It’s All in the Details: Social Class and Royal Flying Corps Recruitment Tactics

My visit to the Royal Air Force Museum definitely had a positive influence on my research. Despite researching different elements of the Royal Flying Corps for the past few years, seeing all the artifacts side-by-side in exhibitions caused me to think differently and, in a way, more intensively that ever before. One such new approach to thinking was one I discussed in my last post: postulating what the differences between McCudden’s manuscript and the final published piece. Another topic I thought about after my visit was the Royal Flying Corps different approaches in recruiting potential commissioned officers and non-commissioned officers (NCOs). In prior research, I had always seen posters and other recruiting pieces for flying officers and N.C.O.s, but I had never seen them pictured together. In a bold but interesting manner, the RAF Museum displays the different approaches to recruitment side-by-side in the Grahame-White Hangar.

In the Royal Flying Corps, cadets included pilots or observers in training. Commissioned officers included the ranks of Second Lieutenant (Pilot-in-Training, Pilot; Observer-in-Training, Observer), Lieutenant (Pilot, Observer, Recording Officer, Armament Officer, Equipment Officer, Wireless Officer), Captain (Flight Commander, Recording Officer, Equipment Officer, Transport Officer), Major (Squadron Commander), Lieutenant-Colonel (Wing Commander), Brigadier-Colonel (Brigade Commander), and Major-General (Division Commander).

Non-commissioned officers included Warrant Officer I (Sergeant Major), Warrant Officer II (Quartermaster Sergeant), Flight Sergeant (Chief Mechanic), Sergeant (Armorer, Fitter, Rigger, Gear Mechanic), Corporal (Fitter, Rigger), Air Mechanic First Class (Armorer, Acetylene Welder, Blacksmith, Coppersmith, Tinsmith, Engine Fitter, Gear Mechanic, Aircraft Rigger, Electrician, Magneto-Repairer, Fitter, Machinist, Sailmaker), Lance Corporal, Air Mechanic Second Class (Armorer, Acetylene Welder, Blacksmith, Coppersmith, Tinsmith, Engine Fitter, Gear Mechanic, Aircraft Rigger, Electrician, Magneto-Repairer, Fitter, Machinist, Sailmaker), Private First Class (Driver), Air Mechanic Third Class (Armorer, Acetylene Welder, Blacksmith, Coppersmith, Tinsmith, Engine Fitter, Gear Mechanic, Aircraft Rigger, Electrician, Magneto-Repairer, Fitter, Machinist, Sailmaker), and Private Third Class (driver). Often, in film depictions of the Royal Flying Corps, directors and actors choose to portray NCOs in more of the stereotypical “ground crew” manner: the mechanic wearing oil-stained overalls, milling about quietly in the background while the flying officers discuss combat after a patrol. Elements of this manner of thinking can be seen in recruitment posters.

NOTE: The description in parentheses provides the typical appointments men of the respective ranks would receive.


Above is a replicated recruitment poster displayed in the Royal Air Force Museum.

Although the poster above is aimed at recruiting both set of ranks, the way information is presented shows its main focus is on commissioned officers. The language of the first sentence sets up the tone: “Men aged 18 to 30 of various mechanical trades and others of good education.” The main requirement for commissioned officers is a “good education. The same requirement and language is nearly replicated in the poster below:


A recruiting poster for commissioned officers I came across in my research prior to leaving for England.

The setup of both of the posters above is interesting. When discussing the duties of a commissioned officer, the information is presented in a detailed manner with complete, complex sentences. The second poster, focusing on the recruitment of commissioned officers in Canada, employs very patriotic language in its complex structure, language also employed in the public schools and universities most commissioned officers attended; especially in the case of public schools, military and a dedication to one’s country were key elements in the pupils’ education. This familiar language would foster a feeling of connection in the viewer to the idea of joining the Royal Flying Corps.



Above are two other replicated posters displayed in the Royal Air Force Museum.

The main requirement and desired qualification for non-commissioned officers, despite the variety of appointments for the respective ranks, was a background in “various mechanical trades”, as described in the first poster. There is no emphasis on education, in the sense of one obtained in public schools and university, in potential non-commissioned candidates. Once again, the language and presentation of information in these posters is key. Compared to the other posters, there is very little detailed text or complete sentences. In the case of the first poster, the most detailed the section on non-commissioned officers gets is the chart detailing the pay scale for the various non-commissioned ranks. The main tactic employed in these posters is big, block text to attract attention to the poster. The rest of the poster is very simple: a list of needed trades in all capital letters or relatively bold text slightly smaller than the heading text, another tactic used to attract and maintain attention. The simplicity of these posters provides a glimpse into how the British and the Commonwealth perceived social class differences. The simplicity employed in these posters suggests that the audience would lack the “fair” or “good” education mentioned in the aforementioned discussed posters that would allow them to properly read extensively detailed posters. Going off the historical trend in place since the Industrial Revolution, most individuals turning to trades as their occupation lacked the money that would provide them with access to education. When the war came, the lack of money also prevented most of these tradesmen from taking flying lessons, as, in the early years of the war, an individual had to pay for their own lessons; these lessons were a key step in becoming a commissioned officer. On the other end, in the middle and upper classes, families had enough money to send their sons to public schools and university, also being able to fund their flying lessons during the war. In short, the upper and middle classes, due to education and money, had more doors open to becoming commissioned officers than most tradesmen. By looking at recruitment differences, the origins of how social class provided such a divide in experiences in the Royal Flying Corps comes to light.