This is not so straight forward. Having a family legend involving the Red Baron has helped me enormously.
Family history is something I’ve dabbled in for years, but I had concentrated on finding romantic Scottish ancestors. My dad’s memories of his great Aunt Lil (left) whose only son might (or might not) have been a victim of Manfred von Richthofen didn’t really register on my research wish-list until about four years ago. I did a half-hearted search on Google for “Reid” and “Red Baron”. Reid was my maiden name, which I assumed would be the surname of the pilot. I found nothing and gave up.
A few years and a few weekends’ access to the behemoth that is Ancestry.com later, I became more ambitious. If he wasn’t a Reid, would he have been a Baker, my great-grandmother’s name? The Bakers were already a striking addition to the vault of family history vanities. They were Dorset folk, bred in the unforgettably-named Piddle Valley, and had, to my eyes, stepped right out of a Thomas Hardy novel. So I googled “Baker” and “Red Baron” and had a rush of adrenaline when the name Baker appeared in a list of Richthofen’s 80 kills.
I’m ashamed to say I didn’t stop to think that it was a list of dead young men. I couldn’t have given you a definition of schadenfreude either. Closer inspection revealed, however, that this Baker was a Canadian pilot. Unlikely to be ours then. Disappointed, I emailed my dad and told him it would be a bit of a bugger if that was a family legend blown out. A few hours later he replied and, in an email that still makes the hairs on the back of my neck stand up, told me I should be looking for a Morris, whose mother Lil had been his grandfather’s sister.
Just a few clicks later I was looking at a photograph of 2nd Lieutenant Lionel Bertram Frank Morris, Royal Flying Corps. I read a few bare sentences about his life which had ended in, or near, a military hospital after meeting the Red Baron in the skies above the Western Front. Richthofen had shot up the engine of his plane and killed his observer. With terrible machine gun wounds, Morris had still managed to land the plane behind German lines not far from the city of Cambrai.
I had always wanted to find out about what had happened to our ancestors in the war and for that reason alone it was an exciting moment. To have in addition to that the sudden recognition that one of them was historically significant (albeit as a footnote in many cases) was a revelation that made me forget the implications of what such a brutal end would have had on his family. For a while, at least.
I have been lucky with Morris's story, as the connection with the Red Baron creates an immediate historical interest. But like any huge national event, the Great War is more relevant to us when its personal moments are highlighted. It comes searingly close and the elastic band of time can snap back with surprising force. There is also a sad irony to Morris's story; without his encounter with Richthofen, I doubt if we would have heard of him, and he would have been just another blank box on the family tree.
But that's the fascination of family history - who will you find next?
Not so much a journey of discovery, more of a commute of compulsion
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