Abstract: Knights and Gladiators: Social Class in the Royal Flying Corps

My name is Abby Whitlock. I’m a rising junior at the College and I am double majoring in History and European Studies. This summer, I am taking part in the William and Mary Summer Program at Cambridge and doing preliminary research for my Honors thesis.

For my research, I am looking at the role of social class in the Royal Flying Corps, the predecessor to the Royal Air Force prior to its formation in 1918. Before 1918, there were two aviation branches in the British military: The Royal Flying Corps, formed in 1912 as the air arm of the British Army before and during the First World War, and the Royal Naval Air Service, formed in 1914 as the air arm of the Royal Navy. As social class divisions were still very prominent, social class played a major role in the British military during the First World War. In the case of the Royal Flying Corps, after the cavalry was rendered relatively useless with modern weaponry such as the machine gun, many cavalry officers transferred to the Royal Flying Corps to escape the trenches. As the Royal Flying Corps did most of its recruitment from universities and public schools (such as Eton College) and an early requirement was a pilot’s license, most flying officers were of an upper class. My focus is to see how and why these social class distinctions developed, how it influenced squadron operations, and if this changed going into the interwar and Second World War years.

I will consult reports, letters, diaries, memoirs, and oral histories to get a sense of how men viewed one another in a setting still influenced by social class. Most of these primaries sources are located in university archives (including the University of Cambridge), museum archives (such as the Imperial War Museum, Royal Air Force Museum, etc.), and local monuments, memorials, and historical locations such as living history aerodromes. The main focus of my research will be on the family papers of Lieutenant Arthur Rhys Davids that are located at Cambridge. This part of my research includes reading personal correspondence of pilots to not only discover their family upbringing and other factors that possibly influence social class, but also to get their personal opinions of life in the squadron and how they interacted with other squadron members.