Almanac History: Captain Bert James, R.A.F. (1895-1918)


Captain Bert James, R.A.F. (1895-1918)

(Note: the text below, about a relative of mine, is as originally written for a UK audience; consequently, a geographical detail or two will seem superfluous to Australian readers.)


Captain Bert James (Original source: unknown. Now available via Google Images.)


Captain Bert James’ final resting place on a hill overlooking the sea in the graveyard of All Saints’ Church, Beeston Regis, is in a windswept, solitary position, but remains well cared-for to this day. Its tombstone contains the plangent inscription ‘Here lies all that can die of Bert …’ which is of course true, as something of all of us lives on in the world after we leave it – perhaps this is particularly so in the case of those, like Bert, who paid the ultimate sacrifice in a time of war.


Bert was born in the town of Balaklava, South Australia, in 1895, the son of a successful businessman, Joseph Charles James, and Emily Reynolds. His mother was a younger sister of a great-great grandfather of mine, Henry Reynolds. Early on, Bert demonstrated a major interest in all things mechanical, which translated into him obtaining a motor car license at a young age. Around this time, he was working as a buyer for a softgoods firm in Adelaide, the capital city of South Australia. Not long after war broke out, he decided upon going to England to become a fighter pilot with the Royal Flying Corps, later renamed the Royal Air Force. He sailed there in early 1916, was quickly accepted into his chosen occupation, saw action in France, and had become a captain by the time of his death in a flying accident in Dartford on May 7, 1918.


Then Flight Lieutenant Bert James with his plane. (Original Source: Chronicle, Adelaide, South Australia, 25 November, 1916.)


Bert’s letters home to Australia while he was on active service indicate his passion for his wartime role. Australian newspapers of the time show the immense interest his fellow Australians took in those serving on their behalf. The activities of these servicemen and women (as much as could be told, given wartime operational constraints) were detailed, and letters home were often reproduced at great length. This was the case with Bert. Indeed, people who served were often minor celebrities; for example, when he was in the RFC, Bert was mentioned in advertisements for an Adelaide motor car driving school as one of its notable graduates. The extent to which Bert’s death was mourned by his family was evident in newspaper Death Notices, and In Memoriam pieces in the years following his passing. He also had obituaries written about him in the metropolitan press, accompanied by his photograph. His local council referred to his death at a meeting, resolving to send sympathy to his relatives, something which was not at all unusual.


The precise means by which Bert ended up in the strikingly picturesque location in All Saints’ graveyard is unknown. The place where his fatal accident occurred, Dartford, was quite some distance away, of course. However, available evidence indicates his burial place was connected to Reynolds relatives in Norfolk. What is known for certain, though, is that Bert James was much loved and cared about during his short life, including his wartime service far away from his home country, and this is still the case a century later. Also, in a paradoxical, yet very real sense Bert had come home, as his maternal grandfather (my 3x great-grandfather), Laurence Reynolds, born in Northrepps around 1828, walked the same Norfolk earth in his boyhood and youth before he embarked upon the long journey to Australia to start a new life.


Kevin Densley
Gherang, Victoria, Australia.


(This article appears in Beeston Regis Remembers 1918-2018. The booklet is a publication of the Beeston Regis Parish Council, Norfolk, England, to celebrate the 100th Anniversary of signing the Armistice to bring an end to the fighting in WW1. My Captain James piece is included in the booklet as he is buried in the graveyard of the parish’s All Saints’ Church. )


Captain Bert James’ headstone, All Saints’ Church graveyard, Beeston Regis, Norfolk, UK. Photograph by Bob Wilkinson.)


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Kevin Densley is a poet and writer-in-general. His fourth book-length poetry collection, Sacredly Profane, was published in late 2020 by Ginninderra Press. He is also the co-author of ten play collections for young people, as well as a multi Green Room Award nominated play, Last Chance Gas, which was published by Currency Press. Other writing includes screenplays for educational films.


  1. Colin Ritchie says

    It’s hard to comprehend what it must have been like to go to war at such a young age, and the pain and suffering felt by those left behind. I remember being absolutely petrified when I registered for National Service and the prospect of fighting in Vietnam. Thankfully my number didn’t come but it did for a lot of my mates at the time. One came back from Vietnam in a bad way.

  2. Kevin Densley says

    Thanks for your comments about this, Col.

    Captain Bert James died in a close fighting training exercise with another plane. Both pilots and an observer (in one of the planes, I presume) were killed. It happened early on a spring evening, watched by a considerable crowd on the ground.

  3. Nicole Kelly says

    What wonderful photos, Kevin. An interesting piece about Bert.. He must have been held in wonderful esteem.

  4. Kevin Densley says

    Thanks for your kind words, Nicole.

    From everything I know, Bert was a fine young man, like so many others who went to war as he did. His bright, good-humoured personality shines through in various letters (some reproduced in Adelaide newspapers) he wrote to his mother in South Australia while serving overseas; indeed, she would have felt Bert’s untimely death as a double blow within a short space of years, as his brother Ernie died of a severe throat infection (pre-antibiotics, I suppose) at the age of nineteen in 1911.

  5. The bravery of these young men was astounding.

  6. Kevin Densley says

    Absolutely, Dips! Your comments could be applied to all branches of the services – but those early RFC/RAF pilots seemed to take their life in their hands every time they took to the skies. Apparently, Bert had a couple of near misses before the accident that killed him.

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