Remembering Major James Thomas Byford McCudden

A scanned photograph of James McCudden I obtained before starting preliminary research.

A scanned photograph of James McCudden I obtained before starting preliminary research.

Today (July 9) marks ninety-nine years since Major James Thomas Byford McCudden VC, DSO & Bar, MC & Bar, MM was killed in a flying accident at the age of twenty-three. Despite still being in the early stages of research, McCudden has proved to be an interesting member of my case study focusing on 56 Squadron. What is extremely interesting about McCudden is his relationship to the other pilots of 56 Squadron compared to other squadrons he interacted with later in the war.

McCudden joined the squadron relatively late in their first few campaigns in Europe, transferring to 56 in August of 1917 after going on test patrols with B Flight’s pilots in late summer. He was given command of 56 Squadron’s B Flight, consisting of crack pilots Lieutenant Arthur Rhys Davids, Lieutenant Richard Maybery, First Lieutenant Reginald Hoidge, Lieutenant Keith Muspratt, and Captain Geoffrey Bowman. Although each member of the Flight had the same basic Royal Flying Corps training, two factors divided them into separate groups: length and consistency of combat experience/training and social background. It was common to have differing levels of combat experience, as High Command sent new pilots to replace the empty chairs left behind by those killed in combat. Extreme differences in a squadron’s social class composition, however, was not as common until later in the war when squadrons were desperate for any pilots to assist exhausted pilots. Save for McCudden and Hoidge, the pilots of B Flight came from upper middle class and middle class families able to support their public (equivalent of an American private school) education. Arthur Rhys Davids was the former head boy at Eton; Maybery was educated at Wellington College and the Royal Military College at Sandhurst; Muspratt was a school prefect at Sherborne School and learned to fly while still a student; and Bowman attended Haileybury College and Trinity College at the University of Cambridge.

Just how “different” was McCudden from his fellow pilots? In terms of social class and upbringing, quite different. McCudden came from a middle class family of Irish descent, a heritage looked down at this time due to British colonizing projects in Ireland and the resulting violent uprisings. Later on in my research, I hope to compare the upbringings and experiences of James McCudden and another pilot of Irish heritage. Edward “Mick” Mannock, to see if there are major similarities or differences. As his father served with the Royal Engineers, James’ childhood is described as one “born in barracks”, receiving his early education in the military barracks. The family relied on his father’s military income, leading to a more frugal and conscious manner of living after his retirement. At age 14, he left school to work as a Post Office Messenger Boy before enlisting in the Royal Engineers at age 15. After earning qualifications as a Sapper and an Air Mechanic, he transferred to the Royal Flying Corps and was eventually posted to a squadron in June 1913. Starting the war as an observer, McCudden finished flight training in June 1916. By his death in July 1918, he was one of the most effective and successful pilots in the Royal Flying Corps, a factor emphasized in British newspapers and propaganda efforts in an attempt to help morale.

However, two instances at the end of his life show that not everyone provided McCudden with the same respect as most of the Royal Flying Corps. After leaving the front to assist in a training program in Scotland, McCudden’s return to the war was to take place with taking command of  85 Squadron. However, the squadron turned him down due to his “lack of public school education.” As a result, he was to return to France to command 60 Squadron. On 9 July, on his way to 60 Squadron’s aerodrome from Britain, he landed at Auxi-le-Chateau to ask for directions. After taking off again, however, his engine cut out over the aerodrome and he crashed into a forest. After being taken to a casualty clearing station with a fractured skull, where he died later that evening. At his funeral at Wavans Cemetery, many were angered at the fact that the funeral of Rittmeister Manfred von Richthofen, the “Red Baron” was more thorough with military honors and pomp than that of McCudden. One pilot describes that the service was all in Latin and “hastily mumbled”, falling short of what he thought McCudden deserved.

If McCudden did not have the same level of education and social upbringing as the others in his flight and squadron, why was he accepted by his colleagues? My early research suggests his extensive experience.  Similar to Hoidge, who also lacked a “thorough education” consisting of traditional academic pursuits, McCudden earned respect from others through his work ethic, dedication, and service prior to joining the Royal Flying Corps, as Hoidge did with the Canadian Royal Garrison Artillery before the RFC. In five years, McCudden rose through the ranks from Air Mechanic to a Major. With 57 total aerial victories, he was the seventh highest scoring ace on either side of the war. As a result of his service, McCudden received Britain’s highest military honor, the Victoria Cross, along with the Distinguished Service Order and Bar, Military Cross and Bar, Military Medal, and France’s Croix de Guerre. He received more medals recognizing acts of valor than any other British pilots during the First World War.