Star object: A Warneford VC 1915 exhibition poster

Barbara Gilbert, Curator (Archives and Images) at the National Museum of the Royal Navy has found a wonderful example of poster art from World War 1 for this month’s star object. It tells the story of Rex Warneford and his connection to an exhibition of memorabilia.

A Warneford VC 1915 exhibition poster

Why is this my favourite museum object? It celebrated an amazing pilot and his status as a national hero. It advertised an exhibition of memorabilia – what museum curator can fail to love that? It supported our World War 1 serving personnel. And it is a flimsy piece of ephemera – it was never meant to survive, but did. To understand the poster, you need to know about Rex Warneford. He was a young, daring and dashing pilot in the Royal Naval Air Service, stationed in France in 1915. 

Intercepting the enemy

His role was to try to intercept Zeppelin airships crossing the English Channel. At the time Britain was terrorised by aerial night-time bombardments by these high, silent death-deliverers. It was the first blitz. People were being killed and injured. Houses were demolished and livestock killed as the Germans sought to destroy our infrastructure and lower our morale. And we couldn’t bring them down. Until Warneford. 

On the night of 6th/7th June 1915, flying a tiny monoplane over Belgium, Lieutenant Warneford first flew close to Zeppelin LZ.37, drawing heavy machine gun fire and luring the airship to turn and follow him. He then dodged behind the airship and managed to ascend to 11,000 feet to get above it. He discharged his six 20-lb bombs. The fifth caused an explosion that lifted and flipped his aircraft, but the Zeppelin went down in flames. He’d done it. He’d proved it could be done. Hooray for Warneford! Overnight he became a national hero. The very next day King George V conferred the Victoria Cross on Warneford. The French celebrated this victory, too, presenting him with the cross of the Légion d’honneur.

A tragic death of a national hero

Tragically, only ten days later, Warneford died in an air crash near Paris. There was national mourning and 50,000 people lined the streets of London for his funeral procession. The man was dead, but not the legend. 
Warneford’s aeroplane was taken round Britain on the back of a lorry. His medals and flying clothing were displayed in ‘pop-up’ exhibitions. These small-scale displays raised money for ‘comforts for the forces at the Dardanelles’. We even know what comforts these troops wanted. The Aeroplane magazine in July 1915 records that the Kite-balloon Section of the RNAS at the Dardanelles wanted thin underwear, handkerchiefs and short drawers. Only thick winter clothing was being supplied, and that’s no joke in the Aegean in July temperatures. So this thin poster reminds us both of naval aviation’s first hero and of his RN comrades carrying out their daily duties far from home in discomfort and danger. I’m so glad his mother kept it.

 

HMS Hermes returning from the Falklands