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A Royal Presentation Presentation Great War Cartier Cigarette Case
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A Royal Presentation Presentation Great War Cartier Cigarette Case

circa 1918

Measurements: Overall: 9cm (3.5in) x 9cm (3.5in)

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Silver, silver gilt and gold. Of rectangular form the hinged lid applied with the crowned ‘A’ cypher of Albert I, King of the Belgians, the interior inscribed ‘To Captain G.W. Bentley, R.A.F. in Remembrance to our interesting trip in Flanders, the last day of the Great War 10th November 1918, Albert'. Contained in its original gilt tooled morocco Cartier presentation case.

Group Captain George William Biles, afterwards Bentley, D.F.C., (b.1893) entered the Merchant Navy in 1910 and passed for Second Mate in 1913, before transferring to the Royal Naval Air Service as probationary Flight Sub-Lieutenant in November 1915. He qualified for his Royal Aero Club Certificate a month later at Chingford after only 4 hours flying time. In May 1917 he was on active service at Otranto, Italy with No. 3 Squadron, No. 6 Wing. He was afterwards transferred to No. 202 Squadron, equipped with DH.4 light bombers, part of the 61st Wing at Bergues on the Western Front. On reconnaissance patrol on 4 May 1918  he was attacked by three Albatross Scouts, his observer Lieutenant Gowing being shot through the groin, and ‘our pressure tank holed’. While regaining control of the aircraft ‘Gowing drove off all further attacks’. Clearly regarded as a safe pair of hands, Biles was selected to fly King Albert of the Belgians, then the commander of the Army Group Flanders, over the lines on the final full day of the Great War.  The sortie was memorable not least for being able to fly unchallenged over the eerily deserted trench systems, as the Allies drove the Huns back in disarray. Biles was awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross in January1919; the Belgian Croix de Guerre in July 1919; and was made a Chevalier of thr Order of Leopold in February 1920. Promoted Flight Lieutenant in October 1919, Biles changed his name by deed poll (at his new wife’s insistence) in 1925. The cigarette case was thus engraved with the name Bentley after this date - the original inscription in the name of Biles being written on a card by King Albert. Bentley continued in the R.A.F. during the interwar years with no 203 Squadron in Persian Gulf, in command of 202 Squadron in September 1936, and with the Nyon Patrol, Malta in 1937.

King Albert I of the Belgians (1875-1934) was socially progressive and succeeded his exploitative uncle Leopold II in 1909. His first act as king was to oversee the transfer of the Belgian Congo from the personal fiefdom of Leopold to the Belgian state. He and his wife, Queen Elisabeth, were popular for their unassuming lifestyle and harmonious family life, which stood in marked contrast to the aloof manner and irregular private life of Leopold. Connected through his mother and wife to German royalty, Albert’s loyalties were sharply divided in 1914 when the Kaiser’s army overran his Belgium and occupied ninety percent of the country. Albert himself took to the field, holding the last strip of Belgian soil behind the River Yser for four years whilst the Queen worked as a nurse. In late September 1918 he launched the final offensive by which the Belgian Army re-took the crest of Flanders, the Forest of Houthulst and Dixmude, and captured 6,000 prisoners and 250 guns. In mid October 1918 the fight was carried to Lys and Deynze Canal and with the arrival of French reinforcements and two American divisions on to Terneuzen and the final liberation of the Belgium. His flight with Biles on 10 November 1918 was a chance to see the devastation wrought over four years passed. Notwithstanding the suffering of the Belgians under the occupation, Albert worked through secret diplomatic channels for a negotiated peace, believing such a resolution to the conflict would best protect the interests of Belgium and the future peace and stability of Europe. However neither the Kaiser nor the Allies were favourable to the idea, all of whom sought total victory. Post-war Albert devoted himself wholeheartedly to the reconstruction of Belgium. He was a committed conservationist and in 1925 founded Africa's first national park. He was also the first European monarch to visit the United States. King Albert I died in 1934 in a mountaineering accident while climbing alone in the Ardennes region. His death shocked the world and he was deeply mourned, both in Belgium and abroad.

The royal presentation cigarette case reached Biles’s at his squadron base near Dunkerque on 8 December 1918, allowing him to tell the story of its giving in a letter written to his younger sister: -

‘I received your letter when I arrived in London last Monday evening.  Your evidently got my letter mixed up with mother’s, because it was she who sent the money, as I am afraid I never thought of giving it when visiting you.  However it is all the same.  Well I spent Tuesday in London where I met Marge and several friends, and altogether had quite a full day:  in the evening I went on down to Dover.  On Wednesday morning I crossed and drove here from Dunkerque in the afternoon.  It was a most interesting drive through no-man’s land etc. and one felt a weird sensation driving through the villages in the enemy territory, which we knew so well, and from which we always received such a hot reception.  Even now when flying here the fellow’s say that they sometimes look down and momentarily forget that the country is in our hands, and it gives them quite a shock.

When I returned I found the C.O. was on leave and the next day the senior Captain went to Dover, and stayed for a couple of days, so I was in charge here, and consequently never left the squadron until to-day.  This afternoon I went into Bruges and visited the famous Cathedral.  There was no service on at the time, and the music was beautiful but I was unable to have a good look round!  I shall go again however, and I think one can buy rather good pictures in a museum they have inside.  Meanwhile I send along a few P.C.S.  We walked all around the city: there are hosts of historic buildings but it gets dark so early that we did not see everything.  The Cathedral was of course grand, but we only heard a few of the bells ring:  I want to hear the whole peal.  Thanks to the care which was always taken by our bombers, the town is untouched.
Enclosed are two handkerchiefs of Bruges lace, one for you, and one for Miss Pomroy.  You will understand that I only intend them as a little “something” from Bruges after the Great War.  They ought to be alright however, because though I know nothing about these things there were lots of other articles which cost less but looked better but I believe the working was rougher.  Anyhow my friend said so and he bought a couple xxx.  They are supposed to be hand worked.
I hope to go further afield soon, Brussels, Ghent, Antwerp etc.
When I returned this evening I found a very nice little surprise awaiting me in the shape of a beautiful cigarette case from King Albert.  On the outside it has a small gold A with the crown above it and inside is inscribed:

To Captain G.W. Biles, RAF
In remembrance of our interesting trip
in Flanders on the last day of the
Great War, 10th November 1918.
Albert

Very charming I think.

I have just been picked to escort King George next week, but of that I can tell nothing at present: nothing dreadful of course, and he will not be flying himself, but we shall be circling overhead.
Now I must close: the fellows are making a good deal of noise in the room, and it is hard to think. Please give my kind regards to Miss Pomroy, Miss Frost and the three little girls, and with heaps of love to yourself.
From Your affectionate brother
Will


 
 

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