BBC's portrayal of alumnus VC recipient
Alumni of Jesuit schools and colleges were at the forefront of the First World War. And one of them – a former student of Wimbledon and Stonyhurst Colleges who was the first recipient of the Victoria Cross in 1914 – is being portrayed in a drama series currently showing on BBC Three.
In Our World War, the role of 25-year-old Lieutenant Maurice Dease of the 4th Battalion, The Royal Fusiliers, is played by National Theatre actor, Dominic Thorburn. Dease is killed in the first episode of the BBC drama, which shows Britain’s first battle of the war, Mons.
Born in County Westmeath, Ireland, Maurice Dease made an immediate impression when he arrived at Stonyhurst in 1903. He gained a reputation for reliability and determination, yet was always good-natured and amiable. “Whatever you tell the lad you want doing, it’s bound to be done!” commented one member of staff about young Maurice.
He was described by one of his contemporaries as “deeply religious – without making a parade of the fact”. Fr Frederick Myers SJ described him as his favourite altar server and his character as ‘jannock’, a Lancashire word meaning fair, straightforward and genuine.
But it was for his brief but auspicious war service that Maurice Dease is most remembered at Stonyhurst.
“He had an excellent way with his men,” wrote an officer in Dease’s Battalion, adding that he “was always kind and thoughtful to them, but at all times dignified.”
At the start of the First World War in August 1914, Maurice Dease served as the Battalion Machine Gun Officer. The men took up their position at the Mons Bridge on the morning of the 23rd and came under heavy fire from the German infantry. “The fight grew hotter and more terrible,” the Regimental History records. “The machine gun crews were constantly being knocked out … Whenever the gun stopped, Lieut Maurice Dease … went up to see what was wrong. To do this once called for no ordinary courage. To repeat it several times could only be done with real heroism.”
Dease was hit twice but remained at his post “as long as one of his crew could fire”. His third wound proved fatal. Two months later, he was posthumously awarded the Victoria Cross – the first of the First World War – “for conspicuous bravery”.
“His gallant death is only what I should have expected,” wrote an officer in The Royal Fusiliers. “His duty was always first, and he had a complete mastery over himself … Maurice leaves a blank space in the regiment … We have lost a gallant comrade, and cheery and steadfast friend.”
Our World War – which began on BBC Three on 7 August – was written by Joe Barton, who said he wanted to get away from the “staid and ornate” representation of the First World War. “The fact is many of the characters are kids … they were still young men, fighting a war, stuck together. They needed to feel like young people today, not sepia toned relics of some distant past … We wanted to make it a realistic depiction of what it must have been like back then, but we didn’t want to be grandiose about it ... World War One was a global tragedy, a class based war that became a meat grinder for an entire generation of young men. We wanted to commemorate, not celebrate, and hopefully help people – the sort of people who, a hundred years ago, might have been sent to fight and die themselves – to understand just what it was like for those who were there.”
Our World War is being broadcast on BBC Three at 9pm on Thursdays. Watch the first episode here.
MAIN PHOTO: Lieut Maurice Dease VC (left) and as played by Dominic Thorburn.
LOWER PHOTO: The cast and crew of 'Our World War' on location.