who went into action, and of the other ranks, the battalion had lost 473 out of the 593 who began the day.
The following day, the chaplain visited Best-Dunkley at the main dressing station. Best-Dunkley whispered that he hoped the general was not disappointed. When this message was conveyed to the general in question, Major-General Sir Hugh ‘Judy’ Jeudwine, he instantly wrote to Best-Dunkley: ‘I am very much touched … Disappointed! I should think not, indeed. I am more proud of having you and your Battalion under my command than of anything else that has ever happened to me’.
Best-Dunkley died on 5 August 1917. At his funeral, Jeudwine said: ‘We are burying one of Britain’s bravest soldiers!’ Best-Dunkley is buried in the Mendinghem Military Cemetery, Belgium, Plot III, Row D, Grave 1. His VC is held by the Lancashire Fusiliers Museum, Arts and Craft Centre, Bury, Lancashire. Best-Dunkley’s VC was presented to his family by King George V. Floyd vividly recalls a photograph of that moment; the King reaching out to pin ‘Daddy’s V.C.’—as the picture was captioned—onto the wrap of the tiny baby boy, nestled in his mother’s arms, who would never know his brave father.
Ashley Ryan is an RLMH volunteer and 2016 Trench Gascoigne Essay Prize third place winner.
This article is the sixth in a nine-part series to be published in the RUSI Library News.
If you would like to learn more, you may also wish to consult the “Great War Stories” series in the RUSI Journal.
Part I For Valour: The Victoria Cross, RUSI and the First World War
Part II Captain Charles ‘Fitz’ FitzClarence
Part III Brevet Major John Edmond ‘Johnnie’ Gough
Part IV Captain Francis Octavius Grenfell
Part V Major Charles Allix Lavington ‘Cal’ Yate
Part VI Lieutenant John Henry Stephen Dimmer
Part VII Captain Garth Neville Walford
If you would like to learn more, go to https://RUSI.org/GreatWar
Brazier, Kevin. The Complete Victoria Cross: A Full Chronological Record of All Holders of Britain's Highest
Award for Gallantry. Barnsley, South Yorkshire: Pen & Sword Military, 2010.
Floyd, Thomas Hope. At Ypres with Best-Dunkley. London: John Lane - The Bodley Head, 1920.
2017. “Great War Stories: RUSI’s Fallen Members.” RUSI Journal 162, no. 3 (June/July): 4–10.
Snelling, Stephen. VCs of the First World War: Passchendaele, 1917. Stroud, Gloucestershire: The History Press, 2012.