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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 …


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.

100 years ago the Royal Flying Corps was formed

Imperial War Museum Lecture: Shooting from the Air (20th June 2012)

At the time my 15 year old grandfather had been working for a year at the Northeastern Brewery; he sent off to Gamages for model planes.


Fig. 1 Gustav Hamel

The year before, with his kid brother Billy, they had watched an aeronautical display from Gustav Hamel over Carlisle Race course and caught the bug.

At the outbreak of war Billy was only 14, but he managed to join the cadets.

Come 1915 Jack had enlisted and had been bounced out of the Durham Light Infantryinto the Machine Gun Corps; he regretted this all his life, though having survived The Somme and Third Ypres (Passchendaele) he successfully transferred and passed fit to train as a fighter pilot passing out late in October 1918. He never got a shot back in France as he would have liked.

Fig. 2. Captain Dixon (probably) with the Avro Trainer in which Jack Wilson was taught. RAF Crail, September 1918

By nWilliam Nixon Wilson, is a bomber pilot and Flight Lieutenant.

We have a record of some of his ‘hits’. Sadly his plane came down in the summer of 1919 delivering mail over Belgium.

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

J A Wilson MM 1919

Bristol Fighter, Flight Instructor, RAF Crail 1918

WWI  Bristol Fighter Pilot or Instructor

RAF Cadets, 1918, Military Training, Hastings

WWI Pics 2AUG09 h0001

Bombed out train: 1918

WWI Bomb Raid Willie Wilson 1919

John Arthur Wilson MM 1896-1992

95 years later Houthulst Forest is used to first store then detonate the 200,000 bomb a found in the Ypres area every year.


One tip to be a successful blogger? Like brushing your teeth. Daily is good, twice a day is better, three times a day shows dedication

The original blog, a log. In this case the log book of a fledgling RAF Fighter Pilot during the First World War. My grandfather in fact. When he transferred from the Machine Gun Corps he was going to the Royal Flying Corps. His skill with a machine-gun, this time in the air, was as much in demand, as his aptitude for engines (his father was a former headcoachman/chauffeur). It helps to have something of interest to write about. Do you?

Achieving a thousand page views for a blog per day takes time if your content is all you’ve got; I’d like to get others up to 10 per day, then a 100; it grows on you.

A thousand takes a year, a decade ago it took a couple of weeks. You had to know what to write, and where to write it. What’s changed?

Here the interest is clear. How are you getting on with your course? What motivates you to keep going? And especially share when you are stumped and about to throw in the towel.

We’ve all been there.

My mistake a decade ago was to do exactly this …

Have reasons to stop, so simply cut off the water. I said nothing to The OU or anyone. I just stopped. Had I shared my dire straits I know the community would have given me a reality check and put me back on my feet.

Some of the blogs featured in my student blog here achieve 10k, even 20k a day. Though these are highly commercialised, linked to the hilt and featured in national and international press.

Andrew Sullivan is the million views a month man.

The ONE thing they all do is so, so, easy to achieve.

Every day. Something. A picture and comment will do. What’s that expression, ‘a penny for your thoughts’ that’s all they do some days. If you want tips on putting pics in here ask, it took me a few months to figure it out … then do something quicker and easier.

Other days of course these mega-bloggers come in with serious commentary and opinion, they take a stance. These are NOT academics, they are citizen journalists with an opinion, a point of view, even a political, cultural, or religious bias. But you know where they stand. That’s the point. It helps to know that you strongly agree, or strongly disagree with these people.

This is where academics stumble, or rather sit on the fence. Academics can’t debate, it is like watching toothless geriatrics argue over a chicken wing that they know neither can bite into.

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