Almost everyone has a family member who died in a 20th Century war, most of us unfortunately have several whether we know their names or not. I know of several, mostly from WW1. During a trip to my parents house last week we unearthed an old newspaper report of a relation who was killed in action having been shot down by the Red Baron.
Air warfare was in it’s infancy in WW1 with planes at first often seen as an expensive folly and not as reliable as air-ships and in WW1 some English cities were bombed by both planes and airships although nothing like in the scale of WW2.
Initially planes were used for reconnaissance until someone had the bright idea of starting to drop heavy steel darts and shrapnel on ground troops and to fire at passing enemy pilots with hand pistols. Obviously things developed quickly and soon the tactics of air combat were developed and hot-shot pilots known as Aces acquired fame on both sides.
The most famous of these and most successful was Manfred Albrecht Freiherr von Richthofen aka The Red Baron. Credited with 80 air-victories and leader of the ‘Flying Circus’, a group of elite German Aces perhaps the aerial equivalent of the SAS of Delta Force, he was a hero of the Imperial German Army Air Service (Luftstreitkräfte) before being shot down in disputed cirumstances just after 11:00 am on 21 April 1918 over the Somme. Whether he was shot down from the air, from the ground or was suffering from combat fatigue may never be known but for several years he was the most feared man in the skies, so much so that one British office on hearing of his demise opined that hoped the Red Baron burnt all the way to the ground.
Despite this statement, the baron was buried with full military honours and this reflects the spirit of the intrepid WW1 pilots. Due to the haphazard nature of the flying machines and possibly the fact that many people in the air-forces were from a higher social standing than the average soldier, the air-war was fought with high levels of honour and courtesy. It would have been dishonourable to shoot at planes when they were limping home injured for example.
It was in this environment that ,my Grandfathers cousin, Serjeant Reuel Dunn fought and died. A shipbuilder by trade he somehow ended up being a gunner in the Royal Flying Corps, the precursor to the RAF and he fought in a Sopworth Strutter like the photo below.
The Red Baron and his officers were continually striving to improve their planes and gain an advantage over the Royal Flying Corps and her allies and there were periods of heavy casualties on both sides when new tactics, new planes and experienced pilots vs novices made all the difference. This culminated in what is known as “Bloody April” when the German airforce inflicted particularly heavy casualties on the Allies.
Serjeant Reuel Dunn was himself a successful gunner having previously trained in the territorial army and before his death had recently recorded 3 confirmed kills. On April 2nd 1917 he took to the skies with his pilot 2nd Lt. Algernon Peter Warren. According to reports his plane was singled out by the Red Baron and his squadron when returning to base in Bloody April in a group of 8 planes. Having had it’s fuel tank hit the pilot tried to evade the Red Baron by flying into low cloud but coming under attack again the plan was forced to ditch in a field 300 yards east of the French town of Givenchy. As the Red Baron himself testified, against all the odds and expectations, Serjeant Reuel Dunn continued to fight, turning his machine gun into the sky and inflicting major damage on the Red Baron’s plane forcing him to once more attack the downed plane.
Whilst the pilot 2nd Lt. Algernon Peter Warren was unhurt and taken to a prisoner camp, Serjeant Dunn was mortally wounded with bullet wounds in his stomach. The Serjeant was taken to a German field hospital where that evening the Red Baron was gracious enough to come and visit the man who had continued to fight until the bitter end, a fitting tribute to both men.
Serjeant Dunn is buried Cabaret-Rouge British Cemetery, Souchez
Although there is a photo of him, I don’t have access to it so the nearest to it is his gravestone below.
It is terribly sad that he died aged just 24 years old like millions of others but nearly a century he is still remembered and I take pride in his spirit and bravery to fight when it would have been more than acceptable to surrender. He most of known that if he carried on fighting then he would be killed but he still did his duty for his country and family even if we all grew up not knowing anything much about him at all.
I was surprised to learn he is buried just a few miles from the large Canadian war memorial ad Vimy Ridge a place I have visited several times so I hope one day visit his grave for myself.
Incidentally when I found the newspaper reports below I also found a small clipping about my Grandfather, Harold Heard who was Reuel Dunns cousin. He played in Baghdad Cathedral on Christmas Day in WW2. While he was in Iraq he had the chance to visit the grave of his own father and my Great Grandfather who died in WW1 from dysentery during the famous and ill-thought out Mesopotamia campaign having drunk some filthy water. It was said that due to the increased mechanisations of modern warfare and the elderly Generals being stuck in a previous era resulted in terrible incompetence or at least inhumanity to the normal soldiers and the phrase of the day was that the soldiers were the Lions led by Donkeys. I hope to visit my Great Grandfather too and Baghdad Cathedral one day too and tell them both I miss them and I love them and I’ll always be proud and grateful to them and remember them always.