As a child, I never realised about the First World War or knew what an Observer was; it was all too far away – all in the past and beyond my comprehension. One day when we were dressing, I saw the enormous scars on my Dad’s bottom where the bullets had entered from underneath his aircraft. I began to realise what my Dad did in the War – the “Great War of 1914 – 18.
These recollections were put together over the years from Dad’s own comments with his post-card photographs into an album. Dad was unusual, not only because he survived the War when not many Observers did (the average life was 13 days) but he joined the Royal Flying Corps in 1914 as an enlisted man before flying became an officer-based profession. So often, only the “gung-ho” exploits of officers and the “Aces” later in the War were recorded, rarely are the enlisted men mentioned. This is to pay tribute to these men. Also, this is my tribute to a modest, caring and loving Dad, Leslie Irving Howden, who provided for and gave every opportunity to his children even though he was left disabled from his War.
Full of youthful enthusiasm, my Dad had cycled from Scarborough to Manchester to join the Lancashire Fusiliers where the Army did not know he was underage. Similarly, in November 1914, after completing his basic training, he responded to a poster appealing for enlisted men to volunteer for a new service – the Royal Flying Corps
In January 1915, still 17, he proudly wore his new cavalry uniform (at that time, the Generals thought that flying was similar to riding a horse). In fact, for the first three weeks of training, he was learning how to ride a horse and the RFC was known as “The Cavalry of the Skies”.
The first test was at Farnborough in Hampshire where the Army had constructed a winding railway track down a hill with tight curves and ups and downs.
A Lewis gun was fixed to the front of a railway truck. Given a push start, the trainees learnt to fire at targets on route to the bottom – winding and diving. Those that vomited with the motion or failed to make the grade, were returned to their regiments.
The second test was to learn Morse Code and he was posted to the Regent Street Polytechnic in London.
He succeeded and became a qualified Wireless Operator Second Class now touting a new moustache to look older. Later, he was one of the few selected to train as an Observer to report and photograph enemy positions from above the lines. Fifty years later, this was the very same hall at the Regent Street Polytechnic where I sat my final exams at London University.
Originally, the RFC was designed to deliver “Reconnaissance”, reporting enemy positions and troop movements. Only later did aerial combat develop when you wanted to get rid of the enemy’s reconnaissance aircraft.
Training at that time also included learning the basics of flying an aeroplane as well as learning the skills of being an Observer. This was because, if the pilot was killed, the Observer was expected to climb over and fly the aeroplane back.
In June 1915, he was posted to the main RFC Marshalling Depot at St Omer and within a few days, he was posted on to Number 6 Squadron based at Abeele near Poperinge in Belgium. This was adjoining the Ypres Salient. Number 6 was the Squadron commanded by Major Leone Hawker, a quiet, tall, slim and dignified man who became the first Victoria Cross in the RFC. He too, was posted soon afterwards. Dad said he was not at all like the obese thug as he was depicted in the film “The Red Baron”.
Dad’s first aeroplane was an old BE2C but, after the Germans had developed a Fokker aeroplane which fired forwards through the propeller, he was one of the first Observers to fly operationally in an Fe2b which was Britain’s answer to the forward-firing mechanism.
To fire backwards, he had to stand on his thin, plywood seat, with only his ankles inside the cockpit, to operate a Lewis gun.
I once asked him, “Weren’t you frightened of falling out?” He replied, “Yes, all the time. Many Observers did and you could see them falling to the ground – see them screaming – but you couldn’t hear them of course”. “They told us that you would be dead before hitting the ground, but I don’t think so.”
In 1916, (the Squadron’s Historians advised) that one Flight from Number 6 Squadron was posted to Bertangles to prepare for the Somme offensive. Dad must have been in this Flight because he vividly recalled the carnage, young lads being ripped to pieces by German machine guns.
Pools of water in shell-holes became stained red with blood and were clearly visible from the sky.
In May 1916, Training Schools were established in England for officers only so flying in the RFC gradually became an officer-based profession.
As an enlisted man, Dad still flew as an Observer but often had to spend more time in the forward trenches as a Wireless Operator receiving messages from the aircraft above. Dad said he hated trying to console and looking into the eyes of young lads who would most likely be killed the next day – “Going over the Top”.
He said, life became more lonely as his enlisted friends were killed one by one in action and were replaced by officers. He got to the stage when he tried not to make friends because they didn’t last long.
In later life, Dad used to wake up screaming with perspiration running down his face; still re-living his War. Shouting “Don’t let him burn – Don’t let him burn”. The one thing he said they all feared was burning to death. Many a night I have sat with him, holding his hand which had been so cruelly part shot away.
For years, all he would say about the War (crying) “I hope my lads never have to go”.
In 2009, I took my own, lovely son to France to see his Grandad’s airfields and locations. On the way, every hundred yards, from the Channel ports to Switzerland, we passed hundreds of cemeteries each one containing thousands of British boys. He cried and said “Dad, most of these lads are younger than me”. IT JUST MAKES US REALISE AND SO GRATEFUL OUR SONS DID NOT HAVE TO GO.
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