The downfall of famed World War I pilot, the Red Baron, is shrouded in mystery and continues to intrigue history buffs almost a century later.
But the grandfather of Canberra’s Bill Frost returned from the battlefield where the red plane took its last flight with more than just an eye-witness account.
Eric Frost descended on wartime Europe with a secret punishable by court-martial law – he smuggled in two cameras and secretly captured images across the French battlefield, providing a rare insight into World War I.
One of these photographs shows the crash site of Germany’s greatest ace pilot, Manfred von Richthofen, within a few days of the pilot’s death on April 21, 1918 near the French River Somme.
Aside from capturing the rare image, the 33-year-old Australian soldier also retrieved a piece of the plane’s wreckage.
Grandson Bill, who has checked the photograph and his grandfather’s account against official wartime records, said Eric would have watched the plane crash in front of a brick stack, shown in the forefront of the photograph, a few days before it was taken.
“His unit came up the Somme towards the brigade headquarters
”The machine gunners, who were the anti-aircraft, were firing on [the Red Baron] and somebody got him and he landed in the field just in front of this brick stack,” he said.
“A thousand soldiers, even though they were still in the middle of a battle, broke ranks to go out and souvenir bits of the plane.”
Eric was a signaller or sapper, responsible for fixing broken lines at any cost, even amid gunfire.
Bill said his grandfather would have been posted in the area, Corby, for about six to eight weeks, the plane crashing about four weeks after arriving. He was one of many Australians – known for their enthusiastic souveniring – to risk gunfire and salvage a piece of the plane’s timber, which was verified by the Australian War Memorial as genuine.
He also snapped a photo of a fellow soldier at another location who, apparently, ended up being the first soldier to reach the crashed plane.
The photograph is one of a collection of Eric’s wartime images being restored in detail – and one of a variety of artefacts collected during his time in battle between 1917 and 1918.
The timing is fitting – this year marks the centenary of the beginning of World War I in 1914.
“These were all developed by amateurs; they weren’t fixed properly, stuck in with glue in an album,” Bill said of his grandfather’s photographs.
“The photos are so tiny and such poor quality, it was only until we had them enlarged that you got to see this incredible detail.”
Steve Pragnell is part of the photo restoration business, Vivid Recollections, currently restoring the photographs.
He said the transformation of the images was striking, as were the stories behind them.
Vivid Recollection can be contacted on 1300 840 406.