As long-time and regular readers will be aware, I have been for some time been interested in a particular family relation of mine, Serjeant Reuel Dunn who served in the Royal Flying Corps, the precursor to the RAF. He was an experience flyer himself and had a number of kills to his name before bad luck struck and he had the misfortune to be attacked by perhaps the most famous pilot of all time. He fought the Red Baron and died as a result of his wounds he gained when bravely fighting on when his plane had been forced to ground when most would have surrendered.
One of the things I really wanted to do on my recent visit to the Western Front was to visit his grave. I had been in the area before but was unaware of his location which ironically was only a few miles away from where I had been before, in fact I think I may even have inadvertently visited his cemetery 15 years ago.
Finding his grave was relatively straight forward. The Commonwealth War Graves Commission have an excellent website that makes it easy to find information about any British or Commonwealth grave from 20th and 21st century conflicts.
As my earlier blogs report, Reuel Dunn was an observer/gunner on a WW1 plane in the Royal Flying Corps. He was on a reconnaissance mission when his plane was targetted by the legendary Richthofen Flying Cirus, led by the Red Baron. After sustaining damage and being unable to lose his pursuers in low cloud, the pilot landed the plane and Serjeant Dunn rather than surrender himself and spend the rest of the war, turned his gun on the Red Baron and inflicted enough damage to make the hotshot German circle round and attack the sitting duck plane on the field below. Serjeant Dunn was shot in the stomach and died later that day but not before the Red Baron remarkably visited him in a German military hospital to pay tribute to his valour.
I really wanted to visit the location that this battle had taken place but it seemed a hopeless task given that nearly a century had passed not to mention the destruction that not just one but two world wars had impacted on the area.
Still I decided to give it my best and decided to put to use my best historian skills. After a little while I found the official log book of Manfred Von Richthofen, The Red Baron and he reported the battle and the fact that my relation landed and fought in fields 300 yards east of Givenchy.
Excellent I thought to myself a breakthrough! However my enthusiasm was dampened when I found out that that there are 4 villages in that region of France named Givenchy and none of my emails or phone calls to local officials helped me one little bit.
I looked more closely at the burial documents of Reuel Dunn and found that his final resting place was not his only resting place. In fact he had been moved possibly twice before and that he had originally been buried in a German cemetery whose location was near only 2 of the Givenchy villages and nearer one in particular.
Then I had something of a brainwave, if he was on an observation mission, taking photos of trenches and troop positions he must have been over German territory. Additionally he had taken off at around 10.40am and was shot down just over half an hour later. Given the slow speed of the planes of that time, to have flown to his objective, taken his photos and be returning to base had to mean something, if only I could work it out in my head.
He died on 2nd April 1917, at the beginning of what is known as bloody April for the Royal Flying Corps, for obvious reasons. On the wider military scale however, he died just a week before the massive attack on Vimy Ridge. There was a village very close to Vimy and it was called Givenchy En Gohelle and it was taken by Canadian forces after a fierce battle in mid April 1917. Surely Serjeant Dunn had been on a observation mission to assist on what was going to be one of the biggest attacks in the entire war. He had to have crash landed here, I had finally located the right general location.
I printed off a map of the village. 300 yards east of Givenchy en Gohelle wasn’t so easy to find as you’d imagine given that the village is rather spread out. However by finding some maps and aerial photos of the time, some perhaps taken by Reuel himself I worked out what the village must have looked like in 1917 and knew where to go if only I could find it. It helped that most French villages were rebuilt after the war on their old footprint and though a handful of new houses may have been built in recent years, it is unlikely to have built over the area I was interested in. After much thought and consideration, I decided where 300 yards east of Givenchy was on the map below, the option on the right.
I wanted to make sure that I got to visit the locations that I had researched and so on the first day of our week long stay in France and Belgium we headed off in the car. Being so immersed in the history of the area it is a strange feeling to see all the signposts and the general sights of the place. Much like the first time I went to the Middle East and saw all the road signs to places mentioned in the Bible so I had a strange sense of familiarity with Mons, Arras, Lens and Souchez. It almost felt like I was coming home.
After visiting the massive Vimy Ridge memorial, we made our way to Givenchy En Gohelle which was only a few miles away. It was a small, pretty village full of life and activities on this Sunday lunch time which was nice to see. With a little luck and skill we reached the end of the village and headed off a lane eastwards to a small field. Something about it didn’t feel right though, it was too enclosed to land even a WW1 plane and to me it just didn’t seem like the right place. Our options were limited though not possessing a smart phone with a GPS system and my not wanting to make everyone spend an afternoon of their holiday on a forlorn treasure hunt.
However, we drove on another 30 seconds and behind a hedgerow we came across a long and wide plain that stretched to the horizon. This was surely the right spot, it may have been the exact spot but if it wasn’t I know I was able to see the place in front of me. It was roughly 300 yards east of the village and would be a natural place to land a plane. I took a few photos of the landscape and noticed behind me towered Vimy Ridge 3 or 4 miles away.
I pictured what it must have been like on 2nd April 1917 and imagined daring actions that in truth few really could imagine today. Strangely I felt a connection with the place, it felt right and I was in no doubt that I had found the exact spot that I was looking for. If I wasn’t standing precisely where it all happened then it was just a few feet away in the field I was standing in. Satisfied that I had found the right spot, we drove on to his burial spot at the rather lively named Cabaret Rouge cemetery just outside the small village of Souchez.
During my detective work I had discovered that this wasn’t the only spot where my relative had been buried. As he had died in German territory, he had been given a military burial in a German cemetery. Then just a few days later, the area had been captured by Canadian troops and he and a number of other were transferred to a makeshift Commonwealth cemetery. As it is there are thousands of British and Commonwealth cemeteries but immediately after the war there were even more and the understandable decision was made to centralise some of the more remote graves into larger cemeteries to assist with their maintenance. It seems at this time Reuel Dunn was moved to his final resting place just outside of Souchez.
I had come prepared of course with flowers and a brief message that I had waited to write for years and yet I only wrote at breakfast that day. Cabaret Rouge was is an impressive and beautiful Commonwealth cemetery with mostly British but some Canadian dead too. It is large enough to feature architectural monuments only found in medium-large sized cemeteries. I looked in the register book which can be found in all the cemeteries along with information on the site itself.
Serjeant Reuel Dunn is buried at plot XV. M. 24 which made him easy to find amongst the eight thousand or so of his colleagues and compatriots. It was the end of a long search. All my family had talked about Reuel for far longer than the 35 years or so I had been aware of him. It was an emotional moment as I said hello to my brave heroic 3rd cousin. I wondered if any other family members had visited him before. It was possible but I doubted it as even when I was a child, travel to somewhere as close as France just didn’t happen very easily. Though I was sure others must have stopped by as I stopped by hundreds of other graves, they weren’t family and they personally didn’t miss meeting this man like I did and they didn’t know of his heroics as I did, just as I wasn’t aware of the heroics of the men laying each side of him.
The cemetery was well cared for as all the war graves are. His headstone was made of a marble like stone rather than the more common lime stone that most other Commonwealth stones are and later saw that all Royal Flying Corps head stones were made of similar stone, perhaps because there were relatively so few deaths in the air compared to on the ground.
I took a deep breath and said a few words to Reuel and placed my flowers next to his well tended grave. I had written a small note which I put with the flowers. It read:
Dear Reuel, so sorry we never got to meet. With all our love and thanks, Stephen Emilia and Philip xxx PS Thanks for being my hero.
It was incredible to have finally made it, to think of all the people that linked me to him, none of which now survive but all of whom would dearly have loved to be where I was but are now wherever he is. Can you imagine just being here for 97 years? Some people get bored in just a few minutes, myself in a few hours but poor Reuel had been here for nearly a century with no family or friends at all. I thought of all the people who must have walked past here, the gardeners. The family of the two people on each side of him must have been here too and thought of me or my family too.
97 years is such a long time, he was here during The Great Depression in the 30’s. He’d have been here in 1939 when British troops were again here and being pushed back into the sea and then 6 years later when they liberated Suchez in September 1944. He was here for the moon landings, he for my birth, here for the entire lives of my Grandparents and mother and he will still be here one day when I am not.
Still it was a beautiful place to spend eternity as you can see from the photo 2 down which was taken from his grave. I took a few photos, did my best not to cry and said my goodbyes. We explored the rest of the cemetery and sat in the warm autumn sunshine near the cross of remembrance. It was as if we were spending an afternoon hanging out with Reuel which I am sure he would have been glad of. After an hour or so we made our way back, stopping at various points of interest and I stopped back at Reuel one last time.
If it wasn’t for the graves, it would be a beautiful English park with perfect lawns, rose bushes and large conker trees. It had taken 97 years and several generations of descendants but finally someone from his family had visited this particular corner of a foreign field that is forever England.
It’s hard to imagine how peaceful it is here or how awful it must have been in WW1 when it was all mud and trenches and the awful, awful smell.
IF I should die, think only this of me:
That there’s some corner of a foreign field
That is forever England. There shall be
In that rich earth a richer dust concealed;
A dust whom England bore, shaped, made aware,
Gave, once, her flowers to love, her ways to roam,
A body of England’s, breathing English air,
Washed by the rivers, blest by the suns of home.
And think, this heart, all evil shed away,
A pulse in the eternal mind, no less
Gives somewhere back the thoughts by England given;
Her sights and sounds; dreams happy as her day;
And laughter, learnt of friends; and gentleness,
In hearts at peace, under an English heaven.
I was so glad to have finally tracked down Reuel not just for me but for my family before me. I am sure that somewhere he will have appreciated our visit to know that he like all the others are gone but not forgotten. I have another relation who was involved in the early years of flight, Grahame-White whose factory is and field went on to become an RAF base and is currently the world famous RAF museum in Hendon, London.
Afterwards we drove a short distance to a village to see a dramatic ruin that was visible from the cemetery. It is the remains of a church which was destroyed in WW1. We assumed the Germans destroyed it but actually the steeple was taken over by German snipers and the French army moved in and destroyed the entire ancient church leaving just these beautiful ruins which have now stood this way for a century.
There are plenty of other relations that died in WW1 but currently I don’t know their story but I do know Reuel’s and he is someone I will be eternally proud of. It would have been far better if there had been no war, I’d have much preferred it if there had been a war that he had somehow come through it safely but as it happened he very bravely fought and died for me and a little bit for you too as did everyone else. I love you Reuel. PS Thanks for being my hero.
If you’re interested in WW1 then why not look at my history book which was recently published in paperback and Kindle formats by Endeavour Press. It details the history and events of all the countries which took part in WW1 as well as related issues such as social changes, women and the war and technology.
If you’d like to see more imagery of the Western Front then why not look at my new photo book In The Footsteps of Heroes available on Kindle and Paperback.