Dream of WW1 flier comes true almost 100 years after his death
He gazes out from the book cover with a faraway look in his eyes. Arthur Clifford Kimber – born USA, 1896, died 1918 on the Western Front, France aged 22.
The young American pilot perished when his aircraft was hit by ground fire in one of the last major battles of the First World War.
He had taken off in the fragile wood and canvas biplane just hours after writing a final letter home to his mother and brothers.
The letter was the last of many. All through his war service the clergyman’s son, known as Clifford, wrote regularly to his family.
His dream was that when the fighting was over his unique, very personal account of the conflict could be published.
Now, at last, Clifford Kimber’s wish has come true. The letters, lovingly preserved for almost 100 years, have been turned into a book.
An American on the Western Front is the work of his 86 year-old niece Elizabeth Nurser and her son-in-law Patrick Gregory.
Clifford’s words are there, as he wanted, linked together and put into context by their carefully-researched narrative.
California-born Elizabeth, the daughter of Clifford’s younger brother George, had a long career in publishing.
She came to England in 1954 to study at Newnham College, Cambridge and retired to Sudbury with her husband John 20 years ago.
Patrick, who is married to their daughter Isabelle, is a freelance journalist and was formerly managing editor of the BBC’s political programmes department.
The letters have been in Elizabeth’s care for many years but health problems made carrying out her uncle’s wishes feel like a difficult challenge.
“Three years ago Patrick said why don’t we do it together, and we have been working on it since then,” she says.
“He, like me, is a history graduate. We touted the idea around, and it was accepted by The History Press.”
Clifford’s letters start when he left home to drive ambulances in France.
A few months later, he applied to join the US Air Service and qualified as a pilot, flying perilous missions in a succession of planes he named Nick after a comrade and friend who had already been killed .
Through his writing you sense him change from wide-eyed college boy to a man used to staring death in the face.
“I find reading the letters very moving,” says Elizabeth. “You are right there with him when he is writing.”
Clifford Kimber was living a privileged life as a student at Stanford University when the First World War began.
His mother, Clara, had raised her three sons alone - moving to California and buying a smallholding - after their father died suddenly in 1909.
By 1916, although the USA had yet to enter the war, sympathy for the Allies had led to the formation of the American Ambulance Field Service.
That autumn a recruiting officer for the ambulance service visited Stanford. Clifford wrote later: “It woke me up. It brought the war home.”
His first effort to join was unsuccessful, and he was torn by the thought of leaving his mother.
But days after America went into the war in 1917 he was on his way, with the support of his family, to the Front.
He was also given an extra mission – delivering the first American flag to be taken to France.
“Clifford was delighted and excited he was going to help in the ‘war to end all wars’,” says Elizabeth.
“What comes across is that he was no different from any other boy of his age.
“And when he became a pilot there was the excitement of the new means of transport, the aeroplane. It was romantic, a ‘Boys’ Own’ adventure.”
But he was also haunted by the gruesome nature of the war on the ground, preferring to take his chances in the air.
“As an ambulance man he saw the trenches, and said he would never go there.
“He went on a visit to Verdun and saw the hills they had fought over, and the desolation.
“For a lad used to California with its blue skies and the crops growing on the farm it must have been a terrible shock.”
But flying was a dangerous business and death also stalked the skies.
“He had a little booklet to keep track of his flying hours,” said Elizabeth, “and every so often there is a little note - ‘so-and-so killed’, or ‘another three down’.
“These young men, kids really, were so brave to go up in these ‘paper’ machines.
“In his letters he has to keep reassuring his mother that in the air is the safest place to be, but if you have to die it is the best way.”
Heartbreakingly, not long before his death, he tells her not to worry because he will be very careful.
Clifford died on September 26, 1918 - the first day of the Meuse-Argonne offensive, one of the last great drives of the war.
“His job was reconnaissance, really. But they asked for volunteers for a bombing raid so he volunteered.
“They would give the pilots a couple of bombs which they put on the seat beside them. When they got to the target they were supposed to throw them overboard.
“His plane was hit by fire from the ground, a bullet or shell hit one of the bombs and it exploded.”
Elizabeth says her grandmother Clara never really recovered from her son’s death.
“One reason she and my father kept the letters was that they knew he wanted them published, and felt either they or someone else could fulfil his wish.
“He had asked them to type them up straight away, which they did. My grandmother was a very good typist, so as well as originals we also have the typed copies. In 1922 she published some of the letters in a book called The First Flag.”
Elizabeth’s father George spent several years trying to track down where his brother had been buried. Eventually, his detective work led to a graveyard in the village of Bantheville
Clifford’s body was reburied in the Meuse-Argonne American Cemetery, alongside more than 14,000 of his countrymen killed in the war.