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Burying the Red Knight of the Air with Chivalry

red baron

Honoring Your Brave and Noble Enemy in the Middle of a War

Whether from shame at the strong suspicion that a noble and brilliant knight of the air had been shot unarmed on the ground, or whether from a real sense of chivalry, the funeral and burial of Rittmeister Manfred Freiherr von Richthofen was elaborate, especially considering it was his enemies who held the funeral, and the war was still going on.

The Brave and Worthy Foe

Richthofen's body was under a tent on a raised platform, in the 1st Uhlans uniform he wore when he was killed. At 5PM military detachments gathered, and twelve English soldiers formed an honor guard in front of the tent. Six English decorated flying officers carried the coffin to a car (the car would have been part of the honor accorded the Red Baron; motorized hearses were still new) while the honor guard presented arms.

The twelve men in the honor guard, with eyes on the ground and rifles reversed, then preceded the car to a small war cemetery. Following the car were English NCOs and officers, including fifty aviators stationed in the local area. "The fliers had gathered hurriedly to pay their last respects to the brave and noble enemy. They brought wreaths wound in immortelle and decorated with the German colors. These wreaths now lay on the coffin. But one of the officers carried a great wreath [from the headquarters of the three-weeks-old RAF] that bore the inscription: 'Captain von Richthofen, the brave and worthy foe.'" (One British ace disagreed; Mick Mannock was there to kill Germans, so why toast Richthofen?)

Final Salute

At the gravesite, Richthofen's enemies stood around his grave, and the twelve men of the honor guard raised their rifles in the air. "And then the last salute cracked over the grave."

Allied airplanes crossed over the grave as the coffin was laid to rest. The coffin bore a metal plate inscribed in both German and English, "Here rests Captain Manfred Freiherr von Richthofen, fallen on the field of honor at twenty-five years, in an aerial combat on 21 April 1918."

The description above is from The Red Baron: The Story of the Fabled Ace in His Own Words, but it matches a video of the funeral taken by the Australian Commonwealth Military Forces. Not many war dead received official funerals, and even fewer were covered by newsreels! The funeral is clearly a solemn occasion on the part of Richthofen's enemies, but still some smiles are visible on the faces of troops who know they will no longer be fired on by the Red Baron, and aviators who know they will not be the Red Baron's 81st victory.

The Kaiser's Condolences

Kaiser Wilhelm himself sent condolences to the Richthofen family. (As printed in The Red Baron, the royal pronouns are capitalized, but the divine pronoun isn't....)

To my great sorrow, I have just received from the Commanding General of the Air Service the report that your brave son, Rittmeister Freiherr Von Richthofen, has fallen. What the youthful leader accomplished in aerial combat will never be forgotten by Me, My army, and the German people. I share sincerely in your sorrow. May God grant you the balm of his comfort.

Queen Mother's Condolences

The family also received condolences from Victoria (not the Victoria, but her eldest daughter, who was Kaiser Wilhelm's mother.)

So often with each report of a victory by your son I have trembled for his life, which he had dedicated to the King and the Fatherland, and now God has ordained that the pride of you and of all of us must come to an end. Your son stands in my mind for his modesty and simple airs, as I had the joy of meeting him in May of last year. I could not deny myself the opportunity to see him soar into the air from the airfield. The Lord be with you and yours in your great grief. I hope that the condition of your second son is satisfactory.

The Richthofens Who Remain

The Richthofens' second son, Lothar, was recovering and would return to aerial combat in a couple months. He survived the war but was killed in an airplane accident in 1922.

The third son, Bolko, was about 15 when his eldest brother died, and he survived both world wars but did not live to see Germany reunited. The Red Baron's remains were later moved to a Berlin cemetery of German war heroes, but after the follow-up world war, the gravesite was on the border of the Soviet sector, open to damage from bullets fired at escapees from East Germany. So in the 1970s, Richthofen's remains were moved to a family burial plot. But back in 1925 when Manfred's remains were moved to Berlin, Bolko was there to see the patriotic ceremonies at each station remembering a national hero. (The French occupying forces originally weren't going to allow the ceremonies, but that order was countermanded by higher French command, apparently out of respect for Richthofen.)

Postwar Mourning

Bolko described the 1925 journey of his brother's remains:

Everywhere the planes accompanied the train, and the wish of the populace was followed in leaving open the doors of the baggage car in which fighter pilots of the old army held a death watch, so that the masses of waiting men, women and children standing on the banks of the rail line could at least see the coffin.
And there was no difference between parties and groups that appeared. Veterans' groups, officers' organizations, the Jewish Front Soldiers Club, the Escherich Organization, the Werewolf, the Order of Young Germans, the Stahlhelm, and as many others as there are names for, all appeared in rare harmony to honor the homecoming dead hero. The wreaths were heaped in mountains, and between them lay small bouquets and single flowers; for even those who could only spend a few pennies took it upon themselves to show their thankfulness and respect for the great fighter pilot. Clearly, we who escorted Manfred's body felt that the people had understood that his trip home to the fatherland had symbolic significance. Not all of the hundreds of thousands who gave their lives for Germany and who found their last resting places in foreign soil could travel home. And so we wanted the greeting of our dead Manfred by the assembled masses of the people to be the symbol of the sacrificed German heroes, and to honor in him the sons and brothers who had given up their lives to the fatherland.

Dulce Et Decorum

Bolko finished his reminiscences of his eldest brother with a recognition of Manfred's fearlessness and sense of duty.

And the dulce et decorum est pro patria mori that his teachers once preached to him, though not always to his joy, in Latin studies and in the Cadet Corps, became the meaning of the short life of combat that was allotted to him from 1915 to 1918.

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  • Robin Smith on

    Beautiful article. You didn’t mention what happened to Richthofen’s sister Ilse. Unfortunately she became a local Nazi leader. It made me heartsick when I discovered this.

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