I think Michael Dörflinger, whose book ‘Death Was Their Co-Pilot’ has been sent to me by Pen and Sword for review, must be great at dinner parties.
The faces of Boelcke, Immelman, Richthofen, McCudden and Ball gaze out from the cover in a stellar line up of aerial Musketeers that will draw in the faithful. For anyone wanting an accessible and slightly gossipy guide to the great aces of the First World War, this volume is as good a place as any to start and Dörflinger’s way of illustrating the peccadillos of these extraordinary men certainly livened up some of the stories I had read before.
The prose, often as staccato as a Lewis machine gun, has an entertainingly flippant tone in places that is welcome to me. I’ve read too many earnest tomes that wear their learning like keys on a prison guard’s hip.
Here is an author who is not afraid to give an opinion and bravo to him for it; ‘Nothing but death!’ he exclaims, and who would disagree with that? It’s good for its focus on non-Allied airmen – without the benefit of a lifetime’s reading, I am forced to concede my knowledge of the aviators on the other side of the lines, as well as the lesser-known Allied pilots, is woeful. This book was an easily-digestible summary.
There are some well-chosen quotes that breathe life into the exhausted vocabulary of dogfight descriptions: what I wouldn’t have given to have made up this one from German airman Friedrich Schiller on watching Manfred von Richthofen claim his 26th and 27th victims: ‘The British machines seemed to scintillate, glittering and sparking like a layer of snow in the sunshine.’
The devil-may-care cliché of the First World War airman is irresistible, even if it was a façade as thin as the canvas walls of the aeroplanes, and the translation by Geoffrey Brooks gives a wonderful alliterative swing to some of the best quotes, such as Richthofen’s insoucient aside about having ‘finally wangled permission to wobble a Fokker’. Werner Voss’s silk shirts, worn to impress the ladies of Paris in the event of an unfortunate landing, get a second mention, in case we missed it the first time.
And the photographs! Rudolph Berthold, with the eyes of a scared teenager and the rigid hauteur of a Prussian (although he was a Bavarian) has a glare that could fell a BE2c at a hundred feet. Richthofen himself is reproduced in a famous photograph that Dörflinger captions as a ‘dreamy pose in an office. Is he thinking of his missions flown in his red triplane?’. The development of fighter aircraft is given a chapter headed by a striking image of an upside-down Fokker D.VII in mid loop, hanging like a puppet flung in the air. There’s a generous sixteen-page appendix of statistics – if that’s your bag, you’ll be well-served.
I do have reservations: it’s an old-fashioned kind of book, with a Boys Own flavour of chivalry reflected in a poem Dörflinger quotes: ‘I want to be a Boelcke, a Boelcke just like he’ and I suspect more discerning tastes than mine may be irritated by the odd factual error or myth repeated. The lack of references and an index are also a problem. But let he who is without sin cast the first stone should be a mantra for any author reviewing someone else’s work however, and I’ve no doubt similar errors will be found in my book, despite my best efforts.
Finally, I would like to stand up for Albert Ball: to say he had no relationship at all with his colleagues is not true, as I discovered from reading his letters and the memoirs of his contemporaries. Conversely, he may have also have been ‘the dream of any future mother-in-law’ according to Dörflinger; but as the unfortunate Ball never got to marry, we shall never know. And if his off-duty exploits were anything to go by, any future mothers-in-law would have had to have turned a blind eye to his roving one.
‘Death Was Their Co-Pilot’ by Michael Dörflinger, translated by Geoffrey Brooks, is published by Pen and Sword.
The riches of Lionel Morris’s service record file were hard to beat until I discovered what the RAF Museum had on him. A friend had sent me a PDF of the letter from Captain Gray to Morris’s parents describing the events of September 17th that was kept at Hendon. Being a bit over-preoccupied on the how of doing, rather than just the doing, it took me a while before I just emailed the Reading Room at Hendon to ask what else they had on Morris and No.11 Squadron. There is no online catalogue for the museum, but It was a luxury to have someone else doing the searching. I waited a few weeks, but they sent me back a meticulous list of items, including his diary from the summer of 1916.
My first visit to Hendon was a family affair. Archives can be intimidating places, so I was glad to have my aunt and uncle there to negotiate the paperwork, as well as find the loos and lockers. My aunt was researching the history of the RFC aerodrome at London Colney, (home to Albert Ball in 1917) and her work was included in the book ‘St Albans: Life on the Home Front, 1914-1918’ This subsequently hit the shelves at the National Archives, so she’s ahead of me there. My uncle was there to provide extra transcription help and to distract us with gobbets of interesting information/occasional snorts of laughter.
I was the edge of contemplating a little hyperventilation when Morris’s diary was finally in front of me. Who knew a little brown book could cause such an adrenaline rush? My hopes were high – I’d invented a childhood sweetheart, and a literary style to match Cecil Lewis, probably the most skilled writer to publish an RFC memoir. And oh, the jeopardy. I had just a few short hours to transcribe nearly four months’ worth of entries – at this time I hadn’t seriously started thinking about writing, so this felt like a one-off visit that I had to make the most of. Transcribing was just the start – as with the service file, it took me many months to get the most out of the diary and to really pinpoint what the most valuable historical information was. It was my great good fortune (and poor Morris’s bad luck) that the period of the diary covered the lead up to the Battle of the Somme and its first two and a half months.
What was of interest to me, as much as anything, was the day to day life of the squadron, and I certainly got a sense of the boredom and frustration of waiting around for machines to be fixed and the weather to improve. But there were also flashes of humour and irreverence, and some of the other items at Hendon illustrated this too. There were two programmes for concerts knocked up by No.11 in August 1916; they sent me scurrying off to Google to try and listen to the tunes that Morris would have heard, and to research how the ‘performers’ might have mangled them in the name of entertainment.
A resource I would have loved to make more of, if I’d had the budget, would be the photograph album of Captain Ernest Foot, one of the No. 11’s scout pilots and a good friend of Albert Ball. I was mindful of copyright and did quite a lot of gnashing of teeth because there are some wonderful snaps in the album of the squadron relaxing, some aerial shots of their own aerodrome (and some German ones too) and some ghostly shots of distant FE2bs coming in to land. A photograph of the bodies of dead horses in war-ravaged Souchez, (a town on the southern end of the offensive patrols which Morris often flew over) was jarring amongst the jolly images of the magnificent men in their flying machines. If only Morris had kept a photograph album as well as a diary – and if only it had stayed in the family.
But even though I couldn’t afford to use some of these gems in the book; they all helped me build up a visual picture of No.11 in the summer of 1916 and helped me to at least imagine the atmosphere at Savy and Le Hameau. There’s something so visceral about handling these personal items that you don’t get from reading memoirs.
There was less material from other squadrons Morris had served with, as I was careful not to use material from any other times of the war. The RFC was expanding so quickly that the experiences of airman just six months apart in training could be radically different, and I wanted to be as sure as I could that I was accurately describing what Morris went through.
This is the first of several blogs I’m going to post about the process of research – how and where to look for an RFC officer in official records.
I still hadn’t decided to write a book about Lionel Morris when I took my first trip to Kew, back in October 2014, and it took a while before my visits were as fruitful as I needed them to be. As the RFC would have recognised, time in reconnaissance is never wasted, so I invested many hours in familiarising myself with the National Archives online Discovery catalogue before each trip. The biggest drawback to finding really good stuff is not knowing where to look – it wasn’t difficult to find service records for Lionel Morris, (just putting his name in the search box came up trumps) but it was much harder to work out where the hidden gems might be.
Officers’ service records are available online for a fee of under a fiver in the AIR 76 series of the catalogue. Finding Morris’s gave me a bare, but essential chronology of postings and squadrons, and I leapt into research oblivion from there. The Nazis fatally compromised World War One historians by lobbing an incendiary bomb into a London archive store in 1940 and around two-thirds of 6.5 million military records were burnt. But there are some RFC officers’ records still available, and I had little trouble finding Morris’s War Office file in the catalogue. I collected a satisfyingly bulging bunch of documents from the pigeon hole in the Reading Room at Kew on my first visit. It may well have been my last visit to Kew if WO 339/3910 had perished in the flames at Arnside Street. The WO (War Office) designation marks the fact that the RFC was part of the Army before 1918, but helpfully AIR 1 is where the majority of RFC records are now kept. The official historians of the RFC, Raleigh and Jones, were responsible for the anatomy of the RFC’s catalogue, as they were the first people to systematically trawl through the records.
Within a few minutes of opening the WO 339 file I was looking at documents in Morris’s own hand-writing, including his application for transfer to the RFC from the Queens’ Royal West Surrey Regiment in the autumn of 1915. His public school, Whitgift, gave him many things, and one of them, mercifully, was a fairly easy-to-read hand. He listed in bullet points the reasons why he felt he would make a good candidate for flying training. I was puzzled by some of them initially. I needed a really solid background knowledge of RFC history that came with months and months of reading.
I had taken dozens and dozens of photographs on that first day and felt a bit inadequate as most of the grown-up researchers were scribbling away madly at their desks. But it was the only way I could hope to get the most out of the records in the limited time I had at Kew. I could download the images and study them properly once I was at home. It continued to be the most practical way for me to study the documents. I lament the loss of the in-house cameras at Kew – they were clunky and prone to breaking, but the images were sharp and documents could be emailed home with their full catalogue numbers. It saved a lot of time in the long run and avoided that problem of realising later that you couldn’t actually read the text on your hastily-snapped camera phone shot.
The WO file was also full of endless abbreviations on minute sheets, many of which are still unclear to me. But I was less concerned with numbers and letters when there was so much good narrative detail in the file. Medical reports, his attestation document (the beginning of the legal process of signing up) and all the administration of his death were included. There was a copy of the bald telegram sent to his parents three days after he went missing. I sat back in my seat and took a deep breath at that point. Morris’s father Albert Morris, like most other bereaved parents of the Great War, needed guidance about what to do when his son died – questions of proof of death and probate needed answering and his deeply patient and respectful enquiries were perhaps the documents that were the most affecting. The replies often had a touch of the Jarndyce v Jarndyce, never using one word when three or four round-the-houses ones would to.
There’s another striking document that I keep meaning to go back to at some point. It’s a memo from the War Office to the Commanding Officer of 2nd Brigade RFC with a list of other officers who were transferring from the Army for flying training at the same time as Morris.
I’m still wondering how many of them survived the training. Let alone the war.
Here’s a couple of resources in case I’ve inspired you to start your own searching:
William Spencer’s book Tracing Your Air Force Ancestors is a must – most libraries will have a copy.
The National Archives website has a range of research guides too.
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On an occasional theme of recurring Richard van Emden appearances, I watched him being interviewed by the BBC as part of their coverage of the Remembrance Day service last month. Asked if he thought interest in the Great War could be sustained after 11 November, his answer was ambivalent, but he did say it was inevitable that the Great War would recede in our memories until it felt as far away as the Napoleonic Wars. He reckoned there would be a gradual fading away rather than an instant end. The title of his new book, '1918 A Decisive Year' could be adapted for all those of us worrying about our employment prospects after the centenary.
Armistice Day this year marked a particular tidemark. For four years, remembrance of the Great War has flooded the media; depending on how interested you were, it was a feast or a glut. As the sun went down on the eleventh of November 2018, and the great and the good filed out of Westminster Abbey, it was easy to wonder if that was that, and how soon it would be before the war would be pushed aside in favour of something more topical.
I suppose I've been in a bit of a Great War bubble for the last five years as most people I've talked to about Lionel Morris have had a keen interest in the centenary. The intensity of the interest will die down and for some people it will have real economic consequences - I've read about many battlefield guides losing their jobs as the demand for WW1 based tours declines. But I'm not convinced it will be terminal. The key to keeping people engaged is to encourage them to find out about their own family histories, and with so many readily available resources, it's never been easier. There's also so many of us for whom the centenary has been a galvanising, life-changing event, and it's brought history to life in a massively popular way
Sebastian Faulkes (who got in there before most, with his 1993 Western Front novel Birdsong) wrote a piece for the Times that included a summary of the sheer numbers of us who have been engaged in remembrance: 14-18 Now, the organisation whose events included the Blood Swept Lands and Seas of Red poppies installation, have reported audiences and participants of 30 million, and according to the head of BBC events, 82% of adult Britons listened or watched at least one programme on the centenary.
The war wasn’t legally over until the Treaty of Versailles was signed on 28 June 1919, which is why many local memorials have that year inscribed on them, rather than 1918. Servicemen dying up until 31 August 1921 are still recognised by the Commonwealth War Graves Commission as casualties of the 1914-18 conflict. In Saint-Symphorien cemetery in Belgium, it’s traditionally believed that the first and last Commonwealth soldiers of the war are buried not far from each other. Their tragedy is as simple to grasp as those killed on the eve of Armistice; and yet the deaths went on, from unhealed wounds both mental and physical, for decades to come.
There is a critical consensus now among historians that will not allow the colossal grief, the most easily understood legacy of the First World War, to overshadow the very good reasons why the generals took the decisions they did. But the territorial nature of that grief can’t be erased by academic studies. As Sebastian Faulkes wrote, ‘it is the nature of warfare and the human animal itself with which we have had to grapple.’ It’s this timeless dilemma that will always keep the poet’s war close to us, and the reason why I’ve found telling Lionel Morris’s story to be so irresistible. I needed to understand why he went to his death so willingly. I’m not sure I have understood it fully still, but I do have a better idea - and who on earth am I to judge when I wasn’t there.
In Sussex there lives a famous folk-singing family called the Coppers. One of its senior members is Bob Copper, who was recorded talking about his father Jimmy, and the deep sadness he felt about the “'ouses, 'ouses, 'ouses,” that continue to spring up on once beautiful downland. ‘It makes me prostrate with dismal,’ he lamented.
If there’s one thing that’s made me prostrate with dismal whilst working on Project Lionel, it’s the labyrinth of copyright. There isn’t anything else that left me so anxious or confused and there were points when I wished I’d just kept writing for an immediate family audience, rather than aim for commercial publication. As a first-time author you’re working on your wits and tenacity and if you’re lucky, you might make a few friends along the way who can offer advice. But the biggest thing I learned is that there are no firm guidelines and unless you have unlimited time and money, the amount of words you put in the text that aren’t yours will depend on how strong your nerve is. However much confident friends and family reassured me, I was deeply uncomfortable about taking any liberties with a commercially published book.
One thing I wish I’d done from the beginning, was to check copyright on every direct quote I wanted to use as I was going along, rather than waiting until the book was essentially written. This would have taken AGES but I’d still rather have done it in my own time without pressure, in the knowledge that even if I decided not to use them, I’d still have the peace of mind.
An issue with Great War aviation is that so many of the key texts were from publishers who no longer exist, or authors whose origins were so murky that it was hard to work out where copyright was due. I found it astonishingly difficult to establish even the most basic of rights for the National Archives, without having to do a couple of days research on the internet. There are also some differences between using images as opposed to text – you’re more likely to have to shell out for pictures but often the advice on archival sites was unclear. Making personal contact with archive staff (and pointing out that you’re unlikely to make a lot of money from publication) was always a good option, but when you’re potentially hundreds of miles away from some of them, that’s not always an option.
Cost was a huge drawback. There was nothing in my publishing contract to help cover copyright fees. As a first-time author, grateful to have landed a deal in the first place, I didn’t question that. A family friend who’s a literary agent had been kind enough to check it for me and as she hadn’t questioned it either, I accepted it.
Although I was lucky enough to have a modest advance, it didn’t last long once I’d covered a couple of necessary additional research trips and paid for a handful of images. One publisher charged me nearly £200 for using 650 words of one fairly obscure book. As a soon-to-be published author myself I absolutely understand the need for copyright but in many cases requests (and charges) don’t go to the author but the publisher, and the whole process I found to be a bit brutal and impersonal. A simple thank you and acknowledgement that you’re potentially providing free publicity would have been nice.
I hadn’t expected to get a publishing deal so quickly and I knew the timescale for establishing copyright for Morris’s diary was going to be much shorter than I had anticipated, so I got in touch with the RAF Museum as soon as negotiations began with Pen and Sword. As an ‘orphan work’ i.e. one which had no known copyright holder, there were complications. In the end it took nearly five months to sort out. Using only 250 words of direct quotes - the ‘fair usage’ benchmark - from such a key primary source would have removed Morris’s own words in a way that would have sucked the life out of the book. But it was a nightmare scenario I had to contemplate more than once.
It was a stressful business, but I guess one that you just have to go through for the first time to know better the second. The experience has certainly been incredibly valuable and God knows, it’s been a nice problem to have! The Society of Authors provides excellent advice – and I was lucky enough to be eligible to join, but with so many other things to have to pay for to get to the book to the stage of being ready for publication, I decided I just couldn’t afford it.
Here are some of the more useful resources I found:
I’d be interested to hear from anyone else about their experiences of getting to grips with copyright.
‘Now pile your dust upon the quick and the dead,’ laments Laertes in Hamlet as Ophelia is buried. It’s one of those beautifully striking phrases that I’ve remembered from university, up there with bits of Dante (‘midway along the journey of life, I found myself in a dark wood’) and Wat Tyler (‘when Adam delved and Eve span, where was then the pride of man?’). It’s alluring even in an opaque fourteenth century bible version: ‘And thei schulen yyue resoun to hym, that is redi to deme the quyke and the deed.’ Leave judgement of all souls to God, it admonishes us.
Richard van Emden’s book ‘The Quick and the Dead’ is about the fallen soldiers of the Great War and their families, and I had picked it up on the same basis of intrigue and recognition. I have read several of Richard’s books on self-scheduled Breakfast in Bed Research sessions. If you have a good book you don’t wait until finishing your porridge before picking it up. With tautly-bound paperbacks this creates balance issues – bowl and spoon must be handled deftly to keep the book open whilst the porridge goes in your mouth and not all over your pyjamas. When you’re reading books as fascinating as Richard’s, the urgent need to take copious notes complicates this precarious arrangement. One false move for a distant biro and it’s carnage. A few pages have delicately oated watermarks highlighting particularly affecting passages.
So I was keen to attend a workshop based around the themes of the book at Oxford Brookes University. It was led by Richard and heritage consultant Stephen Barker and aimed at people writing about the war. There were around ten of us in attendance, most of whom were women, so I gave myself a talking to for not having challenged my own assumptions about who’s interested in WW1. One was a retired RAF nurse, another a young Asian girl about to start an English literature degree. Several wanted to expand their own family history research. I’d met Patrick Limb, who’s writing a book about a barrister-turned-soldier shot in the Easter Rising, before, and a fair-headed young man called David who wouldn’t have looked out of place in a 1916 officer’s uniform made up the male contingent. What we all had in common was a quiet relief that we’d outed our Great War habit in a confined and sympathetic environment.
Richard had boundless energy and enthusiasm. He shared a career’s worth of wonderful stories about Great War veterans, the neap tides of publisher’s attentions, and what not to put on your book cover. He was also generous with his hard-won experience, putting someone else’s book, ‘How the Pershore Plum Won the Great War’ on a must-read list for all of us.
It was interesting to come to the workshop at this point in my own Project Lionel and notice that some of the thoughts that were crystallised for me during my own research were echoed in the discussions. The mud, blood and vermin versions of the Great War have become clichés (albeit brutally honest ones) that the media seem unable to let go of, but any writer hoping to attract a thoughtful readership has got to find the light, shade and humour amongst the gore.
We did some good break-out work on book proposals. It was painful to have to cut down to 50 words the 200-word masterpiece I drafted almost a year ago for Pen and Sword – but it was a good exercise in precision pruning. I didn’t quite have the nerve to share some of the flippant titles I’d played with – (Lionel and the Red Baron: Great War, Terrible End) but it was fun to talk about everyone’s ideas for their own projects. One genius title for a book about the Women’s Land Army came up that gave us the giggles, but I’ll leave that to your imagination and tell you all about it when the work is written and published.
I’ve taken home two things in particular. The first: don’t be a lazy author if you want to be commissioned to write again – get out there and sell. Richard had the gift of making this sound like fun instead of the complete vapour-inducing horror I’d been turning it into.
The second was that I’m now desperate for a customised filing system housed in antique walnut, with an A to Z of my archival meanderings, in order to turn all those little nuggets I had to leave out of the book, into Book Number Two.
I’ve also noticed in the acknowledgements of several sober historians of Great War aviation that my addiction to facetious alternative titles is not unusual, so I’ll leave you with a few more. (Disclaimer: these are coming from a place of love and respect and in a long tradition of RFC black humour which I hope will not offend anyone.)
Up the Family Tree and Downed on the Somme
Aunt Lil and the Red Baron: An Ancestor Descends
Farewell to Flesquieres
Croydon and All That
A Sideslip to Obscurity
Half a League from Carshalton
Ill Met By Marcoing
Hun in the Sun, Youth on the Looth (sic)
Icarus in Sheepskin
I Was A Teenage Second Lieutenant
Similar affectionate alternatives are welcomed.
How do you get a publishing contract as a first-time author? First find a really good story involving a legendary historical figure.
I spent hours and hours combing the internet for advice and despaired more than once when I found too much of it. What did convince me was the Your Writer Platform website – a combination of common sense and slightly overwhelming positivity that changed my mindset about the usefulness of an online presence. Previously I’d shied away from anything vaguely resembling self-promotion, but there was something winningly honest about this website’s approach, so I thought, well what I have got to lose?
I then spent hours planning ideal reader profiles and which website building provider to go with. I sought help from my friend Rachel, who is a social media manager. She introduced me to the two-headed monsters of Twitter and Instagram. I began to enjoy the creative buzz. And crucially, I was desperate to share Morris’s story, which made it a much less immodest activity to promote him, rather than me.
Then came the celebrity/serendipity. On Twitter, I followed the brilliant author and battlefield guide, Paul Reed, whose knowledge of the Great War is matched by his empathy for its victims. He had liked a post by the historian/journalist/telly producer Rebecca Rideal, so I saw it by default. Rebecca was offering advice on getting a new non-fiction book published. I emailed her, and she said she’d be happy to help and would get back to me in a few days.
Whilst I was congratulating myself on having been on Twitter at exactly the right time, I saw I had a new follower who was a commissioning editor at Pen and Sword. She emailed me to stay that she’d seen my website and that Morris’s story sounded like just the kind of book she was interested in. If I hadn’t responded publicly on Twitter to Rebecca’s tweet, I wonder if it would have happened at all, let alone so quickly.
Whitgift School had also done a lot of the legwork for me. The astonishing amount of publicity they had achieved for their Remembering 1916 exhibition (which featured Morris so prominently) enabled me to show visitors to my website that there was a good deal of interest in the story already, something the canny commissioning editor at Pen and Sword would not have missed.
Website building proves that the adage ‘a little knowledge is a dangerous thing’ theory is frustratingly accurate. I tried to keep mine as simple as possible. I hoped that the power of the story would be clear, without the need to embellish the site with too many fancy visuals and widgets. Not that I could have added them with my level of technological know-how anyway. Finding and paying for decent images of Great War aviation (with all the copyright issues involved) was a whole new ballgame I couldn’t tackle at that stage either. So I concentrated on the quality of the writing. My website isn’t a design triumph, but I think there’s enough authenticity and enthusiasm to engage the limited number of visitors I could reasonably expect as an unknown author. I used Weebly. And wished I’d stuck to WordPress, as I’d had a simple site hosted with them previously that had been simple to use – I got stuck down a few cul-de-sacs of inertia and frustration learning a completely new interface.
The thing I hadn’t expected with Twitter was its ability to not only connect you very quickly to the right people, but how it can make you friends and stretch your creative muscles in such a fun way. There are many days when it feels like you’re talking to yourself in a desperate bid for attention, but there are other days when it’s exhilarating and encouraging and proves another tired adage true – positive things happen to positive people. I’m not sure how many first-time authors hope to get published without a half-decent online presence and a willingness to engage with these kinds of networks.
It’s very easy to feel intimidated by the quantity of information available online. I certainly did. But it is worth taking time to research as much as you can bear - the salient bits become clear on reflection and you can take from it what you think will be achievable and useful.
Now that the book is with the publisher and I’m awaiting an editor’s gimlet-eyed response, I’m spending a lot less time on social media but I’ll be planning a strategic onslaught in the run up to publication next year.
In the early days of the Great War the insistent low hum of an airship on a moonless night was a uniquely unnerving sound to the people of these splendidly isolated islands. The Zeppelins (to use the generic term for airships) were hardly weapons of mass destruction – their navigation systems were primitive, and their bomb aiming was often wayward – but the new and terrifying idea that we were no longer safe on home soil must have dawned on Britain with a slow and invidious horror.
What the public was also barely aware of was how embarrassingly little the Royal Flying Corps could do about it. It had no autonomy over its resources and was constantly pulled between the Army and the Navy, who couldn’t agree on how best to put it to use.
When Lionel Morris joined a home defence squadron fresh out of flying school in early 1916, aeroplanes couldn’t climb fast enough to chase the airships effectively. That rendered the explosive tin bullets that needed to be dropped on, rather than thrown at, their targets, pretty much useless. Night flying was a skill there was precious little time to perfect – for the pilots rushed through training, courage was more important than preparation. I found one anecdote from a young Arthur ‘Bomber’ Harris (like Morris, a member of both 19 and 39 Home Defence Squadrons at this time) who, on being asked if he could fly in the dark, admitted cheerfully that if he couldn’t fly during the day, then perhaps he could at night.
This atmosphere of desperate improvisation that the Royal Flying Corps operated in is brought to life brilliantly at Stow Maries Aerodrome in Essex. A little hamlet of grey huts and faded red brick structures, it’s a miraculous survivor – miraculous because none of the buildings were adapted for use in WW2 or at any time afterwards and it remains the most complete RFC aerodrome in Europe. Stow Maries received its first aircraft in the month that Lionel Morris died, and it was one of a ring of aerodromes around London like Suttons Farm and Hainault Farm, either of which Morris may well have flown from before he went to France.
We drove through parched fields on a stinkingly hot day at the beginning of August to visit. It’s an uncomplicated site, and in the absence of any immediately visible aircraft, retains more of an agricultural feel than an aviation one. But it’s this quiet and unobtrusive impression that makes it remarkable. Imagination does the work for you and the site’s custodians have done a brilliant job of not overdoing the interpretation.
The old engine workshop now houses a museum where the drama of the airship raids is recreated. My heart usually drops at the word ‘interactive’ but being able to pinpoint exact locations that were bombed, on a display screen (including several very close to where we have family now) was sobering. There were so many devastating hits – the 1940s Blitz holds our collective memories so firmly that it was shocking to realise just how much damage those early raids did. A simple display of tumbled bricks and a splintered desk tells the story of Poplar School, which lost sixteen children when Gotha bomber aircraft (less vulnerable to improved incendiary bullets than the Zeppelins) attacked in 1917. Despite the explosion and the crack of falling masonry, the memories of one stunned Poplar schoolboy were almost entirely visual.
There are much lighter moments – we all jumped and giggled when the booming voice of No. 37’s ‘Commanding Officer’ (or perhaps Adjutant) welcomed us to the squadron office and there’s a woebegone mannequin of a sergeant being all but jabbed in the chest by a flying officer swathed like an old-fashioned Michelin man in a fleece and cotton Sidcot suit. The Mess Hall Café now caters for tourists rather than pilots, but there’s RFC roundels, Union Jack bunting and an upright piano to remind you of the particular fellows who used to drink their tea here. I took confidently to the skies in a mocked-up nacelle with my knees somewhere near my chin. It’s easy to play at flying in a simulator. The lethal variables of real-life flight in these elementary machines are illustrated in photographs of crashed aeroplanes. Many of them lie nose-down in a cartoon manner. But it’s still wincingly obvious what human wreckage lies hidden.
There are still several buildings at Stow Maries that aren’t accessible to the public. Health and Safety rules obviously apply but these crumbling, weed-swamped ruins were the ones I would have really liked to explore, preferably on a still winter’s afternoon with a low sun. Owls are more likely to haunt these remains than the ghosts of airmen - Stow Maries has an admirable natural conservation programme and boasts all five of Britain’s native species. I hope there’ll always be room for a bit of romantic decay there when so much of the rest of the site is being so lovingly restored.
It was over 30 degrees when we wilted back into the car after staying less than an hour. But wonderful places like Stow Maries should be visited little and often, so that each time you can absorb each small, evocative feature of it properly, rather than ending up with a painful kind of cultural indigestion.
I didn’t feel cheated. I just need to relocate to Essex.
‘The Red Baron’s Englishman’ is now out of my hands, sent to Pen and Sword Books for professional tweakage and publication. Suddenly I’m sleeping better and if I’m honest, I had an exhausted urge to wash my hands of it completely and if I never read another book about the Royal Flying Corps, it didn't feel like a loss.
Well that’s how I felt this morning. But I’m now out of the post-submission doldrums and I’m again desperate to stop strangers in the street and tell them this extraordinary/ordinary story.
Many days when I was writing I’d realise I was about to be late to pick up my daughter from school, as I’d got so absorbed. I’d then rush off, plugging myself into the ipod and listen to Public Service Broadcasting’s ‘Spitfire’ – it’s about the next war, obviously, but the sense of building excitement and danger it creates (as well as that unmistakeable Merlin engine roar that precedes it) matched my mood, especially as I got to the later stages of the book and the unstoppable momentum of the events of leading up to the dogfight with Richthofen. I was always the only one in the playground who’d just left a situation of impending historical drama and tragedy and never had anyone to talk to about it.
Attempting to accurately translate that narrative thrill I was experiencing was a real challenge, but if there was one thing I did want to achieve in the book, it was that I wanted to bring this century-old story to life so that people would care about what that unassuming teenager did in the summer of 1916. I’ve worked hard to be as historically accurate and objective as possible, and use as many sources to lighten what at times can be a grim and gruesome story, but ultimately, it’s the physical act of page-turning I’m trying to achieve.
I’m looking forward to working with the editors at Pen and Sword to streamline and focus the book – it’s another twelve months until it’ll be published in June 2019, by which time I will have lived with the story for the best part of six years. Can’t wait to share it!
Meet Captain David Benjamin Gray.
Born in Assam in 1884, Gray was a friend of Morris’s as well as his flight leader, who joined the RFC from the Indian Army. He's been leaping out of the archives at me for the best part of four years. I found him with the help of my friend Jim Miller, in a letter that was written to Lionel Morris’s father from a German PoW camp, where he'd lied about his name and squadron. At the National Archives he was in a lawyer’s letter describing a trial for attempted murder, and a repatriation report that described him setting his aeroplane aflame.
I found him on the internet, in digitised accounts of the notorious Holzminden prison camp, where his fellow prisoners dubbed him the Father of the Tunnel. He escaped in the summer of 1918, an exploit that newspapers still cannot resist calling The First Great Escape. He cut an archetypally dashing Royal Flying Corps figure in photographs, dark hair slicked back, and centre-parted, with a caterpillar moustache that underlined a long straight nose and a gaze direct from 1916. Two years later, fresh from his remarkable prison break, the features were still familiar but pinched, and instead of a smart officer’s uniform, he wore a filthy coat, huge shoes and a gleeful expression, looking for all the world like Charlie Chaplin’s skinny brother.
So who was this man, whose gift for languages gave him another nickname, ‘Munshi’, after the Persian word for teacher? His adventures were turned into a film starring a young Jack Hawkins, and he was still serving the Royal Air Force thirty years after his FE2b was shot down by the great German ace Oswald Boelcke. There’s one book that says he fought the Bolsheviks in Russia. Another is due out in September - the film rights were snapped up by Channel Four even before the manuscript had been delivered to the publisher. Gray’s Great Escape has proved irresistible all over again.
A couple of weeks ago I had a conversation with a woman who lives in the village of Wonston in Hampshire where Gray and his wife Violet are buried. Jane Gray (no relative!) never knew the good Captain but her mother was friends with Violet for decades. More intriguing stories came out – about the tragedy of his only son, about how much admired he had been in the village, and about the mementoes of his life that ended up in a crème de menthe tin. One of them apparently was an aspirin, allegedly the remainder of a stash that had ‘sedated’ a fellow escapee posing as a lunatic in order to fool German villagers, a plot dreamt up by Gray and executed with creative guile.
He didn’t brag about himself. It was only after some visitors who knew about the Holzminden episode turned up, eager to know more about him, that the village realised what an extraordinary man had been living in their midst. The local library was suddenly deluged with requests for the book that had led the visitors to Wonston.
Jane told me she had passed on what was left of the Grays’ belongings (including the crème de menthe tin) to the National Museum of Army Flying at Nether Wallop and Winchester Museum. I’ve been in contact with both, but my enquiries have been fruitless so far. I’m all wrapped up with Lionel Morris at the moment and haven’t the time to visit the museums in person to really look for Gray, but just as soon as I can, I shall.
Not so much a journey of discovery, more of a commute of compulsion
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