A few years ago I worked for the London Borough of Merton. Based at the Civic Centre in Morden, for nearly two years every day I walked past a small plaque in the foyer to Lieutenant Colonel John Dimmer, VC. I was recently reminded of this when I picked up a set of VC winner cigarette cards, Dimmer among them, and resolved to find out more about him.
John Henry Stephen Dimmer (known as Jack) was born in 1883 in Lambeth. He attended Merton Church School before being awarded a scholarship at Rutlish School. After a spell as a civil engineer he became a career soldier, joining the King’s Royal Rifle Corps in 1902 and seeing service in Africa. He rose through the ranks and when the First World War broke out went over with the BEF as a Lieutenant with the 2nd KRRC.
Jack was not one to shy away from danger. Arthur Conan Doyle, in his work ‘The British Campaign in France & Flanders’ (volume 1) recounts one incident from 17th September: ‘On the extreme right of the British line a company of the 1st Northamptons occupied a most exposed position on the edge of the Chemin-des-Dames. The men in a German trench which was some hundreds of yards in front hoisted a white flag and then advanced upon the British lines. It is well to be charitable in all these white flag incidents, since it is always possible on either side that unauthorised men may hoist it and the officer in command very properly refuse to recognise it; but in this case the deception appears to have been a deliberate one. These are the facts. On seeing the flag, Captain Savage, of B Company Northamptons, got out of the trench and with Lieutenant Dimmer, of the Rifles, advanced to the Germans. He threw down his sword and revolver to show that he was unarmed. He found a difficulty in getting a direct answer from the Germans, so he saluted their officer, who returned his salute, and turned back to walk to his own trench. Dimmer, looking back, saw the Germans level their rifles, so he threw himself down, crying out, “for God’s sake get down.” Captain Savage stood erect and was riddled with bullets.’
During the First Battle of Ypres, on 9th November the 2nd KRRC had been moved up to support the London Scottish near Klein Zillebeke, south east of Ypres. Occupying trenches at the edge of a wood just 120 yards from the Germans, they were subject to artillery bombardment and German attacks, which were all repelled. The attacks continued throughout 10th and 11th November. Jack Dimmer had at least two narrow escapes, on each occasion a bullet passing through his cap – probably from German snipers who were active in the area. On 12th November the Germans launched another massed assault. Jack Dimmer was awarded the VC for his actions during this attack. His citation reads:
‘This officer served his machine gun during the attack on the 12th November at Klein Zillebeke until he had been shot five times – three times by shrapnel and twice by bullets, and continued at his post until his gun was destroyed.’
Dimmer recounted the action himself in a letter to his mother: ‘Here is how it all happened. On Thursday last, at about one o’clock, we were suddenly attacked by the Prussian Guards – they shelled us unmercifully and poured in a perfect hail of bullets at a range of about 100 yards. I got my guns going, but they smashed one up almost immediately and then turned all their attention on the gun I was with, and succeeded smashing that too, but before they completed the job I had been twice wounded, and was finally knocked out with the gun. My face is spattered with pieces of my gun and pieces of shell, and I have a bullet in my face and four small holes in my right shoulder. It made rather a nasty mess of me at first, but now that I am washed and my wounds dressed I look quite alright.’
Even his own account belies the danger he had put himself in. This account from ‘Deeds that Thrill the Empire’ gives an idea of the intensity of fire that he faced:
‘At 1 p.m., the Prussian Guard, in mass formation, advanced from the wood, the men marching shoulder to shoulder in perfect order, as though they were on parade. At once the British machine-guns began to spit death amongst them, Lieut Dimmer firing one of the guns himself, and the storm of bullets tore through their serried ranks, mowing them down as corn falls before the sickle. But still they came on, and presently the Lieutenant’s gun jammed, owing to the belt getting wet. In a moment he had climbed onto the emplacement, a large adjustable spanner in his hand, and got the deadly weapon again in working order; but as he did so, a rifle bullet struck him in the right jaw. Heedless of the pain, he began to pour a fresh stream of lead into the advancing masses, but he had not fired many rounds when the gun stuck when traversing. Reaching up to remedy the stoppage, he was again hit by a rifle bullet, this time in the right shoulder. But he got his gun going again for all that, and before the blast of death the Huns fell in swathes. Then a shrapnel shell burst above him and he was hit for the third time, three bullets lodging in his injured shoulder. But, with the blood streaming from his wounds, the heroic officer went on firing his gun, until, when within fifty yards of our trenches, the Germans suddenly broke and ran for cover. Their artillery covered their retreat with a rain of shrapnel, and Lieut Dimmer’s gun was hit and destroyed, and his face splattered with splinters of broken metal. Exhausted with pain and loss of blood, he lost consciousness for a time, but on coming to, insisted on proceeding to Brigade Headquarters, to report in person to the Earl of Cavan, commanding the 4th (Guards) Brigade. Scarcely, however, had he made his report when his strength gave out, and he collapsed and was taken to the dressing station.’
After recovering from his wounds he spent time on the staff and also attached to the Royal Flying Corps in Salonika. In October 1917 he was attached to the Royal Berkshire Regiment, commanding the 2/4th Battalion. On the first day of the German’s spring offensive (21st March 1918), the battalion were based at Ugny-l’Équipée, west of Saint-Quentin:
‘Order to man battle stations was received at 5am. Battalion moved off at 6.30 arriving at MARTEVILLE at 8.30am, thence to RAILWAY CUTTING between VERMAND and ATTILLY. At 3pm B and C Companies counter-attacked enemy in front of ELLIS REDOUBT. D Company were in Support with Battn HQ at ELLIS REDOUBT, and A Coy were withdrawn to RAILWAY C UTTING. The enemy was encountered in overwhelming numbers, and the parties were compelled to withdraw under very heavy MG fire to RAILWAY CUTTING. Lt Col J H S DIMMER VC, MC was killed…and heavy casualties sustained by the rank and file.’
Dimmer had been leading his men on horseback, and was shot through the head close to the German lines. He is buried in Vadencourt Military Cemetery, Maissemy (north west of St. Quentin), close to where he fell. His epitaph reads ‘For King and country he gave gladly.’
In addition to the plaque at Merton Civic Centre, he is also commemorated on Wimbledon war memorial, and has a road named after him (Jack Dimmer Close in SW16). His VC is displayed at the Royal Green Jackets Museum in Winchester.
Commonwealth War Graves Commission
Deeds that Thrill the Empire, vol.1
The British Campaign in France & Flanders, vol.1 & vol.5
The Fifth Army in March 1918
The War Illustrated, vol.10