The Wild Goose who flew like an Eagle – An Irishman’s Diary about Gottfried Freiherr Von Banfield

Gottfried Freiherr Von Banfield: first World War air ace had strong roots in Ireland, specifically in Cork  

Gottfried Freiherr Von Banfield: first World War air ace had strong roots in Ireland, specifically in Cork  


When Gottfried Freiherr Von Banfield died 30 years ago, his demise appears to have gone unmarked in this country. But although his name might not immediately suggest it, he had strong roots in Ireland, specifically in Cork.  

A small exhibit in the National Museum at Collins Barracks identifies him as one of the Wild Geese. And he was more that usually qualified for that description, clearly, because the activity for which he most distinguished himself was flying.

The museum exhibit is a model of his first World War seaplane, an exotic-looking thing suggestive of a tropical bird. It doesn’t look very dangerous now, but in his hands it was. He shot down at least nine enemy aircraft, with 11 other “kills” unconfirmed (probably because his theatre of war was mostly at sea, where results were harder to follow).

For these and other heroics he was a lifelong hero in his home city, where he became known, a bit confusingly for Wild Geese historians, as “The Eagle of Trieste”.

A typical story about Von Banfield is set in November 1918, when as commander of the Trieste Naval Air Station, he awaited the arrival of the now-occupying Italians.

Eventually, one of Italy’s most famous air aces turned up to take over. Flustered on being introduced to the great Banfield, he declared it an honour and said he was sorry they hadn’t met earlier. Banfield coolly assured him it was no cause for regret. “If we had met earlier,” he said, “one of us would be unlikely to be present here today.”

The Banfields were an old Norman family, in Ireland since the 16th century. They appear not to have reached Austria until the early 1800s, when they joined such other émigré families as the Barrys and O’Flanagans, and were assured of a warm welcome, at least in military circles.

During the 18th century, a grateful Emperor Francis I had said of their ilk: “The more Irish in the Imperial service the better. Our troops will always be disciplined: an Irish coward is an uncommon character, and what the natives of Ireland even dislike from principle, they will generally perform through a desire for glory.”  

His opinion was shared by a rueful English army observer of the 1760s, who noted the large numbers of Irish Catholic exiles in the Austrian army, including “high-spirited, intrepid, nervous youth – retaining a hankering desire after their country, feeling themselves worthy of it, and possessing a thousand qualities to make the policy regretted which drives them from it”.

They were, as a rule, highly successful there. Between the Thirty Years War (1618 - 1648) and the collapse of the Hapsburg Empire, it is calculated that Ireland or its descendants contributed 13 field-marshals, two presidents of the Hofkriegsrath (council of war), and 55 other generals to their adopted country.

As for the Banfields, their speciality for decades was the sea. In 1864, Gottfried’s father Richard was a sufficiently eminent naval man to have to escort the Archduke Maxmilian from Trieste to Mexico, where the Hapsburg aristocrat was to be declared emperor, in temporary defiance of local republicans (he died by firing squad three years later). Richard’s brother Alfred, meanwhile, is considered one of the greatest admirals in Austrian naval history.

So Gottfried’s flying boat was apt. He too had started in the navy, then worked his way up – literally – as one of Austria’s pioneering aviators.

Wounded in 1918, he nevertheless survived the war, as its most decorated pilot.  

The “Freiherr” part of his name was itself an award. Meaning “free man” or “baron”, it was bestowed on him in 1917 along with the Military Order of Maria Theresa. If you weren’t an Austrian aristocrat already, the order made you one.

It’s intriguing to wonder whether Von Banfield ever crossed paths with a native-born Irishman who was also for a time resident in Trieste during that era. If they did, James Joyce doesn’t seem to have mentioned it.

Nor can I find much evidence of Von Banfield’s trips to his ancestral homeland, although I gather he did visit Ireland on a number of occasions, including 1965, when he was a guest of the Military History Society.  

Unusually for a pilot of either world war, he lived to be 96. He was by then the last surviving knight of the aforementioned Order of Maria Theresa, which went out with the empire. According to the National Museum, he also marked the end of a 300-year-old Irish tradition, being the last known representative of the Wild Geese, Austrian wing.