Whilst researching my book on battalion commanders I’d often find myself thinking, on constructing a little biography, ‘well, they don’t make ’em like that any more’. This thought would arise in connection men whose lives seemed extraordinary – they weren’t necessarily always individuals you could totally admire, but somehow in a world with fewer restrictions, they’d rattled around the planet having all sorts of ‘adventures’. The constraints of the era, of course, largely meant that it was often only men who could do this.
The man whose private papers I’m currently transcribing was an extraordinary man of a slightly different ilk. Conrad Hugh Dinwiddy was a surveyor working in his father’s London-based architectural practice at the outbreak of the Great War. He was an active local Conservative politician who undoubtedly would have become an MP, a tournament tennis player, an experienced mountaineer, and a journalist. A workaholic, he’d write maybe ten letters before going to bed each night. Three of his brothers had been infantry Volunteer officers, and one brother was a regular major with the Royal West Kent Regiment, taken prisoner at Kut. Two were officers in the navy, one on the Auxiliary Patrol, one on cruisers. His family typifies the contribution made by the professional middle-classes to officering during the war.
In June 1915, when on night-duty as a Special Policeman, and pondering the Zeppelin threat to the capital, he began to devise a range-finder that would allow anti-aircraft fire to be more swiftly and accurately brought to bear on aircraft. The principles were in place by the morning, and he had a full scheme within a week. He then devised a slide-rule which would allow the battery commander to make the calculations necessary for the final fuze-setting to be made. In 1916, when his range-finder came into use in the London defences, he was commissioned into the Royal Garrison Artillery, and in December that year was sent to the Western Front to a 6-inch howitzer battery. Within two months he was a captain, second-in-command, and within six was a major, commanding the battery. His commitment to applying his skills and intellect didn’t stop there – within two months of being in action he had invented a method using lit parallel aiming posts to improve the accuracy of night firing. He submitted a scheme for barge-mounted batteries, and improved methods of ammunition supply. Even under the stress of war and command, Dinwiddy’s intellect remained keen and focussed on problem-solving.
At the end of August 1917, however, he asked to be relieved of his post – reading between the lines of his letters he loved his gunnery but found organising the frequent moves of his battery stressful. He was posted to be second-in-command of a 9.2-inch howitzer battery and on 26 September, during the battle of Polygon Wood, his battery (though not in action) was likely caught by counterbattery fire, and he was mortally wounded.
Some individuals, whose contributions raise them head and shoulders above others are fêted, whilst others are forgotten. We often focus on the action of war, recognise the technological changes, but fail to show curiosity about the how and the who of such change. The intellectual and practical achievements of men like Conrad Dinwiddy should not be forgotten.