“For King and Country”: A Look at James McCudden’s Manuscript

“I am now in England training the young idea, but my heart is in France amongst the gallant boys who are daily dying,, and those who are dead, having given themselves to that most wonderful Cause-

For King and Country.”

-James McCudden, Five Years in the Royal Flying Corps

 

The weeks since my visit to the Royal Air Force Museum have been quite hectic. Most of my assignments for my two English classes fell in the last two weeks of the study abroad program (W&M Summer Program at Cambridge). As a result, I made the decision to push back making any more research posts until I got back to the United States. Since I arrived home Friday afternoon, I have been thinking about my viewing of the four-volume manuscript for Major James McCudden’s Five Years in the Royal Flying Corps. Prior to my visit, I had read McCudden’s memoir and had seen snippets of the original manuscript published in other books, but had always wanted to see more of the original. Curious, I brought my copy of the book with me to my research appointment to make a comparison between the manuscript and the published version.

After a January 1918 Daily Mail article brought McCudden’s exploits to light, his newfound publicity opened many doors for him. Through his time at the Royal Flying Corps Club in London, he met two prominent publishers: C.G. Grey, the editor of The Aeroplane, and Ethel Alec-Tweedie, author, journalist, biographer, and mother of his friend Captain Harley Alec-Tweedie. Both Grey and Alec-Tweedie recognized the potential for a successful memoir McCudden’s life held. After being approached by Alec-Tweedie, McCudden produced his old Army exercise books, in which, against military regulations, he had written down his day-to-day life, totaling around 1,000 words. Impressed by his easy-to-read yet factual writing style, the two agreed that McCudden’s work held potential, yet a full-fledged memoir required more of a manuscript. It was decided that between 40,000 to 80,000 words would be sufficient and over the course of three weeks, McCudden wrote 40,000 words during his time training pilots in Scotland. These 40,000 words, supplemented by his old Army diary, made up a total of four volumes, the last of which was delivered to Alec-Tweedie before he left London to fly to France on the morning of his death on 9 July 1918. The book was published posthumously.

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Above: A selection of pages from one of McCudden’s manuscript volumes. Throughout, McCudden made edits in darker graphite against the lighter pencil used in the initial writing. These edits include spelling corrections, clarifying dates, inserting complete sentences, adding service member names, etc.

At the time of my research appointment, I had read Five Years in the Royal Flying Corps several times, to the point where I knew where specific details were located throughout the book. With this in mind, I was surprised to find several appendices and additions to the manuscript that were not in the published version. One of the most interesting things in the manuscript was a collection of appendices naming mechanics. Found in the first manuscript volume, the beginning of which is written in a diary format before switching to prose, McCudden listed the Air Mechanics (A.M.) and their respective attachments, such as to the Main Engineering Department or to repairing specific engine types. For many of the mechanics, McCudden even goes into deeper detail, describing some of their daily duties. Although not explicitly stated, from my close reading and comparison to letters from the time period, most of these mechanics are not only ones attached to his squadron, but are men he maintained relations with. In all the original documents and memoirs I have read, other than official squadron logbooks and records, I have never seen such a succinct, clear naming and description of the mechanics in a squadron. Even when he reached the rank of Major, McCudden always thought highly of mechanics; during his time as a B Flight Commander of 56 Squadron, he emphasized a close working relationship between pilots and mechanics, with flying officers helping with aircraft maintenance and repairs. After all, McCudden felt a stronger connection to the ground crew, having started in the Royal Flying Corps as an Air Mechanic and, due to his background, lacking the education most of the flying officers had.

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After my visit, I checked various other versions, such as the first edition from 1918, to see if these additions were present. In all the ones I combed through (the main publication dates being 1918, late 1930s, 1968, and 2010), the appendices in any shape or form were not present. Other than descriptions in the memoir itself, there is no dedicated focus on air mechanics. Finding this to be extremely interesting, I discussed the possibilities of why this may have occurred with one of the archivists at the Royal Air Force Museum. Although we could not be sure, as there was no correspondence about the book’s publication available, we came to a similar conclusion: the publishers figured that McCudden’s exploits in the air would attract the public’s attention more than that of the ground crew. After all, Grey and Alec-Tweedie approached McCudden due to his “exploits”, which suggests an interest in his victories in aerial fighting. This makes sense, as when the government finally allowed for Royal Flying Corps servicemen to be explicitly named in the press, pilots took center-stage, acting as a moral-booster for the public. The public romanticized pilots and aerial fighting, calling them “Knights of the Air” that represented the dying chivalry of the Middle Ages. Although the press mentioned McCudden’s background as “born in barracks” and starting in the RFC as an air mechanic, they only did so because he was such a rare case: most prominent British aces, such as Albert Ball and Arthur Rhys-Davids, had similar backgrounds rooted in public school education and more upper-middle class backgrounds. So, with this in mind, why would Grey and Alec-Tweedie be concerned with including appendices of air mechanics when McCudden provided a wealth of information on flying and fighting that would be sure to win the hearts and minds of the public?

 

 

 

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