“I never get into an aircraft for fun. I aim first for the head of the pilot, or rather at the head of the observer, if there is one.” Manfred von Richthofen
I read these cold words last night. It made me pause.
Today it is exactly 100 years since the 25 yr old Richthofen, more famously known posthumously by Allied airmen as The Red Baron, aimed a dispassionate bullet through my extended family and ended the life of my grandmother’s beloved brother, an observer in the Royal Flying Corps (RFC). He was nineteen years old and my Granny was then an eleven year old schoolgirl.
I’ve written of this before a few years ago but it has been uppermost in my mind in the past week.
My great uncle – a thoughtful, witty and kindly boy, a classical scholar destined for Oxford and then a vocation as a clergyman – became a vaporised statistic; a name on a war memorial in a foreign land with no grave and no future. Alongside his young pilot, consigned to a footnote of history with only the merest distinction from swathes of other young men with no known last resting place by being one of the recorded “kills” of the most famous and ruthless air ace in the history of the First World War. Small comfort for his family.
Like most of that generation, my grandparents never really talked of either War. I didn’t know what I should ask them until it was too late. But my father did sometimes tell me things about his own experience as a war child and things his parents had spoken of. When I was old enough to understand, he explained why my grandparents had a bronze plaque on the wall beneath the stairs. Why, after every Armistice Day, my grandmother would remove the paper poppy from her buttonhole and carefully tuck it in behind the plaque for the rest of the year.
As I grew, I found it hard to understand; to know such a precise detail and yet nothing else. If it was a war, how could you know the name of whom you were fighting? My father patiently tried to explain that aviation was in its infancy, that the open aircraft constructed so precariously of struts and wires, wood and fabric were not like modern jet aeroplanes I could see in the present day when men had already travelled to the Moon. And then one thing he said I could not get out of my mind.
“You have to understand that if it hadn’t been for the war, these young men from different countries with a passion for flying and engineering, they would have shared their interests and the progress.”
“In happier times, they wouldn’t have been enemies. They would have been friends.”
By the time I was 20, my grandparents house was sold and as someone showing an interest, my father gave me old family letters and the plaque along with illustrated story books my great uncle had bought for his little sisters in the Christmases he was away in France and that my granny had treasured for the rest of her life. It frustrated me that I knew nothing more than this though. Removed from the emotion, I was curious about the facts. Had this really happened? If true, how did they know? Why did nobody talk about it or know any more? Where was he buried?
Decency prevented me from asking my very elderly grandmother such intrusive, painful questions. My father knew no more than he had already told me. I’d just learned to use the internet and I’d been brought up to use libraries and resources and so I quickly found my uncle’s name and the relevant details and an awful lot more than I’d bargained for including shocking images I stumbled across whilst researching.
Richthofen himself had detailed an account of this late “victory” within a short distance of safety. This, paired with the brave and deliberately light-hearted censored letters that my great uncle had written a few weeks earlier to his father about the fear they experienced on reconnaissance flights over enemy lines and the relief of “beetling home”, suddenly quenched my detached curiosity and slammed down the reality with sickening clarity. It changed how I viewed history forever – to read an historical account in a book accompanied by references, quotes and old black and white photographs was one thing and yet to see the human price of the other side of that story etched in the eyes of a person you loved, quite another.
Suddenly I saw her. Not as a tired old lady but as that child struggling to understand that she would never see her brother again. I traced her nickname written in his handwriting on the endpapers of her childhood story books. I turned his memorial plaque over in my hands remembering the soft fingers silently tucking blood red poppies behind it year after year. I realised that as the last of her family she was custodian of his memory. And I thought of my own brothers; teasing me in the way I could read her brother gently teased her in his letters. Crying when they left home for university, leaving me behind as she must have cried when her brother left to join the War. Giving me books for Christmas just the way he had for her. And my heart ached for her private loss and all she hadn’t spoken of in words but everything her love had said in action. I vowed I would remember him for her when she was no longer here to keep his memory alive.
I do this. I am mindful of the privilege I have to be friends with people from nations he was forced to fear and fight. I am grateful for those things he did not live to experience.
In a strange way, reading about this all again given the personal centenary, to read new things and know that maybe Richthofen had a twisted kind of compassion even as a ruthless hunter is a small comfort. To hope they might not have known anything about it as they scuttled home and their immolation to the god of war, on a damp March day a century ago.
I will never understand. The brutality, futility and sheer wastefulness of it all, the lessons unlearned. But as long as I live I will honour his memory because, like others, he lived and died for an understanding that darkness will not triumph ultimately, though we stumble through deep pits of darkness again and again throughout history.
That friendship is greater than enmity; love is more enduring than death.