Captain Dennis Wilson, Normandy veteran whose war poems were ranked alongside Wilfred Owen’s and Siegfried Sassoon’s – obituary
Captain Dennis Wilson, who has died aged 101, was a soldier, a poet and the unwitting son of a serial bigamist; in later life, he acquired a large number of close relations of whose existence he had known nothing for more than 40 years, which became the subject of a BBC drama.
The poems Wilson wrote during the 1944 campaign in Normandy, including his “Elegy of a Common Soldier”, were published for the first time in 2012 after they were discovered by Tim Crook, a researcher at Goldsmiths College, who hailed the poems as “astonishing”, suggesting they deserved to be ranked alongside the work of First World War poets like Wilfred Owen or Siegfried Sassoon.
Crook came across them while writing a biography of Wilson’s father, Alexander Wilson, a writer, spy, MI6 officer – and, as it transpired, serial liar and bigamist. In 2018, Alexander Wilson’s story was dramatised by the BBC as Mrs Wilson, in which his descendant, the actress Ruth Wilson, starred as her own grandmother, Alexander’s third bigamous wife.
Dennis Bruce Wilson was born at Thame, Oxfordshire, on June 25 1921. His great-grandfather was one of the founding members of the Army Hospital Corps and his grandfather served in the Boer War and with the Royal Army Medical Corps in the First World War.
Dennis’s father Alexander, known as Alec, served with the Royal Army Service Corps in the First World War. He was severely wounded and invalided out. After a spell in the Merchant Navy, he and his first wife, Gladys (née Kellaway), managed a touring repertory theatre company.
In 1925 Alec left for British India, leaving behind Gladys and three children – Dennis and another son and a daughter. In 1928, while still married to Gladys, Alec married Dorothy Wick, an actress, in Lahore. He travelled around the North-West Frontier and was appointed an honorary major in the British Indian Army Reserve.
In 1933, Alec went back to England and returned to Gladys, to whom he was still married, while Dorothy and her baby son, Michael, moved to London. Two years later, after a row, he moved in permanently with Dorothy.
By 1940, Alec was working as a translator for MI6. Dorothy left him and took their son, Michael, to live in Yorkshire. The next year, he took a third wife, Alison McKelvie, who was working as a secretary for the Service. The couple had two sons, one of whom, Nigel, is the father of the actress Ruth Wilson.
Alec was subsequently dismissed from the Service. He served a short prison sentence for embezzling funds from a cinema and took a job as a porter in a hospital. In 1955 he married a fourth woman, Elizabeth Hill, a nurse, with whom he had another son. She later moved to Scotland with the boy while he continued living with Alison. In 1963 Alec died of a heart attack.
Young Dennis, meanwhile, unaware of these proliferating siblings, had been educated at a school in Southampton. Aged 15, he left to work for a firm supplying photographers for ocean liners. After the outbreak of the Second World War, he joined the Royal Artillery and served with an anti-aircraft and searchlight unit.
He was subsequently commissioned into the Middlesex Regiment and served with the 1st Battalion The Kensington Regiment and then the 1st Tyneside Scottish Battalion Black Watch. After the June 6 D-Day landings, Wilson took part in the Battle of Normandy and commanded a depleted platoon. During the fierce fighting in the bocage countryside, he wrote “Elegy of a Common Soldier” and sent it back to his mother in case he never returned.
On July 1, in fighting around Rauray, he was severely wounded by shrapnel in both arms and the pelvis and was given the last rites in a field hospital. He recovered, and in 1947 was demobilised in the rank of captain. For the next 48 years he was a sales representative with Encyclopaedia Britannica International.
It was at his father’s funeral in Portsmouth in 1963, attended by two of his widows, and children from one of his bigamous marriages, that Wilson first became aware of his father’s parallel lives. However, it was another 40 years before the full extent of these became evident. Wilson then showed the greatest generosity in bringing together all his relations, becoming the patriarch of his large extended family.
He wrote more than 450 poems. Many of these were published in several volumes in his late 80s and 90s, and in 2013 he was a guest at a reception for contemporary British poetry at Buckingham Palace. Two years later he was awarded an honorary fellowship by the University of Southampton for his services to literature.
In recognition of the part that he played in the campaign to liberate France, he was appointed to the Légion d’honneur. He was a lifelong supporter of Southampton FC.
He also wrote music; some of the hymns he composed were performed at his funeral by his daughter, Patricia Caldbeck, and her husband. He left meticulous instructions for the funeral, including the stipulation that it should start three minutes late. “All my life,” he said, “I have been told that I’ll be late for my own funeral and I don’t wish to disappoint.”
Wilson married, in 1951, Maisie Potts. She predeceased him and he is survived by their daughter and son.
Captain Dennis Wilson, born June 25 1921, died June 28 2022