On February 2 1918, a day after she heard that her only son had died while flying with his squadron on the Italian front, Lady Gregory wrote briefly to WB Yeats: ‘The long dreaded telegram has come - Robert has been killed in action ….it is very hard to bear.’
It was the last year of a terrible war during which 18 million soldiers and civilians were killed, and an estimated 23 million wounded, ranking it among the deadliest conflict in history. In fact it is a surprise that Robert Gregory survived for so long. He joined the Connaught Rangers in September 1915, transferring shortly afterwards to the Royal Flying Corps. He proved to be an excellent pilot.
Initially he flew coastal patrols off Dover before being sent to France. He joined the 40 Squadron, and was stationed near Lens on patrols over Ypres and Somme battlefields. There could not have been a more dangerous posting for a pilot. He was flying an FE 8, a single-seater cumbersome beast with a max speed of 80mph. His log book describes one dogfight where he ‘dived on the HA (Hun Aircraft ) two miles north-east of Arras’… got within 100 yards of him, ‘following him down to 4,000 feet, firing one large drum at 100 yards. HA dived steeply, and was last seen at about 500 feet.’
On September 25 1916, while escorting a bombing raid, he was shot down by anti-aircraft fire. His plane was totally wrecked, but Gregory walked away unhurt. He was promoted flight commander in January 1917, and squadron commander shortly after. Early in March, that same year, flying with 40 Squadron, they were ambushed by the infamous Baron Von Richtofen’s Red Circus, and systematically butchered. Nine FE 8s were shot down, four pilots were killed, five survived. Robert being one of them. During that fight it is almost certain that Gregory fought one-to-one combat with the Red Baron, forcing the Baron off the scene.*
On August 9 Gregory led 40 Squadron against hostile balloons, crossing German lines at ground level to avoid being seen by observers in the balloons. Then suddenly, climbing steeply, making a surprise attack from below. It was a stunning coup de main. That morning five enemy balloons were destroyed. As the balloonists jumped out and parachuted to the ground, the British planes were ordered to circle back, and shoot the parachutists with their revolvers.** A bloody and ruthless business.
Forty Squadron was a strongly Irish outfit. It included Mick Mannock from Cork, later to receive the Victoria Cross, George McElroy from Dublin also highly decorated, as were fellow pilots Keen, de Burgh, Mulholland all under Major Gregory’s command.
All were eager to learn from the older and experienced Gregory. He was the acknowledged victor of 19 aerial combats. If you wished to survive beyond your first three weeks, then it was essential to learn very fast how to handle your plane dog-fighting at 15,000 feet. Yet, despite learning their skills, none of them survived the war. Twelve months after joining 40 Squadron Gregory’s exploits had earned him the Military Cross. In the words of The London Gazette: ‘ …for conspicuous gallantry and devotion to duty. On many occasion he has, at various altitudes, attacked and destroyed or driven down hostile machines, and has invariably displayed the highest courage and skill.’
The French military authorities, especially appreciative of a true chevalier of the air, and an honorary Parisian (in recognition of his time spent in Paris as an art student with his wife Margaret before the war ), awarded him membership of the Legion d’Honneur.
The question is often asked why Robert joined the armed forces in the first place. At 34 years old he was conspicuously older than his fellow pilots, most of whom were all in their 20s. Robert was Lady Gregory, and her late husband’s, only child. He was married to artist Margaret (nee Parry ), and father of three young children. He was heir to Coole Park house and its estate in south Galway. His mother undoubtedly could have used her influence, and got him settled in a safer command. But Robert chose the most dangerous front of the war, and the life of a pilot, where, by early 1917 Royal Flying Corps losses were 12 aircraft and 20 crew every day.
In November 1917, as one of the most experienced pilots in the RFC, he was transferred to the Italian front. On January 23 1918, almost 100 years ago, Robert Gregory’s plane mysteriously fell from the sky. He is buried at Padua main cemetery.
His wife Margaret kept a diary which remained in private hands for 90 years. It describes an explosive personal drama that took place during the spring and summer of 1915. It could reveal some of the circumstances that drove Robert into the sky.
I will try to tell that story in the next few weeks.
NOTES: *James Pethica, Theatre and English professor at William’s College, USA, and official biographer of Lady Gregory, quotes combat records and flight logs, where Gregory describes his actions in a very ‘laconic and self-effacing’ way. There is little detail of his bravery.
** Kevin Myers, Irish Times August 30 2002.