The Uncomfortable Hero
Thousands of mourners crammed themselves into the Colonnades to witness the gun-carriage that bore the remains of a national hero. He was one of the many men who’s lives had been cut tragically short by a new kind of War. Remarkably, as he was laid to rest, film cameras immortalised the moment at roughly 5:00pm on the 21st June 1915.
Warneford was born in Darjeeling, India, and lived in Somerset for a time before returning with his family to India to work at the British-India Steam Navigation Company, which specialised in transporting mail between Calcutta and Rangoon. At the outbreak of the First World War, he was in Canada. He promptly returned back to Britain where he joined the Army but almost immediately transferred to the Royal Navy Air Service for pilot training.
His enthusiasm and prowess for flying aircraft drew him considerable attention: he was clearly very good. Training at Hendon and then completing his instruction at Upavon, the Commander of Naval Air Stations observed ‘this youngster will either do big things or kill himself‘.
It was on the 7th June 1915 when his name spread throughout the world. He had received orders to attack the Berchem St Agathe Airship Shed, but instead saw an Airship, one of three that had tried to cross the Channel but failed due to the foggy conditions. He immediately sprung into action. He opened fire, to which the Zeppelin retaliated. He ascended to 11,000 feet as the Zeppelin began to turn on him, ingeniously cutting his own engines so they wouldn’t be able to locate him from the sound of his plane. At the height of 7,000 feet he was above the airship where he dropped his bombs. It was doomed.
Cutting his own engines? He was either brave or mad, but his plan worked, risking his own life in the process. The manoeuvre damaged the joint between the petrol pipe and pump so was forced to land thirty odd miles behind enemy lines. Repairing his plane, he then flew back to base once repairs had been made.
Unhappily dealing with now being the British Army’s poster-boy, On the 17th June 1915 he just attended a celebratory Lunch in aid of his recently earnt Légion d’honneur. Afterwards, he headed to the aerodrome at Buc in order to ferry an aircraft for delivery to the Royal Navy Air Station at Veurne. He completed a test flight and then offered an American journalist by the name of Henry Beach Newman a chance to fly with him, offering a view of Paris from the air.
As the plane soared 700 feet into the air, something went wrong. Just as the plane was beginning to land, the plane began to spin, and then went into a dive. At 700 feet the aeroplane started to roll and turned upside down, throwing both men out of their seats. Newman died instantly. What exactly happened still remains a mystery – did Warneford push the plane too much or did Newman panic and seize controls? His sense of dread turned out to be well-founded: he died two days later at the British Military Hospital in the Trianon Palace Hotel at Versailles.
The Government took over the planning of his funeral, turning it into a propaganda event which attracted people in their thousands. Remarkably, key clips of his service are available to been seen on the British Pathe website (which can be seen here), and not only does it show the old style scale of funerals which underpinned the existence of the Magnificent Seven, but it shows one, in this case our old favourite Brompton – in its prime.
His headstone was financed by readers of the Daily Express, and shows an image of him above a relief of his achievement of downing the Zeppelin, although the plane shown is not actually the one he used.
Lest We Forget the courage of men like him, for we owe the world of today to them.
My thanks to Martin Sterling who assisted in the research for this post.