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Incidents in Connection with the Funeral of Captain Baron von Richthofen (1918)

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An ace is laid to rest

This clip chosen to be PG

Clip description

A brief shot of an aeroplane falling from the sky leads to a series of shots of officers and other ranks of No. 3 Squadron, Australian Flying Corps, examining the wreckage of Captain Manfred von Richthofen’s aeroplane, a Fokker Dr. 1 triplane. The machine is in pieces, after Australian soldiers souvenired much of it in the field. Three airmen examine the plane’s twin machine guns. Wreaths arrive from headquarters as an honour guard forms. The coffin, covered in flowers, is placed on the open back of a military truck by six captains of No. 3 Squadron. The funeral cortege moves slowly past a parade of men of the squadron, towards the cemetery at Bertangles in northern France, on 22 April 1918. Six officers bear the coffin to the grave. Thirteen gunners fire a salute as the coffin is lowered, before a large number of onlookers.

Curator’s notes

Within hours of Richthofen’s death, there were three separate claims on ‘the honour’ of having shot him down. One was from the 53rd Battery, Australian Field Artillery, who were directly beneath the German Fokker as it chased a Sopwith Camel flown by Lt Wilfred R May of 209 Squadron, Royal Air Force. Another was from a separate Australian unit, the 24th Australian Machine Gun Company, which fired at the passing plane with their machine guns. The third was from the pilots of 209 Squadron, including Captain Roy Brown, a Canadian in the RAF, who reported on landing that he had shot down the red Fokker triplane that had been chasing his friend Wilfred May. Ian Jackson from the Australian War Memorial writes:

We know that a British official photographer was present at the funeral because the photographs of the event are in the AWM’s K series – the K series consists of British official photographs selected and copied by the AWM in the 1920s. The original negatives are in the IWM collection, for example IWM Q 10918 taken by 2nd Lieutenant T K Aitken – who also took photograph Q 10929 which shows three AFC men with plane wreckage. There are no photographs of the funeral in the AWM’s E series (official Australian photographs of the Western Front), implying that no Australian official photographer took still photographs at the funeral. An Australian official photographer was definitely also present at the examination of the wreckage as there are E series photographs of this including E02044, so Wilkins or an assistant was definitely at Bertangles that day. So one possible explanation is that at the funeral Wilkins and Aitken agreed to split the work: Wilkins would film and Aitken would take stills.

Once the competing claims became known, two inquiries were set up – and these were also competing, in effect. The British inquiry gave the victory to Roy Brown. An Australian inquiry, conducted by the Australian historian CEW Bean, concluded that Brown could not have fired the shot that killed Richthofen, because Richthofen was able to continue flying level and in control for at least another kilometre after Brown peeled off. Bean concluded that the German ace was most likely hit by ground fire from one of the Australian units. Bean would revisit his inquiry 15 years later, after controversy in the Australian and British newspapers, and devote an appendix to the question in Volume V of his Official History of Australia in the War of 1914-1918 (see Appendix 4).

It is just conceivable that Richthofen might have contorted his body in such a way that Captain Brown, though above and behind him, could have inflicted such a wound as that described; but it is surely inconceivable that, with such a wound in the region of the heart, he should have continued for a mile his intensely purposive flight, closely following the movements of the fugitive airman [May] and endeavouring to shoot him. Certainly no-one who watched from the ground the last minute of that exciting chase with only two planes in the picture will ever believe that Richthofen was killed by a shot from a third aeroplane [Brown] which no-one from Vaux onwards observed.

Bean’s conclusion was that the single bullet that killed the pilot was most likely to have come from the machine gun fired by Sergeant CB Popkin of the 24th AMG Company. The debate on this issue still rages, but the significance here is that one author identifies the men behind the hedge at the funeral as being members of the 209 Squadron, RAF. This was Captain Roy Brown’s unit.

Dale M Titler (in his book The Day the Red Baron Died, 1970) quotes Oliver C Le-Boutillier, an American airman who was the leader of B Flight, 209 Squadron, on the circumstances of Richthofen’s death and burial: 'The next day several of us got into lorries and went to Bertangles to represent 209 at the funeral. We weren’t able to view the remains. While the services were conducted, we stood outside the cemetery and watched over the tall hedge directly opposite the open grave.’ These then are some of the men we see peering over the hedge here, although Titler writes that Roy Brown was not among them. ‘Roy Brown did not attend; it was not customary for one recognised as the victor, to do so’ (p 219).

We do not know for certain who took this footage. It may have been Hubert Wilkins, who was the official photographer for the AIF at the time, or possibly one of his assistants. John AR Alexander, an aerial photographer with No. 3 Australian Flying Corps, took several still photographs of the funeral, but he wrote in his diary that there was ‘a cinematographer from the War Records dept’ taking footage, and that would likely have been Wilkins.

Alexander’s diary confirms that ‘Harold’ engraved the inscription on the plate on the coffin. This was Harold Edwards (see main notes). The zinc plate can be seen clearly on the lid of the coffin as it is lowered.

A photograph in the Australian War Memorial identifies the three men holding the Spandau machine guns as (left to right) Lt N Mulroney, Lt OG Whitcomb (observer) and Lt FJ Mart (observer) (K00048). Another photo (E02044) identifies other men seen in this sequence.

Richthofen’s plane was said to have been only lightly damaged in the crash, leading to some speculation that he was alive when he crashed. Australian troops on the ground ran to the aeroplane as soon as it came down, lifted out the body and discovered the pilot’s identity. Souvenir taking probably began even before his identity was known, but increased quickly as it became known. What we see here is partly the result of that stripping of the plane, and probably partly the need to transport the rest to No. 3 Squadron’s headquarters near Bertangles, just north of Amiens.

The body was brought in by the same salvage team, where it was examined twice before burial, by different teams of doctors. The controversy over who brought him down was already underway and these medical teams represented, to an extent, the different camps of argument – British and Australian. The controversy continues to this day. Many of the souvenired parts of the aeroplane, and some of the Baron’s own clothing, were later donated to the Australian War Memorial, including his flying boots.

A curious aspect of this film is the early shot of an aeroplane falling from the sky, followed by what appears to be a special effect shot – dust rising at the bottom of the frame. This suggests that the film may be an excerpt of a larger film, or that this shot was added for dramatic purpose later.

The Imperial War Museum in London holds what appears to be a copy of a longer version of this film (IWM187). Their version includes shots of British troops in Béthune and Mont des Cats, leading into the funeral for Richthofen. It’s possible that this is the source for the Australian film.

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