The latest edition of the Western Front Association’s Bulletin included a discourse on Great War books by our president Professor Peter Simkins. In it he waxes lyrical about the great pioneers of modern writing Martin Middlebrook, Lyn Macdonald and the much missed Richard Holmes. I met the great man once and I have to tell you we discussed the price of renting marquees. Then as now the whole thing seemed daft, because my garden is a postage stamp and in any case my daughter assures me she’ll go to Vegas to get married.
The Prof brings us up to date by eulogising Peter Hart and I can think of a few wags who would say I am far less fortunate for having met him several times. He can rant a bit on Facebook, but he writes very good books and gives very animated and uplifting talks. He likes beer.
This excellent re-issue shows Pete in fine style with a well paced account of how the Royal Flying Corps contributed to the ‘Big Push’ and what the Germans did about it.
If you have had the good sense to read Bloody April and Aces Falling then you will know what to expect with a beautifully balanced package of first hand accounts and analysis meshed with a chronicle of the key events. In short, this is a gem of a book which brings to life those magnificent men in their flying machines whether they flew under roundel or Maltese cross.
There are many grand men to admire from the obvious superstars; Ball, Boelcke or Hawker to the new wunderkind on the block, Manfred Von Richtofen. As always there are the others, some who survived and many who died. One of the latter was a fine example of British blue blood, Captain Auberon Thomas Herbert, the 8th Baron Lucas and the 11th Baron Dingwall. Born in 1876 he rowed for Oxford in the 1898 and 1899 Boat Race and then went off to the Boer War in 1900 where he acted as a special correspondent for The Times. He had the misfortune to be wounded and had a leg amputated below the knee, but, if it phased him, it hardly showed.
A life in politics followed, including time working as private secretary to the great reformer Lord Haldane. His career reached its pinnacle when he became President of the Board of Agriculture in the Liberal Government. With the forming of a coalition in 1915 he resigned and joined the army where he quickly found himself in the RFC. Destined for a position of responsibility he refused a command until he had accrued enough combat experience. It was in gaining it that he was killed on the 3rd of November, 1916, flying an FE2B on a sortie with 22 Squadron. His victors were pilots from the elite Jasta 2, racking up the scores just days after their mentor Oswald Boelcke had died as a result of a mid-air collision.
Some years ago I was at HAC Cemetery and by chance I photographed Bron Lucas’ grave. Peter Hart has a way of offering up a sheaf of similar stories. They might not all lead to pilgrimages either accidental or designed, but they are all real, and you know that after all these years they are about more than just names.
History tells us that 1916 ended with the tables turned when the RFC found itself on the back foot against a better equipped and ruthless opposition. The dazzling Albert Ball was tired and better aeroplanes were needed. For the gallant Lanoe Hawker VC the brutal truth came in his final combat with the young tyro Von Richtofen, a man who delighted in his successes and acquiring souvenirs of his conquests. Hawker was his eleventh official victim. The coming year would prove to be very painful for the RFC.
THE ROYAL FLYING CORPS AND THE BATTLE OF THE SOMME 1916
By Peter Hart
Published by Pen & Sword in paperback £12.99
ISBN: 978 1 84884 882 5