“Lil was widowed. Difficult character, no time for little boys. I used to sneak into her room - she had some kind of plaque on her desk with “The Red Baron” written on it. I knew of the Red Baron of course, but no one in the family talked about Lionel.”
Over seventy years ago my dad was fascinated by a curious memento belonging to his great aunt Lil Morris. His wartime memories inspired me to begin a search uncovering an absorbing story with unexpected present day repercussions. Lil’s 19 year old only child, 2nd Lieutenant Lionel Morris, died on 17 September 1916, a day that saw the birth of one of the most compelling legends of the Great War. Morris and his friend Tom Rees were the first victims of the man who was to become the most famous of all fighter pilots: the German ace Manfred von Richthofen.
A Summer on the Somme
“Lionel Morris and the Red Baron” follows a short but dramatic life. Leaving the foot soldiers of the Surreys for the wood and wires of the Royal Flying Corps, (forerunner of today’s RAF) Morris arrived on the Western Front at a time when, despite terrible losses and inferior machines, the RFC was winning a bloody struggle to control the skies. His story reaches its climax on the day when advantage began once more to shift inexorably in favour of a lethally re-organised enemy. In its ranks was an unknown but ambitious German pilot about to change the course of air fighting history. Using previously unpublished archive material, this biography captures the atmosphere of that extraordinary summer on the Somme, when pilots lived in the ‘stretch and sag of nerves’. Image: David McLellan [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
Not Quite About Heroes
Morris's brief life was all but forgotten. He had been in a small but outstanding milieu which included the great British ace Albert Ball and the controversial RAF commander in World War Two, Arthur ‘Bomber’ Harris. The events surrounding his death marked a key shift in the power balance of the air war and contributed to the strategic development of its tactics. With the Zeppelin chasers in the capital's first ever dedicated air defence unit and as a combat pilot in arguably the world’s first fighter squadron during the Battle of the Somme, his skills were acknowledged by Richthofen himself. Did that make him a hero? His name is not in any list of aces and a recommendation for a mention in despatches for him was ‘Not Expedited’. Image: Morris's medals. Reproduced with kind permission of Phil Evans/Whitgift School
The Little Known Warrior
And yet his trajectory was a microcosm of Britain’s Great War, and his misfortune at meeting Richthofen that early autumn day gave him an intriguing place in the footnotes of history. From his quiet middle-class beginnings and enlistment six days after the sinking of the Lusitania, through to perilous flying training as a pilot with the Royal Flying Corps, the spirit of that inexplicably brave generation is personified by Lionel, the little known warrior. Image: Inns of Court Officers Training Corps Trenches, Berkhamstead
Morris remained tantalisingly elusive as a distant family member. But in a twist of coincidence his previously anonymous end took on new life - featuring in an ambitious exhibition visited by thousands. And a unique meeting, which brought me face to face with a twenty-first century von Richthofen, finally propelled Morris into the news a hundred years after his death. Image: Reproduced with kind permission of Whitgift School
Lionel Morris and the Red Baron tells the story of how one teenager’s ordinary war became remarkable through the accretions of history. And of how his everyday bravery stands as a tribute to all our little-known warriors.