Accidentally killed

BROMPTON CEMETERY IS in west London. Richly populated with memorials to the dead, it is a remarkably lively place on a sunny day, being filled with walkers, cyclists, and picnickers. The bodies of people from all walks of life and from many nations lie at rest beneath the many stones in the cemetery, which was first opened in 1840. During our recent visit, I spotted two memorials to men with a military career. Each of them was particularly eye-catching.

The first of these is a pink granite slab resting on stone cannon balls made of grey granite. A pile of similar canon balls is arranged like a pyramid on top of the stone. I felt that it is a particularly fitting design for a soldier’s gravestone. One of the cannon balls is carved with the word ‘BEYROUT’ and another with ‘PORTUGAL’. This is the memorial to General Alexander Anderson (1807-1877), of the Royal Marine Light Infantry. The monument was restored in about 2016. A document relating to its restoration (https://www.rbkc.gov.uk/idoxWAM/doc/Other-1833173.pdf?extension=.pdf&id=1833173&location=Volume2&contentType=application/pdf&pageCount=1) informs that three of the cannon balls are engraved “Syria”, “Beyrout” (i.e. Beirut), and “Gaze” (i.e. Gaza). However, I photographed one bearing the word “Portugal”, which is not mentioned in the document. The monument was erected by Anderson’s friend Richard Eustace, MD, who lived from 1833 to 1908 (www.bmj.com/content/2/2490/865.2). Eustace entered the Royal Navy as a surgeon in 1854.

Anderson became a Companion of the Order of the Bath in June 1869 (www.thegazette.co.uk/London/issue/23503/page/3179/data.pdf).  His obituary in the London “Morning Post”, which shows why he was awarded this high honour, includes mention of Portugal:

“He obtained his first commission as second lieutenant in the Royal Marine Forces in May, 1823, and had during half a century seen much active service. He served with the army of occupation in Portugal, and was for some time quartered at Fort St. Julian. He served at the battle of Navarino in 1827, and at the commencement of the action boarded with his men one of the Turkish ships and captured the flag. … He served throughout the campaign on the coast of Syria in 1840-41 … was at the attack and capture of Beyrout; the bombardment and surrender of St. Jean d’Acre; the surrender of Jaffa, and was a volunteer in the expedition against Gaza. … He had received the war medal with two clasps, also the Turkish silver medal from the Sultan, and when a colonel, received the good-service pension. He became colonel-commandant in November, 1859; major-general in March, I860; lieutenant-general in November, 1866 ; and general in April, 1870.” (www.newspapers.com/newspage/396245337/)

A memorial, less original in design than that of Anderson, also caught my attention with its bas-relief depicting an old-fashioned biplane heading away from a large flying zeppelin from which clouds of smoke are billowing. The grave marks the resting place of Flight-Sub-Lieutenant Reginald Alexander John Warneford (1891-1915). The stone bears the words:

“Accidentally killed 17 June 1915”

Given the year he died and his rank, it was hard to imagine what kind of accident caused him to die during a war when most fatalities were not described as ‘accidents’.

Warneford was born in Darjeeling (India), son of an engineer working for the railways in British India (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Reginald_Warneford). He was educated first in England and then in Simla, back in India. His father:

“…taught him the law of the jungle; to read the moon and stars across the wide Indian night skies; to be able to study cloud formations. Rex rode on the footplates of the service engines, rode the work elephants and hunted tigers.” (http://kes1914.net/the-boys/reginald-rex-warneford-vc/ – a highly informative web page)

 At the outbreak of WW1, he joined the British Army and then was soon transferred to the Royal Naval Air Service to be trained as a pilot. He was a good student even if somewhat overconfident. Soon, he became involved in hunting down and intercepting German Zeppelin airships that were being sent to attack London and other targets in the UK.

On Sunday, the 6th of June 1915, Warneford was sent in a Morane Saulnier L monoplane to intercept the heavily armed and well-powered LZ37, a 521-foot-long German zeppelin, which had just taken off from Belgium and had got lost in the fog over the English Channel. German radio signals, intercepted by the British, discovered that the airship had been ordered to return to base. Warneford was sent out to find and attack it. He reached the airship when it was 10,000 feet over Bruges. Warneford rose to 11,000 feet and dropped six bombs onto the Zeppelin, which burst into flames. The hot air from the explosion caused Warneford’s ‘plane to go into a spin and damaged its fuel line. Warneford managed to land in a field behind enemy lines. After rapidly repairing the damage, he managed to fly back to safety, not before landing to refuel at a French base en-route. On the 8th of June, he was awarded the prestigious Victoria Cross for gallantry. Just before that, he was also awarded:

“Chevalier de la Legion D’Honneur with its automatic companion, the Croix de Guerre’ that had been recommended by General Joffre.” (http://kes1914.net/the-boys/reginald-rex-warneford-vc/).

Modestly, he told a friend that in comparison to his grandfather, who had constructed railways in India:

“Bringing down the LZ37 was just routine and over in a flash. But building a railway, that was something.”

Returning to duty after his heroic activity, Warneford’s next mission was to take a new Henry Farman F27 biplane on a test flight. He took off from Paris on the 17th of June 1915 with an American reporter as a passenger. At 2000 feet, the aircraft began to disintegrate and fall downwards. It turned upside down at 700 feet and both pilot and passenger, who were not strapped in, fell to the ground. The reporter died instantly but Warneford survived. However, he died on his way to a hospital.

Had Warneford died whilst attacking a Zeppelin or during any other military encounter, his death would not have been regarded as accidental. As his death was a consequence of an unforeseen disaster, I suppose that calling it an accident is appropriate.

These graves I have described are two of many I saw that attracted my attention. I might well describe some of the others at a later date.