Last widow of the Great War dies

Laura White
Laura White

Dorothy Ellis, the last First World War widow whose husband Wilfred inspired Michael Morpurgo’s novel Warhorse, has died in a nursing home aged 96.

She had lived nearly all her life in the village of Iddesleigh, near Okehampton. I first met Dorothy when reporter Karen Farrington and I were doing some research into the background of Morpurgo’s First World War novel which had been adapted into a film directed by Steven Spielberg.

Michael Morpurgo had mentioned that he had the inspiration for the book by chatting to three old WW1 veterans in The Duke of York pub in the village – Col Budget, Albert Weeks and
Wilfred Ellis.

We went to Iddesleigh to have a look around and everybody we talked to told us to go and see Dorothy who lived in the old Post Office. Dorothy welcomed us into her cottage, which was like stepping back a hundred years, then the whole story came out about Wilfred and how he had been shot and gassed while serving in the trenches. She showed me the pocket bible he had taken to the front with notes of the dates he had been injured and how later, in the 1940s, they had fallen in love, marrying in 1942.

Although Wilfred was twice her age Dorothy told us what a great violinist Wilfred was and how they spent the Second World War helping others in the area; she was also in the women’s Home Guard.

She and Wilfred didn’t have children but were close to her family – her nieces and nephews and the children that were evacuated. She and Wilfred went into the antiques trade and Dorothy was the Iddesleigh correspondent for The Okehampton Times.

Wilfred died three decades ago and is buried next to Albert Weeks who was too young to go to war but had a horse called ‘Joe’ which was requisitioned and shipped off to the front. In the book, film and play he became ‘Joey.’

During our chats Dorothy said that her husband would be quiet on November 11th: “He was usually a jolly person but on Armistice Day he would just go very quiet and at first I couldn’t understand it but then I got to realise why he was being so quiet and silent. He said to me, ‘You’ve got to remember this is the day that thousands of chaps died for us to keep us alive’.”

We found out that Dorothy was born on the 11th November 1921 and in a few weeks time it would be Dorothy’s 90th birthday. Karen the reporter and I organised for a British Legion piper to play Happy Birthday on the day.

Karen and I loved to drop in to see Dorothy from time to time, mostly to ask about some bit of information she may be able to help us with or just listen to her stories and memories; she was as sharp as a tack. With this year being the hundredth anniversary of the end of the Great War I did telephone Dorothy’s home a few weeks ago to see if she would be up for another visit, but there was no reply.

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