Please excuse me for rattling on about Arthur Keen, but as the story grows with incoming material, it becomes more compelling. We continue to transcribe the letters and delve deeper into the archive. As with archaeology it isn’t only the writing and the photographs that provide the interest. The backfilling from research, the exposure of context and cross fertilisation offered by events and other testimonies all become remarkably revealing. A bit like the gradual scraping of dirt away from an artefact with a trowel to reveal the underlying relic, in this case – the story.
Ronny’s enthusiasm was infectious, his deep love of computer based illustration of his subjects, almost exclusively from the Great War is inspiring as it points into a well-spring of interest in the era, the dawn of aviation.
Speaking generally, I find it difficult sometimes to automatically assign heroic qualities to a block of individuals on the basis they collectively rose to an occasion, as tough as that occasion may have been. Difficult until (in this case) you look at the facts, the daily statistics that were so much more than pure, cold numbers to them.
Whilst they may have been, at least initially, more enthused with flight than the prospect of killing their fellow man, that grim reality dined with them as they forced down breakfast, dressed and walked to their aircraft by the light of dawn’s earliest glimmer from the East. The sheer courage of these men stands out from the record, when faced with Trenchard’s grim message about the need for them to ‘endure painful losses and prevail’ they did just that. They kept calm and carried on until those at home could close the technology gap between England and Germany, then replace the unusually high losses being sustained as a consequence. ‘Hang in there and wait for the cavalry’ essentially, but they didn’t let him or us down. The more I read, the more I become deeply impressed with the grit and achievements of those from ‘England’ (using the language of the day to include Scotland, Wales, Ulster and Ireland), Canada, New Zealand, Australia, the USA, India, the Caribbean – the list is a long one. They came from all over the Empire and elsewhere to help out.
Arthur was part of that effort, he flew through the fledglings months of the new arrival frequently watching those around him vanish. As time progressed he not only survived, but flourished. To infill losses sustained by 45 Squadron (they were virtually wiped out) he was shifted across from ’70′ as a Flight Commander. Later he moved to 40, initially as a Flight Commander but after another rotation through CFS (Home Establishment) at as a new ‘Squadron Boss’.
McElroy is a name we all recognize, Mannock is another. They were both well known to him being initially junior members of his Flight, and later leading lights in his squadron. Rest tours mercifully sent him back to ‘Blighty’ into the flying training system as an instructor, the most common source of respite.
As his experience and leadership qualities developed he was identified by Senior Officers as being ‘Staff Material’ for the new Royal Air Force. They made him an offer, ‘would he like to remain, join the staff and ascend with the organisation during peace time?’ He agonized over the decision within his letters to his mother, and particularly his brother, but in the end, he was ‘having so much fun in France’ that he simply couldn’t resist the return. This was clinched when Major Dallas, 40 Squadron’s boss , was killed whilst solo hunting. Another offer arrived from Headquarters, one he simply couldn’t refuse. He returned to France for the last time, and to his eternal resting place.
In his own words;
…..I am very pleased with everything here at the moment, the squadron is doing very well. We got a wire yesterday from General Salmond congratulating us on the work we had done during the last few days.
My star fellow McElroy by name is doing very well and will probably be the star man out here soon as he has got 42 Huns and 4 kite balloons he is about the bravest fellow I ever came across. Yesterday he was fighting a hun over the line. The carburettor caught fire and he flew quietly back over the line with his machine on fire. He got down to the ground and jumped out of the machine when he was doing about 45mph, came home in a car rather bruised, but no bones broken, got into another machine and went up and brought a hun down in flames.
How he does it I don’t know, for sheer courage I don’t think there is anyone to beat him. I haven’t done much flying lately, the weather has been rather bad and I have been having a new engine put into my machine, but I hope it will be ready tomorrow. I must get a few more huns to try and keep up with these fellows…
Reading at the moment: ‘No Empty Chairs’ by Ian Mackersay
This superb book provides some of the best background reading available about the RFC and its struggle to become an effective fighting force. Alex Revell’s review is well worth a read, praise indeed from such a knowledgeable and talented writer .