LOCAL HEROES - DORSET VCs

Rhodes-Moorhouse VC
by Roger G Coleman
 

A Hill Top Grave For V.C.
 
On the hillside overlooking Parnham House, Beaminster is the grave of the first airmen to be awarded the Victoria Cross - William Barnard Rhodes Moorhouse. He was born on the 26th September, 1887 in London, one of four children born to Edward and Mary Moorhouse. His parents had grown up in New Zealand where their families had settled in the early 19th century. Mary, who had Maori blood in her veins was an adopted daughter, subsequently inherited a large fortune on the death of her step-father. Edward and Mary were married in Wellington and towards the end of the 19th century returned to England settling down in Northamptonshire.
 
William was privately educated before attending Harrow and later at Trinity College, Cambridge. He grew up to be a physically strong and energetic young man. Lacking interest in classical studies he left Cambridge in 1909 and began a life-long love of speed. His financial security enabled him to purchase motor cycles and cars. Having participated in rallying and motor car racing events his reputation as a driver was enhanced when he began racing at the Brooklands circuit. There he wore his 'motor racing colours' of mauve and purple - apparently early racing drivers wore a variety of brightly coloured clothing in a similar way as jockey's do today. It helped the spectators to identify the drivers.
 
In parallel with motor car developments pioneers in aviation were experimenting with different types of engines to power their aircraft. The unknown potential of powered flight attracted William's attention towards flying and aircraft design. With a fellow pioneer in aviation, James Radley they applied themselves to design their own aircraft. The outcome was the Radley-Moorhouse monoplane, based upon an early Bleriot aircraft, powered by an Anzani engine. William also took the opportunity to learn to fly, paying for the lessons himself and gained his Royal Aero Club Certificate No.147 on the 17th October, 1911, flying a Bleriot monoplane. Having a 'natural' affinity for flying William participated in aerial displays as one of those 'daring young men' demonstrating their skills around the country. Such was the public interest that thousands of people flocked to these events to watch these pioneers 'in their magnificent flying machines'.
 
In 1910, William went to America where he purchased a Bleriot monoplane and took part in aerial races and accrued a small fortune in prize money. He sold the aircraft and returned to the UK where he continued flying in competitive events and was placed third in the first aerial race held at Hendon in 1912.

His fellow aviator and pioneer James Radley owned Portholme Airfield in Huntingdonshire from where William regularly flew. On the 7th April, 1912 the aircraft he was flying suddenly lost height and crashed in a field. He sustained a facial injury to his jaw and teeth. The latter had to be removed and he wore a full set of dentures.
 
He married on the 25th June, 1912, Linda Morrit a friend of his sister, Anne. She had accompanied William on winter holidays to St Moritz where they both teamed up with friends to ride a six-man bobsleigh down the Cresta Run. They spent their honeymoon preparing for a flight across the English Channel from France. On the 28th July, accompanied by a newspaper reporter they flew from Douai in a French Breguet biplane. After 130 mile flight, the weather conditions deteriorated after crossing the English coast and they had to make a forced landing near Ashford. The aircraft was damaged but no one was hurt, although it was reputed that his wife had a miscarriage afterwards and William gave her an undertaking to reduce flying and concentrate on motor racing. He was credited as the first pilot to carry two passengers across the English Channel.
 
William's fascination for cars remained unabated and he drove them at speed not only on the race track but on the public highway. Ironically in 1913 as a passenger in car driven by a friend they were involved in a serious accident. At the wheel of his own car a few weeks later William collided with a horse and cart whose driver died after falling under its wheels. He was later charged and fined £20. During the same year, his maternal grandfather died and for William to inherit his valuable estate he legally changed his surname to Rhodes Moorhouse. It was towards the end of 1913 that his mother purchased Parnham House a Tudor mansion at Beaminster, Dorset.
 
On the 4th March, 1914, Linda gave birth to their only child, William Henry Rhodes Moorhouse. After the outbreak of the First World War, William voluntarily joined the Royal Flying Corps on the 24th August. Although an experience pilot, 2nd Lieutenant Rhodes Moorhouse was posted to an Aircraft Park at South Farnborough where, he was responsible for testing aircraft engines. The RFC had a rule which prevented anyone from flying if they had a full set of dentures! However, William probably agitated for a more active role in the RFC and with the gradual loss of experienced pilots in France and from accidents, the authorities relented.

2nd Lieutenant Rhodes Moorhouse joined No.2 Squadron No.1 Wing who, were based at Merville, France on the 20th March 1915. The squadron was one of the first to arrive in France on the outbreak of war. They were equipped with BE2 aircraft, a two-seater powered by a Renault engine producing a maximum speed of 70 mph. These early aircraft were not fitted with any defensive armament. His Flight Commander Maurice Blake instructed him to familiarise himself with his aircraft, a BE2b No.492 and fly local patrols to identify landmarks and points of reference for later missions. He then flew with his observer Lieutenant W. Sholto Douglas - who later became Air Vice-Marshal in WWII - on photo reconnaissance operations and bombing of German battlefield positions. To carry a large bomb load the observer had to be left behind.
 
During the afternoon of the 22nd April, 1915 the Germans released poisonous chlorine gas from cylinders which was carried by the light winds on to the French 45th Division sector and heralding the opening of the Second Battle Ypres. French and colonial troops were engulfed by the gas cloud and some of those who were able broke and fled. Wearing primitive respirators the German troops penetrated through the Allied Line before being halted by a series of British counter attacks. British intelligence reports indicated that the Germans were moving troop reserves forward through Ghent in preparation for a large attack. The RFC were requested by GHQ to undertake bombing raids on the German rail network to disrupt enemy troop movements between the Staden-Cortemarck-Roulers line, and the railway stations at Thielt, Staden, Deynze and Inglemunster. Four aircraft from No.2 Squadron were detailed to bomb targets at Roubaix, Tourcoing and Courtrai. The latter task was given to 2nd Lieutenant Rhodes Moorhouse. Shortly after 1500 hours on the 26th he left the airfield at Merville flying BE2b No.687 and carrying a 100lb bomb mounted beneath the fuselage. His usual aircraft No.492 had been damaged by enemy fire on a photo reconnaissance mission a few days before.
 
To accurately bomb his target, the railway line to the west of Courtrai Station, William flew at a height of 300-ft. His aircraft came under intense enemy fire from a machine-gun located in the belfry of Courtrai Church and from the ground. He was hit by a burst of machine-gun fire and his aircraft was peppered by bullets and struck by shrapnel from the bomb explosion. Badly injured, William decided to fly the 35 miles back to Merville rather than land in enemy territory. Flying very low to gain maximum speed he had to endure ground fire flying over German held positions and was twice struck by bullets. He landed at Merville airfield at 1615 hours and had to be lifted out of the cockpit by his mechanics. William insisted on reporting the success of his mission to his Flight Commander before being taken to a Casualty Clearing Station. His wounds were beyond the surgical techniques of the period and he was made as comfortable as possible, knowing that he was dying. He requested that his body be returned home for burial. At his bedside was Maurice Blake his flight commander and the chaplain Christopher Chavasse (brother of Noel Chavasse VC & Bar) who gave him Holy Communion. During the afternoon of the 27th, 2nd Lieutenant William Rhodes Moorhouse died aged 27 years holding a small photograph of his baby son. In the evening the chaplain held a memorial service attended by senior officers and colleagues from the Army and RFC in a small ward set aside for use as a chapel.

The General-Officer-Officer commanding the RFC Hugh Trenchard and Sir John French acquiesced to Williams's request that his body could be returned to the UK. The coffin, covered with the Union Jack was escorted to Boulogne by his mechanic and an officer of the RFC and on arrival at Folkestone was met by his wife and her brother. They then travelled by train to Crewkerne railway station. From there the coffin was carried on an estate horse drawn wagon to Parnham House and placed in the Great Hall.
 
On the 5th May, the Vicar of Beaminster, the Reverend G.C. Hutchings conducted the funeral service in the Great Hall at Parnham House. In attendance were his wife, mother and father, sisters, military representatives and friends from Beaminster and Netherbury. At the conclusion of the service, six members from the RFC and six estate workers escorted the coffin to the grave on the hillside above the house known locally as 'The Grove'. The site chosen was where William intended to build a cottage for his wife and family. The grave was laid out to represent a monoplane and outlined in bricks. At the graveside the choir of St Mary's Beaminster sang one hymn and then Dean of Westminster administered the last rites and committal followed by a volley of rifle fire. The coffin of polished oak was placed in a brick-lined vault covered with evergreen and flowers. The brass nameplate was inscribed:

William Barnard Rhodes - Moorhouse
 
2nd Lieutenant Royal Flying Corps
 
Born September 26.1887
 
Died Of Wounds April 27.1915
 

After more than sixty wreaths had been arranged around the grave the mourners descended the hill towards the house accompanied the by church bells of St Marys ringing out a muffled peal.

The RFC casualty list dated 27th April, 1915 stated that 2nd Lieutenant W.B. Rhodes - Moorhouse had died from wounds and had been posthumously promoted to Lieutenant back dated to the 24th April. A month later the London Gazette of the 22nd May, 1915 announced the posthumous award of the Victoria Cross: "Lieutenant William Barnard Rhodes Moorhouse. For most conspicuous bravery on 26th April, 1915 in flying to Courtrai and dropping bombs on the railway line near the station. On starting the return journey he was mortally wounded, but succeeded in flying thirty five miles to his destination, at a very low altitude and reported the successful accomplishment of his objective. He has since of wounds". A footnote in the Gazette recorded that he was he first airman to be awarded the Victoria Cross, of which there was no official presentation.
 
Linda continued to live at Parnham House with her son until 1927 when she sold the estate and moved to Barnard Castle. She visited her husband's grave on many occasions ensuring that the grave plot was maintained. On the centenary of the institution of the Victoria Cross in June 1956 a commemoration service was held at the graveside. She made her final visit to the grave in 1965 on the 50th Anniversary of the award of the Victoria Cross to her husband. She died in 1973 aged 86.
 
The family descendants decided to auction Williams Victoria Cross group which included the 1914-15 Star, British War Medal 1914-20, Allied Victory Medal 1914-19 and memorabilia. The group was sold by Sotheby's on the 15th September, 1990 for a then world record of £126,000. The family used the money to set up The W.B. Rhodes-Moorhouse VC Charitable Trust which provides flying and engineering scholarships administered by the Air League. The Trust also makes contributions to the RAF Benevolent Fund and the McIndoe Research Foundation. The medal group is now part of the Lord Ashcroft Victoria Cross Collection and is on display in the Ashcroft Gallery at the IWM.
 
William Rhodes - Moorhouse's name is inscribed on the Beaminster War Memorial, the Roll of Honour in St. Marys Church, the Lamport War Memorial, and Northamptonshire and on the Roll of Honour in the RAF Church in London. A group of fourteen houses were built at Morden, Surrey in 1948 by the RAF Benevolent Fund for disabled airmen or dependents of deceased airman and were named to commemorate Lieutenant W.B. Rhodes Moorhouse V.C. The RAF Museum has a portrait in its collection of Lieutenant W.B. Moorhouse V.C., painted in 1987 by Stanley Baldock.
 
William Henry Rhodes - Moorhouse followed in his father's footsteps and was commissioned as a pilot officer in the Royal Auxiliary Air Force in 1937 and was posted to 601 Squadron. On the outbreak of the Second World War, the squadron was sent to France and based at Merville. William Henry shot down three enemy aircraft before the squadron returned to Tangmere in June 1940. He was awarded the DFC. On the 6th September, flying a Hawker Hurricane he was shot down and killed over Tunbridge Wells. His body was recovered and his cremated remains were interred alongside the grave of his father. Also interred within the grave plot are William Barnard Rhodes - Moorhouse' s mother, father and grandfather.
 
Roger G. Coleman