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The Tragic Loss of Best & Lewis

12 April 1918

Watercolour by Arthur Streeton of an RE8 aircraft of 3rd Squadron A.F.C.  (1918)

This extract from Michael Molkentin’s excellent AFC history book, Fire in the Sky recalls a 3 Squadron dual-funeral in April 1918, and brings home some of the tragic impact of each and every death listed on our Squadron’s Roll of Honour.

[In the wake of the stunning German offensive on the Somme in March 1918:]  ...3rd Squadron followed the rest of the Australian Corps south, to shore-up the line in front of Amiens.  It arrived at Poulainville, an aerodrome conveniently close to the Australian Corps Headquarters in Bertangles, on the 7th of April, 1918

By this time, 21-year-old Lieutenant Owen LEWIS was counted amongst the Squadron's veteran Observers.  He had done almost ten weeks at the front and was just a fortnight shy of getting a leave pass to England. 

On the 11th of April 1918, he woke to find the weather `dud' for flying, so he and another Observer took the opportunity to walk into Bertangles to see if there were any Field Canteens.  Lewis bought a toothbrush and can of boot polish for his tent-mate, 22-year-old Lieutenant George BEST. 

Best had only just joined the Squadron from pilot training in England.  Before joining the Flying Corps he had been a draper in Hobart.  Best and Lewis got on famously right away, and arranged to fly together. 

The sun came out in the afternoon, revealing a glorious spring day.  Lewis wasn't rostered to fly, so he spent the time improving his tent.  He aired blankets and tidied up and then set about building a makeshift table.  A rough timber crate did the trick, with a few odd boards nailed across the top.  He then kicked a football around with some of the other airmen and finished with a bath.  He noted in his diary, `I feel absolutely splendid.’ 

Lieutenant Oscar G LEWIS.  [Note his "Observer" Wings.]

A large mail arrived from Australia in the late afternoon and Lewis was delighted to receive a bundle of letters.  He pored over each one, relishing the news from home.  Lewis's older sister Phyllis, whom he was particularly close to, had become engaged to a Melbourne University law student named Robert Menzies.   Owen’s older brother Ralph, recently wounded, was safely home in Australia…

After dinner, Lewis and Best went for a stroll in the countryside near their Poulainville aerodrome.  They left the narrow country lanes and struck across fields that were bursting with spring colour.

It was immensely enjoyable.  Lewis was glad he and Best had been assigned to fly together.  Returning to their tent, Lewis sat at his crude crate table and recorded the day's events in his diary.  It had been splendid, full of simple pleasures that could be savoured thanks to their temporary reprieve from the tension and violence of war.

The following morning, just after 11.00 a.m., Lieutenants Owen Lewis and George Best were burned to death, when their RE8 burst into flames shortly after taking off… 

- It was later found that a twisted camshaft had probably caused this disaster. 

[Also, airmen on the British side were not issued with parachutes - unlike their German opponents. 
Best & Lewis had been setting out to escort another RE8 on a photo-reconnaissance mission to the front lines.  According to 3AFC pilot Jack TREACY, the engine of Best's RE8 had previously caught fire in mid-air, whilst Jack himself had been flying it.  Jack was an experienced pilot and he quickly turned off the petrol and glided back to his aerodrome at the time.  But unfortunately George Best was only newly-qualified, and unable to deal with the same emergency. 
Treacy was livid that the RE8’s engine had not been fully overhauled after his earlier experience.  It was all very tragic.

…Lewis and Best were buried beside each other... 

 [In the local war cemetery at Vignacourt.] 

Lewis’s brother Athol, who was stationed nearby as an Artilleryman, reported that the service had been, `very short and simple, with a handful of their fellow airmen in attendance.'   

[Their graves were marked with RE8 propellers, each carefully trimmed into a large crucifix shape.]

Their Squadron mates then cleared-out their tent and packed their personal effects for shipping home.  New men would be there to replace them within a day or so.

Five days later, in a quiet, leafy street in Melbourne's inner south­east, Owen's 12-year-old brother, Brian, was sitting on his bed with some mathematics homework when his sister Phyllis rushed in and exclaimed: 'Owen's been killed!’  She collapsed on the bed next to Brian and wept.  The young boy joined her. 

Brian later recalled: `The foundation of our world had melted away.  Of course, it was happening to others every day.  But this was to us, and this was Owen.’

The rest of the day was a trial for the Lewis family.  They came together and tried to eat a meal, through lots of tears.  The news quickly travelled around family and community.  Aunts seemed to almost relish the opportunity to wear black armbands and people that the family hardly knew made nuisances of them­selves, calling by to see whether it was true.  At Wesley College, the Principal announced that another old boy was dead.  “- Not as many as Scotch or Grammar yet’, Brian recalled, ‘but a respectable number nonetheless’.  Brian thought that, `Sorrow was being vulgarised by publicity.'

The Lewis family shied away from public rituals of mourning.  They wore no armbands and didn't bother to place notices in the news­paper, or purchase Owen a £5 memorial chair at Wesley College

Mrs Lewis abruptly stopped wearing the badges that indicated she was a `Mother with Sons on Active Service'.  She refused a relative's offer to commune with Owen's spirit via a séance. 

The rhetoric of public mourning was found wanting by those at the sharp end of bereavement.  'Owen had not “laid down” his life,' concluded Brian.  `It had been snatched from him, and from us.'

Letters posted by Owen Lewis before his death continued to arrive for another six weeks.  Each Friday they would come, nagging at the family's grief with their ironically cheery and upbeat tone.  Mr. Lewis read these letters out, along with those from Owen's surviving brothers, after tea each Friday evening.  He then carefully stored them away in file boxes, one for each of the boys.

Although Owen's letters soon stopped, his family file stayed open for several more months.  Then, one Saturday morning, Brian collected a large envelope from the mailbox and brought it to his mother.  She was sitting in a sun-chair, about to begin her morning prayers.

`Open it,' she instructed him, `What is it?' 

- Brian stood there staring, unable to speak. 

She reached across and took it. 
- It was a photograph of Owen's grave, a timber cross in a distant place that she had never heard of, and would never have the chance to visit. 

She got up, went to her desk and put it into Owen's file box.  She then closed it and returned to her prayers.

- Owen's file was now complete.

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