Our previous blog post looked at the career of the Red Baron, Manfred von Richthofen, and the stories of some of those who he shot down. The day after his death on 21 April 1918, he was buried with full military honours. In the final part of Trevor Torkington’s guest blog post, we focus on the men who played a part on the day.
- Preparing for the funeral
After being shot down, Von Richthofen’s body and wrecked plane (subsequently stripped by trophy hunters) were recovered from the field and transported to Poulainville, the base of 3 Squadron Australian Flying Corps. Here, his body was cleaned, photographed and medically examined and then placed under guard until the funeral. One of the men detailed to guard the Baron was Air Mechanic 2nd Class Harold Edwards.
Harold had been keen to join up but his father was reluctant to let him go after Harold’s brother Benjamin was killed at Gallipoli. He eventually enlisted in the Australian Flying Corps and sailed for England on his 21st birthday.
As well as guarding the body, Harold, a watchmaker before the war, also made and engraved (in English and German) the plaque for von Richthofen’s cross. Harold Edwards lived until the age of 102, and was the last of the Australian Flying Corps who fought in the First World War.
- Conducting the service
In the late afternoon of 22 April 1918 von Richthofen’s body was placed on a Crossley Tender and taken to Bertangles Communal Cemetery. The procession was led by Chaplain to the Forces 4th Class George Herbert Marshall. Marshall was attached to 101 Squadron, stationed at Bertangles and as von Richthofen was a Protestant, Marshall was the nearest Church of England Chaplain who could officiate. After the ceremony, officers from 3 Squadron gave him a cylinder from von Richthofen’s engine as a souvenir which he kept in a tin box. When he returned to the army in the Second World War he had to leave his Vicarage, and donated the cylinder to the War Effort Scrap Drive.
- Fellow airmen as pallbearers
Six officers of 3 Squadron acted as pallbearers, two of whom were cousins – Lieutenant Thomas Leigh Simpson and Captain John Robertson Duigan. Duigan was a pioneer of Australian flight – he was the first Australian to design, build and fly an aeroplane. He was awarded the Military Cross for gallantry in action when his RE8 (or ‘Harry Tate’ as they were known colloquially) fought off four German Fokker Triplanes in May 1918. His cousin, Simpson, had been in combat with von Richthofen the previous day, flying a photographic reconnaissance mission in a Royal Aircraft Factory RE8. He had managed to withstand the attack until Sopwith Camels from 209 Squadron came to his aid. When he returned to base he received the news that von Richthofen had been killed.
Simpson was later awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross for his reconnaissance work. All the pallbearers survived the war but one, Lieutenant George Pickering, was a victim of the flu pandemic and died on 21 November 1918. He is buried at the Cemetery of London, Manor Park in Essex.
- Military salute
After the coffin had been placed in the ground by the pallbearers, an honour guard from 3 Squadron’s other ranks fired a salute over von Richthofen’s grave. Sergeant Vincent ‘Vin Blanc’ Smith was in charge of the honour guard. Born in a Melbourne suburb in 1890, Smith joined the Australian Flying Corps in March 1916. He was quickly promoted to Sergeant and was awarded the Meritorious Service Medal for rescuing a pilot from a blazing crash in which he himself was burned.
As well as these incredible photographs, the funeral service was captured on film, which can be viewed on the IWM website. On 23 April 1918 a British pilot flew low over Richthofen’s base at Cappy and threw down a metal container attached to a streamer. Inside was a photograph of the funeral and a message:
To the German Flying Corps
Rittmeister Baron Manfred von Richthofen was killed in aerial combat on April 21, 1918. He was buried with full military honours.
From the British Royal Air Force
- Final Resting Place
The Baron was not to be left in peace. After the funeral his grave was desecrated by French civilians who believed, mistakenly, that the Baron had carried out a night time bombing of the area shortly before his death. After the war, his body was moved to a large German cemetery at Fricourt and moved again, in 1925 at the request of the Baron’s mother. She wanted him buried at Schweidnitz alongside his father and brother but instead a formal state funeral was organised and his remains were buried in the Invalidenfriedhof cemetery in Berlin. When East Germany began to consolidate its border in 1976 his body was moved again to a family plot in Wiesbaden in Western Germany. He rests there now, the man who allied pilots called “our gallant and worthy foe”.
- Discover the stories of other individuals who played a part in the funeral of the Red Baron, in this Lives of the First World War Community