William George Barker VC

(1894 - 1930)

The most decorated war hero in the history of Canada, the British Empire, and the Commonwealth of Nations.

Victoria Cross

Distinguished Service Order (twice)

Military Cross (three times)

Medaglia d'argento al valor militare (Italy - twice)

Croix de guerre (France)

Mentioned in despatches (three times).

Barker's medals, on display at the Canadian War Museum in Ottawa. From left to right: Victoria Cross (VC), Britain's (and Canada's) highest decoration, reserved for acts of extraordinary valour; Distinguised Service Order (DSO) (the bronze bar with crown on the ribbon denotes the second time the medal was awarded); Military Cross (MC) (the two silver bars denote the second and third times it was awarded); three service medals, namely the 1914-15 Star, the British War Medal, and the Victory Medal: the ribbon of the last of these bears a bronze oak leaf spray awarded for the first mention in despatches. Finally come the foreign medals, which by custom follow the British ones. However, these last three are for acts of bravery: indeed, the Italian Silver Medal for Military Valour was given out only for deeds of outstanding gallantry. (Fewer than 39,000 were awarded in WWI, slightly less than the total number of British Military Crosses; furthermore, it was the highest ranking medal ever given to a living soldier who was not Italian.) The rightmost Silver Medal was a personal gift from Victor Emmanuel III, King of Italy, immediately after the war: it is inscribed on the reverse with the words Protettore dell'aria , 'Protector of the air'. The Croix de Guerre is sandwiched between the blue ribbons of the two Italian medals. The vermeil (gilt) star on its ribbon indicates that it was issued at the level of corps d'armée, the second highest of the four possible levels of command that could award this medal. Depicted here are therefore ten decorations for valor.

Major Barker, 139 Squadron RAF, Italy, July 1918

Here is an historical sketch of my grandfather, William George Barker VC, and a discussion of his legacy. The chronology ends at the rededication of his tomb in 2011, a ceremony attended by the Lieutenant Governor of Ontario and recorded in a short film available below.

My account is rather personal and I suppose somewhat opinionated. My goal is to excite and entertain as much as to provide a list of facts. I leave out a lot of information. Some of what is missing can be found at the Canadian Encyclopedia and Wikipedia

I highly recommend a well researched, clearly written, and lavishly illustrated biography: Ralph, Wayne. William Barker VC: The Life, Death & Legend of Canada's Most Decorated War Hero. Mississauga, Ontario: John Wiley & Sons Canada Ltd., 2007. (A previous edition of essentially the same work was published in 1997: Barker VC: William Barker, Canada's Most Decorated War Hero.)

My narrative is based on this book and other written sources but is also inspired by family tradition.

My grandfather was born in a log cabin on a farm near Dauphin, Manitoba. Like many other young Canadian men, he enlisted in the army shortly after the outbreak of the First World War. He arrived at the Western Front in the early fall of 1915, and soon decided that the mud of the trenches was not for him. In 1916 he transferred to Britain's Royal Flying Corps -- Canada did not yet have its own air force.

He began his flying career as an observer and machine gunner. At that time the primary role of military aviation was reconnaissance: aerial photographs were used to detect the massing of offensive forces, and to target artillery bombardments. Reconnaissance aircraft were typically two-seaters, with a pilot plus an observer equipped with a machine gun on a swivel. Soon "scout" aircraft (later called fighters) were developed to attack reconnaissance forays, and part of Barker's job was keeping them at bay.

For his deeds as observer Barker was awarded the Military Cross.

At the end of 1916 he was sent to England for pilot training. He was naturally gifted, and able to make his first solo flight after only 55 minutes of dual instruction.[1] By February 1917 he was posted back to France, and soon reached the rank of captain as well as being awarded a bar to his Military Cross.

He was wounded by anti-aircraft fire in August 1917, and returned to England for recovery. He was given the role of instructor. He could have honourably spent the rest of his service teaching pilots: he had spent about 570 hours in the air over the front,[2] an astonishing figure exceeded by few even at the end of the war -- to draw just one comparison, Billy Bishop, Canada's most famous ace, had logged about 400 hours when he retired from combat in June 1918.[3]

Yet Barker was just getting started. He was to spend more than 900 hours on combat missions.

His career as a flying instructor lasted less than a month. He was a rough and impatient teacher and chafed under routine. He yearned for combat. He performed various stunts, doubtless for fun, but also to goad his superiors into sending him back to the front. He was said to have flown right through a hangar, in one end and out the other, buzzing some senior officers who flattened themselves on the ground. When he landed and they told him he was under arrest, he replied, "All I want to do is go to France."[4]

He performed aerobatics over Piccadilly Circus, his brightly coloured Sopwith Pup almost grazing the chimney pots.[5]

He soon got his wish, and in October of 1917 found himself in France in command of A flight of No. 28 Squadron. He was now flying a Sopwith Camel, an aircraft of advanced design that was highly manoeuverable but hard to control. Almost as many pilots died in its cockpit during training as under enemy fire. His Camel bore the number B6313; in it he would win 46 of the 50 aerial victories with which he would ultimately be credited. Some have declared his aircraft to be the single most successful fighter in the history of the Royal Air Force.[6] (The first photograph above depicts Barker standing in front of this machine.)

In the first week of his return to combat, Barker downed three enemy scouts.

He would not be long on the Western Front. On 7 November 1917 his squadron was ordered to Italy to aid the flagging Italian army that had just been defeated by the Germans and Austro-Hungarians at Caporetto.

Barker's 139 Squadron over the Italian Alps, late 1918

Barker became the most successful pilot on the Italian Front.[7] He distinguished himself by his aggressiveness. He was relentless and would attack anything. Scout aircraft had been developed to shoot down reconnaissance planes, but he pioneered their use against ground forces and stationary targets. Tethered observation balloons were one of these: far from being easy prey, they were so well defended by anti-aircraft fire that pilots were ordered to leave them alone. Once when Barker violated that rule he was rebuked by his commanding officer, but was still granted credit for destroying two of them.[8] Low level attacks against troops and matériel, both strafing and bombing, became his specialty. He was a key player in the second battle of the Piave in June 1918, when the Austrians attempted to cross the river. His squadron machine-gunned and broke up pontoon bridges the enemy had thrown across the stream, killing or scattering the soldiers on them. The Austrians never achieved the bridgehead that would have allowed a rapid advance south and the defeat of Italy, and the subsequent redeployment of their armies on a new front against France. The reversal at the Piave marked a turning point from which the Dual Monarchy never recovered. One author has said "Rarely did aircraft play so significant a part in a major military operation..."[9]

His most notorious attack of a ground target was his unauthorized raid on a German airfield on Christmas day of 1917. He and fellow Canadian Harold Hudson strafed the installation, destroying aircraft and burning hangars. He is said to have dropped a placard with the words "To the Austrian Flying Corps from the English RFC--Wishing you a Merry Xmas". This incident was often described after the war, most famously by Ernest Hemingway in The Snows of Kilimanjaro where Barker is called "[a] bloody murderous bastard".

One of the more unconventional operations he carried out was the dropping of an Italian spy behind enemy lines. At the time this was a novel, difficult and dangerous enterprise. It required an aircraft rigged with a special trap door and packed with explosives that would destroy the machine and all evidence of espionage in the event the plane were forced down. The spy had to land at a precise place, which required pioneering new methods of night navigation.[10]

Another unconventional sortie behind enemy lines involved HRH Edward, Prince of Wales, who arrived at Barker's squadron for a visit in September 1918.[11] He insisted on being taken for a flight. Barker pointed his two-seater aircraft toward the front lines, and he and the Prince disappeared for a long time, to the consternation of the aides responsible for the safety of King George's firstborn son. When the two men returned neither admitted where they had been. Thereafter, while perusing maps of enemy positions, the future Edward VIII betrayed knowledge he could only have acquired by seeing them from above. One wonders how history might have changed if the plane had been forced down and the heir to the British throne had been captured by the Austrians.

By then Barker had long been an "ace". This was an unoffical status acquired after downing five enemy aircraft. But it was a title taken very seriously both during the war and after. By the time he left Italy his score would stand at 46.

This must be placed in perspective. As author Wayne Ralph puts it, "The victory claims of most pilots ... suffer from optimism and ambition. ... historian Lee Kennett cites sources showing that the British, French, and American officially sanctioned victories totalled 11,760 from mid-1916 to war's end. But the German records reveal only 3000 planes lost. The authors of Canadian Airmen and the First World War examined the "destroyed in the air" claims for the Germans and British in 1918, and concluded that the figures should be reduced by at least one third, based on actual losses."

Ralph goes on to say "...the standards for confirming victories varied between airforces and especially between squadrons. There is little validity for historians and aviation buffs to closely compare scores among individual pilots in different airforces and different squadrons because of the dissimilarity of standards. Any list of scores of the aces is a meaningless document."

One of the ways in which British scores were inflated was by counting not just aircraft that had been destroyed, but also those that had been "driven down out of control" (DDOOC). German and other airforces did not include such cases in their lists of victories. In fact, often the best way to escape an attack was to throw one's machine into a steep downward spiral. Given enough altitude, most pilots could, and did, regain control of their aircraft and land intact.

As author Dan McCaffery puts it, "Unfortunately, both during and after the war, most writers (and many air force officials) simply added the...categories together and announced "victory totals". It was impossible for the public to differentiate, ...and it [was] generally...assumed that each "victory" represented a wrecked enemy plane and a dead German pilot."

McCaffery provides some examples. "Only twenty-eight of Albert Ball's forty-four victories were officially recorded as destroyed. Mick Mannock's sixty-one conquests included a full twenty as driven down out of control.

"Bishop...was credited with seventy-five victories, [but] by no means were all of the planes destroyed...he claimed fifty planes as destroyed, seventeen down out of control, three forced to land, two driven down and three balloons, one of which was driven down."[12]

Even a plane claimed as destroyed might not correspond to an actual event. Given the intense competition among aces for ever higher scores, exaggeration and even falsification were surely common. Inflating one's score might have been irresistible in cases where a victory was not witnessed by others, especially when the pilot was sufficiently high in the chain of command to sign off on it himself.

For example, in the case of the leading Canadian and British Empire ace, Billy Bishop, a number of reputable historians have suggested his real score was significantly lower than the one he claimed. One of them opines that the total number of aircraft he actually destroyed could be as low as twenty-seven.[13]

All Barker's claimed victories came under the scrutiny of his commanding officer; furthermore, despite the "lone wolf" character of his final and most famous exploit, Barker was above all a team player. Most of his kills were witnessed.

This is a good moment to draw attention to the most commendable aspect of Barker's career. I quote once again author Wayne Ralph:

"... Barker's influence as a flight leader is more impressive than his victory record, particularly when we look at how many of Barker's wingmen scored victories when being led by him. Quite a few pilots ... became aces under his tutelage. Moreover, no one died flying on Will Barker's wing, and no aircraft he escorted was shot down by enemy pilots."

Returning to the question of victory totals, Barker, like other aces, showed an intense desire to raise his own score. We see this in some lines he wrote his parents:

"... I am going to France and my ambition is to break all records. I have got 37 Huns down & Major Richotfen [sic] the German who is now dead claims 80. I am going to try to break this record if my health will hold out."[14]

He was capable of exaggeration, at least in private communication. For example, in a letter to his mother in early 1918 he describes his latest victory and then states "This makes 17 official victims for me".[15] In fact, it was his twelfth.

However, Capt. Thomas F. Williams, a Canadian pilot Barker befriended in Italy, is described by Ralph as "...[having] a high regard for Barker because he did not exaggerate his claims."

Ralph quotes Williams as saying "Joubert, who headed the 14 Wing [and was therefore Barker's commanding officer] ...insisted on a man putting his signature on the line that he actually saw the crash. Many others didn't insist on this."[16]

(Nonetheless, Joubert did show a curious laxity in the case of three of Barker's "kills". On 9 February 1918, Barker and a fellow pilot were credited with five shared victories. They destroyed a cluster of five balloons, two large and obviously manned, plus three small eight-foot diameter ones. When he got back to the mess Barker announced the day's news: "...I've been out with Steve and we got two KBs [kite balloons] and three comic gas-bags."[17] As Ralph puts it, "It seems unlikely that the eight-footers were manned kite balloons, and it is rather surprising that these were considered worthy of a credit by 14 Wing.")

While studying Ralph's book -- admittedly a secondary source -- and examining the details of Barker's victories, I was struck by the relatively small number of them that are described as "driven down out of control". Just six of his victories are clearly called such. An independent source corroborates this count, and concludes that Barker's record embodies "the highest such ratio of the war for an RFC, RNAS or RAF pilot".[18] In other words, when one compares the scores of all the British Empire aces, one finds that Barker's has the smallest percentage of dubious "kills". If it is true that six (and only six) of his claimed victims were "driven down out of control", his score should be adjusted downwards to 44. A similar correction to Bishop's total would reduce it to 50, Ball's to 28, and Mannock's to 41. The Wikipedia page for James McCudden lists 57 victories, but only 35 of these are labelled as "crashed" or "in flames". The details of the other combats are left blank, forcing us to assume they were DDOOC.

Barker with an Austrian aircraft he destroyed, likely May 1918.

Almost all of Barker's career as a scout pilot was spent on the Italian Front. At the time, flyers on the Western Front disparaged this theatre as "an Italian side-show" and the Austro-Hungarians "a second-rate enemy".[19] As a result, victory scores there were discounted when compared with the Western Front.[20] Yet in fact, "[Austro-Hungarian] pilots and observers were well-trained and battle experienced..."[21] The majority of enemy pilots that Barker fought on the Italian Front likely flew the Oeffag DIII, an Austrian-made aircraft based on, and easily mistaken for, the German Albatros DIII. It had improvements over the German original, and was a first-rate aircraft that was slightly faster than the Sopwith Camel and had a much greater range. (It is worth noting that Richtofen achieved the vast majority of his kills in an Albatros biplane.)[22]

However, the Austrian airforce was numerically inferior to the Italian, French, and British forces arrayed against it, and this may have been the reason for the many days when none of their machines were spotted on patrol. A lack of enemy activity may account for the following statistics: Barker flew about 160 missions (and 350 hours) during his eleven-month Italian tour, yet his score of 43 victories was attained in only 26 flights. This suggests infrequent sightings of the enemy, but deadly intensity once contact was made. As Wayne Ralph points out, these figures may have prompted Bishop to write "In single combat, pilot against pilot, no enemy, German or Austrian - not Richtofen himself - could have stood against the fierceness of a Barker attack and lived to boast a victory."[23]

Meanwhile, on the Western Front "RAF pilots were racking up large victory scores ... in relatively brief periods, most notably Barker's fellow Canadians -- Donald R. MacLaren, William G. Claxton, and Frederick R. G. McCall. By July [1918], MacLaren was tied with Barker on the RAF unofficial scoring list after only four months of operational flying: and the brilliant duo of Claxton and McCall had about 70 victories between them in less than three months. These four men had never met, and may never have heard of each other, but nevertheless were in a race to surpass Billy Bishop."[24]

Thus, if Barker had been flying at this time on the busier Western Front, it is easy to imagine he might have acquired a score to match Richtofen's. One can also speculate that he would have met the same fate.

He would finally achieve his longstanding wish to return to France. His commander was increasingly aware of his combat fatigue. He had been almost a year as a scout pilot, double the typical time. He was a leading ace and "a valuable model of offensive leadership"[25]and his death would have been a blow to British morale. Like Bishop before him, he was posted back to the safety of Home Establishment. He returned to England on October 15th.

He remained there only a day or two. He "fast-talked his way back to France. ...The senior officer ... who granted the request was taking a great risk letting this fatigued pilot back into action. But he put Major Barker on a short leash. Permission was granted for only a 10-day roving commission."[26]

His ten days did not go well. They coincided with a period of bad weather during which air missions could not be flown over the German armies which were now in rapid retreat. Barker was able to perform only three offensive patrols, and there was no fighting. His time up, he was ordered to return his Sopwith Snipe to the depot in England.

On the eve of his return he was frustrated to the point of rage. According to an eyewitness, "Major Barker was furious in the Mess saying that the Air Ministry must be fed up because he had not been able to report a victory on the Western Front... He said he intended to go to the Lines and have a fight the next day ... en route for [the supply depot]."[27]

When he took off, instead of following orders and heading to the English Channel, he turned east and crossed the German lines. He spotted a two-seater reconnaissance aircraft at the extreme altitude of 21,000 feet, and after a long and slow climb engaged with what proved to be a skillful pilot and gunner-observer. It was not an easy victory; he had to shoot the observer before he could approach close enough to bring down the plane. The aircraft broke up in the air, and as it did the pilot fell free and deployed his parachute. Barker was mesmerized by the sight. This was only the second pilot he had seen parachute to safety; the first had been an Austrian. By the end of the war, the Central Powers were issuing parachutes to their airmen; the British refused, on the grounds that possessing one might reduce the gallantry of a pilot. (Barker became a passionate advocate of parachutes, but even as acting director of the Royal Canadian Air Force in 1924 he was still struggling to get them supplied.)

In this fatal moment Barker had lost what pilots call their "situation awareness".

My step-grandfather Gerald Greene, who knew the ace after the war and would marry his widow, asked Barker exactly what had happened that day. He reportedly replied "The first thing I was aware of was a pain in my rear."[28]

As a boy listening to Greene's story, I was frustrated by its brevity. Clearly Barker had told Greene little more. This corroborates Ralph's assertion that Barker never talked about the dogfights that began with the wound in his right thigh. When journalists asked, he would simply refer them to the official citation in the Gazette.[29] Ralph suggests that this verbal reticence was not due to modesty: Barker often bragged about other engagements. Rather, the ace must have been actually ashamed of his VC-winning action: it arose from the greatest error of his flying career, and was the only time he had been defeated and shot down. He had always taught his pilots never to go off on solo flights. Here he had ignored his own advice.

However, there may be another reason for Barker's reluctance to relive the combat. Wars are noted for hyperbole. Defeats are minimized and successes exaggerated. In this war especially, the retaking of a few yards of blood-stained mud could be billed as a great victory. Accounts of aerial battles were no exception. In Barker's case, the greatest exaggeration came not from the military but rather the press. Nonetheless, details of the official citation, and even more so those of the combat report on which it was based, tend to raise eyebrows. The author of the latter wants us to believe that Barker engaged with some thirty hostile machines in two formations plus "another large formation of enemy aircraft". It was presumably this final phrase that gave the popular press the license it needed to print stories for decades to come that proclaim the battle of a lone pilot against sixty enemy aeroplanes. And it was presumably doubts about these numbers that made the author of the official citation avoid precise figures: instead, he used the phrase "large formation" three times. As Wayne Ralph noted many decades later, "Who was counting all those aircraft, more than 30 in all?"[30] The official citation also omits the improbably short ranges at which Barker is supposed to have shot down his victims -- one at 10, one at "less than 5 yards", one at "2 to 3 yards".

Nonetheless, even two weeks from the Armistice there still were large German formations flying on the Western Front. On October 28, the day after the epic aerial battle, Barker's immediate commander Major Leman wrote a report indicating that his pilots had observed no fewer than four distinct formations of enemy scouts flying at altitudes ranging from 11,000 to 16,000 feet, the total number of aircraft adding up to 51. It is interesting that in the same Squadron Record Book there is no mention of enemy activity in the air on the previous day, when Barker was shot down. On that day Leman's squadron had been flying at low altitude against ground targets near the western edge of the Mormal Forest, and the only resistance had come from anti-aircraft fire -- "2/Lt. Whittaker returned early with engine missing". Barker's first combat was northeast of the forest, perhaps fifteen kilometres away. The last event that Leman recorded on that day was at 1700 hours, and he made no mention of Barker. He would have expected him to have landed in England.

The Victoria Cross is awarded only for acts that are witnessed. (More precisely, the medal has been granted 1,358 times between 1856 and 2015, and the rule just mentioned has been broken only once -- in the case of another Canadian pilot in the Great War.) But while thousands of soldiers would have seen at least parts of any dogfights Barker fought that day, almost by definition the latter cannot be called properly witnessed. No one could have seen everything: there were supposedly a series of engagements that lasted many minutes and moved over a distance of perhaps fifteen kilometres beginning at 21,000 feet. Furthermore at higher altitudes and in silhouette it is hard to see aircraft markings, and the Sopwith Snipe and the Fokker DVIIs it fought were biplanes of similar size. For any given combat a ground observer might see scouts milling about but have no clear idea of what was transpiring.

When Major Leman finally wrote his report of Barker's combat, was it based as much on wishful thinking as witnessed fact? It is suggestive that the details he gave of the enemy formations that Barker is supposed to have encountered are roughly similar to those observed by his pilots on the day that followed the combat, as described above.

The most candid account of Barker's near lethal adventure may be in a letter written by a certain Captain B. Johnston. This is dated January 6th, 1919, and the author is attached to "Canadian Section, General Headquarters' Third Echelon, B.E.F. [British Expeditionary Force]". It is a report written to the D.A.A.G. [Deputy Assistant Adjutant General], Canadian Section, G.H.Q. [General Headquarters], Third Echelon. This officer was instructed to visit Barker in his hospital bed at Rouen and report on the state of the now famous airman. I quote the last two paragraphs of his letter:

"I had over an hour's talk with him, during which he gave me a good description of his last encounter with the Huns. It began by him going up to 22,000 feet to get a two seater. He told me that when going after this one, he did not act with his usual care in seeing that there was not a trap laid, and when he had downed the Hun two-seater, he found fifteen Huns below him. Two machines came after him and he got the first wound through the left hip. He attached [sic] the Hun who had wounded him bringing him down, then bringing down the other machine which was attacking with the second machine, which was brought down. He was later wounded in the left arm and fell quite a distance before regaining control of his machine. After doing so, he brought down the Hun who gave him his last wound. During this latter action, he had only the use of his right arm, guiding the machine and using his right machine gun at the same time. He was unable to shut off the engine which was controlled from the left side.

"His chief regret is that he will be unable to play Hockey, Baseball or Water Polo again, on account of his left arm."[31]

There is one obvious inaccuracy, suggesting that Captain Johnston was not writing notes during his conversation: he accounts for only two of the three wounds. The first one was in fact in the right buttock. However, the rest of the narrative strikes one as plausible, especially the use of the verb "down" rather than "destroy" -- as noted earlier, aircraft were often driven down without confirmation of ultimate destruction. There is no mention of enemy aircraft exploding scant yards ahead, with Barker's Snipe miraculously sailing unscathed through the wreckage. As far as the quantity of enemy aircraft, the only number quoted is fifteen. What seems to be described is a running dogfight with a single formation of German machines that ultimately brought him down.

Note that this account by Barker himself came six weeks after the far more sensational -- and laudatory -- narrative that appeared in the London Gazette. This strongly suggests that he was not responsible for the more suspect elements of the latter. Perhaps more importantly, he was not willing to actively promote these for self-aggrandizement. My grandfather's behaviour after the war would show certain flaws in his character, but one of these does not seem to have been a tendency to lie.

At this point I take the liberty of quoting part of a message sent to me by Wayne Ralph in October 2018:

"Barker's cousin, Nell Sainsbury, who was a dear friend to me had a daughter. She had spoken to an elderly man who had known your grandfather. She recalled to me that this old fellow said "Barker- he was a straight shooter". She knew immediately that he was referring not to his gunnery skills, but his straightforward honesty."

It will always be impossible to reconstruct exactly what happened that day. It is however likely that this was one of the most one-sided dogfights in the history of aviation. Barker's survival must be attributed to his extraordinary skill and almost miraculous good luck.

(I exchanged a number of messages with Wayne Ralph, in which he expressed certain thoughts on this subject that are absent from his book, or only hinted at therein.)

Barker's Sopwith Snipe after his near fatal crash of 27 October 1918, photographed by Lieut Frank Woolley Smith who later wrote: "The scratch marks...occurred because the negative was in the camera for several weeks in very damp conditions... Cameras were banned to any serving personnel under penalty of a court-martial and I was in the somewhat invidious position of having to read out the order and penalties to my section all of whom, of course, knew quite well I had one and had taken interesting photos in which they were included!"

He knew he had reached his own lines when he saw British observation balloons. His left elbow shattered by a bullet, he could not reach the throttle; he reduced speed for landing by turning the ignition on and off in rapid succession. He crashed, and was pulled from the upended plane by the crew of 29 Kite Balloon Section. Their officer saw arterial blood gushing from the groin of the unconscious aviator, and applied pressure. My grandfather -- and myself -- owe our lives to the attentions of Lieut. Frank Woolley Smith.

(A few weeks before the centenary of the famous dogfight, my brothers and I managed to locate Frank Woolley Smith's grandson, Martin Sayers. By studying his grandfather's memoirs, Martin was able to determine the location of the crash site with an amazing degree of precision, and exactly one hundred years after the event, he joined with us on that very spot to celebrate our shared family history.)

When the war ended eleven days later, Barker could scarcely have been in a mood to celebrate. With wounds in both thighs and one in his left arm the pain must have been extreme. Antibiotics had not been discovered, and to prevent infection wounds were left open and drained frequently. By the end of February he was able to walk with a cane. On March 1st he could hobble into the presence of the King for his investiture at Buckingham Palace. Many other soldiers were honoured: George V pinned 344 decorations, including six Victoria Crosses, on young men's tunics. The monarch would not have had time to speak to them all, but he conversed with Barker. My step-grandfather reported that the King told the ace "I have never pinned so many medals on the chest of one man".

Medals were awarded shortly after the deed that warranted them, and from that moment a soldier could sew the relevant ribbon to his tunic: but decorations announced months or years earlier might reappear at an investiture.

Barker wrote of the event.

"...last Saturday I went to Buckingham Palace where the King presented me with 6 decorations. The former record was 4 so I raised it to 6. He mentioned the fact and also talked to me for about 5 minutes. He also thanked me for taking his son the Prince of Wales up so often & when I left the throne I met the Prince who took me about the Palace & we had a very friendly talk together. I can walk about 200 yds now so am improving and getting stronger but my wounds are still open."[32]

The six decorations mentioned are the VC, MC with 2 bars, and DSO with 1 bar. Therefore the King would have pinned just three objects onto his chest. Archival research might reveal the names of the other servicemen who had been presented with four decorations at that point. Two of them might have been fellow Canadian aces Raymond Collishaw and Donald MacLaren. Canadian Ace Billy Bishop would end up with five British medals for valour, but three of these had been awarded at an investiture in August of 1917. After Barker, the most decorated servicemen were two British pilots, James McCudden and Mick Mannock. Neither survived the war, so would not have received medals from the King. McCudden, like Barker, was awarded six British medals for valour, including the Victoria Cross. Mannock too received six medals including the VC, but even if he had survived he would not have had them all in March of 1919. The VC came later, posthumously, as a result of lobbying by Mannock's former comrades.

Here Barker quotes the King as saying he had flown the Prince of Wales "so often". This is an interesting statement; at that time only one such flight had been recorded. Perhaps the King was mistaken, or Barker's report of his words was embellished. I suppose we can't rule out a clandestine aerial excursion with a Prince careful to conceal his risk taking. The future Edward VIII had a known love of flying: he would later become a pilot himself.

Tommy Sopwith, HRH The Prince of Wales, William Barker VC in 1919. Mr (later Sir) Sopwith looks slightly anxious as he watches a one-armed aviator about to test-fly the heir to the throne in his latest creation.

Not long after the investiture Barker would fly the Prince again, this time very much on the record. It involved Tommy Sopwith, the young aeronautical genius who had created the Sopwith Camel and had now developed a civilian two-seater, the Sopwith Dove. The incident is described in the authorized biography of Tommy Sopwith.[33] This book attributes the following statement to the Prince:

"I met Barker at some Canadian dinner in London--anyway we all had a very good time and he said: "Why don't you come and fly with me tomorrow morning. Let us renew our acquaintance with the air."

The aircraft would be the Dove, and there are photographs of Sopwith, the Prince, and Barker beside the plane. The press was especially interested given that Barker's left arm was in a sling, and the heir to the throne was about to be flown by a one-armed pilot. Even a newsreel camera was present.

In one version of events[34] Barker took the Prince above London and performed aerobatics over Saint Paul's. The Daily Mirror printed the headline "Prince of Wales stunts with one-armed VC", and the aforementioned photographs appeared in the press.

The Prince narrated the conclusion of this story. "And my father [King George V] saw this in the newspaper and he gave me absolute hell. He said, 'What are you doing flying with this man?' and I said: 'Well, you know, Father, he is a very gallant man and you gave him the Victoria Cross so I supposed it was all right for me to fly with him.' "

In 1919, Barker met Billy Bishop, and the bond they formed was immediate. They were a natural partnership. They were the two most famous Canadian aces, and both had "VC" after their names. (Only one other Canadian airman, Lieut Alan Arnett McLeod VC - like Barker, a Manitoban - was honoured with the highest award for valour.) They formed a business alliance: Bishop-Barker Aeroplanes, one of Canada's first commercial aviation companies. Their association increased the fame of both. Bishop had always gone by the monicker "Billy", and while Barker had been called "Will", in the public eye they came to be known as "the two Billies" or "the two Colonels". Their names became household words.

Bishop is also a family member, being the cousin of my grandmother, née Jean Smith. They grew up together in Owen Sound, and corresponded during the war. She was the only daughter of Horace Smith, who moved to Toronto as a captain of industry. It is thanks to Bishop that I exist. He introduced Barker to his shy and naive young cousin who instantly fell for the handsome hero. Horace must have assumed this lowborn young man had mercenary motives. He asked his daughter to delay her proposed marriage for a year; if after that time she still desired the union, he would give it his blessing.

A year passed and my grandmother became Mrs Jean Barker.

Life after the war was an anticlimax. He had lived with unrelenting stimulation, blossoming fame, fantasies of future success. He was the hero of an epic battle, a confidant of kings. The flying business proved premature; there was no reliable income to be had from air transport, so the company was dissolved. He rejoined the military, and was acting director of the Royal Canadian Airforce when it was founded in 1924. But when it came time to appoint a permanent head, he was passed over in favour of a man born into genteel society. He indignantly resigned and returned to civilian life. His father-in-law set him up on a tobacco plantation in southern Ontario, presumably on the assumption that running it would be good for a man who had grown up on a farm. In reality it must have been humiliating. His fame was still with him and so he was made the first president of the Toronto Maple Leafs, an honorary position. His name was also used to decorate the letterhead of the Fairchild Aviation company; ironically, he would die in one of its aircraft. Yet he was unhappy and suffered from post-traumatic stress as well as the lingering pain of his injuries. He had been a teetotaler during the war, but like so many other veterans he now succumbed to alcohol. Uncouth behaviour eroded his social standing. He was deleted from the 1928-29 Who's Who in Canada. There may have been one last happy episode: from May to August of 1929, MacLean's, the national news magazine, serialized his biography. This 23,000 word text was one of a series of profiles of Canadian aces, subsequently published as a book. (George Drew, Canada's Fighting Airmen) A dozen aces were included in the series, but Barker's story was the longest and most laudatory. (The story of his career fills 80 pages, which is 30% of the book; after him comes Bishop with 46 pages.) Thousands of Canadians were reminded of this hero, and learned more of his astounding wartime career. This surely accounts in part for the reaction to his death.

The end came on 12th March 1930, in what can only be described as a stupid flying accident.

There was an outpouring of grief. Suddenly the only Barker whom people recalled was the lone pilot who had vanquished sixty enemies. Memories of the war were distant enough to make him a legend, and recent enough to reawaken emotions. His funeral was the largest in the history of Toronto. The cortege had two thousand soldiers in uniform, and many others in civilian clothes, stretching a mile behind the official mourners. Fifty thousand spectators lined the route. An honour guard of RCAF airmen led the procession, followed by the Toronto Scottish regiment's band playing a dirge. Behind the caisson with the Union-Jack-draped coffin came a regimental sergeant major bearing the hero's decorations on a purple silk cushion. Then came five recipients of the Victoria Cross, each carrying a wreath of poppies in the form of the coveted medal. Next were leading military officers, including four generals. There were two federal ministers, the Lieutenant Governor, the Premier of Ontario, and the Mayor of Toronto. Six biplanes in two formations circled above, scattering rose petals over the mourners. Thousands of school boys ran alongside.

My father, Cortlandt, remembers the procession, which he watched with his father, John Mackenzie, also a pilot in the Great War.

Outside Mount Pleasant Mausoleum mounted police forced back crowds pushing their way in. Muffled drum beats led the gun carriage to the steps, a rifle party fired three volleys, bugles sounded the last post. Then silence, and reveille. Pallbearers bore the coffin to the end of a dim corridor. The Bishop of Toronto delivered a eulogy. The casket was lifted into a slot in the right wall of a space called Room B.

The heavy door would slam shut, the inscribed marble sealing the crypt visible only at an angle through a jailer's grate. Nothing outside showed what was within. The bronze door was blank but for five raised letters: S M I T H

Canada began the process of forgetting. His comrade and friend Billy Bishop lived on, writing books, giving lectures, and playing an important if symbolic role in World War II. His memory has stuck, at least to a degree, even with the passing of generations.

When I was a boy, many older people and even some of my contemporaries knew who my grandfather was. But by midlife when I mentioned my war hero forbear and detected a flicker of recognition, it always turned out that my interlocutor was thinking of Bishop.

That's the way things stood when, in early 2010, I and my brothers Alexander and David were contacted by John Wright, an honorary colonel of the RCAF. He had become a fan of Barker after reading Wayne Ralph's biography. He decried the oblivion into which the famous Canadian had fallen, and discussed with us ways to remedy the situation. He was persuasive and had influential connections: a chain of events was set in motion. My brothers and I, despite certain reservations -- discussed below -- created and installed two commemorative markers at our grandfather's tomb. A monument on the steps invites passersby inside; the previously blank door that blocks the crypt now bears a plaque that ought to have been mounted in 1930.

These monuments were unveiled by the Honourable David Onley, Lieutenant-Governor of Ontario, in a ceremony on 22 September 2011. Since that time Barker's tomb has become a place of pilgrimage, particularly on Remembrance Day.

Barker VC. Monument Unveiling, 22 Sept 2011 on Vimeo.

War, misgivings, and Barker's place in Canadian history.

I have always had mixed feelings about my grandfather, and my brothers share my concerns. The problem is not the fact of his heroism, but the war in which he was a hero.

If he had fought against Hitler in World War II (as did our father when he was a Corvette commander in the Battle of the Atlantic) there would be no need for me to write this postscriptum. The war against fascism had moral clarity.

The First World War did not.

Never in history had a conflict been so bloody and devastating, and at the same time so amoral and futile from the point of view of both sides. Few of the belligerents can escape blame. Serbian nationalists murdered the heir to the Hapsburg throne whose stated ambition was to grant more independence to the Empire's Slavic citizens. Such a reform might have undermined their plan to rupture the Austro-Hungarian state and annex a swath of it to a Yugoslav empire. Austria ensured a war by responding to the assassination with a harsh but not unreasonable ultimatum which it correctly calculated would be rejected by the proud Serbs. Russia guaranteed a world war when it declared a general mobilization. The Czar feared the defeat of his Serbian ally and a decline of his country's prestige, and saw the chance to expand his empire by devouring the eastern fringes of the Dual Monarchy. His alliance with France made him more confident. Germany could have defused the crisis, but instead gave Austria a blank cheque. It viewed war with Russia as inevitable, and wanted the confrontation sooner rather than later: the Czarist empire was growing stronger every year. Germany had no desire for war with France. But the republic that gave us the Rights of Man had allied itself with Russia, Europe's most sinister tyranny, for the sole purpose of regaining Alsace and Lorraine. These two German-speaking regions had been conquered by Louis XIV and then partially reclaimed by Germany in 1870, after Napoleon III's defeat in his war of aggression against Prussia. Bonds of language and culture united the peoples of this area with the German Reich, and its standard of living was higher than that of France. In 1914 some Alsatian civilians took up arms against the invading French army. The United Kingdom entered the war to prevent France's collapse. If the latter had occurred it would have ended the hegemony of the British Empire: Germany had the biggest economy in Europe, and if victorious it might have gained vast territories to its east as well as the huge French empire. It would have become the greatest power on earth. As for Italy, when war was declared it was an ally of Austria; but it remained neutral until 1915 when Britain offered a secret deal -- an Adriatic empire in exchange for fighting the Central Powers. The list of cynical perfidies could be continued; we have not yet spoken of Romania, Bulgaria, or the Ottoman Empire.

Only a handful of belligerents could be called blameless. Belgium is one, invaded by Germany simply because it offered the easiest route to Paris. Another country relatively free of fault was Canada. It, and the other overseas dominions, were automatically at war with Germany the moment Britain declared hostilities. The atrocities committed by German troops in Belgium provided a convenient casus belli for the British government; but these outrages against civilians were real enough, and made Canadians justifiably indignant. We entered the war with enthusiasm. We viewed the struggle as moral, a conflict of good against evil. One cannot condemn young men like Barker who immediately enlisted; one must admire their courage and devotion.

Today we live in privileged times. I am now in my senior years, and have no memory of my country in a major war -- or playing a significant combat role in any war at all, save our engagement in Afghanistan starting in 2001. We are a peaceful people with a horror of violence and war. This is good.

The last Victoria Cross awarded to a Canadian was in 1945. Since the Korean War, only once have Canadian troops suffered significant casualties in combat. One hundred and twenty three of our service men and women died in Afghanistan in hostile circumstances. This death rate was high, considering that the total number of our personnel was in the low thousands. There were many acts of valour; no fewer than 109 of these were rewarded with decorations. It cannot be said that all this did not catch the attention of the Canadian public: twice, once in 2007 and then in 2011, stretches of public highway were renamed "Highway of Heroes" in honour of our soldiers in Afghanistan. But these events were exceptional. Today our celebrities are politicians, athletes, or entertainers. The age of warriors who loom larger than life lies far behind us.

Today it is hard for us to imagine the kind of recognition that Barker achieved among his fellow citizens. Surely the phenomenon is due in part to the role the Great War played in our history. It was a watershed event. We entered the struggle as colonials, and left it as an independent nation: when Britain declared war on the Third Reich, Canada would remain a nonbelligerent until our own parliament voted to join the cause. We forged a national identity in the trenches of Belgium and France. In battles like that of Vimy Ridge we proved that our soldiers were at least as good as the English. One cannot compare the achievements of a single airman to the titanic struggles in the trenches, but Canadians were well aware, and very proud, of the fact that of the eight top ranking British Empire aces, fully four were Canadian. William George Barker VC was one of them.

The crypt door in 2018 (photo by J. S. (Steve) Bond)


[1] The Canadian Encyclopedia (on line)

[2] Ralph, Wayne: William Barker VC. 2007:65

[3] ibid, p.140

[4] ibid, p.67

[5] ibid, p.68

[6] ibid, p.73. Here, the source of this assessment is given merely as "British Authors"; in personal communication Wayne Ralph advises me that these are in fact Christopher Shores, Russell Guest, and Norman Franks, in their encyclopedic work Above the Trenches: A Complete Record of the Fighter Aces and Units of the British Empire Air Forces 1915-1920.

[7] The Canadian Encyclopedia (on line)

[8] Ralph, Wayne (ibid), p.90

[9] Wise, S.F. Canadian Airmen and the First World War: The Official History of the Royal Canadian Airforce. Volume I, Toronto, 1980:119

[10] Ralph, Wayne (ibid), p.134

[11] ibid, p.138

[12] McCaffery, Dan. Billy Bishop: Canadian Hero. Toronto, 2001:203

[13] Greenhous, Brereton. The Making of Billy Bishop. Toronto, 2002:204

[14] Ralph, Wayne (ibid), p.141

[15] ibid, p.91

[16] ibid, p.99

[17] ibid, p.93

[18] ibid, p.73

[19] ibid, p.143

[20] ibid, p.77

[21] ibid, p.82

[22] http://www.historynet.com/deadly-duo-sopwith-camel-fokker-triplane.htm

[23] Ralph, Wayne (ibid), p.100

[24] Ralph, Wayne (ibid), p.128

[25] ibid, p.140

[26] ibid, p.141

[27] ibid, p.144

[28] Greene actually said "bohunk", cf "bohunkus", obsolete slang for 'buttocks'.

[29] Ralph, Wayne (ibid), p.147

[30] ibid, p.149

[31] ibid, p.253

[32] ibid, p.154

[33] Bramson, Alan. Pure Luck: The authorised biography of Sir Thomas Sopwith. Patrick Stephens Limited, 1990:95

[34] Harris, John Norman. Knights of the Air -- Canadian Aces of World War I. MacMillan, Toronto, 1958:76-77

Ian Mackenzie's Home Page

Last Updated: 16.fe.20 WebMaster: Ian Mackenzie
© copyright 2019 Ian B .G. Mackenzie