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Changing Times | Chichester airmen of the First World War

Throughout November, to commemorate the end of the First World War, we will examine the experiences and sacrifice made by so many local men who served in the armed forces throughout the conflict.


The Royal Flying Corps (RFC) was formed in April, 1912, as the military began to recognise the potential for aircraft to assist with information gathering. It was in this role that the RFC went to war in 1914 to undertake reconnaissance and artillery observation. Shortly before the war, a separate Royal Naval Air Service (RNAS) was also established, splitting off from the RFC.


The mortality rate for pilots during the First World War was extremely high as they struggled with technology that was still being developed and in the early stages of use. There are a few men named on Chichester’s War Memorial who served in the RFC during the First World War.


Corporal William Hayden had been an apprentice carpenter for Messrs J O Holt & sons. After joining the RFC, he was stationed at Shoreham for a short time. He was killed, aged 21, during a training accident at the docks in Montrose, Scotland in September, 1915. He’d been there for two months preparing and training for when the time came for him to go to war in Europe. His parents received a telegram from their son’s commanding officer informing them of the accident.


Captain Robert John Lillywhite had previously served in the Royal Navy before being discharged on medical grounds. Despite this, he pursued an interest in aviation. After qualifying for his pilot’s licence, he worked as an instructor before enlisting in the RFC in 1914. He served for ten months in Egypt then he was transferred to France. Early in 1916, when alighting from his aeroplane in


France, he was run over by a motor car causing him to be badly bruised and shaken. He returned to England on leave for three months to recuperate. On November 26, 1916, he was killed in a flying accident in Yorkshire. He was 23.


In 1918, the RNAS and the RFC were merged, forming the Royal Air Force (RAF). The new organisation was governed by the British Government Air Ministry. By November, 1918, the RAF had nearly 300,000 officers and airmen, and more than 22,000 aircraft.


On April 7, 1918, just a week after the formation of the RAF, two aircraft collided in mid-air over the flying station at Tangmere, which had been established in 1917 as a training base for the RFC.


One pilot involved in the accident, Captain Norman Herbert England, was found alive after the crash but died while being transferred to Graylingwell Hospital for treatment. The other two pilots, Second Lieutenant Clifford Hackman and Second Lieutenant Victor Craigie, died instantly. This kind of incident, unfortunately, was not unusual during the First World War and more than half of RAF fatalities occurred in training.


Air mechanic 1st Class John Edward Shirley of the RAF worked at an aircraft construction station, in Pulham, Norfolk. Pulham was one of the UK’s first main airship stations at this time, opening in 1916 and employing 3,000 servicemen and 2,000 civilians. John Edward Shirley died in July, 1918, aged 39. He is buried in Chichester Cemetery.


Private 2nd Class George Howlett of the RAF died, aged 21, on September 11, 1918, at Cambridge Hospital. He is buried in the churchyard at All Saints Church in Portfield.


After the war ended, a deadly outbreak of influenza caused more deaths and casualties. Private First Class Archibald Cosens had served in the RAF throughout the war. He died at home in Chichester in February, 1919. He is buried in Chichester Cemetery.


Next week’s article will explore the impact of war on men from Chichester serving in the Navy.


By Pat Saunders, volunteer and Amanda Rogan, learning officer at the Novium Museum


Pic: Tangmere Museum


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