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.
I started writing on peanuts. Literally and metaphorically. I couldn’t afford to go on a biography writing course and I was trying to avoid snacking on biscuits and jam-slathered toast, so peanuts were a compromise. I wasn’t able to join a local writer’s group either, so I muddled by in my own way.
Here is an Issue Observation List for beginners (like me):
1. Letting the cat in for company/distraction backfires on you.
2. Note-writing oblivion. If a book’s interesting, it’s worth noting EVERYTHING in it.
3. Pay attention to ergonomics. Sofa, shoffice or dining table. They all gave me backache.
4. Discover the joys of inter-library loans at Worldcat. It’ll cost about £2.50 to order a book your county library doesn’t have but it’s still (generally) cheaper than buying it.
5. Finding a way to avoid saying ‘may have’ when you have a care for historical veracity is tricky. As in ‘Morris may have seen Albert Ball weeding his vegetable plot.’ It’s difficult to write an imaginatively engaging passage without taking some liberties like this. I tried to get around this by creating questions instead e.g: ‘And was Morris was one of those pilots who noted the progress of Albert Ball’s sweet peas?’
6. The dilemma of the colour purple: wallowing in superfluous adjectives and flamboyant nouns is incredibly hard to resist whilst writing about an emotive subject like the Battle of the Somme. I did allow myself a ‘penumbra’ in exceptional circumstances, but I regretfully left ‘igneous’ out of a description of a volatile situation.
7. Away with the fairies: I had a lovely time going on about the RFC Order of Battle as though I was describing a Michelangelo.
8. Style schmyle. My initial introduction was ‘experimental’. It went all Miss Marple in the Library with the Headmaster and the Richthofen. I’m still very attached to it.
9. Acute shortage of synonyms. I saw something on Twitter about historians needing to find a new word for ‘iconic’. I’d like to request additional alternatives for legendary and deadly from them too.
10. Theme-Warming. I think I’d better stop there.
Other Issue Observations are welcomed.
I had the best Mother’s Day treat this year. We visited the Shuttleworth Collection on one of those mornings when the sun finally feels a little more committed to springtime. We were the first visitors of the day to this amazing vintage aviation museum; the only other vehicle in the carpark was a devastatingly handsome racing green MG and the ladies in the café were leaning on the till and gazing out of the windows at the landing field.
That Shuttleworth is a museum with a difference becomes obvious as you wander around the hangars – there’s mud on the wheels of many of the aircraft, and each has a neat little drip tray to stop fuel from leaking on to the pristine floors. I love the RAF Museum in London, but there is a sad sterility to the frozen Spitfires that are kennelled in the vast hangars at Hendon: at Shuttleworth everything is on a smaller scale but the aircraft are let out to fly. There is a cheerful domesticity to the place reflected in the modest display cases. Here’s a rusty old German bomb, there’s Albert Ball’s rear view mirror and mucky puttees. Grainy photographs of wartime pilots decorate the walls and everywhere there is the conviction that this is a much-loved place full of treasures.
A Bleriot X1 (the oldest airworthy plane in the world) rubs shoulders with a sprightly de Haviland Chipmunk. There’s a sleek Kirby Kite from 1937, a glider built like a Chippendale sideboard with the profile of a seagull, and the extraordinary Little Nellie, the autogyro that Sean Connery convincingly ‘piloted’ in ‘You Only Live Twice’. Gleaming radial engines flower like exotic plants in all corners.
It’s not just aircraft either; we were half expecting to see Corporal Jones in his butcher’s van come lurching around the corner to join a sparkling line-up of vintage transport that included a 1913 McCurd 5-ton lorry with the legend ‘British Refined Tate Sugars: Direct From the Refinery To The Table’ on its side: the Royal Flying Corps took themselves to war in vehicles like these, cobbling together what motor transport they could find to transport men and materials to France.
After a bacon roll amongst throngs of leather-jacketed bikers in the café, we walked out of the museum and joined a party gathered round one of the aircraft that had been wheeled out to blast its 80 horse-power engine into the crisp Bedfordshire air. Of all the (nearly 60) airworthy planes that could have been let out for the day, it turned out to be a Bristol Scout – the only one in Shuttleworth’s care that Morris'squadron actually flew in the Battle of the Somme.
As the propeller was pulled round, ‘Contact!’ was called, and the rotary engine spluttered violently into life, I was transported back to 1916. A volunteer hung himself grimly over the Bristol’s tail to stop it from breaking away from the chocks, and the pilot’s hair shot up like spindrift from a mountain. Two ear-blasting minutes later the engine was switched off and there were quiet exclamations of delight from the group around us. There wasn’t one of us who hadn’t hoped to see the aircraft wriggle free and sail off to Biggleswade. That thing in my eye wasn’t just smoke; for the first time I had experienced the authentic sights and sounds that Morris lived with in the nine short months of his RFC career.
The life of a Great War airmen was dirty, uncomfortable and dangerous even before they came face to face with an enemy. Seeing the Bristol Scout fired up for just a few minutes on the ground gave me a visceral flash of acquaintance with men like Lionel Morris, and it was a powerful and moving sensation.
Shuttleworth is open seven days a week from 9.30 to 5pm in the summer, when they have regular flying displays.
I went to Nottingham a couple of weeks ago to spend some time in the county archives looking for the great (and simultaneously diminutive) Albert Ball, ace par excellence of the First World War. Although his final total of forty four victories* surprisingly only just scrapes him into the top twenty highest scoring fighter pilots of WW1, his methods were extraordinary, and more importantly, the example of personal bravery that he set ensured him a unique place in the annals of air combat.
Ball arrived at No. 9 Reserve Squadron at Mousehold Heath in Norfolk on 23 October 1915 – just a few weeks before Morris, who began his flying training there on 12 November. A compare and contrast exercise was irresistible. Thanks to this timing, it was a period of Morris's life, like that of his death, which I was able to light up with detail, thanks to the ubiquity of Ball biographies. A search for a mention in Morris's notebook diary of a singularly talented but not always terribly sociable pilot, whose list of victories and appealingly rosy cheeks looks put him in the pantheon of celebrated British aces, is doomed to end in vain - but the career coincidences between the two young men are striking. Not just in their eventual tragic ends, but also in their progression through training and eventual arrival in No.11 within weeks of the beginning of the Battle of the Somme. Ball’s diary and correspondence illustrated experiences and environments that were often exactly the same as Morris's. His story was not as glorious as Ball’s, but proximity lends adventure: a run after Morris in the archives holds the prospect of arriving at the aerodrome just minutes after Albert had taken off in search of another Hun.
These connections with the legendary figures of the air war have a historic frisson, without taking away from the fact that Morris's yeoman work, like that of thousands of other RFC aircrew, led to the Allies’ dominance of the skies for a large part of the period of the Battle of the Somme.
I found Ball’s letters impossible to read on microfiche; some had been scanned in horizontally, some vertically, and without dates on every page, I ended up with a sore neck and feeling frustrated. On the principle of if you don’t ask you don’t get, I asked for the originals, which are pasted into a handsomely-bound leather volume. It’s not everyone’s idea of a thrilling way to spend a morning, but I was quite entranced to read these letters. A hastily scribbled note has an immediacy that is powerful anyway, but when you see that it was written on 1st July 1916, there’s an extra historical punch. Most moving of all were the fragments of medal ribbons that Ball had attached to a couple of them, complete with rusty pins. I have to admit that after four years of RFC research, I’m a bit over descriptions of dogfights. What fascinated me most were the everyday, banal details – who’s on leave, what it’s like to be orderly officer for the day, and how upsetting it is when your family don’t take to your girlfriend. Albert Ball showed a maturity beyond his years in the air, but in the letters, he is sometimes a refreshingly petulant teenager.
When I’d finished reading the letters, I made my way in the rain to Nottingham Castle, where they have a few Ball mementoes, including one of his RFC caps, his Victoria Cross and a windscreen, veined with cracks from a bullet. It's believed to be from an SE5a, an aircraft he flew after leaving No.11 Squadron, although I found an anecdote from an 11 contemporary, Joseph Hellingoe, who described seeing a similarly perforated windscreen on Ball's plane in the early summer of 1916: he claimed to have got into the pilot’s seat to try and work out why he hadn’t been killed – concluding that Ball must have had his head down to site his gun when the shot was made, thus missing his head by inches. It's likely that there are many stories like it in the RFC's history; everyone would want to have shared their own 'memories' of Albert.
I left the Castle museum and walked down the path that leads to the Grade One-listed memorial statue erected in 1921. It’s a heroic representation – Albert with the angel; but I particularly liked the beautiful bas-relief image of an SE5a on one side of the plinth. There were half a dozen wreaths left over from November that a hooligan wind had thrown around the sodden ground. I rescued a couple of them, (one from the current officers and SNCOs of 56 Squadron, Ball’s final unit, another from his family), and put them back on the base of the statue, wiping off the worst of the mud. The imperative for remembrance was strong enough for me to forget the embarrassment of fumbling around with sad old bits of plastic in the rain that someone else might have put in the bin. I wonder what the considered lifespan is for memorial wreaths – and who decides when it’s decent to quietly dispose of them.
It was a privilege to spend such an immersive couple of days in Albert’s company. This robust description of him, at home in Nottingham and very much alive, comes from the biography by Briscoe and Stannard:
‘It was while waiting in the hall of the house (in Nottingham) that one heard strange sounds, reminiscent of the jungle, coming from upstairs: ‘That is him,’ said his mother. A few seconds later, preceded by an unearthly yell, there came tumbling down the staircase a schoolboy in the uniform of an officer of the Royal Flying Corps. A short stocky fellow, rather below the medium height, with somewhat untidy dark hair, a round jolly face, fresh complexion, and a pair of eyes brimming with laughter.’
Albert Ball died in action eight months after Morris, on 7 May 1917, aged 20 years.
*Alternative totals are available, victory lists being open to endless interpretation
Last month my family and I took part in a beach clean-up in Seaford. It was a beautiful, balmy autumn morning; the white cliffs were so bright they made our eyes water and we wandered across the shingle with our black bags looking for all those ghastly things that David Attenborough tells us are killing marine life all over the world.
My seven year old daughter announced suddenly she’d found a jellyfish. There was a bright blue thing like a burst balloon about the size of a slightly squashed kiwi fruit (her description) on the pebbles. I prodded it with my gloved hand and recoiled; it was like one of those joke toy slugs that you use to freak out squeamish friends - with a crimped edge and a stringy appendage that tailed off to nothing. We’d seen Autumnwatch that week and they’d shown a picture of a Portuguese Man O’War washed up on Brighton beach: the colour and that gently yielding texture made our find unmistakeably the same animal. We were pleasurably horrified.
Claire, the lady who’d organised the beach clean, confirmed our identification, and we had a nice chat with her. She’s one of those infectiously positive people who just get on and do the things that the rest of us know we should be doing and after we’d enjoyed our free cup of tea and gone home, I looked her up on Instagram.
I’d been working on the third edit of the book (first draft: vomit, second: mild indigestion, third: vaguely chewy), writing about Morris’s time with No. 39 Squadron, a unit that became synonymous with home defence in the Great War, providing no less than three Zeppelin wreckers. The first, and most famous of these, was William Leefe Robinson, a David Niven lookalike whose courage in shooting down army airship SL11 won him the Victoria Cross, and boosted the confidence of the nation coming to terms with sudden vulnerability after centuries of splendid isolation.
A Pathé reel on Youtube shows him arriving at a children’s home in Essex, surrounded by hankerchief waving girls, cap-waving sailor suited boys, and jubilant brass bands. A small dog careers after his car as if it was caught up in the excitement. He receives thanks and adoration and nervously plays with his moustache, the only feature that places him as a contemporary amongst the round-collared gentleman and the peekaboo hatted ladies; the utility of his Flying Corps uniform marks him as weirdly timeless.
Robinson’s story is tragic ; shot down in France by Richthofen’s Jasta 11 in 1917, his notoriety amongst the enemy guaranteed him a terrible time as a P.O.W. in the same camp that Morris’s surviving C Flight colleagues of 11 Squadron languished in. Weakened by brutal treatment, Robinson’s repatriation in December 1918 had an unlucky denouement when influenza killed him before the month was out.
A few weeks after meeting Claire, on Remembrance Sunday, I saw one of her posts on Instagram – a photograph of Leefe Robinson which she had captioned:
“Lest we forget his efforts and bravery. #family.”
Breaking out in goosebumps, I messaged Claire; Leefe Robinson was a distant cousin of hers, not someone she knew much about, but whose memory was still treasured by her family.
It’s moments like these that bring these long dead young men back to life in an instant – and what a strange coincidence that a relic of an appropriately named jellyfish (correction: genus of Physaliidae, not strictly a jellyfish) brought together two families in the same town, not only sharing a sad heritage, but an almost exact contemporary connection to the same remarkable squadron.
Claire’s great work in helping keep our Seaford beach clean can be found on Facebook and Instagram at #zerowastemaman.
The historian Jay Winter defines ‘second-order memory’ as the collection, organisation, exhibition and cataloguing of memory – the natural process of remembrance as those who knew the dead pass away.
I thought nothing had survived in our family that connects us with Lionel Morris, other than my dad’s memories, and one photograph of Morris's mother Lil. So the most distant of links rediscovered has sweetness and poignancy. In the spring of 2016, my dad’s cousin Terry handed me a faded red volume with a spine that was falling apart. It was a birthday book that belonged to his Reid grandmother, Morris’s own Aunt Lily. These little reminder volumes have gone out of fashion, now that we’re all using our mobiles to store everything but the cat – but what lovely family heirlooms to pass down. A tatty little repository of memory like this is priceless for family historians. It’s literally a whiff of the past, with its musty leather cover and leaf-thin pages.
Physical items like Lily Reid’s birthday book are loaded with significance for the next generation. Smaller than a mobile phone, Lily’s book has a frontispiece of Scotland’s Bard and a title page “Birthday Chimes from Burns”, with every day of the year given a snippet of poetry to accompany the owner’s annotations. In some ways it’s preferable to a diary; the scarcity of details leaves imagination plenty of space to create unknown histories. Names themselves are evocative (Ada Hobbs and Evie Pinkherd are my favourites), and amongst the relatives and friends there is an entry for February 23rd: “Lill. Died 24th” – Morris’s mother’s birthday and death dates recorded on the same page, with one day and eighty years between them. There’s other similarly bare entries: “Geoffrey, born 1911, died 1911” and “Daddy, died 1938”. I have another birthday book, given to my great-grandmother as a Christmas present in 1905, this one a compendium of Robert Browning’s work and wisdom. Although I have scoured it in vain for mentions of the Morrises, it does have one unidentified scribble that conjures up a whole world of lost memories: the birthday on November 14th of “our fairy godmother”. Who was she? And what were her magical qualities?
Andy Arnold, whose detailed work on Carshalton’s war dead was one of my first sources for Morris, told me about some of the mementos kept by other families for generations: “The main ones are medals and death pennies, followed by photos and documents/letters. One family had a commemorative ‘scroll’, these were mass produced and the soldiers’ details could be added. Another had an original photo of their relative’s grave, plus a matchbox holder that belonged to him… other common items can include trench art and war ‘souvenirs’ such as shell cases. There are even some instances of families having the original wooden grave markers, which were offered to them when the Commonwealth War Graves Commission replaced them with stone.”
I know of other physical items associated with Morris that have long since disappeared. Some may still be out there. I live in hope of discovering others. And since I began researching his life, there are objects that have, quite wonderfully, reappeared.
But I’ll save them for the book.
If you have any treasured mementoes in your family, I’d love to hear about the stories behind them.
In my darker moments "Who Do You Think You Are?" occurs to me as a statement of outrage at my own qualifications in biographical studies. I don't possess the gift of confidence in excessive quantities. But my curiosity is irritatingly forceful. I took many deep breaths and reached out to the experts.
After much reading and some fairly unfocused internet surfing in the autumn of 2014, I found a startling image of Morris's plane crawling with Germans from a book snippet online. Mercifully he wasn't pictured in it. Nor was he nearby on a stretcher, or burnt to a frazzle on the ground as many airmen so horrifically were. I emailed the publishers who put me in touch with the author James Miller. Jim's response was immediate and generous, sending me a PDF of a letter held by the R.A.F. Museum in London. It was written to Morris's parents by his friend and flight leader, Captain David Gray, who had been shot down on the same day and languished in a P.O.W. camp. Gray's letter was a gift - a vivid first-hand account of the circumstances of Lionel's death. It was full of weird inconsistencies.
When I questioned the R.A.F. Museum further about material on Morris, they told me they had his unpublished notebook diary from the summer of 1916. My initial visit to the museum’s research room, when I saw Lil’s name written on the front of the diary, gave me the first physical link to Morris as a family member. Being able to hear his voice in those small, rustling pages gave a dramatic imperative to the telling of his tale that I found irresistible.
I had high hopes after reading Under the Guns of the Red Baron of pinning down details of Morris's early life. Sadly, of the two authors, Hal Giblin, who researched the personal details, had passed away, and the other, Norman Franks, (whose works on First World War aviation are sacred texts to me and many others), had no access to any of Hal’s original research papers. The work of Mike O’Connor, with his Airfields and Airmen series, was also key to my early searches – but he too had passed away.
One of the Herculean feats of scholarship inspired by the war in the air is “The Sky Their Battlefield”, the most complete and astonishingly comprehensive record of Allied combats and casualties. It’s written in a language of necessary abbreviation - K.I.A. or P.O.W. need little explanation, others such as EoL (East of Lines) bring an ominous warning of bad news, or oblivion: NKG - No Known Grave. Its author Trevor Henshaw (happily very much alive) has been a patient and indispensable guru.
The greatest blessing in my research was finding the Great War Forum. Being able to access this extraordinary community of both professional and amateur historians was intimidating and thrilling; these people have been studying World War One with infinite care and attention for decades and their passion for solving even the most obscure mysteries continues to be an inspiration.
My recommended research anthems are now (in no particular order):
Don't Give Up
Ain't No Mountain High Enough
With A Little (make that a lot) of Help From My Friends
I'm open to further suggestions.
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?
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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