Magazine

The Red Baron and the Croydon connection

Depiction of the Red Baron's air battle with Lionel Morris and Tom Rees Image copyright Alex Hamilton

How a south London teenager fought the German flying ace in the skies above northern France 100 years ago, during a pivotal year of World War One.

Lionel Morris was 19 when he died.

In September 1916, with relatively little experience in the air, he had the misfortune to find himself in dogfight with Manfred von Richthofen - the German pilot who would become known as the Red Baron.

Morris's fellow crewman Capt Tom Rees, in the observer position at the front of the British F E 2b aircraft, was killed in the air.

But 2nd Lieutenant Morris, himself with injuries that would prove fatal, managed to land the plane before he died.

The deadly skirmish was the first of von Richthofen's 80 credited aerial combat victories.

Photo of 2nd Lieutenant Lionel Morris

Just a few months earlier, Morris (pictured above) had been an pupil at Whitgift School in Croydon.

His story is being told in a new exhibition at the school - Remembering 1916: Life on the Western Front.

"There are so many ways by which I think 1916 is perhaps the most fascinating year of World War One," says Whitgift's headmaster and the exhibition director Dr Christopher Barnett.

"Just think of the memorable battles at Verdun and the Somme on the Western Front - and in the North Sea, the Battle of Jutland."

"It was pivotal. It's quite clear that as the year began, all sides realised they were in for a longer run. Until then, there had been hope of a big push, a breakthrough."

Depiction of the Red Baron's air battle with Lionel Morris and Tom Rees Image copyright Alex Hamilton

The school commissioned this painting (above and top) by aviation artist Alex Hamilton to depict Morris's battle in the skies close to the town of Cambrai.

"Von Richthofen landed next to Morris's plane after he had shot him down," says Barnett.

The exhibition also features a copy of the Red Baron's short autobiography - a book which researcher Zapryan Dumbalski says he was pushed to write by the German leaders.

English edition of Red Baron's autobiography Image copyright Private collection

The Red Baron - pictured next - died in April 1918. He was shot down over the Somme.

The Red Baron - Manfred von Richthofen Image copyright Getty Images

Remarkably, another former Whitgift pupil - George Barber of the Australian Medical Corps (pictured below) - later conducted an autopsy on his body.

George Barber - carried out autopsy on the Red Baron
Grey line 2 pixels

War Posters

The Whitgift exhibition also deals with the propaganda posters that propelled men like Morris to war. "We wanted to deal with shared loss, shared experiences - the British, the German and the French, a common history," explains Barnett.

And these posters, from all three countries, show how each national government tried to persuade the public at home, away from the trenches.

WW1 poster - UK Image copyright Private collection

In the UK, at the start of WW1, the armed forces relied heavily on volunteers. Conscription did not come in until spring 1916.

"In the British posters you can see different approaches used by the authorities," says Fran Stovold, the exhibition manager.

"From stirring quotes from Lord Kitchener, to calls to avenge the German invasion of Belgium - a neutral country. They were really pulling on emotions," she explains.

"And then there was the perceived pressure to do the right thing by veteran soldiers who fought in the Victorian wars.

"It does belie the misunderstanding of what these young men were actually going off to do."

WW1 posters - UK Image copyright Private collection

"When you put these posters together as a group, you can really see the different characteristics of each country coming through really strongly," says Stovold.

Germany and France already had large conscript armies, so posters there urged people to donate money rather than sign up.

"In the French poster 'on les aura' means, colloquially, 'we'll have 'em'," explains Dumbalski - with the word "souscrivez" encouraging people to help fund the 2nd National Defence Loan.

Similarly, the German poster exclaims: "Help us win! - subscribe to the war loan".

WW1 posters - France and Germany Image copyright Private collection
Grey line 2 pixels

Battle of Verdun

For 10 months in 1916, in a sea of mud on the Western Front to the east of Paris, the Germans and French fought over the town of Verdun.

Germany's principal strategist, Gen Erich von Falkenhayn, planned a battle of attrition. He wanted to exhaust the French army - which would lead to its British and Russian allies being compromised.

In reality, Verdun would be WW1's longest battle. By its end about 800,000 soldiers would be dead, wounded or missing.

"Barbed Wire" by Louis Raemaekers

The exhibition at Whitgift School uses images by the Dutch artist Louis Raemaekers to help convey the horror and futility of trench warfare at Verdun - including, above, a work entitled "Barbed Wire".

"Raemaekers' cartoons were very political - and often critical of Germany," says Dumbalski. "To such an extent that the Dutch government was worried his work might endanger the neutrality of the Netherlands."

"And so he moved to London with his family in 1916 - the same year a book was published with some of his most striking cartoons."

WW1 illustrations by Louis Raemaekers Image copyright Louis Raemaker's Foundation

"He was one of a few private individuals who had great international influence in WW1," he continues.

"Just like kings, emperors and generals. Even though he had no military power."

Grey line 2 pixels

Faces from the war

"These are so well drawn and incredibly lifelike," says Barnett - referring to a colourful series of dozens of oil pastel portraits by a Swiss artist, Eugene Burnand.

During the war he drew the faces of more than 100 allied soldiers and support workers - from those who served on the front lines, to nurses who tended to the wounded.

WW1 portraits by Swiss artist, Eugene Burnand Image copyright Whitgift School

The image above depicts a Greek cavalry officer, a French nurse, a Russian infantryman and an Italian Carabinieri.

"But there are also faces from North America and the Allies' foreign colonies - the scope of the work he did was incredible," says Dumbalski.

The men below were from Senegal, Fiji, Nepal and Tunisia.

WW1 portraits by Swiss artist, Eugene Burnand Image copyright Whitgift School
Grey line 2 pixels

Lost lives

The spirit of 1916 is also captured in the weapons and personal items on display.

Grenades - WW1

"At the start of WW1 countries were basically unprepared," says Dumbalski, "kit and weapons were not suited to modern warfare."

This German trench club has a real medieval look - designed to cause maximum injuries at close quarters.

German trench club - WW1

The next image shows a British pillowcase gas mask and rattle.

"Gas was not always immediately deadly, but it killed long term," says Dumbalski.

"It could really cripple soldiers' health. You couldn't see it - it was invisible. The threat of gas was one of the things that most terrified them."

British gas mask and rattle - WW1

The year 1916 also saw the introduction of the Brodie helmet - the domed headgear which became synonymous with British servicemen fighting on the Western Front.

Below is a rare early edition, with the Tower of London on the front.

'Tower of London' Brodie helmet - WW1

For the Germans, 1916 saw the switch from the impractical leather Pickelhaube (pictured on the left below) - to the bell-like Stahlhelm.

This distinctive steel dome, like the British Brodie helmet, stayed with German forces through until World War Two.

German Pickelhaube helmet, and WW1 poster Image copyright Danny Fitzpatrick / Private collection

"We think this soldiers' supply box was a personal item, not military issue," says Stovold.

Inside, was a dinner for six.

British soldiers’ surprise box – WW1

Barnett stresses the rich historical value of the items, including the old uniforms, which help paint the picture of a continent at war 100 years ago.

German reserve pioneer tunic - WW1

"And it's personal too. There are letters - correspondences from sweethearts - to and from the front," he continues.

The 251 former Whitgift students and masters who lost their lives in WW1 are remembered in the exhibition's final section.

And poetry helps set the mood, including this extract from The Wind on the Downs by Marian Allen:

I like to think of you as brown and tall,

As strong and living as you used to be,

In khaki tunic, Sam Brown belt and all,

And standing there and laughing down at me.

Because they tell me, dear, that you are dead,

Because I can no longer see your face,

You have not died, it is not true, instead

You seek adventure some other place.

British airman’s tunic and cap - WW1
Grey line 2 pixels

Remembering 1916: Life on the Western Front can be seen at Whitgift School, Croydon, until 31 August 2016.

All images subject to copyright.

Additional credits: Poster and war memorabilia photography by Danny Fitzpatrick / Whitgift School. Lionel Morris image copyright Whitgift School. George Barber image courtesy Australian War Memorial. "Barbed Wire" by Louis Raemaekers courtesy the Louis Raemaekers' Foundation.