Summary of Summer Research

Although I do not start my honors thesis until next academic year, I needed to do research in order to gauge the subject I intended to pursue. This summer, I was able to not able to survey the wealth of resources available, but I was also able to reevaluate my initial expectations for the thesis to meet standards that are more realistic. My initial goal was to evaluate the role, if any, of social class in the Royal Flying Corps. Though summer closures and movement of materials prevented me from looking at a bulk of the sources I originally wanted to look at, I was able to compensate by finding more relevant sources in England. I hope that I will be able to return to England to gather more sources.

Coming in to the summer, I formulated a general thesis from prior reading: access to money, education, and family background determined the demographics for commissioned officers and non-commissioned officers. I learned that the Industrial Revolution and its impact on social hierarchy played a key role in the Royal Flying Corps. An overwhelming majority of commissioned officers were from the upper and middle classes with a public school education, university experience, and money that allowed them to take flying lessons and buy the necessary uniforms/flying equipment. For non-commissioned officers, most were suited to ground crew roles due to the family background in factory work, manual labor, etc., which also economically prevented them from accessing education easily.  Although this is the trend generalized by media portrayals of the R.F.C., such as The Dawn Patrol and Aces High, the reality was so much more complicated. Yes, although there was a majorly visible divide in social class between the commissioned and non-commissioned officers, there were outliers on each side. Two of the ones I looked at closely were Major James McCudden, a flying officer that came from a lower-middle class military family but rose from the rank of Air Mechanic to Major in five years, and Lieutenant Hubert Noel Charles, an engineering officer that received an honours degree by age twenty and went on to be the lead designer for major car companies after the war. These two outliers showed that although differences did divide the servicemen, most respected each other greatly, united in their shared duty to fight the Germans.

Overall, I am very happy with my experience researching in England this summer. Although I had several bumps early on in the process, I forced myself to look past it and find new solutions, resulting in finding some very valuable sources I had not considered/knew of before. This coming academic year, I will continue analyzing my sources to gauge my topic further and finalize the direction to go in. I hope to find more sources from lower class flying offices and non-commissioned officers, as, due to education differences and pressure, they are rarer than correspondence and diaries from upper class individuals. As I have been interested in this topic since such a young age, I am looking forward to not only researching it further, but also to presenting my research at the summer research showcase in the fall.


  1. I’ve browsed through this post and some prior ones by you and this seems like a great project! Glad the summer was productive abroad and I wish you the best of luck on your thesis. Hopefully, you’ll be able to find those cases of lower class soldiers on the commissioned officer trajectories. I bet due to education differences, like you pointed out, the material for those individuals might be a little sparse. The documents of commissioned officers also might be the ones curators deemed worth preserving. This could pose a challenge, but you have two very good figures to work from. They could definitely shed light on the role of social class. The recruitment posters you found were great materials, too! I noticed one targeted to commissioned work had the word “skilled.” I wonder if the word “skilled” began to become part of advertising lexicon around this time to distinguish male and female work at time when women were entering the workplace to fill vacancies left in domestic industries by their male counterparts. It has exclusive undertones and using “skilled” might make those types of traditionally lower class jobs feel more important and attractive to men thereby increasing military participation. Also, I thought your observation was very interesting about how psychologists viewed upper/middle class stress during the war–even though these young men were thrown into “experimental” training scenarios, used advanced machines, and faced the possibility of death made real by witnessing casualties (as described in the Matthews letters), people still attributed the emotional toll as a result of cushy academic training. Of course, there was nothing in the past to compare to the psychological effects of modern warfare, new weapons, new tactics, and the sheer scale of the event. That bias reveals important info about the interplay of social class too. Awesome findings!

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