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


After the death of Captain Manfred von Richthofen on 21 April 1918, the wreckage of his plane was brought to the headquarters of No. 3 Squadron, Australian Flying Corps, at Poulainville, near Amiens in France. We see observers and pilots of that squadron examine what’s left of the plane, including its two machine guns. On the next afternoon, Richthofen’s coffin, draped with wreaths from British General Headquarters, is buried at Bertangles civilian cemetery, with full military honours.

Curator’s notes

The controversy over who killed Manfred von Richthofen, the leading ‘ace’ of the First World War, began almost immediately after his all-red Fokker triplane crashed in the Somme valley, near Corbie, in April 1918. The debate continues, although there is now significant support for the theory that he was killed by a single bullet fired by an Australian machine gunner, rather than by the Canadian airman Roy Brown, who was initially credited with the victory. Brown was flying for the newly renamed Royal Air Force, which was naturally keen to claim the victory of a man who had killed so many of their own.

Australian gunners on the ground were just as adamant that they had brought down the German flyer and were incensed that the RAF was claiming otherwise. Thus, the funeral took place in an atmosphere of recrimination and some ill-feeling, from lower ranks to senior officers. What’s striking today is the reverence and respect for the body of an enemy. The fields in other parts of the Somme Valley were full of the bodies of dead soldiers of both sides, some in graves, many simply buried by the shelling of the campaigns since July 1916. Few had more than a cursory funeral, yet here we see the most sombre, respectful rites that the military could bestow in the field, and for an enemy combatant.

That tells us a lot about the fame that Richthofen, better known later as the 'Red Baron’, had already achieved, on both sides. It also tells us something about the famed atmosphere of chivalry that pertained for a time in the aerial war. This is often said to have disappeared in the skies of the Western Front a year earlier, during ‘bloody April’, when the Royal Flying Corps (precursor to the RAF) lost 211 men and 245 aircraft in a month. Richthofen’s squadron, Jasta 11, was responsible for 89 victories in that month, a third of the British losses. It’s pretty clear from the footage that the men of No. 3 Squadron, Australian Flying Corps, were jubilant to have rights to his funeral and his aeroplane, which had crashed in their sector. They had no qualms being photographed with what remained of his aeroplane after souvenir hunters had wrecked most of it.

It’s also clear that the funeral which followed the next day was sombre and respectful – at least for the British and the Australians. The French civilian population of Bertangles were not so chivalrous. The funeral took place late on the afternoon of 22 April. The coffin was made by three squadron mechanics, with a zinc plate inscribed in English and German, nailed to the top. According to the book, The Day the Red Baron Died (1970), by Dale M Titler (Ian Allan Ltd, ISBN 0 7110 0420X) the plate said:

Cavalry Captain
Manfred von Richthofen
Age 22 years, killed in action near
21 April 1918

Titler points out that this was wrong – he was 25, and died 11 days short of his 26th birthday. Titler says that ‘Coppersmith AG McIntosh and Instrument Fitter Harold Edward [sic] were fashioning and engraving a plate to be nailed to the hub of the cross, and a small zinc plate for the coffin lid’ (p 210).

After the grave was closed, photographs were made with flowers in place on the top (P00743.038). These pictures were dropped over German-held positions by British flyers, with photographs of the body, taken to prove to the Germans that Richthofen was indeed dead. Titler quotes Captain Roderick Ross, technical officer of No. 3 Squadron, who examined the wrecked aeroplane, as saying that the pictures were taken ‘to combat possible German propaganda’. Captain Ross also reported to Titler that the grave was desecrated that same night by ‘angry townspeople’, ‘incensed at the internment of an enemy soldier in their cemetery’ (quoting Titler’s words, from the book). In correspondence in 1960, Ross wrote to Titler that:

the following day it was discovered that apparently during the night of the funeral, the French villagers had smashed the flowers, removed the cross and otherwise desecrated the grave. A second cross was made by the mechanics of our squadron and placed on the grave. At the same time General Sir John Monash sent for the mayor of Villers-Bocage, in which the Australian Corps headquarters happened to be located, and told him that he was disgusted with what they had done and that if such a thing occurred again he would consider removing his headquarters therefrom. This had the desired effect.

Richthofen’s body was removed by French authorities after the war and placed in a new ‘concentration’ cemetery for German dead at nearby Fricourt. In 1925, Richthofen’s brother Bolko took the body back to Germany, where it was buried in a Berlin cemetery beside other German war heroes. The Nazis later built a large memorial over the grave, which was damaged by fighting during the Second World War. In 1975, Richthofen’s remains were finally placed in his family’s tomb in Wiesbaden, Germany.

In 1933, the Brisbane Courier Mail ran a report on the opening of a museum in Richthofen’s home in Schweidnitz, 15 years after his death. The report, by John C Hook, from ‘Popular Flying’, stated that the museum contained ‘the cross which the British erected over Richthofen’s grave in France’, as well as his decorations. ‘Above the decorations hangs a zinc plate which proclaims in English and German that under this plate lies the remains of Baron Manfred von Richthofen’, wrote Hook. This sounds like the same plate made by ‘AG McIntosh and Harold Edward’ (per Titler’s book), but there were two plates made for the funeral – one on the coffin, another on the cross itself. If we assume that the replacement cross would have required a new plate as well, then there were a possible three plates. In 1990, Harold Edwards, then aged 94, told interviewer Adrian Hellwig that he made both of the original plaques.

‘There was a roundish one attached to the cross – the wording is pretty well known but it’s not so well known that I did it in English and German. The plate that we placed on the coffin lid had the same wording and was also in two languages and about the size of an A4 piece of paper,’ said Edwards, who died in 1998, aged 102. Edwards, born in Bendigo, was a watchmaker before the war, which is probably why he was asked to work on the two memorial plates. The wording quoted by Adrian Hellwig is slightly different to that quoted (above) by Dale Titler. Which plate eventually made its way to the family’s museum in Schweidnitz is difficult to tell, because the relics in that museum disappeared in the Second World War, when Russian troops overran Lower Silesia. The house in which the museum stood is still there, but none of the relics, leading to speculation that these may have been removed to Russia. Schweidnitz is now known as Swidnica, and is now in Poland.

Ian Jackson, a curator of photographs at the Australian War Memorial, writes:

The obvious point to make about the unusual honours and attention given to Richthofen’s funeral is that these provided a propaganda opportunity – a chance to demonstrate how civilised and decent the Allies were in their willingness to treat a defeated opponent well. Clearly the death of Richthofen would be of interest not just in the Allied countries, but also to the German people, and so treating him in accordance with the principles of chivalry would send a subtle but positive message to them.