Returning from a recent European holiday cruising the Danube and Rhine riverways, I have been frequently asked what was the highlight of the trip. With tours providing an abundance of memorable highlights on a daily basis, that has not been an easy question to answer. But on reflection, my favourite moment came on 25 May when, in company with two friends from our cruise boat, we arrived at the base of the towering medieval cathedral in Cologne that is Germany’s most renowned landmark.

Begun in the 13th century but not finally completed until the late 19th century (with a 369-year hiatus in between), this was a building always intended to impress. Everything about it, both inside and out, is on a massive scale. So, it was quite a let-down to subsequently discover that its reign as the tallest building in the world only lasted four years—until 1884, when its soaring twin spires (157m, or 515 ft) were overtaken by the Washington Monument!

 

First close-up view of Cologne cathedral; enjoying a post-tour Aperol spritz within view of the cathedral’s front entrance.

Nonetheless, my appreciation of the Dom (cathedral) was—unknown to my companions on the day—tempered by the fact that it, and the city of Cologne, featured in a little known episode of Australian military history from the First World War: for eleven weeks Cologne served as the home base of No. 4 Squadron, Australian Flying Corps, while serving with the British forces sent to occupy German territory for a period immediately after signature of the armistice which ended the war.

Upon arrival in mid-December 1918, 4 Squadron—the only complete Australian unit known to have been assigned to occupation duty—took up station at Bickendorf, located only three kilometres north-west of the city centre. A former defence base, Bickendorf contained excellent aircraft hangars and accommodation for mechanical and transport personnel, and the aerodrome itself was described in 4 Squadron’s published history as ‘roomy and with a splendid surface; in fact, it was undoubtedly the finest … the Squadron was ever stationed on’.

The squadron’s officers did even better for themselves, taking over the complete Kaiser Wilhelm Hotel in town (along with a portion of its staff) as both headquarters and accommodation. This grand building stood at the junction of the Kaiser Wilhelm and Hansa Rings, in what was described as ‘the most attractive portion of the city’. Unfortunately the hotel seems not to have survived the Second World War, when most of the city centre—except for the cathedral—was flattened by allied bombing.

 

Postcard image of the former Kaiser Wilhelm Hotel (left); (right) statue of Kaiser Wilhelm II which still stands near the Hohenzollern Bridge spanning the Rhine behind the cathedral.

From their base at Bickendorf the Australians quickly discovered the charms of Cologne, recounting that the place was ‘a feast of loveliness, both when viewed from the air and when meandered through on foot’; ‘the broad silver ribbon of the lordly Rhine, spanned by its handsome bridges, the commanding twin-towered cathedral, and the chain of spacious rings (or boulevards) making the panorama of the city especially attractive from the air. The attractiveness did not diminish when the city was entered and a tour of the beauty spots made on foot, everything being well kept and beautifully clean.’

 

Images from E. J. Richards’ history of 4 Squadron titled Australian Airmen (1919): (left) Cologne from the air, showing the Dom viewed from the south-west; (right) remains of a giant Siemens Schuckert R-Type ‘super-Gotha’ found on Bickendorf.

The Australians soon discovered, however, that all was not idyllic at their new location, after not only 4 Squadron but the other seven British flying units at Bickendorf began experiencing the ravages of the influenza epidemic then sweeping Europe (and eventually the world). Before they packed up and departed Cologne to begin the return journey home to Australia at the end of February 1919, three air mechanics had succumbed to illness and were all buried ‘within hail of the River Rhine’.

These men (three Williams surnamed Reid, Shilcock and Thorburn) still rest in the Cologne Southern Cemetery, along with 31 other Australians who died across Germany as prisoners during the First World War (their remains moved there in 1922)—a reminder of a minor episode in the war’s aftermath which is almost entirely forgotten these days.