Cambridge Goes to War: The Royal Flying Corps at Christ’s College

Although I was unable to view the Rhys Davids papers (the primary collection I had intentions of viewing), I discovered that Christ’s College, the college I stayed at during my study abroad program at Cambridge, held some materials pertaining to the Royal Flying Corps. All the materials were held in Christ’s College’s library as a part of the papers of W.H.D. Rouse. William Rouse was a classicist, a Fellow of Christ’s College and Headmaster of the Perse School, an independent boys’ school, in Cambridge. Matthews was a former pupil of Rouse from the Perse School and, due to context, spent some time at Cambridge before the war started. This is particularly interesting, as not only a lot of Cambridge University students and alumni joined the Royal Flying Corps (contributing to the overwhelming number of upper class officers), but the university also served as an Aeronautics training school for the R.F.C., as did Oxford.

ROUSE/1/3/122: Letter from Philip G. Matthews to William Rouse (29 September 1917)




At this point, Philip Mathews is attached to the 198 Depot Squadron in Rochford, Essex. Fresh out of his five week training course at Reading, he was placed into this squadron, which he describes: “This is an advanced squadron, and the placing of novices in advanced machines is an experiment; which, by the way. Is supposed to be very successful. From here we are posted either to fighting scout machines, or to night bomb dropping machines.” This is particularly interesting as despite being a depot squadron, which typically held pilots waiting to be attached to fighter or reconnaissance squadrons and let them use older machines, 198 made the effort to train novice pilots in advanced machines; this reflects the tactics the Royal Flying Corps used to groom 56 Squadron, a fighter squadron, into one of the best units the Corps had, placing the best pilots together in one squadron. Other than mentioning his routine, the presence of aerial bombers over Britain, and the death of a fellow pilot, a considerable chunk of the letter reflects on his time at Perse. Matthews states that “I often think of the days I spent in the “Sixth” at school, and wish I were back again”. What is particularly interesting is that Matthews, like many Royal Flying Corps, transferred from the infantry (Yorkshire Light Infantry), finding the pilots life to be more “glamorous” and fitting to the lifestyle they had at school and university.


ROUSE/1/3/124: Letter from Philip G. Matthews to William Rouse (5 July 1918)


In this letter, Matthews reveals that his observer studied engineering at Cambridge before the war. His letters shows the frequency with which a pilot could meet other flying officers from their respective universities and public schools. At this time, the number of universities in Britain was still relatively lower than now, so Oxford and Cambridge attracted the majority of the population able to send their children to university: the upper and middle classes. What is particularly interesting is that this letter comes after the Royal Flying Corps and Royal Naval Air Service were combined to make the Royal Air Force. Matthews comments on how he has flown the most number of “shows” in his flight, a task that was beginning to take a toll on his nerves. By late 1917, German success in the air and increased R.F.C. casualties stretched thin Britain’s resources, placing a great strain on the pilots. This was one of the major reasons to combine the Royal Air Force, so there would be a greater pool of resources and a more even distribution of pilots. The mentioning of his “strained nerves” reflects elements of “shell shock” (now known as PTSD) that become prominent in the First World War. When many neurologists and psychologists treated officers, many of whom came from middle and upper class backgrounds, they referred to shell shock more specifically as the “public schoolboy syndrome” or “public schools syndrome”, believed that the sheltered background of the upper classes made the men more susceptible to mental and emotional stress.