The Nostalgia column with Margaret Watson: Soldier back from the dead

This weekend we celebrate the 75th anniversary of the ending of the war in Europe in 1945, and I’m sure many stories will be recalled.

Wednesday, 6th May 2020, 7:15 am
Big Day: Dennis Tolson and wife Mabel pictured on their wedding day which took place when he returned home after the war.
Big Day: Dennis Tolson and wife Mabel pictured on their wedding day which took place when he returned home after the war.

The one I wish to recall for readers is a heart-lifting one which talks of courage and kindness during the worst of times.

It concerns a young Dewsbury soldier, Dennis Tolson, who was reported killed in action in 1940.

His parents, Mr and Mrs George Tolson, and his fiancée Mabel, held a memorial service for him in a packed Dewsbury Parish Church, where he had been altar server, chorister and bell-ringer.

Margaret Watson.

Many tears were shed as the vicar spoke movingly of this popular young soldier who had given his life for king and country.

There are still some in Dewsbury who remember that service and still have the memorial card given out in church that day.

Written on the card were the words – “Killed in action on June 10th 1940, and the verse of Scripture printed on it read: “Blessed are the pure in heart for they shall see God”.

The church was packed with family, friends, workmates and representatives from the various organisations Dennis belonged to, and one can only imagine the great sorrow they all felt.

The mourners, however, had no idea that a mistake had been made and that Dennis lay wounded in a German prisoner of war camp after being both shot and blown up by a hand grenade during furious fighting in France.

A fellow soldier had seen what happened and reported him killed, and the Tolson family were formally notified of his death some weeks later.

Although Dennis had been seriously wounded in the battle, he was still alive when a German soldier found him.

Seeing how severe his injuries were, he offered to release him from pain by shooting him, but Dennis said he preferred to take his chances.

Three weeks after the memorial service, his grief-stricken parents received a second telegram – this time informing them a mistake had been made and their son was still alive.

The Reporter, which only a few weeks earlier had printed his obituary, published the good news under the headline – ‘Back from the Dead’.

The heart-lifting letter from the War Office to Mr and Mrs Tolson, read:

“I am very pleased to inform you that we have received information from a very reliable source that your son is a prisoner of war in enemy hands.

“He is in a hospital abroad and is apparently recovering from his wounds. Although this is not absolutely authentic, it has come from such a reliable source that I am now compelled to withdraw the notification of death and to ‘post’ him as a prisoner of war.”

Later, Dennis himself sent a postcard home saying: “Dear mother. Don’t worry, I was wounded but am now better and a prisoner of war. Keep smiling. Things could be much worse. Love to everybody, Dennis.”

Dennis came home in July 1945 and shortly afterwards married his fiancée Mabel, and resumed his job in the borough treasurer’s department at the town hall. The couple had two children, Roger and Philip, and settled down to family life.

A former pupil of Carlton Road School, Dewsbury, and later Wheelwright Grammar School, Dennis remained a prominent member of Dewsbury Parish Church, where he had earlier gained considerable success as a boy soprano.

For many years, he was in demand as a vocalist at concerts throughout the district, and is still remembered with great affection by members of the Wheelwright Old Boys’ Association with whom he played football.

Dennis worked most of his life for Dewsbury Corporation but after the merger with Kirklees went to work for the Calderdale authority. He died in 2002.

His son Roger said: “Dad didn’t talk much about the war but he did say the German soldiers had treated wounded soldiers with respect, and when they had been injured in battle they picked them up and placed them under hedges to protect them.

“Dad told us how one soldier had placed a wounded comrade by his side so they could be together. The man died with his head on my father’s lap.”

Dennis never forgot how the German doctors had fought to save his life, and how later when he had appendicitis and peritonitis, they had operated on him and looked after him.

At the end of the war, when the Germans realised they were beaten, one German doctor offered Dennis his gun saying – “Take it – I suppose I’m your prisoner now.”

Dennis also never forgot the kindness of fellow prisoners who helped him during his illness, especially a young man from Dewsbury called Harvey Salisbury, who was in the same camp.

Roger said: “My dad told me there was little food about, and when he was ill, this young man came up to him and gave him a potato he had stolen. Dad never forgot that.

“He always spoke very highly of Harvey who had a twin brother and lived in Granville Street, on The Flatts. They often bumped into each other in Dewsbury.”

○ Do you have any memories from bygone days that you would like to share with our readers?

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