23 September 1917
The sun sets over the Western Front. Triplane engines rumble over fields where poppies will burst into red bloom in the summer. But it’s autumn now, and the muddy fields are red with blood instead.
Veiled by thick clouds, a battle takes place in the sky. British air aces chase Germany’s star pilot, Werner Voss, forcing him into an aerial trap. Instead of attempting to escape, Voss takes his attackers by surprise — he slices his aircraft into a flat spin, firing at his foes. Voss is daring and courageous in his flight until the very end. With bullet holes cutting through his aircraft from end to end, the legendary pilot takes his final dive. He is 20 years old. He falls in West Flanders, Belgium. Not far from the front lines.
Werner Voss is buried where he lands, shortly after winning his 48th aerial victory. Captain C.F Gordon of the British Royal Flying Corps writes,
“At the time of his death it was completely impossible to recuperate the body, as the location…was very close to the front and very unhealthy. The officer who buried him [was] Lieutenant Keegan.”1
November 11, 2017
Silence falls a century later. At the 11th hour I take time to remember this story. It’s important to me. Because Lt. Keegan is a part of me. His legacy lives on through me.
I’ve heard stories about this Michael Keegan my whole life. How he was awarded the Order of the British Empire for being one of the most courageous airmen of his time. How his family’s shop window in Ireland was shot at by nationalists outraged that he joined the British military. How he later served in Egypt and Palestine as a squadron leader of the Royal Flying Corp. How he kissed the Cross and bravely breathed his last during active service in World War II. His daughter, my Grandma, was only eight.
But today, on Remembrance Day, it’s the account of the youthful Werner and my Great-Grandad that I ponder. I think how difficult it is to walk into a hard place to honour a friend, let alone traverse an “unhealthy” battlefield to honour an enemy. His actions bring to my remembrance another burial account, from long ago.
Passover, AD 33
On a day of clouds and darkness in Jerusalem, the Jewish High Council meets to discuss a Galilean carpenter, who they have long plotted to kill. The teaching of this Jesus — to love neighbour and enemy alike, as God loves you — disrupts the tight religious law of the High Council.
In their eyes this Messiah, who preaches that salvation is through God’s grace and not religious works, is an enemy of everything they stand for. Their verdict is to bind him, beat him and lead him to Pilate, the Roman Governor. They call for his crucifixion.
At the foot of a Roman cross, innocent blood cries out for forgiveness and the salvation of humanity. As evening approaches, the crowd disperses, but one man remains, Joseph of Arimathea. As a respected member of the High Council, he shouldn’t still be here, mourning the death of Jesus. He should walk away and keep his reputation intact, but instead he chooses to put it all on the line.
He ventures into the battlefield of Golgotha to honour the One the world calls his enemy, but he calls friend. Joseph knows the Romans add further insult to victims of crucifixion by refusing them proper burial rites, but he puts fear behind him. He dares to do something no one else will.
“Joseph of Arimathea took a risk and went to Pilate and asked for Jesus’ body…Joseph brought a long sheet of linen cloth. Then he took Jesus’ body down from the Cross, wrapped it in the cloth, and laid it in a tomb that had been carved out of the rock.”
Mark chapter 15, verses 43 and 46
With his own two hands, Joseph carries from the Cross of salvation the One who sacrificed it all for him in love.
Sacrifice. It’s a word that lingers. Blood is soon lost in the mud of battlefields, and the poppies that grow over the fallen fade as quickly as they bloom. But the sacrifice is remembered forever.
On the 11th hour, of the 11th day, of the 11th month, we remember the end of the world’s Great War. It’s a time to honour all who fell then and in every conflict since. I consider the moments in war when sides are blurred and a greater humanity shines forth.
Voss would generously give gifts of cigars to his captured foes. One foe, James McCudden, would call him “the bravest German airman whom it has been my privilege to see fight.”2 Lt. Keegan would dare to go to the frontline to lift an enemy from the wreckage, as if he were a comrade.
I can’t fathom the senselessness of war. But in the minute’s silence, I can remember Christ who died for us while we were still his enemies, so we could be his friends forever.
“This cup is the new covenant between God and people — an agreement confirmed with my blood. Do this in remembrance of me.”
1 Corinthians chapter 11, verse 25
My Great-Grandad made a sacrifice for the future of his family, and a country that wasn’t even his own. He served and suffered through two world wars, kissing the Cross with his last breath. For it was God’s sacrificial love for him that gave his life a purpose and his heart a home.
Lest we forget.
- Diggens, Barry. September Evening: The Life and Final Combat of the 48-Victory Ace Werner Voss. Grub Street: 2012.
- Andrews, Evan. “6 Famous WWI Fighter Aces” <http://www.history.com/news/history-lists/6-famous-wwi-fighter-aces> July, 2015.
Amy Manners loves spending time with God in nature, and capturing it all through the lens. She holds a BA in Creative Writing and Media. As a videographer / photographer she is blessed to collaborate on professional projects alongside her mum and brother. You can see her commercial work here: www.fruitfulmarketing.com.au and her personal photography here: www.instagram.com/amy_manners_