Research Notes – The Great War (20) The Red Baron

My research into the Great War has led me all over the place, some —ok, most— of the time to areas which will be completely irrelevant to my novel. Nevertheless, these forays into the history of the war have uncovered so many interesting and intriguing stories that I’m loath to shift my focus onto the more useful information for the novel. This is exactly what happened when I did a teeny, tiny bit of reading on The Red Baron for my drawing challenge this week. Of course I already knew the basics: German flying ace, noble family, bright red aircraft, killed in the final stages of the war. But there’s so much more to this fascinating character’s story. And no, it has nothing to do with Snoopy.

The second of four children and the oldest son, Manfred von Richthofen was born on May 2, 1892 near Breslau, in Lower Silesia. This region later became part of Poland after borders shifted back and forth during the two world wars. The von Richthofens were an aristocratic Prussian family, with the noble title ‘freiherr’, often translated as ‘baron’ but literally meaning ‘free lord’, applying to all male family members, even while the father was still alive. Thus Manfred and his two brothers, Lothar and Bolko were all ‘barons’ simultaneously with their father, Major Albrecht Philipp Karl Julius Freiherr von Richthofen.

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Manfred’s early years were active and outdoorsy. After being educated at home, he began his military training at age eleven. His cadet training was completed in 1911 and he subsequently joined a cavalry unit in one of the West Prussian regiments. After the outbreak of war, von Richthofen served as a cavalry reconnaissance officer for the German army, seeing action not just on the Western Front in France and Belgium, but also on the Eastern Front in Russia. The nature of trench warfare made traditional cavalry operations near impossible and so after a short while, von Richthofen’s unit was removed from horseback and employed running dispatches and operating field telephone communication. Manfred found this boring and dissatisfying work and yearned for a more active role in combat operations. And so, his interest aroused after seeing the wreck of an enemy airplane behind the lines, he decided to apply for transfer to the Imperial German Army Air Service, later known as the Luftstreitkräfte.

His early piloting attempts were less than impressive; he crashed on his first try at flying, but he was determined and inspired to succeed by the likes of German flying ace, Oswald Boelcke. Over the course of his career, Manfred von Richthofen would score the highest number of victories: 80 planes shot down, more than any other pilot in the air services of the combatant nations. 

Though he is most closely associated with the celebrated Fokker DR. I triplane, von Richthofen flew several types of planes over the course of the war: the Albatross C III, the Albatross D II, Halberstadt D II, and Albatross D III. And in fact, it was the Albatross D III that was first painted in his trademark red. The bright red color of the plane with the family title ‘freiherr’ combined to yield his nickname: The Red Baron. Despite the obvious risk in painting a plane a bright and distinctive color, the German command allowed it, even using the “Red Fighter Pilot” as a tool for propaganda.

The Red Baron was not invulnerable to attack, however. He was seriously wounded in combat in July of 1917, managing to pull his plane out of a spin at the last minute and force land in a field behind German lines. The injury he received to his head required several surgeries to remove bone splinters and is thought to have caused permanent damage. Changes in his temperament were noted as well as headaches and post-flight nausea. It has even been suggested that this injury contributed to his eventual demise.

On the 21st of April, 1918, Manfred von Richthofen flew to the rescue of his cousin, Lt. Wolfram von Richthofen, who was being fired upon by Canadian pilot, Lt. Wilfred May in his Sopwith Camel. The Red Baron fired on May and pursued him as he fled across the Somme. He was engaged by another Canadian pilot, Captain Arthur “Roy” Brown, causing him to turn to avoid the shots, after which he resumed his pursuit of May. It is during this time that the question and unresolved mystery of who killed the Red Baron arises. Manfred was shot by a single bullet, damaging his heart and lungs. Despite this fatal wound, he retained enough control to land his aircraft in a field just north of Vaux-sur-Somme, behind enemy lines. The Australian forces controlling that sector rushed to the downed plane in time to hear The Red Baron’s last words. Though the reports differ slightly, he apparently said some version of “kaputt.” The Fokker DR. I was not badly damaged in the landing but was quickly harvested by souvenir hunters. 

As for the person responsible for taking down The Red Baron, initially the credit was given to Captain Brown for shooting him down. This was later questioned because of the direction from which the fatal shot was fired. The bullet entered beneath von Richthofen’s right armpit and exited near the left nipple. At the time of the shooting Brown was above and to the left of The Red Baron’s plane, an impossible position to have caused that wound. More likely, the wound came from anti-aircraft guns on the ground. 

One –and probably the best– candidate for the man responsible for the demise of The Red Baron is Sergeant Cedric Popkin, a machine gunner with the Australian 24th Machine Gun Company. He fired twice at The Red Baron, once as the plane was flying straight at his position and a second time, from the right and at long range. It is this second shot that likely proved fatal to the flying ace. 

Still, the questions remain about The Red Baron’s actions that day. His normally prudent behavior in flying combat missions seems to have been thrown to the winds. Could the earlier head injury have impaired his judgement? He flew too low over enemy territory and he flew too fast for safety. Both behaviors were uncharacteristic in the flying ace. Perhaps the combination of the injury, post-traumatic stress (combat fatigue) and the desperation for wins in those waning days of the war all contributed to the recklessness of that final flight. 

Whatever the case, The Red Baron was so respected by his enemies that the Australian officer in charge of the burial gave Manfred von Richthofen a full military funeral with members of Number 3 Squadron AFC acting as pall bearers and a guard of honor. The Red Baron was laid to rest in a small village cemetery near Amiens and afterwards members of the Allied squadrons stationed nearby brought memorial wreaths to the grave to honor “Our Gallant and Worthy Foe.”

The Great War – Research Notes (16) The Art Of War

When war broke out in August 1914, no one on either side of the conflict believed that it would rage on for over four bloody, devastating years. Many in fact, welcomed the war, believing it to be an opportunity for adventure —glorious and brief. The famous declaration that the whole thing would be finished ‘before the leaves fell from the trees’ or at the latest ‘by Christmas’ contributed to the romantic notion of going off to war. These fantasies were soon shattered by the gruesome reality of modern warfare.

The responses to the war evolved as time passed; from initial enthusiasm, nationalistic fervor and patriotism to shock, horror, anguish and remorse. These various and sometimes contradictory emotions are reflected in the art of the time. Photography and film news reels brought the carnage to life, so that even those at home got a taste of the true nature of war. Many artists and writers saw the war from the front lines and composed poetry, authored literature and created works of visual art reflective of those dreadful experiences. The following are samples of some of the works of art produced during and following The Great War:

I.  At the outset, many believed that the war would bring an end to the old social and political systems and usher in a new order of equality and progress. This optimism can be seen in the following lithograph from a collection called, Mystical Images of War. The artist, Natalia Goncharova, a Russian living in Paris at the outbreak of war, depicts the angelic host watching over the soldiers as they march away.

The Christian Host ~ Natalia Goncharova, 1914

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II.  Paul Nash is one of my favorite artists and he’s been featured here previously. The painting Ypres Salient At Night heads my poem: Tales Of War. Despite the optimistic title, Paul Nash’s painting depicts a scarred landscape with shell-holes, mounds of earth, and leafless trees –the resulting devastation of World War One.

We Are Making a New World ~ Paul Nash; 1918

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III.  Kathe Kollwitz used her art to portray the grief of loss from war. The following two pieces show the heartbreaking agony and hardship experienced by those left behind.

Killed In Action (Gefallen) ~ Kathe Kollwitz, 1920

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Mothers in different stages of life, held together by one common bond: the need to protect their children.

Mothers (Mütter) ~ Kathe Kollwitz, 1919

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IV.  Christopher Richard Wynn Nevinson revisits the desolation of No Man’s Land with insect-like planes buzzing overhead in That Cursed Wood, a title taken from a line in Siegfried Sassoon’s poem, At Carnoy: “Tomorrow we must go / To take some cursed wood… Oh world God made!”

That Cursed Wood ~ Christopher Richard Wynn Nevinson, 1917

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V.  I’ve featured Otto Dix twice before in my Great War posts. Shock Troops Advance Under Gas was the image for a post on chemical weapons and I used The Wounded Man to head my post about the disfiguring injuries to soldiers. You can click on the links to view those pieces. Otto Dix served for four years as a machine gun operator in the German army on the front lines in Belgium and France. He was grievously injured and suffered terrible nightmares about his experience. After the Armistice, during the height of these nightmares, he produced a series of drawings and etchings called The War (Der Krieg). Here is one more from that collection. In sharp contrast to the nationalist propaganda featuring war heroes like Baron Manfred von Richthofen (The Red Baron), Lens Being Bombed shows the terror and desperation of the citizens of the town in Northern France as they run for their lives.

Lens Being Bombed (Lens wird mit Bomben Belegt) ~Otto Dix, 1923-1924

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There are many, many more significant artists and artwork to consider, so this will be one of several posts on the subject.

Research Notes – The Great War (15) The War Poets

In the course of researching my historical novel: Here Lies a Soldier, I’ve read books on the battles, the origins of the conflict, the Spanish Flu epidemic which came close on its heels, and of the life and struggle of the average citizen striving to weather that horrible storm. Among some of the most compelling subjects I’ve researched are the works of art, the literature and especially the poetry composed at the time.

During the First World War, unlike previous wars, a significant number of important British poets served as soldiers. As one might expect, they composed poetry that reflected their experiences in battle, the conditions in the trenches and the spirit of the men they fought beside. Some of them died in battle: Edward Thomas, Isaac Rosenberg, Charles Sorley and Wilfred Owen. The ones that survived, like Siegfried Sassoon, Ivor Gurney and Robert Graves, were deeply affected by the horrors of war and their work demonstrates their traumatization.

In Westminster Abbey, Poet’s Corner is a section of the South Transept. Among the graves and other memorials of Britain’s famous poets, lies a stone slab with the names of the War Poets inscribed on it. It’s also inscribed with words from Wilfred Owen’s “Preface”

“My subject is war, and the pity of war. The Poetry is in the pity.”

Anthologies of these poems were very popular during the war. In my collection of War Poems: Men Who March Away, the editor has grouped the collection by date, giving the reader a glimpse of how attitudes toward the war changed over time. Here is one of Wilfred Owen’s poems – Exposure. The soldiers faced not only the enemy in battle but also the terrible conditions in the trenches – the mud, the filthy water, the lice, the rats and the cold. Sometimes the waiting was as dreadful as the action.

Exposure – Wilfred Owen

Our brains ache, in the merciless iced east winds that knive us . . . 

Wearied we keep awake because the night is silent . . .

Low drooping flares confuse our memory of the salient . . .

Worried by silence, sentries whisper, curious, nervous,

       But nothing happens. 

Watching, we hear the mad gusts tugging on the wire,

Like twitching agonies of men among its brambles.

Northward, incessantly, the flickering gunnery rumbles,

Far off, like a dull rumour of some other war.

       What are we doing here?

The poignant misery of dawn begins to grow . . .

We only know war lasts, rain soaks, and clouds sag stormy.

Dawn massing in the east her melancholy army

Attacks once more in ranks on shivering ranks of grey,

       But nothing happens.

Sudden successive flights of bullets streak the silence.

Less deadly than the air that shudders black with snow,

With sidelong flowing flakes that flock, pause, and renew,

We watch them wandering up and down the wind’s nonchalance,

       But nothing happens.

Pale flakes with fingering stealth come feeling for our faces—

We cringe in holes, back on forgotten dreams, and stare, snow-dazed,

Deep into grassier ditches. So we drowse, sun-dozed,

Littered with blossoms trickling where the blackbird fusses.

       —Is it that we are dying?

Slowly our ghosts drag home: glimpsing the sunk fires, glozed

With crusted dark-red jewels; crickets jingle there;

For hours the innocent mice rejoice: the house is theirs;

Shutters and doors, all closed: on us the doors are closed,—

       We turn back to our dying.

Since we believe not otherwise can kind fires burn;

Now ever suns smile true on child, or field, or fruit.

For God’s invincible spring our love is made afraid;

Therefore, not loath, we lie out here; therefore were born,

       For love of God seems dying.

Tonight, this frost will fasten on this mud and us,

Shrivelling many hands, and puckering foreheads crisp.

The burying-party, picks and shovels in shaking grasp,

Pause over half-known faces. All their eyes are ice,

       But nothing happens.