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A Grave Too Many

A Grave Too Many by William Norris
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In the spring of 1917, at the height of World War I, a young South African was recruited by the Royal Flying Corps to be trained as a fighter pilot on the Western Front. His name was Andrew Weatherby Beauchamp-Proctor. A tiny man, who needed cushions in the cockpit of his SE 5A in order to reach the controls, Beauchamp-Proctor proved so proficient, that by the end of the war, he had become the fifth-ranking ace on the Allied side with 54 kills. After recovering from wounds sustained in September 1918, Beauchamp-Proctor attended an investiture at Buckingham Palace at which he was awarded the VC, DSO, MC and DFC - which made him the most highly-decorated South African of all time. Also present on this occasion was Winston Churchill, then Secretary of State for War and Air. Beauchamp-Proctor then disappeared from sight until 1922, when he returned to England and rejoined the Royal Air Force. Because of his special flying skills, he was appointed to the RAF aerobatic squadron, then based at Upavon, Wiltshire. Then, while practising for an air display, he lost control of his SE 5A and was killed in the resultant crash. He was buried in the village churchyard. On hearing of the war hero's death, Jan Smuts, then Prime Minister of South Africa, cabled Churchill and asked that the remains be shipped to South Africa for a state funeral. The coffin was duly delivered some six weeks later, and finally interred in Beauchamp-Proctor's hometown of Mafeking. All this is recorded fact. But in 1983 a South African tourist who happened to be visiting Upavon noticed a gravestone in the village churchyard bearing the name of Beauchamp-Proctor. It so happened that he was a native of Mafeking and clearly remembered seeing the pilot's tomb there. Intrigued, he talked to the local vicar, who in turn contacted his Bishop. It transpired that no diocesan authority had ever been given for the exhumation of the remains, nor had there been any order from the Home Office. Which grave is the true resting place of Andrew Weatherby Beachamp-Proctor? How can a body be buried in two places 6,000 miles apart and why is an old man in the village of Upavon so upset by the appearance of the young man from Mafeking?
SynergEbooks; April 2003
226 pages; ISBN 9780744302967
Read online, or download in secure PDF format
Title: A Grave Too Many
Author: William Norris
Chapter 1 The shadow of the ancient biplane danced and fluttered over Salisbury Plain. Etched sharp by the bright May sunshine, it ran on towards the village, growing larger as the SE 5A descended in a graceful turn towards the grass landing strip. From the open cockpit, the young pilot scanned the ground. He watched the racing shadow flick across thatched roofs and rambling gardens, touching the village graveyard with a passing shroud and moving swiftly on. On a bench beside the tombstones he could see, quite clearly, the upturned face of a tiny seated figure. The figure waved. Beneath his goggles, the pilot grinned and raised a gloved hand to return the salute before concentrating once more on his approach and landing. It would not do to bend it; this was the only one left. The very last genuine SE 5A in the whole damn world, outside of a museum. He lined up the blunt engine cowling with the runway markers, and moved the throttle quadrant until the roar of the Hispano Suiza engine subsided to a gentle burble. The nose of the SE 5A sank into a long gliding approach and the ground rose up to meet it. Now, a steady pull on the cord-bound ring of the joy-stick, and the rate of descent eased. He shifted his gaze to the side as the long cowling rose to cut his forward vision, and watched the blades of grass racing by beneath the trailing edge of the lower wings. The noise of the wind in the wires died away, the stick was back in his belly, and he felt a small jar through the air-frame as the tail-skid touched fractionally before the main wheels. There were no brakes. The SE 5A bumped along gently for fifty yards and rolled to a halt. He gave it a small burst of throttle, turned, and taxied slowly towards the hangar. "She's fine," he told the waiting mechanic. "Just fine." He gave the side of the cockpit an affectionate pat and walked away slowly with real regret. They did not make them like that any more, and it was a pity. That was the end of true flying for a month, until they let him take the old warplane up again on the next public display day. Tomorrow he would be back in the draughtless efficiency of a Boeing 747, hauling tourists and businessmen on the long flight to New York. It was a living, but that was all. The pilot left his helmet on, the goggles pushed up on his forehead, as he wandered through the ice-cream-licking crowds to the 1946 MG sports car that was his second love. Truth to tell, he rather enjoyed the Red Baron image. He caught the admiring glances of several attractive girls, and flicked the silk scarf back around his neck. Then, clambering into the vestigial cockpit of the MG, he nudged it into life and set off down the hill. There was one more thing he wanted to do before he left Upavon that day. * * * * The old man had been dreaming. It was a familiar dream, and he savoured it with a quiet smile as he dozed on the green bench beside the upright sentinels of the grave markers. The graves around him were mostly of airmen; relics of the days long ago when Upavon had been an operational airfield in two world wars. Perhaps, he often thought, that was the reason why the dream came most vividly when he sat on this bench. He had not slept long, only closing his eyes when the SE 5A sank behind the trees on the ridge across the valley, but the dream had carried him back more than sixty years to the days of his youth, and a muddy field close to the Allied lines on the Western Front. It was 1917, a fine September morning, and the noise of the guns in the distance was almost drowned by birdsong. Outside the makeshift hangars, set up in a field on the outskirts of Flez, a line of SE 5A's had just returned from dawn patrol. Mechanics fussed around them as a lorry deposited the trio of replacement pilots outside the tent that served as squadron headquarters. The war was at its height, and not going well. The French army had mutinied, and in the mud and devastation of the Ypres salient more than half a million men were dying in the bitter struggle for a place called Passchendaele. None of it seemed to matter as he stood there in his high-buttoned tunic with shining Royal Flying Corps wings on the left breast. Seven months before he had been an engineering student at Cape Town University, who had never even seen an aeroplane. Now he was an operational fighter pilot. "Hey, Shorty!" The reverie within a dream was interrupted. A young man in a leather flying jacket was calling to him from the flight line. "Do you think you can fly one of these things ? I reckon you won't see out of the cockpit." The newcomer rummaged in the top of his kit bag and produced a pair of leather- covered cushions, brandishing them at the other pilot. "No problem," he shouted back. Jibes about his lack of height had once upset him, but now he had ceased to care. If God had meant him to grow taller than five foot two, God would doubtless have done something about it. God had made him a fighter pilot. That was what mattered. The dream skipped in time, and now he was in the air, screaming down out of the sun at full throttle towards the unsuspecting Rumpler two-seater which was climbing for height far below him. Too late, the enemy pilot realized his danger and began to turn away. But the twin Vickers machine guns were cocked and ready, and he saw the German observer crumple as he poured the first burst into the rear cockpit. A wild cavorting in the sky, two more bursts, and the Rumpler was falling like a bird with a broken wing. He saw it crash into a field beside the silver thread of the river Somme and burst into flames. The old man stirred awake. His cheeks were wet for the thought of the men he had killed. So many men. Fifty four victories, they said, but those were only the kills that could be confirmed. And all in those thirteen savage months before the Armistice brought the madness to a close. So many men. So many widows. He opened his eyes slowly, feeling cheated. The dream had ended before its usual climax: the scene he cherished most, when he stood in the long room at Buckingham Palace, and the bearded long-dead King pinned the medals on his chest. The Victoria Cross, the Distinguished Service Order, the Military Cross and the Distinguished Flying Cross. More medals than any South African had ever won. Medals to mark his achievement as the fifth-ranking ace in the whole of the Allied air force. Medals he had not seen for years, tucked away in a secret drawer in the back of his writing bureau. The voice that woke him had a familiar inflection. It startled him. "Sir, forgive me, but I've been wanting to meet you for months." The voice was out of his boyhood; the flat nasal drawl of the Highveldt. But its owner....dear God, thought the old man, I must have died in my sleep, or else I am dreaming still. The flying helmet, the goggles, the silk scarf and leather's Harry van der Merwe, my old wing man from 84 Squadron. But van der Merwe was dead, long dead. He had flown out to meet Baron Manfred von Richtofen's circus in the cold light of dawn, and had never returned. The old man closed his eyes again and opened them slowly. The apparition was still there. He struggled stiffly to his feet. Age had diminished him still further, and he stood no taller than the pilot's chest. "Who...who are you ?" There was no sign of a South African accent in his own voice. That had gone long since. "Sir, my name is John Kruger. I'm the pilot of that SE 5A you waved to a short time ago. I've seen you here, on the same spot, every time I fly over. You always wave, and I always wave back. I thought it was time we got acquainted. I was just curious, I guess," he added lamely. A wary look, almost hostile, had come into the old man's eyes. "You're not English," the old man challenged. "No, sir. As a matter of fact I come from South Africa." "Go away," the old man said. "Leave me alone. I'm English, damn you. This is my country. We don't want any bloody Boers over here. Be off with you." He raised his stick. The pilot stepped back quickly. "But sir, I only thought, because you seemed so interested in the 'plane...." "Young man, I have no interest in aeroplanes, and I have never waved to one in my life. I come here sometimes for peace and quiet. That is all." He gestured towards the gravestones beside the gravelled path. "I want to be left in peace with my friends." Kruger's eyes followed the movement, taking in the neat rows of uniform headstones and the well-kept lawn. Suddenly he froze. "That's odd," he said. "This grave over here. I've never been to this cemetery, but I could swear that I've seen that name before." He shook his head in puzzlement and moved closer to one stone standing in the centre of a row of three. The old man remained perfectly still, save for the pulse of a swollen vein beating in his temple. Kruger read the headstone aloud. "Flight Lieutenant Andrew Weatherby Beauchamp-Proctor VC, DSO, MC, DFC. Killed at Upavon, June 21, 1921." Beneath the inscription was a replica of the Victoria Cross, and the motto "For Valour." He straightened up, his voice excited. "But I know this guy. At least, I know of him. He was the local hero back in my home town, Mafeking. When we were at school we all learned about Andrew Proctor, and the way he won the VC. Why, he used to fly SE 5's, too. Perhaps that's why I got mixed up in this business. "But...." Kruger paused, his brow furrowed. "He can't be buried here. I mean, he's buried back home in Mafeking. I know he is. I've seen the grave. I...I don't understand." He turned to look at the old man, but he was talking to himself. Through the gates of the cemetery, fifty yards away, a small black figure was hurrying down the hill, coat-tails flapping, as though the devil himself were in pursuit. Kruger stood by the grave of Andrew Beauchamp-Proctor for several minutes, deep in thought. "Queer," he murmured. "Very queer. Whoever heard of a man being buried in two places at once ?" He walked slowly back to his car and drove away through the winding Wiltshire lanes.