The First World War witnessed major technological advances, perhaps none more significant than the development of the aeroplane as an instrument of war.
Very quickly, aircraft assumed offensive capabilities and dog fights became common as the two sides fought to dominate the skies above the battlefield. Mastery of the skies meant that aircraft could take photographs of enemy positions and direct artillery fire accurately on to them; eventually by the war’s end they were able to do this through direct radio communication with ground troops. In 1918, the Royal Air Force was created by the amalgamation of the army’s Royal Flying Corps (RFC) and the Royal Naval Air Service.
In 1915 the RFC began rapidly to expand the number of its squadrons on the Western Front, and appealed for army officers with a knowledge of machine guns to transfer as observers and gunners. Among these was Elgie Jefferson of Ballahot near Ballasalla. He flew with No 18 Squadron which operated FE2B aircraft in which the observer stood upright in a front cockpit, with no harness and no parachute. In one hair-raising incident, Jefferson’s pilot was rendered unconscious and the plane fell out of control before making a forced landing. Not surprisingly, Jefferson’s injuries were not confined to physical bruising. His medical notes mention ‘nerve shock’, and in a subsequent letter to his commanding officer, Jefferson stated: ‘I have the honour to apply for three weeks leave of absence from my squadron in the field, on medical grounds. I was given special leave which expires on the 19th [September] for medical reasons. My nerves are very strained and I feel very run down and do not feel fit enough to carry out my work as an observer, for the present…’
Jefferson did eventually return to flying duty, and was killed in an accident in 1919. His mother however never believed this, and kept a field bellow the family home mowed short in the hope that he would one day land his aircraft there, as he had once done during the war.
Other Manxmen who embraced this new technology included Sylvester Quine, who flew with No 21 Squadron RFC.
Quine was awarded the Military Cross for his perseverance in October 1917 when, in spite of bad weather and hostile aircraft, he completed his mission and successfully bombed enemy targets during the Third Battle of Ypres.
His letter home after this incident speaks of a rowdy concert in the squadron officers’ mess, perhaps a way of letting off steam after the stress earlier in the day. This squadron flew the RE8 aircraft, known in the RFC as the ‘Harry Tate’ after a music hall star of the era.
The undoubted bravery of these early pioneers of aviation is underlined by the fact that almost as many were killed in accidents as died as a result of enemy action. William Beckton of Ronaldsburn, Derbyhaven, was commissioned during the First World War as an officer in the 5th battalion Royal Welsh Fusiliers. He was subsequently attached to the RFC, and it was whilst flying in Egypt that he was killed in a training accident, on 23 March 1918.
Archibald McFarlan of Castletown was living in Canada at the outbreak of war, and enlisted in the 31st battalion Canadian Expeditionary Force. He arrived in France in September 1915, and was subsequently commissioned into the RFC. McFarlan was killed in a flying accident on August 23, 1918, whilst attached to No 1 Fighting School based at RAF Turnbury.
He is buried in Girvan Cemetery, Ayrshire. A fellow Castletonian, Captain Richard Claude Cain had also emigrated to Canada in the spring of 1914, and upon the outbreak of war he had likewise enlisted in the ranks of the Canadian army. He subsequently received a commission in the RFC, and flew on the Italian front where a British force supported the Italian army. He was awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross for these operations, being wounded once. After the close of hostilities he was posted to testing duties at Hendon aerodrome, and was killed in July 1919, when his machine crashed and burst into flames.
There is more information about these men in the book ‘This Terrible Ordeal’ published by Manx National Heritage and also online at www.imuseum.im