My awareness of Manfred von Richthofen started with Snoopy. The cartoon battles of a beagle flying a (Sopwith?) kennel introduced the First World War’s most famous ace to generations of children and continues to inveigle him into popular consciousness. Thanks as much to the author and illustrator Charles Schulz as to his fame in battle, the Red Baron remains an instantly recognisable brand.
A glance at a Wikipedia page on his place in popular culture documents an industry that grew up on how the world wanted to remember him - and suggests that whether you wish to be thrilled, scared or amused by his reputation, the bare facts of his actual existence can become completely irrelevant. Our appetite for the Red Baron is undiminishing as long as the tropes are familiar: the scarlet plane, the humourless hunter or the faceless foe taking on an airborne dog with goggles and flapping ears.
Beyond the cartoon clichés, it’s almost impossible to read about the aviators of World War One without finding at least one reference to the Red Baron. He has become over time arguably the most recognisable figure of the Great War after Lord Kitchener. It was a conflict long on generals but short on household names of combatants whose contributions have been seen as significant in terms of the front line fighting. Those who are remembered in Britain are evoked more for their cultural weight: the poets Owen and Sassoon, the romantic figure of T. E. Lawrence. History lessons have reminded us of the baddies – the Shakespearean Kaiser with his withered arm; the spoilsport Gavrilo Princip who set the whole thing off by killing Archduke Franz Ferdinand. Richthofen with his 80 victories may have been more of a talisman for the Germans and a bogeyman for the Allies than someone who crucially affected the outcome of the war, but his superstardom is still so potent that nearly a hundred years later, the Mirror gives the mystery of his death a place on their front page.
The shibboleths of Richthofen’s fame include the fable of the cold, calculating ex-huntsman and cavalry officer with a gruesome interior design preference for bits of mangled aircraft; an icon so valuable that his corpse was interred in three different places before being left in peace - as if the German nation were afraid they might forget him. Morris's war was unconventional but it ended in tragedy without the compensation of immortality. He was a cheerful and modest middle class lad from London with no aristocratic connections beyond those that his mother might have wished to cultivate. His life was not so different to the millions of other young men caught up in the war. But the path he chose, and the people he met on his way to that final encounter in the skies above the Western Front, make his story stirring in a completely different way to Richthofen’s.
I knew there was no point in trying to write about the Red Baron himself, as it was territory already well-covered by people with vast knowledge of the subject. But the background of cultural indigestion and hyperbole that Richthofen created made Morris's story striking - because it illuminated the German's underwhelming beginnings as the world’s most famous fighter pilot. One family’s tragic but commonplace war story was distorted over the generations as layer upon layer of accumulated connotations were deposited on it. Morris's life was typically normal in one way and yet became abnormal in its associations.
I'd be really interested to hear from anyone who has had a similar experience of discovering an ancestor in the footnotes of history in their own family.
Three books in particular with family history themes inspired me to start writing.
Josceline Dimbleby’s “A Profound Secret” about her Pre-Raphaelite connected ancestors was damned in the Guardian with a caustic review guaranteed to strike the fear of God into any aspiring amateur historian's heart. But I think all you need to enjoy it is a bit of empathy as it’s a well-told and poignant story.
I spent precious book tokens on Alison Light’s beautiful "Common People" and was very moved by her father’s recollections of her alcoholic grandfather. He knew he wasn’t welcome to come in when he was in his cups, and handed over sweeties on the doorstep instead. “Memories become epitaphs” stuck with me, as well as her analogy of family history as waves, sometimes bringing in treasures with the tide, and taking others forever out of reach.
Hancox by Charlotte Moore was rambly and absorbing, just like the house that it was written about, and full of those open secrets that all families ignore. It seemed to be a place where every cupboard or attic space was stuffed with correspondence. Kudos to her for organisational skills let alone narrative ones.
I love a list. Which books would inspire you to write?
Not so much a journey of discovery, more of a commute of compulsion
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