George Dennis and the German Businessman

Often when looking at the tribunal documents they lead us a on journey beyond the simple question of ‘was this man conscripted? Did he survive?’ Whilst the information on the forms may be scant, the paper trail left by these men over one hundred years ago can lead to further enquiry beyond the individuals involved, stories of national policy and attitudes of those in Britain during the war. Such is the case with George Dennis, whose papers show the blatant Germanophobia which permeated British society at the time.

George Dennis was the only wheelwright and joiner in the small rural village of Kepwick. He employed eleven men and had a smallholding of 5 acres, crucially for his appeal he had the contract to repair the buildings on the Kepwick Estate. The Estate was owned by German born Julius Ernst Guthe, he’d come to Britain to work becoming a naturalised citizen 1887. A shrewd business man he now owned the West Hartlepool Steam Navigation Company, his wife was British and both his sons would serve in the British Army during the war.

When George Dennis’s appeal form was received it was noted by Major Alan Hill-Walker, the military representative for the appeals tribunals, that Dennis worked for the Guthe family. Whatever Julius Ernst’s credentials were, they weren’t British enough for Hill-Walker when he writes about George Dennis;NRCC-CL 9-1394 George Dennis Central Tribunal [1]

‘This man is the private workman for the millionaire Hun, Goethe. There, who it is generally expected will shortly be interned at last. It is not to the advantage of the state that an alien should be allowed to keep this man from fighting for the allies. This Saxon, Prussian gentleman, acting no doubt under orders from Berlin is employing a dozen men under this Dennis. A new squad for the Army’

The appeal to the Central Tribunal was not forwarded by the North Riding Appeal Tribunal

What is striking about Hill-Walkers statement is how it encapsulates so many aspects of anti-German rhetoric, some of which predate the start of the war. From the early 1900’s there had been an outbreak of what might be termed ‘spy fever’, an explosion in the popularity of stories around the idea of Britain being invaded, from this the spy novel developed as a genre. So popular were these stories that the press would generate news around the idea of spies, giving the impression that Germany had an active spy network in Britain.

Alan_Richard_Hill_Walker Military Rep

Major Alan Hill-Walker VC, the Military representative for the Thirsk area.  He was awarded the Victoria Cross during the First Boer War.

 

There were around 53,000 Germans in Britain in august 1914, with a concentration on the east coast of Britain working in and around ports such as Hull, Grimsby and Hartlepool. At the outbreak of war many were interned, others were subject to strict controls on their movements. Ports and most of the East coast were designated as ‘prohibited areas’ for Germans, though a few remained, women and children or those over the age for military service. But technically Julius Guthe was British, one of 7,000 naturalised of German origin. As the war progressed Guthe’s ‘Britishness’ would mean less than where he was born. In 1914 his British citizenship counted for something, by 1916 his right to remain at his home in Seaton Carew was at the discretion of the local Chief Constable, by 1918 the government had tightened legislation further allowing his British citizenship to be revoked.

In 1916, the time of Dennis’s appeal, the British Home Secretary was Herbert Samuel, MP for Cleveland, he declared ‘although a man changed his nation he did not always thereby change his nature’. We see official Germanophobia driven from the top, coming from the Home Secretary and trickling down to the likes of officials such as Hill-Walker, who feel comfortable using phrases such as ‘the Hun’ in an official document, indeed it was a phrase which was used regularly in Parliament at the time.

Guthe was too old to assert his British patriotism by joining the army, but he did write to the Times newspaper in May of 1915 to offer any Merchant Captain £100 for sinking an ‘enemy ship of war’. The timing is no coincidence, throughout May of 1915 there had been widespread anti-German riots sparked by the sinking of the liner RMS Lusitania by a German U-boat. Locally there had been anti-German disturbances in Middlesbrough as early as September 1914, tensions were further heightened after shelling of Hartlepool, Whitby and Scarborough in December of 1914 by the German navy. The public at home were mobilised for war but not just in the factories and fields in a cultural sense, the papers expounded against ‘the Hun’, families received letters from loved ones serving abroad and Government wartime posters all worked to reinforce to the public that Britain was at war at home, and abroad.

It’s apocryphal that the Guthe family moved inland to the rural location of Kepwick to avoid any further bombardment by the German navy. The truth could be that a culture existed in Britain where Julius Guthe, German by birth, was no longer welcome at his home in Seaton Carew. New government restrictions and the increased anti German feeling which spurred him to withdraw to the remote countryside.

The tragedy of Julius Ernst Guthe is that his eldest son Thomas Percival was a Major in the British army. Serving with the 1st Durham Battery of the Northumbrian Brigade, he’d been in action in France from April 1915. He would die of wounds in January 1916 at the British Red Cross hospital at Le Touquet. Julius’s youngest son would also join the army, whilst not sent to France, Lieutenant Cecil Rudolph Guthe spent his war with the Royal Garrison Artillery at Hartlepool, no doubt on guard for a further German attack. He would die in February 1919, one of the millions in the ‘Spanish flu’ pandemic.

j-e-guthe-headstone-1_large

But what of George Dennis? Sadly, for Dennis his brother was killed on the Somme during George’s appeal process. George Dennis’s final exemption ran out in March 1917 making him eligible to join the army. Did he survive the war? Yes he did, after the war he moved to Wykeham, near Scarborough, and died in 1967.

The grave of Julius Guthe at the Holy Trinity Church, Seaton Carew.GUTHE Ann wife of Julius Ernst Guthe of Dinsdale Lodge Seaton Carew & Kepwick Hall North Yorkshire born 29 January 1860 died 3 April 1917 also Julius Guthe Justice of the Peace for the County of Durham born 5 October 1856 died 27 June 1917.’

Article researched and written by Angus Wallace a volunteer on the Grounds for Appeal project

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