The Other British “Private Ryan” – Meet Fred Dancocks and His Brothers

Private Fred Dancox VC
Private Fred Dancox VC

Private Fred Dancocks of the Worcestershire Regiment was an unlikely hero. He was a middle aged man in 1917, a father of five children, from a large family of labourers who lived in the poorer parts of Worcester City. He was baptised in 1878, the middle of three sons. Two years later his father died and his mother remarried a William Whittle, who already had two sons from his first marriage, and they had further children. From the age of 18 Fred lived with Ellen, and they had five children, one which died in infancy. His occupation was “Hay Trusser” which seems to have been seasonal labouring work. When war broke out he joined the army, and shortly afterwards married Ellen, enabling her and the children to access the benefits, such as they were of an army wife. When he joined his name was recorded as “Dancox” in error, which is the name entered which he is referred in the military records. (1)

There seems to have been no reason for him to have been preparing to go over the top with the 4th Battalion the Worcestershire Regiment on the 9th October 1917 near Langemarck in Belgium. Fred had already done his bit, joining the battalion in Gallipoli in September 1915, and since then serving for over a year in France. His battalion formed part of the “Incomparable” 29th Division, which had participated in many of the most bloody battles of the Great War. After Gallipoli the 29th Division, and the Worcesters with them served two tours on the Somme. Their red triangle is prominent at Newfoundland Park on the Somme and the Division had already taken part in two “big pushes” in 1917; at Arras in the spring and at the capture of Langamarck in August.

Private Fred – known by his nickname of “Dando” was the HQ Company sanitary orderly – the man who emptied the lavatories. This was an essential   but undistinguished task, and one which could have kept him from the worst dangers. However, Fred Dancock had apparently volunteered to join the attack and was to the “mopping up party”. This party of ten men would search each captured position to make sure that there were no enemy hiding and able to shoot the advancing allies in the back.

As the battalion advanced it came under fire from a machine gun in a bunker, which had not been hit by the barrage, close to the railway bridge over a road at Namur Crossing. A belt fed machine gun could fire 550 rounds a minute, nine shots a second, creating a wall of steel across the front of the battalion. By 1917 the army had learned lots of lessons, and the battalion halted while mortars were brought up to deal with the bunker. But before the mortars could be brought up, the fire of the machine-gun suddenly stopped. A minute later every man within sight was on his feet cheering and laughing, for stumbling through the mud towards the British line came a little crowd of the enemy with hands raised in surrender, and behind them came a solitary British soldier, labouring along under the weight of a machine-gun—the machine-gun. The cheering grew as he was recognised: “Dancox!” the troops shouted, “Good old Dando !”(2) Fred hadn’t heard the order to halt. He had continued to advance, working his way from shell hole to shell hole until he was behind the German bunker. He then went to the back door and walked into it holding a hand grenade and motioning for the Germans to leave – which they did.(3)

The above painting by Gilbert Holiday shows Private Dancox holding his bomb ready to throw as he orders his prisoners off to our lines. This painting is in the possession of the Regiment
The above painting by Gilbert Holiday shows Private Dancox holding his bomb ready to throw as he orders his prisoners off to our lines. This painting is in the possession of the Regiment

Fred Dancocks’ courage was recognised with the award of the Victoria Cross. His was the first VC to a man from Worcester. He wrote home to say that he was given leave to return home and receive the medal from the King on the 30th November. Worcester prepared to celebrate the homecoming of the local hero in style: bunting was put up and alongside the Dancox family waited civic dignitaries, reporters, and hundreds of local people. He did not arrive.

Only a few weeks after the attack on 9th October, his unit took part in the attack at Cambrai on 20th November, and before he could take his leave, the Germans had counter-attacked. Fred Dancocks was killed by a a shrapnel ball to the head. His body was never found and hie is commemorated on on Panel 6 at the Cambrai Memorial, Louverval. (4)

Fred was not the first of his family to die in the Great War. His older brother William Dancocks was a regular soldier in the 3rd Battalion the Worcestershire Regiment and was killed on the 23rd October 1914, in the fighting East of Neuve Chapelle, one of six men from that unit to die on that day. He has no known grave and is commemorated on the Le Touret memorial to the Missing . (5) His younger step-brother, Thomas Whittle was killed on the Somme on 21st August 1916, serving with 1/7th Battalion The Worcestershire Regiment. He has no known grave, and is commemorated on the Thiepval Memorial a few hundred metres North of where his battalion fought on the day he died.(6)

Four months after Fred died his younger stepbrother, William Whittle was killed in the battle in defence of Amiens on 31st March 1918, serving with 2/8th Battalion the Worcestershire Regiment. This was another bad day for his battalion, as 37 men died that day in the less known 1918 battle of the Somme.. He has no known grave and is commemorated on the Pozieres memorial on the Somme.  (7)

Another brother, Henry Dancocks, survived the war having served alongside Fred in the 4th Battalion the Worcestershire Regiment.

That left Ellen with three dependent children in a world before the welfare state. King George wrote to Ellen to express his sincere regret that Fred’s death had denied him “the pride of presenting to him in person the Victoria Cross.” The City of Worcester established a public fund for Ellen Dancox, and made an initial donation of £50. In February 1918 the council minuted that ‘subscriptions were not coming in very satisfactorily’, but eventually a total of £451 was subscribed (which, in 2007, would have had the purchasing power of over £15,000). .The city council bought the medal from the family. Their house in Bull Entry was demolished in a slum clearance programme during the 1930s.

Besides the VC, Fred Dancocks and his brothers represent a loss as significant to their families as the Johnson’s reported in the Mail or the Niland Brothers whose story inspired the plot of Saving Private Ryan or the fighting Sullivans. The fact that none of these men has a known grave makes their fate particularly poignant. Yet relatively few people hear of or commemorate the Fred Dancocks and his brothers.

Dancox House, a sheltered accommodation facility in Worcester city centre, is named after him. In 2006 the Worcester and Herefordshire branch of the WFA erected a memorial to Fred Dancox VC close to Namur Crossing. It is only a short detour from the German cemetery at Langemarck. I first heard the story of Fred Dancocks and his brothers from Major John Cotterill who has championed the cause of the memory of the Worcesters for as long as I have known him and am grateful to him and for the work carried out by the Regiment by the local community for the information in the links which are the sources for this tale, which is worth telling and sharing.

5 thoughts on “The Other British “Private Ryan” – Meet Fred Dancocks and His Brothers”

  1. I was particularly interested to read this as my maiden name is Dancocks and my family comes from Worcester. I know very little about my family and wonder if I am indeed related to Fred and his family. I know I had an Uncle Bert who was married to Nora and was also related to Percy Huxter ( Peryc the clown). Would be rgateful if anyone had more info on Fred’s family.

    1. Fred Dancocks was actually my Great-Great Grandad! I don’t know too much about my family tree that far back, but I’m trying to find out more 🙂

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *