It’s hard to imagine that Lincolnshire was a battleground in World War One, but it was. Not the bloodiest battle, thank goodness, and not one that is well known. But between 1915 and 1918 a long, drawn-out, and largely invisible battle took place between squadrons of “stick and string” aeroplanes and the ghostly invaders known as Zeppelins.
The story of Lincolnshire’s aviation during World War One, and the Zeppelin raids are covered in great detail elsewhere in books, and documentary films that I have had the good fortune of contributing to. But the memorials to those who were killed during the battle are less well known.
I am pleased to say that they are not forgotten, care and attention has been devoted to the restoration, preservation and researching of these monuments and in 2018 I had the pleasure of visiting some of them as part of the Layers of History project.
Gainsborough central cemetery is a place I have been driven past since I was a very young child. I have relatives buried there, although I have not yet found them. It is a place I have a personal connection to.
But it is also the last resting place of a number of young men whose lives didn’t begin with any connection to Gainsborough, or Lincolnshire, or, in most cases England. In that hillside cemetery are the graves of eight servicemen who flew with 33 Home Defence Squadron. The job of these men was to fly by night, in aeroplanes that had no lights and very little instrumentation, to the limits of the endurance of man and machine, to fight off the Zeppelins that raided by night and in Cleethorpes had killed dozens of people. They came from all over the world; from Canada, New Zealand, South Africa, Argentina and (one) from London.
The story of their journey to England, the ships zig-zagging to avoid submarines as they approached the British Isles, the dangers of their flights and the crashes they survived, and the crashes that put them in the cemetery, are individually fascinating. When the Friends of Gainsborough Cemeteries and Chapels restored the graves in 2012, they published a number of articles that you can download from their website. I recommend you do, they are certainly better than any war fiction.
But for me, the things that have stuck in my mind have been some of the small details, the simple acts of kindness, the expressions of gratitude and fellowship from fellow officers, friends and members of the public.
When 2nd Lt. Hubert P. Solomon was buried in 1917, the Rabbi of Grimsby Synagogue travelled to Gainsborough to conduct the funeral, and Aaron Rabinovich, perhaps the only Jewish resident in Gainsborough at the time, attended, possibly sitting shiva for Solomon, as his parents could not be present. A simple, but touching act, for someone far from home.
When Lt James Arthur Menzies of Ottowa, Canada died in a crash during a Zeppelin raid in 1917, he received a full military funeral. His coffin was carried upon a gun carriage, the whole squadron attended, and a crowd of townspeople followed behind. Also present were James Arthur’s two brothers, who were able to write to his parents about the funeral. They described the beautiful autumn day of the funeral, the “great pile” of floral tributes from comrades and friends. They also describe the gravesite, “Besides it stands a fine tree and it seems to me, that the tree seemed to caress the spot, with its dancing sunlight…”
Just over a century later, I had the pleasant task of showing a group of primary school children the war graves of Gainsborough Cemetery. It was spring, rather than autumn, but the weather was obviously on script. We stood before the grave of Lt. Menzies, which still has a fine tree beside it, and the sunlight through the branches danced upon the grave. It was a quiet reflective moment, in which I was able to talk frankly to young people about courage and sacrifice. Together we remembered young men who risked everything to defend people they didn’t know, and until a few years before had never heard of.
“Greater love has no man than this…”