Obituary: Harold Edwards

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The Independent Culture
THE DEATH at the age of 102 of Harold Edwards in Brisbane ends the last link with the Australian Flying Corps and the shooting down of the German air ace the Red Baron, 80 years ago.

Edwards served as a Second Class Air Mechanic in the AFC in the First World War. His role in the death of Rittmeister Freirherr Manfred von Richthofen, more popularly know as the Red Baron, was peripheral. Yet he was able to bear out the Australian contention that it was their machine gunners, around the village of Corbie, who were responsible for engaging and shooting down the distinctive red Fokker triplane on 21 April 1918.

Edwards was born in 1896 in the Victorian mining town of Bendigo, where his father owned a jewellery shop. He was educated at the Central School and completed an apprenticeship as a watchmaker. He was keen to volunteer for the First World War, but his brother had been killed at Gallipoli and his father would not let him go until he was 21. He enlisted as an Instrument Fitter and trained as part of the Seventh Reinforcement to No 3 Squadron, AFC, leaving for England on his 21st birthday. He joined his squadron in France.

While Edwards only guarded von Richthofen's body, which was taken to Poulainville about 12 miles from the crashed craft, he claimed both to have seen the corpse and to know that the post-mortem examination had established the cause of death as a single bullet which pierced the Baron's heart. This evidence of the angle of the wound supports the claims that Australian gunners rather than a Canadian serving with the Royal Air Force (created 1 April 1918) were responsible for the Baron's death.

On 21 April 1918, the Germans had first engaged several slow Australian artillery observation aircraft. Allied fighters joined the battle, which soon became a confusion of struggling planes, partially hidden from ground observers by a haze. According to the account of the Australian War Memorial, diving out of this dogfight came a British fighter closely pursued by a red German Fokker Dr 1.

A second British fighter, piloted by the Canadian Captain Roy Brown, followed these two. He fired several bursts at the German. As they neared the ground, Brown fired a final time and pulled away. The two leading machines continued low over the Somme River, across the Front Line and over surprised Australian troops.

Allowing the British aircraft to fly out of their field of fire, the Australians fired on the Fokker with their rifles and machine guns. The German broke off the chase and attempted to climb away. At this point the ground fire appeared effective, the target faltered, began a lurching, spiralling descent and crashed into the ground.

It became clear that the dead man was Germany's most famous and successful pilot. There was a rush for souvenirs and the damaged plane was thoroughly stripped. The artful Diggers were well aware of the value of the metal parts, controls and fragments of the red fabric.

It was only at Poulainville, the base of No 3 Squadron, AFC, that Edwards came to guard the corpse. His testimony about the angle of the fatal wound supports the conclusion of the British aviation historian Norman Franks that it was Australian ground gunners rather than Captain Brown who should take the credit for this grim victory.

Furthermore, Australia's famed official First World War historian C.E.W. Bean was asked to investigate the incident the day after von Richthofen's death. He concluded that, because of the angle of the wound and in the absence of a British attacking aircraft, it was probably the fire of two machine-gun posts commanded by Gunner Robert Buie and Sergeant Cedric Popkin that claimed the life of the Red Baron. In 1935 Bean provided the official Australian account together with a special appendix in the fifth volume of the official history.

The Australian historian Chris Coulthard-Clark points out that Edwards's original diary extracts provided to two American researchers in the 1960s did not mention any role he had played as a guard, or the pilfering of money, boots and other items ("ratting") which took place at the AFC base. (The Australian War Memorial has the Fokker's control stick, compass, various relics and both von Richthofen's heavy sheepskin boots, which were donated separately. It has so many metal plates engraved with the Fokker's serial number that one memorial staff member commented that von Richthofen had crashed because his plane was overloaded with nameplates.)

Edwards, however, played a further part in the death of von Richthofen. As a watchmaker, he was given the task of engraving a large aluminium plate with an inscription in both German and English to be placed on the Baron's coffin. This was to accompany a cross constructed from the Fokker's propeller, to be erected over the grave after the full military funeral at Bertangles.

This apparently caused great offence among the local French population who desecrated the burial place believing von Richtofen to have been responsible for the night bombing they had endured. As Coulthard-Clark remarked, it is unlikely that Edwards's handiwork remained very long. Edwards came back to Australia with the AFC in the middle of 1919. He continued to take an interest in the von Richthofen debate all his life.

During the Second World War he served in the Volunteer Defence Corps, from 1942 to 1945. He had meanwhile become an optometrist, a reserved occupation, and was therefore ineligible to serve with the regular forces.

Harold Edwards was a man of strong religious beliefs and for 50 years was a Methodist lay preacher. He was a founding member, in 1925, of Australia's charity for war widows and orphans Legacy in Bendigo, and served three terms as president of the Australian Optometrists' Association. He moved to Queensland in 1963 and in 1991 became an honorary member of the Australian Society of World War I Aero Historians.

Harold Raymond George Edwards, airman and optometrist: born Bendigo, Victoria May 1896; twice married (both wives deceased; one daughter and one son deceased); died Brisbane, Queensland 9 August 1998.