Friday 22 July 2011

The Red Baron and the Dorset Flyer

I was recently chatting with the great-nephew of a Wing Commander who served as Lieutenant with the 1/6 Dorsetshire Regiment and was brought down by The Red Baron, Manfred von Richthofen, on 25 March 1917.

Wing Commander Guy Gilbert
The pilot's name is Christopher Guy Gilbert (known as Guy). 

Guy's father, John Brettell Gilbert, changed his name  by Deed Poll in 1892. He was born John Wilkes in 1854, the son of Gilbert Wilkes [1829-1882], a wealthy Birmingham manufacturer. 

Guy had seven brothers; sadly two were killed in action during the war. 

His brother Major Vivian Gilbert travelled with General Allenby to Jerusalem and wrote a book in 1923 called 'The Romance of the Last Crusade'
Major Vivian Gilbert
To read more about Major Vivian you can find a very interesting article here on Project Muse: written by Eitan Bar-Yosef

Back to Guy.

On 2nd December 1914 Guy was commissioned into the 1/6 Service Battalion of the Dorsetshire Regiment.  The Regiment went to France on 13 July 1915.  Guy originally served in the trenches.  But then, he was transferred to the Royal Flying Corps and served with the 29 Squadron and this is where he 'met' Von Richthofen.   

The Red Baron
                               Based at Le Hameau, Guy was going to fly his Nieuport Scout as a  fighter escort to an FE 2b plane doing a dawn photographic reconnaissance.  There were a number of two-man escort patrols planned that morning and Guy and a Lieutenant Owen took the first slot at 0705.   It was a new plane for Guy and he thought that as it was a short flight he would be back in time for breakfast.  He decided not to dress, but just put his coat on over his pyjamas. 

In Von Richthofen's report he says that at 0820 he was flying his Halberstadt DII and saw planes over  German lines.  Owen had to return to base as he was experiencing problems with his plane's carburettor. Guy stayed out to carry on with the mission and was alone over the enemy front-line.  Von Richthofen thought this was the last plane (unaware that others followed at later times) and opened fire.  Guy's plane came down near Tilloy-lès-Mofflaines, which is just south-east of Arras.

Guy was pulled from the burning plane by German soldiers and taken prisoner - still wearing his pyjamas.  He was in hospital for a while and Von Richthofen sent flowers and fruit to him.  He was The Red Baron's 31st 'victory'.  Guy made a number of attempts to escape from the prisoner-of-war camps, but never quite managed it.  He was repatriated in December 1918.  Guy lived to be 80.  

There is some disagreement as to how The Red Baron died on Sunday, 21 April 1918, but the man officially credited by the RAF with bringing his red Fokker tri-plane down is Captain Arthur “Roy” Brown.  Von Richthofen was hit by a single bullet, but didn’t die instantly.  The .303 bullet penetrated his left armpit causing a fatal chest wound.  Brown was attacking from above and from the left, but the bullet came from below and to the right. The plane's engine had been switched off  and he managed to land it in a field near to the Bray-Corbie Road just north of Vaux-sur-Somme.  Sergeant Ted Smout of the Australian Medical Corps reported that Von Richtofen’s last word was “kaput.  It is almost certain that a Royal Australian Artillary machine-gunner killed The Red Baron.
 Manfred von Richthofen brought down 80 planes, not all of the pilots died, and if you would like to know more about the 80 'victories' I can thoroughly recommend a book called: Under the Guns of the Red Baron by Norman Franks, Hal Giblin and Nigel McCrery.  It is fully illustrated and has Von Richthofen's combat records with each 'victory'.

A 2008  film called The Red Baron  tells of Von Richthofen's war and you may remember the 1966 song Snoopy Vs. The Red Baron by the US band The Royal Guardsman.  Although the lyrics say "eighty men tried, and eighty men died", we know that eighty didn't die, and Guy Gilbert is testament to that.  If you fancy listening to the song just click here.

Grateful thanks to Ben and his Mum for the story and photos.

To read more about The Red Baron, click here and to find out more about his last flight and final resting place, please click here

The house where Von Richtofen spent his last night before taking off on his fateful journey next morning from the airfield opposite.  The house is exactly the same as it was in 1918 (this photograph was taken April 2013)

Copyright: Karen Ette

Thursday 21 July 2011

Devonshire Cemetery + Fiction

I visited the Devonshire Cemetery  which is one of the most emotional and evocative places I have ever been.   

 163 solders are buried here - all of the Devonshire Regiment

At the entrance is a stone which says it all:

The Devonshires held this trench
The Devonshires hold it still
If you stand on the road in front of the cemetery you can see where the German front line would have been:

on The Somme. I ‘adopted’ a soldier called Marshal Williams where I placed a cross on his grave.  The  short story entitled 'Mametz' is a piece of creative-non-fiction.  By that I mean that the historical facts are true, as are the names, but the story is fictional. (Although I would love to  chat with him in the tranquillity of the cemetery, if he ever decides to meet me there.) 

Marshal's grave with Captain Martin

Please follow the links to see more about The Devonshires.


Di picked up the small poppy-wreath from the passenger seat and stepped out into the fresh air.  She followed the path as it wound to the right, rising steadily behind the trees.  At the top of a set of steep steps, she stopped to read the inscription on a pale stone to the left, just before the gate:
The Devonshires Held this Trench, The Devonshires Hold it Still.” 

A feeling of utter sadness swept through her and she closed her eyes and took a deep breath.  When she opened them her gaze fell on the cluster of small wooden crosses which had been placed in front of the stone.  She could smell smoke.  The aroma transported her back to when she was a young girl, recognising the same strong tobacco her Granddad had used.  She turned towards the gate and was surprised to see a young man standing there.  He threw his cigarette to the ground and smiled at her.
          “Good morning M’am,” he said in a soft, west-country accent.
“Oh, you startled me,” she replied. 
“Private Marshal Williams at your service,” he grinned.
“I was told that some cemeteries had guides, but I didn’t expect one here today,” she answered with a grin of her own.   “Diane Jeltes,” she offered her free hand, but he didn’t take it, he saluted her instead. 
“So, where first?” she asked.
“That’s up to you,” his smile was endearing, cheeky yet full of warmth.
“I promised my Aunt I would put this on my Great Uncle’s grave, Captain Duncan Martin.”  She raised her left hand which was holding the circle of poppies.  Marshal raised his eyebrows and nodded.  She walked towards the gate and made to open the brass door set in the stone gate-post behind which she knew was a plan of the cemetery.
“You won’t need that,” Marshal said, “I can tell you where everyone is.”
“And, can you tell me anything about them?  You see, I never knew my Great Uncle,” then she felt stupid having made such a ridiculous faux-pas and tried to redeem herself by continuing: “well obviously I didn’t as he died in the War.”
“Of course, M’am,” he replied and opened the iron gate into the secluded cemetery.  She followed him through the entrance and together they walked over to the memorial cross which was bathed in the morning sunshine. 
“Do you always dress like that?” she asked him.
“When I’m on duty.”
“I like to see a man in uniform,” she giggled as she looked down at the puttees, neat and smartly wound round his legs above his shiny boots.  He turned to her and, still smiling, said:
“Captain Martin was a wonderful man.”
“In what way?”
“He was kind, courageous and a true gentleman.”
Di looked along the two rows of white headstones on her left.  “How many soldiers are buried here?”
“A hundred and sixty-three.”
“And you know all their names?”
“Yes, well all but ten.”
“Haven’t you learnt their names yet?” she teased.
“They have no names, Ma’m.”
“I don’t understand.”
“They couldn’t be identified, but they do have a resting place.”
“Oh, sorry.  Please tell me more about Great Uncle Duncan.”
“He was brave and compassionate.  He tried to save his men from certain death.”
“He had discovered the whereabouts of a German machine gun, over there,” he pointed straight ahead towards Mametz village.  “The Devonshires were supposed to attack the German front-line towards Fricourt,” he pointed to their left.  “Captain Martin had made a clay model of this area and worked out that if that gun wasn’t put out of action first, then Fritz would fire directly into his men.  He took it to show the higher-ups and they told him the gun would be taken out with early shell-fire. ”
“And was it?”
“They lied.”
“Oh my God!  What happened?” Di was starting to shake a little.
“On the morning of the first of July Captain Martin led his men over the top.  He made good ground and had almost reached the German front-line when, just as he had forecast, the machine-gunners opened fire.  His Batman, Private 19186, was hit and the Captain tried to drag him to safety.  Sadly he didn’t make it and he, and most of the front-line Devons, were mown down.” 
“How awful.” Di brushed a tear from her cheek.  “So, is this where they fell?”
“No, it was over the road.” He again pointed above the beech hedge towards Mametz.  “The British front-line trench, where we are now, had been badly damaged by shell fire.  So, the attack had to start from the assembly trench, just up the hill.  Later that day the Devon survivors went into no-man’s land and recovered the bodies of their friends.  Then they brought them back here to this section of their front-line trench and buried them.”
“And Great Uncle Duncan was among them?”
“Yes Ma’m, he’s just down there.”  Marshal pointed to a small group of headstones at the far end.  “There was a service a few days later and they put up a wooden cross and wrote on it those words that you read earlier.  That has long since gone which is why a memorial stone was put up with the same words.” 
“Then I shall be proud to place these on his grave.” Di looked down at the poppies then raised her gaze until her eyes met Marshal’s beautiful, twinkly-blue ones.  Her heart fluttered and she could feel her colour rising.   He winked mischievously.
“I won’t be long,” she told him, “but I would like to do this alone, if you don’t mind.”
“Not at all M’am,” he said and saluted.

She turned and walked towards the front row of headstones at the far end of the cemetery.
   “He’s a charmer that one,” she whispered to herself, “he’ll break a few hearts.”   She looked along the white stones and noticed that the emblem on all of them was the same as Marshal had on his cap badge.  Ten were nameless saying simply: “A soldier of the Great War – known to God” .  At last she came to the headstone which was inscribed: Captain D L Martin, 9th Bn Devonshire Regiment, died 1st July 1916, aged 30.  She bent down and stared at the words and shook her head.  After a few moments she brushed aside a plant which was growing at the base of the headstone so that she could place the wreath.  Then she felt her heart lurch and she gasped when she read yet another inscription under that of Captain Martin:  19186 Private M Williams, 9th Bn Devonshire Regiment, died 1st July 1916, aged 22.
She looked up and surveyed the cemetery then rose to her feet and craned her neck. She was alone.  Not another living soul was there in the Devonshire Cemetery, but on the cool morning breeze she could smell the aroma of a freshly lit Woodbine and mused:

The Devonshires Held this Trench, The Devonshires Hold it Still.”

Copyright:  Karen Ette

Pals on the Somme - Sheffield Park - Poems

We are in a place called Sheffield Park; a tranquil and somewhat overwhelming corner of Somme countryside.  It’s quite a walk from the main Serre Road.  You can also get here by car if it isn’t too wet – you won’t want to get stuck in the Somme mud on rainy days though. The lane which takes you there is a dirt track across fields of crops.  You will see a British Cemetery (Serre Road No 3) and just behind it is Sheffield Park.  The path is lengthy and you never know, you might find some shrapnel, a bullet, a shell or other long buried relics of The Somme battlefields.   (Best not to touch the shells though, they may be live).

                         SHEFFIELD PARK

I approach Sheffield Park and see bricks,   
A Memorial,
To the brave Pals from Accrington
Red bricks.
Red Accrington bricks.
Travelled, as the men before them,
Here, to their final resting place.

I turn to the right,
There before me,
Honoured in stone.
Yorkshire lads,                                               
Remembered here. 


'Where larks sing        
and poppies grow,
they sleep in peace
for evermore'.

I walk down the gentle slope,
Scarred earth, now covered in verdant grass,
Pitted with deep craters,
Shell-holes where men lost their lives. 

At the foot,
Railway Hollow.
Quiet simplicity,
The most tranquil of places
I could ever imagine. 
The stillness wraps around me,
I close my eyes,
I hear the guns which boomed
Nearly a hundred years ago.

One of the many hundreds of casualties here on the morning of 1st July 1916 was the poet
 John William Streets. John's body was not found for almost a year.
In memory and honour of these brave Pals, I have written a poem, which I would like to share with you .


In this lonely place                                                      
    rows of white stone
        mark the spot                                                                      
                   where we once saw the dawn. 
In this lonely place
     a solitary oak 
         whispers its sadness

                   where we once carved our names.

In this lonely place
     a flower blooms
         bright as the sun

                   that once warmed our cold backs.

In this lonely place,
    a breeze ripples grass
        silent now

                  where once we sought sleep.

In this lonely place
    a bird bravely flies
        soaring above

                   where the Howitzers roared.

In this lonely place
      shell-holes remain
         empty craters

                  Armageddon we once faced.

In this lonely place
    a rabbit passes by
       on the same earth

                   that once oozed the smell of mortal fear.

In this lonely place
    a whistle blew
        over we went

             where shells scorched Picardie.

In this lonely place
    a battle raged
      pals joined in conflict

                    divided ranks, into hell we ran.  

In this lonely place
    a tear was shed
        destiny marked

                     with the vile taste of despair.

In this lonely place
    the sun went down
         mud took claim

              where a Bergmann gun[1]spat our names.
  We prayed
       We cried
              We lived
                     We died
                                    In this lonely place.


[1] Bergmann machine guns were not used on the Somme until 1918

© Karen Ette

The Best Billet in The Somme

Bonjour mes amis!  We have travelled across the channel (La Manche) for a spell in France and Belgium.  Still not sure about the Channel Tunnel; a slow boat to Calais is more relaxing and doesn't have tonnes of seawater pressing downwards.  The tunnel also lacks a willing dutch boy to poke his finger into a leaky hole should one appear.  Definitely the Ferry; I'd sooner be on top of millions of gallons of water than underneath it.

When driving to Dover, we discovered it's best not to buy petrol on the Motorway (too expensive) but to wait until just outside the Ferry Port, or, even better, buy it in France as fuel costs much less per litre.  The drive south from Calais to Combles in Picardy took around ninety minutes and on almost empty roads is actually a pleasure.  The Department de la Somme is very flat and in April is a patchwork of colour as the farmers cultivate the chalky land. 

In the village of Combles is, in my opinion, the Best Billet on the Somme otherwise known as Orchard Farm:

 Orchard Farm is run by Kate and Martin Pegler and their two gorgeous cats. 

This small, friendly B&B has one double en-suite bedroom (with a fantastic comfy bed: like sleeping on a marsh-mallow), a twin room and a family room.  There is also a fabulous self-catering Gite  - The Hayloft - separate from the main house with its own kitchen, TV, washing machine, and much more.   In addition to first class accommodation and wonderful hospitality, tours of the area are offered, by car or motorcycle.  Orchard Farm is very popular with Bikers.  Martin has written a number of books and is an authority on Militaria, in fact, you may well have seen him on The Antiques Roadshow  from time-to-time.   Martin's collection of guns (including a Vickers Machine Gun) and WW1 memorabilia run throughout the house. To read how it all came about, click here

Close by are the towns of Amiens, Arras, Perone, Albert, Bethune, to name but a few and we shall be visiting them all very soon.

The First World War began on 4th August 1914 and raged until At 11 a.m. on  11th November 1918 when a ceasefire came into effect with Germany.  A formal state of war between the two sides persisted for another seven months, until the signing of the Treaty of Versailles on 28th June 1919.  Millions died and the cemeteries and battlefields of France are a physical reminder of this terrible and tragic waste of life.

Combles has a Military Cemetery containing the graves of: UK 1462, Canada 7, Australia 22, South Africa 11, Total Burials: 1508

The village was entered in the early morning of the 26th August, 1916, by units of the 56th (London) Division and of the French Army; and it remained in Allied occupation until the 24th March, 1918, when the place was captured by the German Army after a stubborn stand by the South African Brigade at Marrieres Wood. It was retaken on the 29th August, 1918, by the 18th Division.

                                               THEIR NAME LIVETH FOR EVERMORE

© Karen Ette

Dorsetshire Memorial plus Monumental History on the Somme

On Saturday, 7 May 2011 in Authuille on the Somme, the newest WW1 memorial to be placed was dedicated; that of the Dorsetshire Regiment. 

Until now there was no Memorial for The Dorsets and The Dorset Memorial Project raised £23,000 and worked tirelessly to remedy this.   

The site chosen for the memorial is on the Somme battlefield where, during the summer and autumn of 1916, two of the three Dorset Regiment battalions fighting on the Western Front, (the third was only a few miles away), fought in epic and costly engagements during the Battle of the Somme.  350 died on that dreadful first day: 1st July 1916.

On one side of the column is the Dorset Regiment badge and on the reverse are the County arms of Dorset.  Around the base are carved the Dorset Regiment First World War battle honours that are shown on the Regimental Colour, and an appropriate quotation from Thomas Hardy:  "Victory crowns the just.".

Primus in Indis

The result is stunning. It commemorates the 4,500 men of The Dorsetshire Regiment who died in the Great World War. 

The Memorial is located in a particularly good spot on a site that will receive many visitors who pass on their way to Thiepval plus those visiting the Lonsdale Cemetery and Leipzig Salient. 

It was carved by sculptors Zoe Cull and Alex Evans at their workshop at Bockhampton, near Dorchester and was dedicated in the village of Authuille on the Somme, on Saturday 7th May 2011 at 1100 hrs. 

Their Name Liveth for Evermore

© Karen Ette