A long, long way from Lowestoft

PUBLISHED: 08:18 07 November 2008 | UPDATED: 21:42 05 July 2010

TO recognise the 90th anniversary of the Armistice in November 1918 and the loss of her Great Uncle, local woman Sue McLachlan travelled far through France to place a floral tribute on his grave.

TO recognise the 90th anniversary of the Armistice in November 1918 and the loss of her Great Uncle, local woman Sue McLachlan travelled far through France to place a floral tribute on his grave.

At 18 years old, Archibald James Dexter was one of many who left Lowestoft full of youthful exuberance to fight for King and Country. Raised with five siblings, his home at 105 Clapham Road must have been a boisterous establishment. His father was a fish buyer but Archie sought excitement not on the dangerous seas, nor in the cloying grasp of muddy trenches.

Instead, Archie took to the air and, by 1918, he was serving in the Royal Flying Corps when it merged with the Royal Naval Air Service to found the Royal Air Force on 1st April.

Pleased with the new RAF blue, Archie was even prouder of the single, upswept eagle wing insignia worn on his left breast. This denoted him as one of the elite aircrew, a trained wireless operator and aerial gunner.

A key objective for this newest of the King's services was the strategic bombing of Germany and the RAF formed a powerful new "Independent Force" to attack key targets far inside the Kaiser's now faltering nation.

For Archie, it might also have given some retaliatory satisfaction for German raids on towns in East Anglia and his unit, the pretigious 97 Squadron, flew one of the latest and largest heavy bombers, the Handley Page O/400.

A giant for its day, this massive twin-engined biplane spanned some 100 ft and was capable of delivering an enormous payload including a newly developed 1650lb bomb capable of devastating German factories. Lumbering along at 97mph through ice laden skies, with no heating system and in open cockpits, required layers of heavy flying apparel and Archie's picture home to his parents presented a bulked out, alien appearance.

The mysteries of their son's profession undoubtedly puzzled them but they were justifiably proud of his achievements, as were the townsfolk of many other sons, “doing their bit”. Sadly, the price for doing one's duty was high and the weekly Journal listed mounting casualties as tragedy tumbled through many of the town's letterboxes.

At last, by the autumn of 1918, the prospects for peace grew with the Journal now reporting disarray amongst German forces. Archie's squadron flew regularly against targets beyond enemy lines but suffered losses not only from enemy action but also from the unforgiving elements and sheer attrition. Machines struggled to become airborne from the boggy clutches of their aerodrome at Xaffrevillers, near the German border, and, to Archie, this was truly a long, long way from Clapham Road.

The toll on airmen told in frequent crashes caused either by combat or because they challenged the skies in unsophisticated aeroplanes with primitive navigational aids.

Archie's good fortune held and, in October, rumours in the ranks of an armistice undoubtedly triggered thoughts of home. On the 10th, the RAF's founding father, General Trenchard visited 97 Squadron and confirmed that the "Huns are in a bad way". The squadron's efforts and sacrifices were helping to create a collapse in the Germany economy and its ability to wage war.

On October 28, Archie's crew were detailed to air test an O/400, number C9691, prior to another night raid. His pilot was 19-year-old Second Lieutenant Keith Attwater from Southampton with 18-year-old 2/Lt Herbert Holmes of Chorley as observer.

Now aged 20, Archie was the same age as the crew's Scottish mechanic, Sgt Hugh Nicol Ritchie from Bearsden near Glasgow. Engines were started and the bomber seemed destined for a routine flight. What went wrong is unknown but the great bomber crashed killing all four young fliers.

Archie's family was devastated. Reports in the Journal seemed hollow as it jubilantly trumpeted, "It is our day! We have won - beaten the Huns". This was little solace to the Dexter's, nor comfort to numerous other families in the town.

In more sombre mood, the newspaper also reflected, "From Lowestoft have gone men, the bravest of the brave, who will never return…" Archie Dexter was just one of many robbed of life and opportunity by war - victory's price was high as it would be again.

In Germany, the seeds of bitter defeat flourished into weeds of war that later again challenged the freedom earned by men like Archie. The Journal dated November 16, 1918, carried a brief tribute from his family including the words,

“And when the silent shades of evening

Gather round our cottage door

How they seem to bring before us

That dear face that's gone before".

His brother's children added, "To the dear memory of our dear Uncle Archie…he died that we might live. From little Gracie, Jackie and Dorothy Dexter".

These children grew up and passed on as the generations increased but Archie was never entirely forgotten. Fading photographs given to Sue McLachlan from her elderly Aunt Iris came with family folklore about his death near war's end but little else.

Aunt Iris felt that no one from his family had ever visited his grave and its whereabouts had been forgotten. Sue felt this needed addressing and, while marriage to an obsessive aviation author and historian has few benefits, here was an opportunity to put hubby to work. Research revealed the facts given here and confirmed Archie's burial in Charmes Military Cemetery, Essegney, north west of Epinal.

Plans to visit were made, the ferry booked and a wreath of poppies and laurel leaves ordered. The journey through Northern France was historically charged with campaign names from both conflicts - The Somme; Arras; Verdun - each evoking some aspect of the titanic struggles strickening the last century. Charmes itself is a small community tucked away from the main road.

Archie and his crew rest with 214 others whose nationalities also reflect personal loss in global proportions. British; German; Chinese; Indian; Russian; Canadian - souls of varied denominations now sharing a final resting place.

The surrounding countryside of gentle fields, farms and woodland is reminiscent of Archie's native Suffolk. Several headstones wear the RAF crest recalling, like Suffolk, numerous local airfields including Xaffrevillers.

Each headstone, while uniform in design, has an inscription chosen by the family. Archie's wording, "Through Hardship to the Skies," recalls both his personal journey and the RAF motto, "Per Adua Ad Astra" - Through Adversity to the Stars".

Standing before Archie's headstone, one sensed the struggle this young man from Lowestoft had in becoming an aviator and it did feel a long, long way from Lowestoft. Beautifully maintained, the cemetery demonstrates that those honoured within are not forgotten and the visitor's book portrays pilgrimages by other families who, perhaps, like Sue, shed tears as she told the Great Uncle she never knew about family happenings, of love and pride in her own children.

They have been blessed with peace and privileges unheard of in Archie's time. This should not be forgotten. Nor should we forget our troops who today defend the freedoms fought for by a young man now restored in the memory of his family.

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