Three Bedalians who appear in the Summer Term photograph for 1904 died between 16th and 24th August 1915; Denis Oliver Barnett was the first, and youngest, of them. Denis was the only surviving son of Percy Arthur Barnett and his wife Annie née Beeching. Education was the prime interest of both parents. After graduating from Trinity College, Oxford in 1881 Percy was involved in teacher training until 1893 when he was appointed one of Her Majesty’s Inspectors of Schools and Colleges. Charis (born 1892) and Denis initially were taught at home by their parents – Annie teaching them French and some German whilst Percy concentrated on Latin and Mathematics. In 1902 Percy was seconded to Natal, South Africa as Director of Education to reorganise schooling in the Province in the aftermath of the Boer War.
Annie, a prolific and witty correspondent, wrote weekly letters to her sisters from the point of embarkation in October 1902 and throughout both periods in Natal. Rapidly it became apparent that, so soon after the war, Natal was not really a suitable environment for young children so in February 1903 Annie and the children sailed for England. In her last letter before leaving Annie wrote:- “Percy has written to Bedales, where the Gilbert Coleridge boy is, to ask if they will take both the children, so I shall hear from the headmaster soon after I get back.”
Charis at 11 joined Bedales for the Summer Term but 8 year old Denis remained at home until his mother was ready to return to her husband in Natal. In September 1903 Annie deposited both her children in Steep, writing sadly that “I said goodbye to both my children at Bedales’ door”. In Summer Term 1904 Denis was still the second youngest child in the school; neither he nor Charis feature in The Bedales Record or The Bedales Chronicle, but glimpses of their life are revealed when their mother commented to her sisters about the childrens’ letters. Charis especially seems to have blossomed during her four terms and might have been quite sad to leave; 30 years later in the Bedales Roll she was still recorded as a member of the O B Club. Both children were “home schooled” for the next three years until, in 1907, they went to St. Paul’s Girls’ and St. Paul’s Boys’ Schools respectively.
At St. Paul’s Denis had a glittering career including three years as a successful member of the Rugby XV and the last two years as Captain of School. Academically also he excelled, winning an exhibition to Balliol College, Oxford in the December 1912 examinations and improving it to the top Classical Scholarship a year later. He was destined to matriculate in the autumn of 1914 but the outbreak of war on 4th August changed all that.
By 12th August 1914 Denis had passed his medical and had been declared “fit for the Territorial Force”; on 31st August he was “embodied as a Private” in the Artists’ Rifles. His experience in the St. Paul’s O.T.C. and his physical fitness and considerable size (he was 6 feet 2¾ inches) probably ensured his rapid transfer to a Service Battalion on 27th September and on 26th October he arrived with his battalion in France. Denis was as prolific a letter writer as his parents. After his death 150 copies of “Denis Oliver Barnett: in happy memory; his letters from France and Flanders” were published. A copy, donated to the Robarts Library of the University of Toronto, can be found on the internet and chronicle the maturing of a callow boy of 19, straight from school, into an experienced platoon commander who writes graphically of his experiences whilst trying to shield his parents from the worst he has seen.
Within a month of arriving in France Denis added a postscript to his letter of 28th November:- “Am taking commish. in regulars! WHAT?” Most of his officer training took place in France. On 2nd December he wrote; “We’re frightfully busy with field work and lectures. It is top hole fun with four hairy captains teaching us things. ... They’ve started a short course of training by officers who understand this particular war (which is quite wrong compared with all other wars). We are going round to have practical experience, and see how everything works, and we’re also doing things like map-reading as applied to range finding &c.” As the training progressed the young candidates were taken into front line trenches and took part in exercises, even in No Man’s Land. On New Year’s Day 1915 Denis went off with about 50 other Artists’ Rifles men destined for commissions to take a machine gun course before being assigned to a regiment. On 12th March 1915 he was posted to the 2nd Leinster Regiment as a 2nd Lieutenant and they were soon enduring considerable hardships.
St Patrick’s Day 1915 left Denis with sufficient leisure to write a long letter home including this comment:- “two of my best friends are dead on me besides several I knew very well. That is the only thing that will make a man fight and stick it. Now I can carry on for ever with this, and mean to.” On 5th May Denis wrote “I got a bit of a shell on the head yesterday... it only gave me a little cut”; he was sent to the Dressing Station and then Field Ambulance but on the following day wrote, “Back to the army again!”
During almost a year of service Denis had only two short periods of home leave, one just before joining the Leinsters which allowed him to acquire his new uniform and a few other necessities and the other barely a month before his death. On 2nd August he was back at Boulogne and then sent off as bomb officer to rejoin his regiment. After his death a friend wrote to Charis:- “he was as cheery as ever, though he was firmly convinced that he was going to be killed before he left that place”.
At Hooge on 15th August Denis was leading a working party; a fellow officer wrote to Charis “he was warned to be careful as the Germans had a machine gun and several rifles trained on the spot but with his usual courage he got up on the parapet ... a flare showed him up ... and one bullet hit him in the body.” He added that Denis was carried in, bound up at once and then taken to the Dressing Station where “they made him as comfortable as possible and gave him sufficient morphia to deaden the pain”; he was taken to the Field Ambulance and died shortly afterwards “a beautiful manly death”.
On 20th August the War Office despatched the following telegram:- “Deeply REGRET TO INFORM YOU THAT 2 Lieutenant D O Barnett Leinster Regt died of wounds 16th August Lord Kitchener expresses his regrets.”
Denis Barnett was not quite 20 years and 4 months old and had served 350 days in the Army. Although he had not matriculated Denis is commemorated on the War Memorial panels in the entrance to Balliol Chapel and, of course, over a window in the Bedales Memorial Library.
Apart from Denis’s letters I consulted the 5 volumes of Annie Barnett’s letters home, (now in the Bodleian Library, Oxford), Denis’s Officer’s file in the National Archives at Kew and, for family background, records available on Ancestry co.uk