Friday, 20 November 2015

More than Biggles

Naval Air Service truck, courtesy of the Imperial War Museum © IWM (Q 70469)
Naval Air Service truck, courtesy of the Imperial War Museum © IWM (Q 70469) 
This week we hear from David Donkin about how he became a Durham at War volunteer and his research of Durham men in the Royal Naval Air Service.

When I retired from work in I decided to use some of the extra time I had available to fill the gaps in my family tree research.  My aim was to get details of all family members, including all sixteen of my great, great grandparents.  When I'd filled as many gaps as I could I realised that to go much further I would need to get to know my local records office so checked out the Durham County Record Office website.  While looking at the site I got a bit sidetracked and came across some resources for tracing ancestors in the military ending up at the Durham at War pages.  Until that point I knew that one of my great uncles, Lancelot Ellison, had died in the First World War as we have his bronze Next of Kin Memorial Plaque.  Beyond that, because the male family members I knew about were almost all coal miners, I'd assumed they were in a reserved occupation and didn't go to war. Certainly neither of my parents or other relatives had ever spoken about others involved in WW1. 

However, pretty quickly I found out that Lance's brother Richard had also died and that both had served in the Royal Naval Division and both were buried in Gallipoli.  I later found out that a third brother Frank had served in the 3rd Tyneside Irish and been wounded in France.  On a hunch, because my maternal Grandmother's parents were Irish, I looked up her brothers in the Tyneside Irish records and found that sadly one of them, Matthew Cairns, had served with them and died in France.

So in a relatively short space of time I'd found out something about four Great Uncles and the part they'd played in WW1 when previously I hadn't known that three of them had served at all!  This made me think there must be lots of other families who also wouldn't be aware of what their relatives had done in the war and that this was a great shame at the centenary of the First World War.  

About this time I saw a call for volunteers for the Durham at War Project and the opportunity to research and tell stories about extraordinary lives lived by ordinary Durham people during the war.  I volunteered and was offered the opportunity to research the records of people who joined the Royal Naval Air Service (RNAS).  I had little previous knowledge of military records or of the air services and in truth what little I thought I knew probably owed more to the Biggles books I read as a boy than to anything else. 

Sketch of a 'British Airplane' by Reverend JAG Birch, 5th Battalion, Durham Light Infantry (D/DLI 7/63/2(92))
D/DLI 7/63/2(92) Sketch of a 'British Airplane' by Reverend JAG Birch, 5th Battalion, Durham Light Infantry
The basic building blocks for a story of a Durham RNAS recruit are a Navy Record for any time up to 31 March 1918 and an RAF record for any service after 1 April 1918.  This is because, as I quickly learnt, the Royal Air Force was formed in April 1918 by combining the Navy's Air Service and the Army's Royal Flying Corps.  These service records are the foundation blocks that I combine with other records such as births, marriages and deaths and probate records to develop a story to post on the Durham at War website.

The biggest learning curve I've found is how to decipher the combination of old style handwriting and abbreviations used on these records to make sense of where people served and what they served as.  On the first story I worked on I knew that the man had initially travelled to Crystal Palace in London for training and then had been posted to Orkney, but for a long while I couldn't work out where they had been posted just prior to leaving the service.  Then I figured out the abbreviation for Edinburgh where he attended a Dispersal Centre before returning home.  Now I am much more familiar with the names of air stations all round the UK and I am beginning to see some abroad as well.  I am also much more able to understand abbreviations for the different ranks. 

Perhaps it is my sense of humour but I find there are moments of unintended comedy in some of the service records I have looked at such as the one that observed the recruit "has defective vision which is corrected by glasses" but later records that he was appointed an aerial gunner and observer!

I haven't found any pilots from Durham yet but it is clear that fitters from the Durham pits were much in demand as air mechanics for their knowledge of engines and metalwork and  that carpenters and joiners were also needed to fix  wooden parts still used on planes at the time.  More surprising were the tailors who were called up until it became clear that wings on some planes were still covered in cloth and that the RNAS also looked after observation balloons for home defence.  At the moment I've just started to look at the record of a watchmaker and it will be interesting to see if he used any of those skills in his service.

My motivation to volunteer for the Durham at War project is to acknowledge that almost exactly 100 years ago ordinary people throughout Durham just like me and my family gave their time in service of their country and that their stories should not be forgotten.  As time has passed the people who could remember  hearing the stories at first or second hand  have become fewer and fewer and this project is a way of recording stories for posterity.

Here are some of the stories that David has put on Durham at War:

George William Gale, a Cornsay Colliery man who in all of the armed services during First World War

Thomas Henry Young, a Meadowfield man who joined the Royal Naval Air Service on his 41st birthday  

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