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Ruskin - A commissioned painting by Michael O'Neal

(18" x 24” Oil on Hardboard – 2003)

Lt. Edward Walter CapperJust before noon on 22 October 1916,  Lt. Edward Walter Capper a native of Montgomery, England and 2/Lt. John Ruskin Watts of Westfield, New Jersey lifted off from their aerodrome at Fienvillers France.  Lt. Capper flew a newly delivered SPAD VII, 2/Lt. Watts a war weary and worn BE-12.   Watt’s mission that afternoon was to bomb German positions near Louveral, Belgium some 50 kilometers directly east from his aerodrome and it appears Lt. Capper was his escort for the mission. According to contemporary reports, it was a dreary day, with intermittent rain and fog in the early morning, but by noon, the clouds had broken up somewhat and visibility improved.

Across the lines, German Jadgstaffel 2 was also patrolling the Louveral area.  Lead by Hauptmann Oswald Boelke, Jasta 2 had recently moved to Lagnicourt. Boelke was already the most well known fighter pilot on either side of the lines and his unit was equipped with the most modern fighter used by either side at the time – the Albatros D.Il.  Unfortunately for Ruskin Watts, his target at Louveral was less than 5 kilometers from Jasta 2’s new home at Lagnicourt.

While period records are incomplete, it appears that both Capper and Watts engaged the Albatroses of Jasta 2 that afternoon. Capper, in the faster more maneuverable SPAD, drove down one of the Germans, but Watts BE-12 was hit at least 9 times one of the shots puncturing his fuel tank, forcing him down.  Eventual credit was awarded to Offizierstellvertreter Lt. Leopold Rudolf Reimann as his 5th and final victory.  Capper’s claim was later awarded though there were no losses recorded by the Germans.  Watts landed safely near Louveral and, again, according to published accounts, he managed to “destroy” his airplane before he was captured. However, the airplane was later photographed by the Germans intact providing the basis for the marking scheme used in this painting. Watts, unharmed, spent the remainder of the war as a guest of the Germans.

John Ruskin Watts was born 7th November 1895 the second of two sons of Josephine Emma and Alfred Allen Watts.  Father Watts was a Canadian native, but Mrs. Watts hailed from Chelsea, England where she was for a time employed as an actress and dramatic reciter.  Mrs. Watts knew and admired the English author, painter and naturalist John Ruskin and named her second son for him.  Watts’ flight training was undertaken in Canada, first at the Curtiss school there and Hythe, England with the Royal Flying Corps before being temporarily assigned to duty ferrying aircraft across the English Channel.  He is believed to have arrived at 19 Squadron on 1 October 1916.

His older brother Hillary Webling Watts was also in the RFC Canada program for some time. It is unknown if he completed his training, but he did have eye trouble in August  1918 which necessitated leave so it is likely he never reached an active duty squadron, although he did earn his wings training in both Canada and England.

In the post war, John Ruskin Watts worked for his father at the Alfred Allen Watts Company, a printing firm in New York City which he took over after his father’s death in 1946. Hillary Watts only lived to age 59 and died in Talahassee Florida in 1956. Ruskin Watts, having survived the Great Depression, World War II and his fight with Jasta 2 on 22 October 1916, lived to the age of 84, passing away on 12 March 1980 in England.

“Ruskin” recreates a moment in time when the Albatroses of Jasta 2 are on the cusp of forcing Watts down over Louveral.