Roy Brown has come home.
The day after Remembrance Day, one of Canada’s, and Carleton Place’s war heroes from “the war to end all wars,” Captain A. Roy Brown (1893-1944) was immortalized at a ceremony officially dedicating a mural to his memory, and the famous air battle he fought that forever grounded the dreaded Red Baron.
Coun. Rob Probert told those assembled in the parking lot beside the joint constituency offices of MPP Randy Hillier and MP Scott Reid in Carleton Place that, as he beheld the mural, he knew, “this was a work of consequence and not just a piece of art dressing up a piece of the main street.”
Alluding to suitably stirring lines from William Shakespeare’s As You Like It, Probert set the scene for the day that would end the Red Baron’s life, and make Brown’s name in Canadian military history – April 21, 1918, shortly after 10 a.m.
“They say that all the world is a stage and this was the scene,” Probert said, recalling that, as eight Allied planes were on a reconnaissance mission, they were met by 20 German aircraft and a battle that ensued. Canadian pilot Wop Mae was being chased down by a red German plane, later identified as the Red Baron’s craft.
“He did not know it was the Red Baron until afterwards,” said Probert. Mae’s machine guns had seized up and Brown had flown in to help his friend. The Red Baron was hit, but he was able to make a rough landing and, still alive, cut the fuel line, which prevented the plane from exploding.
Curiosity seekers made off with sections of the plane as souvenirs, so “we are left to wonder who shot down the Red Baron. That question has come up.”
The Red Baron, in the course of the battle had, uncharacteristically, buzzed the Allied lines, and Australian gunners on the ground later claimed that it was their guns, not Brown’s, that downed the Baron.
But Probert pointed to a medical exam carried out on the Red Baron afterwards, by two British and two Australian doctors.
“They said that the Red Baron was shot down in the air,” said Probert. “That’s our story and we’re sticking to it… That’s where history met Carleton Place.”
While the Red Baron never flew again, neither did Brown. He got sick soon afterwards and returned home to Canada where he became a dairy farmer near Stouffville.
The event attracted a great many people, but also ancestors of those who had fought on opposite sides during the war. In one part of the crowd was Daniel Von Richthofen, from Kemptville, a descendant of Brown’s worthy adversary, and final aerial victory in the war, Baron Manfred von Richthofen. In another part of the crowd, hailing from Smiths Falls, was Tim Void, a professional biplane operator, whose great granduncle was one of the allied airmen shot down by the so-called Red Baron.
“If we do see some fisticuffs break out in the crowd, get over it,” joked Probert.
Brown earned his wings by training with the Wright Brothers, in Ohio. The two men had invented motorized flight and launched the world’s first airplane at Kitty Hawk, North Carolina, on Dec. 3, 1903. Brown graduated #361 from the Wright flight school in Dayton, Ohio before shipping off to the bloody skies over Europe.
But he was not to be the only flying ace to come out of Carleton Place. During the war, the town would produce seven aces in all.
The life of an airman flying over the trenches of the western front during the First World War was a deadly experience. Life expectancy was measured in days, or even hours. Once, when he was shot down, Brown was declared dead. A friend, upon hearing of Brown’s demise, came to pay his last respects before Brown’s body was shipped home. Leaning in, however, he noticed that there was a still fresh, and bleeding, wound on Brown’s face. A dead body would not still be bleeding.
“This can’t be, he’s supposed to be dead,” Probert said.
Brown’s friend alerted the medical authorities and he was, to quote Charles Dickens, “recalled to life.”
“It seems like (he acted like) a man that is a Canadian hero,” said Probert.
Just as Sherlock Holmes needed a worthy nemesis in Dr. Moriarity, so too did Brown, an unassuming farm boy from eastern Ontario, need his dashing, gentrified German foil, von Richthofen, an airborne knight whom MP Scott Reid was enraptured with as a child.
“As a boy I was fascinated by the story of the Red Baron because he was the superlative ace,” said Reid, holding aloft several books on the Red Baron and Brown from his personal library. “He was the incarnation of the knights of the air.”
As a child, his mother returned home one day with a book for her son – an autobiography of the Red Baron. Turns out that, like Brown, the Red Baron was also shot down – three times in fact. After his second Icarus-like return to earth in 1917, as he lay recovering in hospital, an Imperial German stenographer was dispatched to his bedside to bang out the air hero’s life story. A book was later rushed into print, and “it was widely circulated throughout Germany to boost morale.”
In 1933, when the Nazis came to power, the book was re-released, under the guise of repainting history to show the Red Baron, and other German war heroes as “proto-Nazis.”
“Had Baron von Richthofen lived, he would have despised the Nazis,” said Reid.
In a later edition of the book Reid read, there was an afterword allegedly written by Brown, about going to see the Red Baron’s final resting place, and his conflicted feelings about being there. Reid had his doubts about whether Brown had actually made the visit, but a letter obtained by the National Post, from Brown to his family back in Canada, described his visit to the site.
“They went out to kill each other,” said Reid. “They did not want to kill each other. They were not just killers.”
Probert had also read the same letter and noted how sad Brown seemed as he beheld the man who just a short time before had been his foe.
“If he had been my greatest friend, I could not have been more sorrowful,” said Probert, quoting Brown’s words, recalling the end of an age of chivalry in warfare.
Carleton Place Mayor Wendy LeBlanc was also fondly remembering another member of the town’s history, her predecessor in the mayor’s chair, Brian Costello, an avid historian, who wrote a book about Brown in 1979 in which he wrote that “I hope, some day, in Carleton Place, that we will have an aviation museum.”
Pointing across the river to the Moore House, LeBlanc proudly noted that Carleton Place now has “the beginnings of an aviation museum,” with some of the artifacts on display.
“I want to thank our former mayor for keeping the Roy Brown story alive,” said Coun. Jerry Flynn, who also commended the mural artist, Shawn McInnis, for his artistic creation.
“If this doesn’t put him into the stratosphere of muralists, I don’t know what will,” said Flynn.
“I look forward to it (the mural) being enjoyed in Carleton Place for many years to come,” said McInnis.
The Rev. David Andrew of St. James’ Anglican Church called for God’s “blessings upon this mural,” and noted that it was intended not “to glorify war, but as a tribute to all who served our country.”
The descendants of Roy Brown were on hand for the ceremony and were suitably impressed and honoured.
“Thank you on behalf of the various Brown connections that are here,” said John Nicholson, whose wife, Carol Brown, was the daughter of Howard Brown, Roy Brown’s brother. “I know my father-in-law would have loved to have seen what happened (here today).”