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Who’s that?

Tens of thousands of photographs from the First World War feature people who have no name. Who are they? Where did they come from? What was there story? Did they fight and die or fight and survive? Help identify these people and tell their story and in many cases remember a person as more than just a name on a memorial – they had parents and siblings, they went to the local school and played cricket for the local club … bring them to life in the 100th anniversary years of the Great War, that war that H G Wells said ‘would end all war’.

There are six photographs in this set which show the entire ‘cadet squadron’ and their commander. These embedded them in Hastings in 1918 and could offer more clues and of course more faces to ‘play’ with. I doubt any of this group saw service as the influenza epidemic and dreadful weather made completing training by November 1919 difficult … but the Royal Flying Corps barracks here had been used for a few years and indeed the younger brother of Jack Wilson had signed up age 17 and was flying bombers over Belgium at the time of this picture. I think I need to indicate that multiple connections can be made a) geographically to the wide ranging UK locations these cadets came from and b) their links to combatants in the RAF or other services at this time including those who die c) for some, the schools they had just left – so Jack Wilson who left school at 14 and came from the Iron and Steel town of Consett finds himself in the mess-room with boys straight out of Harrow and a Cambridge undergraduate …d) those who remained in the RAF and go on to serve, potentially in a senior capacity by the time of the Second World War i.e. the picture becomes a way to explore people, places, history, society, education, class, military history e) the Charlie Chaplin films being shown … the coming of radio e) even bringing it as close as I can to the present day as Jack Wilson lived into his 97th year and went to an RFC/RAF reunion in 1992, attended the 75th commemoration of the Battle of Passchendaele and on watching the First Iraq War on TV remarked ‘That’s Nothing Compared to Passchendaele’ … and said, ‘If I was a younger man I’d like to go out and have a go’ … and warned me, his 30 year old grandson that I might get called up!! So, not realising it the multliple threads perhaps make this, and therefore any picture like it, full of possibility ESPECIALLY because of the connectedness of Web 2.0. Very many thanks. Interest in this very much helps me to stick with it and fix it rather than going off on a tangent.

I need as I go through the necessary task of simplifying and magnifying the idea that works rather than thinking that adding more or coming up with new ideas will in any way help. I’ll work on what you suggest. The picture could fill the poster … ‘BE’ the poster with rollover and drop-down on faces. This offers the greatest opportunity, not least because already, since 2005 or so, when I first put these on Flickr, there have been contributions. Not least I recall being interviewed for research into memorialising the first world war based on a search stumbling upon this picture. Something I’d forgotten – that by tagging and ‘pushing’ an image on the Web it makes it ‘vulnerable’ to being picked up through serendipity and the more interest, clicks and comments, the brighter the light shone on it by the search engines … so it becomes self-fulfilling. Would it help or hinder to target this at secondary school GCSE students? This at least gives me some parameters and learning objectives to work from.

RAF Hastings 1918: A veteran talks about military training with the RAF in 1918

Jack Wilson talks about his time doing military training with the RAF in Hastings in 1918. Born in 1896 Jack joined the Durham Light Infantry in 1915. In 1916 the Machine Gun Corps took him and her served on the Western Front at the Battle of the Somme and Third Ypres, the Battle of Passchendaele. At the end of 1917 he successfully transferred to the Royal Flying Corps where his younger brother Billy was already flying bombers. Jack completed training as a flight cadet, passing out as a Fighter Pilot on Bristol Fighters in September 1918. The complete interview runs to three hours. In due course about 30 minutes, illustrated like this, will be offered online.

Slipping over the edge …

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In my youth, like an idiot, I would sometimes ski off trail heading towards a seemingly tame gully. There was this time as I descended with too much confidence into a steep funnel that I realised there was no safe way back … the snow was too deep, on too steep a slope so I had to go on. Worse, I knew that I would have to take a leap of faith to clear the edge and any rockfalls below. I love to ski but prefer to keep them on the ground whatever I do having smashed a leg badly in my teens doing this kind of thing.

A hundred years ago the world slipped over the edge, nations gathered on this slope and many ventured down to the edge to try and peak over, others took the brash view that whatever happened they’d be fine or that the shake up was necessary.

No book, of some 100 or more I must have read over a three decade period does more to set the scene – the mutiple players, the ambitions, the intrigues and affairs, the plots, plotting, murders, the arms race, the arrogance, the empire building, the lack of consideration by any of the players for the people they represented, claimed to represent, ruled or brutally exploited. Here we have an authoritaive and informed voice looking down from the moon observing as best as possible the events over the centuries, decades, then months and weeks that led to ‘Total War’. God forbid that we can ever be so foolish, collectively, again. Yet here we are about to take a part in Syria. Any action or in-action has consequences. So what is it to be? I wonder if now, as a hundred years ago, the wrong people, as ever, are running things.

In a move from WW1 enthusiast to subject matter expert I begin a Masters Degree in First World War studies with the University of Birmigham next month. Over the next two years and during the duration of the centenary events to mark the 1914-18 conflict I hope to build this blog into a valuable resource with an emphasis on the lot of the person on the front line, man or woman, from all sides with a focus all the same on the British Machine Gun Corps and Royal Flying Corps.

Shooting the Front. Terry Finnegan on the role of observers over the Western Front during ‘War One’ (sic)

Fig. 1.  Shooting the Front.

Terry Finnegan gave a presentation based on his book ‘Shooting the Front’ to an audience, largely of Friends of the Imperial War Museum at the IWM on Wednesday 20th June.

He wondered how the 100th anniversary of the formation of the Royal Flying Corps could have been missed, yet we got behind the 100th of Titantic.

Fig. 2. The author taking us through the standard set of cameras used.

The presentation was revealing on a number of counts.

I’d never heard it called ‘War One’ yet this is clearly how American’s refer to the First World War.

I wasn’t aware that the techniques used to record the flash and roar of enemy artillery fire used the earliest form of computing to ‘spot’ the gun and retaliate.

I’ve heard before how war ‘progresses’ technology. Terry put it like this, ‘it takes a military event to put you in the  21st century’.

He described trench warfar as  he ‘positional’ war or stationary war.

Every inch of the Western Front was scrutinised every day we are told (not enough to prevent the folly of attempting an attack though(, but rather to plot a way through for tanks and troops.

The role or observers in planes was:

  • air space management
  • division to corps
  • protecting the air above you about 20 miles forward

The Germans had better lenses, the Zeiss.

With the automation of photography the Observer became a fighter defending the plane.

Fig 3. An RAF Observer 1918

Because of the nature of the single-winged emblem on their tunics Observers became known as ‘Flying Arse-Holes’. The response was to retitle them ‘Navigators’.

Apologies to this individual whose name I don’t have. My grandfather, a flight cadet at the time, provided a length memoir which I am yet to transcribe from the interviews I conducted in his 97th year.

Nicholas Watkis, author ‘The Western Front from the Air’.

Suggested that for much of the time the front was dry and dusty and not a great deal happened.

RAF Crail, 1919 Pilot and plane

RAF Crail, Scotland 1919. Bristol Fighter

Crashed and killed in training: RAF Crail, 1919

Bristol Figher down Sept 1919, a fatal crash, RAF Crail

From First World War

Fig.1 Photograph taken by Flight Cadet John A Wilson MM with his note on the reverse

My grandfather Jack Wilson was having breakfast at the time with this observer with whom he shared a room. 1 in 790 instructor flights led to fatalities in training. A few weeks earlier my grandfather had gone out and the engine failed out at sea. His account if his flight back is thrilling, into shore, onto the headland, narrowly missing a brick wall and landing nose down in a potato field. He lived, some didn’t. Munday and Green were buried in the tiny parish church at Crail.

RAF Hastings 1918

WWI Post Card D Flight 3 Squadron RAF Hastings June 1918

A postcard home from RAF Cadet Corporal JAWilson, 1918

WWI RAF Postcard 1919

John Arthur Wilson M.M R.I.P. 1896-1992

J A Wilson MM 1919

RAF 1918

RAF Crail, Scotland 1919. Bristol Fighter

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