Journal of the Australian War Memorial - Issue 40

“Unconscious of any distinction”? Social and vocational quality in the Australian Flying Corps, 1914–1918 [1]

Author: Michael Molkentin

Michael Molkentin, a Australian War Memorial Summer Scholar in 2005, completed his B.A. (Honours) in History at the University of Wollongong in 2004. His thesis, Culture, Class and Experience in the Australian Flying Corps, explores aspects of the AFC’s social composition, squadron culture, and the impacts of active service on its aviators and ground crew.

In the first volume of The story of ANZAC, official war historian Charles Bean claimed:

[T]here were in the Australian force no special corps in which University or “public school” men enlisted apart from others. … for the most part the wealthy, the educated, the rough and the case hardened, poor Australians, rich Australians, went into the ranks together, unconscious of any distinction.[2]

This view has been a significant feature of the ANZAC myth, namely in popular assumptions that the Australian Imperial Force (AIF) during the First World War was characterised by egalitarianism and democracy. A study of the Australian Flying Corps (AFC), however, reveals a very different picture. Its officers and men typically possessed a level of professional training and education that was disproportionate to both the AIF as a whole and Australia’s working male population.[3] The aviators of the AFC were heavily urbanised, of a select age group, overtly Anglicised, and had private, tertiary education. These factors suggest, contrary to Australian mythology, the AFC was a socially elite force whose men certainly did not rub shoulders with “case hardened, poor Australians”.

This article continues a scholarly tradition of examining the social structures of Australia’s military forces. The beginnings of this approach extend back to Ernest Scott’s statistical data on the enlistment patterns and occupational composition of the AIF[4]. Lloyd Robson, writing in 1973, examined the attestation papers of around 2,850 servicemen from across the AIF. Robson noted particular trends in the constitution of the force, upon which future researchers based their findings:[5] Susan Wellborn focused on three Western Australian units, in The lords of death; Dale Blair used statistical data from the 1st Battalion to contest dominant digger myths, in Dinkum diggers; and John McQuilton re-interpreted Robson, in Enlistment for the First World War in rural Australia: the case of north-eastern Victoria, 1914–1918.[6] These later works provide the contrasting picture of the AIF through close, “regional” scrutiny. This article adopts a similar approach, using the AFC to suggest “specialist units” of the AIF socially and culturally challenged the concept of the democratic ANZAC, particularly regarding class and regional structure. I also use Robson’s broad study of the AIF and the 1911 census as principal points of comparison.

As well as contesting assumptions about the AIF’s social composition, this study raises the question of why the flying corps was socially elite. Was it, as historians Michael Paris and George Mosse suggest, due to pervasive beliefs about the moral and social requirements of aviators?[7] Such notions originated in “ideas which surfaced in British popular culture well before the first aeroplane ever flew”, largely through the popular science fiction of H.G. Wells, Jules Verne, and others.[8] Or was it simply logical to recruit men from a particular niche in society to work with aircraft? After all, it makes sense that technically skilled men should work in highly technological aerial warfare. This article examines the recruitment of AFC aviators and ground crew based on cultural preconceptions and vocational practicalities.

3 Squadron ground crew with a Bristol Fighter
3 Squadron ground crew (left) and aviators (pilot and observer, right) with a Bristol Fighter, most likely at Premont aerodrome in October 1918. (Image courtesy of the family of Bill Pomroy)

Sources and Methodology

A flying corps squadron possessed a unique operational makeup. A minimal proportion of members were engaged in combat (all officers), while the majority (enlisted and non-commissioned ranks) undertook highly specialised support roles.[9] Lieutenant Stanley Nunan’s training notes disclose the ideal reconnaissance squadron: 18 pilots, 12 aerial observers, and 218 support staff.[10] Aviators, including both pilots and aerial observers, will henceforth be referred to as “flying ranks”. All non-commissioned ground staff, such as mechanics, riggers, and armourers will be called “other ranks”.

The unit embarkation nominal rolls provide background information for AIF soldiers, including age, occupation, residence, religion, previous military service, and marital status at individual unit level.[11] For the AFC, men were listed under squadron and flight. The sample for this study consists of all flying officers (‘flying ranks”) and ground staff (“other ranks”) assigned to combat flights and reinforcements on the rolls for 1, 2, and 4 Squadrons (129 in flying ranks and 403 in other ranks). The nominal rolls, however, present a methodological problem: they only cover men who enlisted and embarked from Australia as part of the flying corps. Men transferring from AIF units already on active service made up a large proportion of the AFC, hence creating a blind spot in its membership.[12] Other sources, however, fill the gap.

The Roll of Honour contains the records of 202 AFC servicemen killed on active service.[13] Of these, over half have Roll of Honour circulars or cards completed by the deceased’s next of kin for commemoration.[14] Often overlooked, the circulars offer key evidence about the social background and education of servicemen, including a sample of servicemen who transferred into the AFC from overseas AIF units and are hence missing from the flying corps nominal rolls.

Official records relating to the recruitment of AFC personnel from overseas AIF units also suggest this group had a similar social background to those who embarked from Australia with the flying corps. So too do aviators’ private records, such as letters and diaries. After all, written material reflects the literary ability of any group which, in turn, creates assumptions about the group’s social standing.

Analysing the data: the flying officers

In the case of its flying ranks the AFC was overwhelmingly drawn from two occupational backgrounds: specialised industrial trades and professional occupations (see Table 2.1).[15] Almost half (47 per cent) came from the former, of which 21 per cent[16] possessed a background in either mechanical or electrical engineering. Both were highly specialised professions at the time, making up only 1 per cent of the Australian working male population.[17] The concentration of technical specialists in the AFC’s flying establishment is not surprising. Pilots and observers needed to be either familiar with a mechanical specialisation, or have the educational background conducive to learning to fly, as well as mastering the technical nuances of the machines. In 1916 a call for flying officers, published in the Windsor and Richmond Gazette, stipulated applicants who had completed at least two years of engineering at university and had a reasonable knowledge of the internal combustion engine would be given preference.[18] This prerequisite knowledge would provide the foundation for intensive theoretical flight instruction. Captain Eric Cummings, an 18-year-old “motorist” from Franklin in Victoria, made extensive training notes and drawings on flight, aeronautics, electrics, meteorology, mathematics, engine design, rigging, and so on.[19] Indeed, technical aspects may have been emphasised over combat training. Numerous private accounts suggest pilots went to the front with a substantial understanding of aeronautics and mechanics but little of aerial warfare.[20] Captain Arthur Cobby noted some of the pilots in his squadron arrived at the front as competent flyers but had never fired a machine-gun in the air.[21]

Technical knowledge was certainly essential for the combat aviator. For example, Lieutenant Francis Conrick, a 23-year-old Coopers Creek grazier, crash-landed in the Palestinian desert in October 1919. Were it not for his mechanical training, he and his pilot might never have replaced a broken magneto and flown to safety.

While it was logical to place men with industrial and technical backgrounds in control of aircraft, the AFC’s preference for other middle-class professionals with an exclusive education was not. The preference was, in fact, motivated by preconceptions of the airman’s social and cultural identity.

Non-technical backgrounds dominated AFC flying ranks, with 39 per cent hailing from clerical, administrative, government, and education positions. Compared to just 11 per cent in the AIF and 5.8 per cent of the Australian working male population, this suggests a significant proportion of AFC aviators were drawn from the upper-middle class, thus reflecting contemporary cultural constructs of “the airman”. Even before the advent of powered flight popular authors, such as Jules Verne and H.G. Wells, depicted the flying man as a fantastical, knightly figure and, in doing so, developed the construct of the aviator as moral and virtuous.[22] Their stories presented frightening scenarios in which air power and its champion, the aviator, played the decisive role in future wars. When aviation became a reality in the years prior to the Great War, its pioneering flyers were cast in this epic “mould”.[23] As George Mosse relates: “to control an airplane was considered not so much a technical feat as a moral accomplishment.”[24] Such preconceptions were just as evident in Australia as in Europe and America, especially during the years leading up to the Great War. Australia’s security paranoia, borne out of its remoteness from Europe and especially Britain, led to a keen interest in aviation and the subsequent dubbing of the aviator and his machine as the decisive force in the future of national security and warfare. An article published in the Sydney Morning Herald in May 1912 predicted: “The nation that commands the air, that nation will rule the world, and such supremacy will be attained at a far less expense than by means of fleets and armies.”[25] W. Alison, a journalist for the newspaper, witnessed a military air display in France shortly after the article was published and later wrote for the paper, “No country in the world should be so deeply interested in the future of aviation as Australia.” He played on old Australian fears by emphasising the potential of aircraft in coastal defence against “the dreadnoughts or armies [of] Japan with forty million [and] China with four hundred million [people]”.[26]

The aviator, therefore, was perceived by society as the absolute cream of manhood – the new guardian of Anglo security, the virtuous, educated, and professional man from the upper-middle class. Captain Arthur Cobby observed firsthand the effect of this attitude on the recruitment of 4 Squadron aviators: “We came from all walks of life – farmer, bank clerk, college graduate, and one or two university people with degrees. One was a dentist, another was an engineer, and another was a doctor.”[27] Of course this group hardly represents “all walks of life” but rather reinforces the notion that middle class professionals, who were not necessarily technically skilled, dominated AFC flying ranks. Interestingly, Cobby’s description closely resembles that made by Major General John Monash of the 3rd Division: “The officers … represent the cream of our professional and educated classes: young engineers, architects, medicals, accountants, pastoralists, public school boys, and so on.” [28]

Perhaps then it is necessary to briefly compare the occupational backgrounds of flying officers with their counterparts in the infantry. Dale Blair’s statistical analysis of 1st Battalion lieutenants provides a neat comparison.[29] Both cohorts are, as both Monash and Cobby observed, overwhelmingly of the “professional and educated classes”: 57 per cent of infantry officers and 39 per cent of flying officers were classed as “professional” (Table 2.1). In contrast, infantry lieutenants hailed from a wider range of professions than their airborne colleagues. Whereas 47 per cent of flying corps officers fell into the “industry” group, the 1st Battalion lieutenants were drawn from a more balanced range of occupations: “domestic” (5 per cent); “commercial” (6 per cent); “transport and communications” (5 per cent); and “industry” (7 per cent). The flying and infantry officers shared a broad social identity, although the former came from a more specialised vocational pool in the upper-middle reaches of society.

A preference for private education in the AFC’s flying ranks reflects how dominant social preconceptions of airmen rather than practical experience shaped the corps. In theory, previous technical skills or aptitude for learning should have marked an ideal candidate. In reality, cultural characteristics, such as school and sporting experience, held greater influence at the recruiting office.

By providing a sample of educational particulars, the Roll of Honour Circulars reveals a domination of the AFC’s flying ranks by the upper-middle class. Almost half of the sample attended prestigious private schools, such as Sydney Grammar, Fort Street High, Wesley College, Kings, Geelong Grammar, and St Peter’s College in Adelaide (Table 2.2). Nationally, only 13.74 per cent of Australian males were enrolled in private education in 1911.

Official records also demonstrate the AFC favoured the virtues and characteristics associated with private school education. Examining doctors were instructed that “the moral effects” of a recruit’s civilian life were of the “highest importance” in assessing suitability as a pilot. According to Medical requirements for the Australian Flying Corps, 1918, “The youth who has developed courage, self-reliance, alertness, and a sense of obligation to ‘play the game’” was ideal. In comparison, “the less-fortunate youth whose circumstances have tended towards a monotonous, unadventurous, or unsocial life” was unsuitable.[30] Likewise, orders in the First ANZAC Circular of 1917 listed desirable skills and attributes for applicants, including experience in driving, riding, sports, machine-gunnery, signalling, navigation, and a “good education [and] … marked personality”.[31]3 Such characteristics were infinitely more likely to be acquired while attending a private school than, say, working in a coal mine.[32]

Private records also support the claim that the flying ranks were dominated by upper-middle class and educated members. Many aviators strongly identified with and took great pride in their private school heritage. Lieutenant Owen Lewis, a dux of Wesley College, wrote regularly in his diary of meeting fellow collegians in the AFC: “Streeter, an old Wesley chap has turned up as a pilot. Unfortunately, he has been allotted to ‘C’ flight. As we wish to fly together we have asked Knox if he can arrange [this].”[33] Fortunately for Lewis, Knox did not make the arrangement: Lieutenant Harry Streeter’s aircraft was destroyed by anti-aircraft shell during his first operation over the lines on 17 February 1918.[34]

Likewise, Cobby described an instance where Lieutenant Frank Willmott, a pilot in his squadron, proudly exhibited his private school background by painting a college badge on his aircraft. The motto Resurgam means “I will arise again”. However, such was not the fate of Willmott, who was forced down during a patrol on 13 January 1918 and spent the remainder of the war in a prison camp.[35]

The age profile of the AFC’s flying ranks also differed from the AIF. The majority of flying men (64 per cent) enlisted between the ages of 20 and 24, and almost one third were aged between 25 and 29. Hence, almost all AFC airmen were under the age of 30 (Table 2.3). Denis Winter’s study of Royal Flying Corps (RFC) pilots reveals a similar age profile and suggests recruits became younger as the war progressed.[36] The same trend occurred in the AFC. For example, the average age of flying ranks listed in the nominal rolls dropped from 25 years and two months in 1916 to 21 years and four months in 1918. John McQuilton notes a similar decline in the average ages of AIF recruits between 1916 and 1918, arguing most men in the eligible age group had enlisted by 1916 and by 1917 numbers needed to be drawn from younger men.[37] This may also hold true for the AFC.

Medical theories also, and perhaps more likely, account for the drop in average ages. During the war, air combat occurred at increasingly higher altitudes and speeds. Medical opinion suggested that younger men were better suited to endure the resultant strain. As early as August 1917, an age limit of 30 was set for men enlisting in the flying corps, with a preference for “those under 23”. The AIF age limit was 45.[38] In 1918 medical requirements stated that a man over 30 would only be accepted “if he is either exceptionally young for his age or has some special characteristics”.[39]

The AIF drew its volunteers from across Australia and the proportion of enlistments reflected state shares of the national population. For example, Robson noted Victorians, making up 28.34 per cent of Australia’s population, provided 27 per cent of the men in the AIF. Members of the AFC, however, were predominantly Victorian (47 per cent, Table 2.4). More significantly, three quarters of these men (Table 2.5) came from Melbourne. This is not surprising given Melbourne’s industrial history and the close proximity of Point Cook Central Flying School.

The Point Cook Central Flying School became active in 1914 and was the sole military aviation school in Australia until another was established at Richmond in New South Wales in 1916. The second school, however, did not command the same authority as Point Cook during the war. In an age of limited transport, Point Cook offered upper-middle class Victorians an alternative to the infantry denied to men in other states. Furthermore, Melbourne’s manufacturing industry boom during the late-nineteenth century made it an industrial and commercial heartland and explains the high proportion of metropolitan Victorians in the flying ranks. [40]

The denominational profile of the AFC’s aviators clearly reflects Australia’s class and ethnic structure in 1914 (see Table 2.6). The majority were Anglican (44 per cent) and Presbyterian (18 per cent), both denominations firmly entrenched in Australia’s upper-middle class[41] and noted for their support of the war. On the other hand, Catholics were seriously under-represented in the AFC, accounting for just 12 per cent of the sample. In Australia during the early-twentieth century, Catholicism (making up 21.81 per cent of working males) was associated with the working class and Australians of Irish descent. “Workers” possessed neither the expertise nor the pre-conceived cultural identity of the AFC. Of the small representation of Catholics in the AFC, less than half were of Irish decent.[42] In other words, AFC Catholics were non-traditional denominators – neither working class nor Irish.

Analysing the data: the “other ranks”

As with the flying ranks, the occupational profiles of the other ranks differed markedly from the AIF. The other ranks of the AFC were overwhelmingly from industrial professions (Table 2.1). Almost three-quarters had worked in industry prior to the war. Of these, 16 per cent[43] were engineers – a profession practiced by just 1 per cent of Australia’s working male population in the years prior to the war.[44] There was also a notable representation of transport and communications workers in the AFC other ranks (13 per cent). This figure is higher than the AIF (9 per cent) and the Australian population (9.7 per cent), reflecting the AFC need for engine mechanics, wireless operators, and heavy transport drivers. AFC ground crew recruits were targeted for their vocational skills and, unlike aviators, less so their cultural identity.

Ground crew candidates were sought for specific and specialised roles within squadrons. Official requests for volunteers for the flying corps (Figures 2.8 and 2.9) from AIF units in 1915 emphasised previous experience.[45] The flying corps required “20 good mechanics possessing a working knowledge of any one of the undermentioned trades”. This would have included pattern makers, boat builders, turners and fitters, blacksmiths, motor mechanics, cabinet makers, and so forth. It also specified men with “knowledge in the rigging of aeroplanes and the care and construction of internal combustion engines”. People with such knowledge were hard to find in Australia at the time. Civil specialists performed equally specialised roles within the squadron workshop. For instance, watchmakers, like Harold Edwards, were aircraft instrument fitters; boat builders and woodworkers, like Joseph Bull, specialised in airframe rigging; men with signals experience, like Hubert Billings, typically worked with squadron wireless sets.

In terms of education, a surprisingly high proportion of ground crew had private education (36 per cent, Table 2.2), although less came from the “Great Public Schools” commonly associated with the flying ranks. The majority came from the state school system and developed trades through tertiary study or apprenticeships. Francis Davis, for example, attended a state school before training as an electrical engineer; Stanley Marsden attended Parramatta State School before apprenticing as a fitter and turner.[46] The profile of the other ranks suggests these men hailed from the lower-middle class, where vocational education and technical training were avenues for upward social mobility.

The statistics for the ages of other ranks are more evenly distributed across the groups than in the flying ranks, even bearing a slight resemblance to Robson’s AIF statistics (Table 2.3). Despite a 65 per cent concentration of other ranks between 20 and 29 years of age, almost one-third belonged to the older groups of 30 to 40 plus. The wider distribution is difficult to explain, however both younger and older ground crew had specific merits. Many younger recruits would have recently completed their trades before enlisting and be better equipped to work with new mechanical “wonders”, such as the rotary engine and machine-gun interrupter gear. The older recruit, on the other hand, was likely to possess several years of valuable trade experience, perhaps having also fulfilled supervisory roles. Both young and old commanded the ground ranks. For example, when 1 Squadron embarked, although the average age of a non-commissioned officer in the ground crew was 27 years, the ages of men spanned between 19 and 45 years.

In terms of religious affiliation and residency of the other ranks, the profile neatly matches the flying crew: the majority were Anglican and Presbyterian (61 and 13 per cent respectively), came from Victoria (49 per cent), and especially Melbourne (70 per cent). As noted earlier, Melbourne was the industrial heartland of Australia in 1914, having expanded thirteen-fold in the decades between 1861 and 1891 alone.[47] Correspondingly, this region housed the infrastructure most suited to train the mechanical and technical specialists the AFC targeted.

In terms of marital status, however, the other ranks departed from the statistical norm. Almost 30 per cent were married, substantially more than the flying ranks at 15 per cent and the AIF at 16 per cent (Table 2.7). In a comparative study of active service casualties in the British Expeditionary Force, Jay Winter found that Royal Flying Corps ground crew had the safest occupation, with only one in 206 killed on active service.[48] Perhaps young, married, Australian volunteers with appropriate technical qualifications saw the AFC as a “safe” option.

Comparisons and conclusions

The AFC had a distinctive social profile. It drew heavily from Australia’s middle and upper classes with the education and background to meet its needs.

The Australian combat aviator met society’s perception of the airman, described by George Mosse as “the ‘new man’, symbolic of all that was best in the nation”.[49] In civilian life, he was almost certainly either a professional or worked in a specialised trade. He had probably received a private education or undertaken tertiary studies following high school. Extracurricular pastimes were generally active, upper-middle class pursuits, including motoring, motorcycling, yachting, horse riding, and hunting. These cultural characteristics also dictated he was most likely Anglican, possibly Presbyterian, but unlikely Catholic. Victoria was most likely the airman’s home state, with New South Wales a reasonably strong second. In either case he was almost certainly a city dweller, for whom the proximity of the flying schools at Point Cook and Richmond influenced his decision to pursue military aviation. He was also young, typically between 20 and 24 years of age, and unlikely to have a wife. Airmen were sometimes selected on the grounds of relevant vocational experience but more often on having the “right” social qualities.

A call for AFC flying applicants in the Windsor and Richmond Gazette makes the point neatly. Candidates had to be between 18 and 30 years of age, pay £60 upfront for aviation instruction, and could prove they were medically fit for aerial service, with “a sound heart and good eyesight”. Preference would be given to men who had held a commission in the senior cadets, or had completed at least two years of engineering at university and possessed a fair knowledge of the internal combustion engine.[50] New recruits were also expected to have experience in the “gentlemanly” activities mentioned above. Lieutenant Reginald Fry, a civil engineer who originally enlisted in the Light Horse, was accepted by the AFC after several failed attempts. His diary confesses he had “stretched the facts a bit” to make himself “a most desirable person” for aerial duties. Apart from lowering his age and weight on the application, Fry also claimed experience in everything “the ‘Powers to Be’ wanted to hear, rode a horse like a jockey, hunted, played polo, drove a car, almost a human marvel”.[51]

When all else failed applicants could turn to friends and family in the upper echelons of Australian society. Many private records contain references from influential relatives and family acquaintances. Donald Day had his cousin, a headquarters major, write a letter on his behalf (Figure 2.10). Day reasoned “good influence was absolutely essential. Admission into the flying corps was almost impossible without it”.[52] Similarly, Owen Lewis’ father wrote to his “old friend” John Monash in the hopes of securing his son advancement out of the engineers.[53] In 1977 one veteran even claimed bribery attempts, with parents donating motor cars to the AFC to secure commissions for their sons.[54]

A rigger or mechanic in the AFC was more likely to be a lower-middle or upper-working class skilled tradesman, selected for his experience in a highly specialised trade, such as rigging, fitting, and turning. Some had private education, rarely from one of the major schools, while tertiary study more often equipped him for the flying corps. Like his commissioned superiors in the flying ranks, an air mechanic was usually from metropolitan Victoria, an environment conducive to his technical calling due to its highly developed industrial base. There was a good chance he was slightly older than his flying superiors and also married.

A close study of the AFC’s social composition allows us to draw two conclusions. Firstly, flying corps members were a socially elite group, to whom Charles Bean’s notions of a democratic and egalitarian force did not apply. Nor did the “digger” mythology central to Australia’s identity. Thus, we can surmise the AIF’s social and cultural structure was far more complex than previously thought. Indeed, other “specialist” units, such as the medical corps, engineers, and artillery, may provide further examples of concentrated expertise and calculated recruitment within the force.

The AFC’s social profile also demonstrates how air and ground crews were deliberately recruited to fulfil vocational requirements and cultural ideals. In the aviators’ case, some were accepted for their expertise pursuant to flying, namely engineering and technical trades. In most cases, though, Australian airmen were recruited under the social expectation of what the flying man “should be”, that is the morally virtuous upper middle-class. On the other hand, the aircraft mechanic, rigger, and armourer had no such place in the pre-war popular imagination. For them, appointment to the flying corps was the result of vocational qualifications. Indeed, their recruitment was a methodical process, something like application for employment in a highly competitive field.

F.M. Cutlack’s official history and the outpouring of a new, immensely popular literature perpetuated the disparate social and cultural identities of the AFC in the 1920s and 1930s.[55] Memoirs, typically with stirring titles like High adventure and Aces and kings, ensured that the airman maintained his elite status in popular and military thinking into another world war and beyond.[56]

Sources: AWM8; Lloyd Robson, “The origin and character of the First AIF, 1914–1918: some statistical evidence”, Historical studies 15.61 (1973); The 1911 census of Australia; Dale Blair, Dinkum diggers: an Australian battalion at war (Carlton, Vic.: Melbourne University Press, 2001): 24

Figures unavailable for 0%.
Sources: The 1911 census of Australia, AWM131

Sources: AWM8; Lloyd Robson, “The origin and character of the First AIF, 1914–1918: some statistical evidence”, Historical studies 15.61 (1973); The 1911 census of Australia

Sources: AWM8; Lloyd Robson, “The origin and character of the First AIF, 1914–1918: some statistical evidence”, Historical studies 15.61 (1973); The 1911 census of Australia

Sources: AWM8; Lloyd Robson, “The origin and character of the First AIF, 1914–1918: some statistical evidence”, Historical studies 15.61 (1973); The 1911 census of Australia

Sources: AWM8; Lloyd Robson, “The origin and character of the First AIF, 1914–1918: some statistical evidence”, Historical studies 15.61 (1973); The 1911 census of Australia

Sources: AWM8; Lloyd Robson, “The origin and character of the First AIF, 1914–1918: some statistical evidence”, Historical studies 15.61 (1973); The 1911 census of Australia

Figure 2.8 Extract from 1915 request for prospective air mechanics targeting skill-specific ground crew.
(A2023: A38/8/188, National Archives of Australia)

Figure 2.9 Extract from a list of applicants. Note the parallels in age and expertise.
(A2023: A38/8/188, National Archives of Australia)

Figure 2.10 Letter recommending Lieutenant Day’s suitability to the AFC, written by his cousin, a headquarters major. Not yet 21 years of age, Day already saw “a dead end ahead for his advancement” within the army.

© Michael Molkentin


[1] Adapted from Michael Molkentin, Culture, class and experience in the Australian Flying Corps, B.A. Honours thesis, University of Wollongong, 2004. I would like to thank Associate Professor John McQuilton for his indispensable guidance and supervision, Dr Peter Stanley for his suggestions and encouragement, and Melissa Beazley for helping to collate the statistical data.

[2] Charles Bean, The story of ANZAC, The Official History of Australia in the War of 1914–18, vol. I, (1921; Sydney: Angus & Robertson, 1938): 45

[3] Unless otherwise stated, all comparative figures on the AIF in this article are taken or tabulated from Lloyd Robson, “The origin and character of the First AIF, 1914–1918: some statistical evidence”, Historical studies 15.61 (1973). Unless otherwise stated, all comparative figures on the Australian male population are taken or tabulated from G.H. Knibbs, The 1911 census of the population of Australia (Melbourne: Commonwealth Bureau of Census and Statistics, 1914)

[4] Ernest Scott, Australia during the war, The Official History of Australia in the War of 1914–18, vol. XII (1921; Sydney: Angus & Robertson, 1938)

[5] Robson

[6] Suzanne Welborn, The lords of death: a people, a place, a legend (Freemantle: Freemantle Arts Centre Press, 1982); Dale Blair, Dinkum diggers: an Australian battalion at war (Carlton, Vic.: Melbourne University Press, 2001); John McQuilton, “Enlistment for the First World War in rural Australia: the case of north-eastern Victoria, 1914–1918”, Journal of the Australian War Memorial 33 (2000), /journal/j33/mcquilton.htm, accessed 28 June 2006

[7] Michael Paris, “The rise of airmen: the origins of air force elitism”, The journal of contemporary history 28 (1993): 123; Winged warfare: the literature and theory of aerial warfare in Britain, 1859–1917 (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1992); George Mosse, Fallen soldiers: reshaping the memory of the world wars (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1990): 119–25

[8] Paris: 138

[9] In the AFC, flying ranks were 2nd Lieutenant and above, although ranks above Captain were rarely attached to combat flights, and were most regularly assigned to Squadron HQ (particularly in Western Front squadrons with their high aviator mortality rates). The statistical sample of “flying ranks” includes all 129 commissioned officers in combat flights or reinforcements in “Unit embarkation nominal rolls, 1914–18 War”, AWM8 (AWM8). Other ranks assigned to combat flights made up the ground crew which most commonly held the rank of Air Mechanic or Private NCOs in the ground crew usually ranked Corporal and Sergeant. The statistical sample of “other ranks” of the 403 enlisted men and NCOs assigned to combat flights in 1, 2, and 4 Squadrons, as listed on AWM8.

[10] Nunan, Stanislaus A. (Lieutenant, AFC), 1916–1919, 3DRL/6511

[11] AWM8

[12] I believe at least half and as much as two-thirds of the AFC were recruited overseas from AIF units already on active service.

[13] Roll of Honour cards, 1914–1918, army 1914–1921; 1956, AWM145 (AWM145)

[14] Roll of Honour circulars, 1914–18, AWM131

[15]To assist with the comparative analysis between the AFC and Australia’s working male population, the occupational classifications used in this analysis are the same as those used during the 1911 census, as follows:
Professional: military, government service, ministers, clerks, students, administrative, journalists
Domestic: chefs, barkeeps, hoteliers
Commercial: retailers, business owners, merchants, traders, importers
Transport & Communications: drivers (car, train, truck, tram, bus), wireless & telegraph operators
Industry: mechanics, builders, factory hands, craftsmen, electricians, tradesmen
Engineers: mechanical, electrical, civil
Labourer: brick, builder, rural
Primary: farmers, graziers, stockmen, orchardists
Independent: artists, explorers, traveller

[16] AWM8

[17] Knibbs: 1306

[18] The Windsor and Richmond Gazette 11 August 1916

[19] Cummings, Eric D. (Captain, DFC, 2 Squadron, AIF), 1914–1924, PR83/187

[20] For example, see Roy King, “Formation flying”, in E.J. Richards (ed.), Australian airmen: history of the 4th Squadron Australian Flying Corps (Melbourne: Bruce and Co. Printers, 1919): 65

[21] A.H. Cobby, High adventure (Melbourne: Robertson & Mullens, 1942): 31–36

[22] For example, see H.G. Wells, Argonauts of the air (1895), Story of days to come (1899), and The war in the air (1908); also Jules Verne, The clipper of the clouds (1885) and Master of the world (1904)

[23] Paris: 129

[24] Mosse: 120

[25]Sydney Morning Herald, 13 May 1912: 8

[26]Sydney Morning Herald, 6 July 1912: 5

[27] Cobby: 34. Cobby claims this group represents “all walks of life”, which possibly demonstrates his own middle-class introspection.

[28] Frederick Cutlack (ed.), War letters of General Monash (Sydney: Angus and Robertson, 1934): 233

[29] Blair: 24

[30] Medical requirements for the Australian Flying Corps, 1918, AWM25: 481/115

[31] Selection of candidates for appointment as flying officers, AFC, 1st ANZAC circular (Aug. 1917), AWM10: 4343/29/17

[32] For further examination of militarism in Australian private school cadets, see Nathan Wise, Playing soldiers: private school boys and the First World War, Bachelor of Arts Honours thesis, University of Wollongong, 2003

[33] Lewis, Owen Gower (Lieutenant, 1896–1918), 1918, PR00709, entry dated 2 February. Other references to Wesley Collegians in entries dated 10 March and 15 March

[34] PR00709, entry dated 17 February

[35] Cobby: 47

[36] Denis Winter, The first of the few: fighter pilots of the First World War (London: Penguin Books, 1982): 24–25. Winter claims that by 1917 60 per cent of RFC aviators were 22 years old or younger.

[37] McQuilton

[38] AWM10: 4343/29/17

[39] AWM25: 481/115

[40]“The growth of Melbourne”, in J.W. McCarty and C.B. Schedvin, (eds), Australian capital cities: historical essays (Sydney: Sydney University Press, 1978

[41] W. Phillips, “The social composition of the religious denominations in nineteenth-century Australia”, Church heritage 4.2 (September 1985): 81–83; H. Mol, Religion in Australia: a sociological investigation (Sydney: Thomas Nelson, 1971): 77–94

[42] Surmised from the names and next-of-kin addresses of those declaring Catholicism as their denomination.

[43] AWM8

[44] Census of the Commonwealth of Australia taken for the night between the 2nd and 3rd April, 1911, vol. 3 (Melbourne: Commonwealth Bureau of Census and Statistics, 1914–1917): 1306

[45] First and second half flights – AFC establishment formation and organisation recruitment and selecting of personnel, 21 July 1915, A2023: A38/8/188, National Archives of Australia

[46] AWM131: AM/2 Marsden, Stanley Noel; AM/2 Davis, Francis Gordon

[47] McCarty and Schedvin, (eds): 68

[48] Jay Winter, The Great War and the British people (London: Macmillan, 1987): 90–91

[49] Mosse: 120–21

[50] The Windsor and Richmond Gazette

[51] Fry, Reginald H. (Captain, 1st ADMTC and AFC), 1914–1918, entry dated 10 October 1918, 3DRL/0461

[52] Day, Donald F. (Flight Lieutenant, AAMC and AFC), typescript, entry dated September 1917, PR85/344

[53] General copies of outward letters, 1908–31, October 1916, in Papers of Sir John Monash 1876–1934, MSS1884: 71: 483, National Library of Australia (NLA)

[54] Fred Morton, interview with Frank Roberts, sound recording, ORAL TRC536, NLA

[55] F.M. Cutlack, The Australian Flying Corps in the western and eastern theatres of war, The Official History of Australia in the War of 1914–1918, vol. VIII (Sydney: Angus and Robertson, 1923)

[56] See L.W. Sutherland, Aces and kings (Sydney: Angus and Robertson, 1935); H.N. Wrigley, The battle below: being the history of No. 3 Squadron Australian Flying Corps, (Sydney: H. Gorton & Co., 1935); E.J. Richards, et al., Australian airmen: history of the 4th Squadron Australian Flying Corps (Melbourne: Bruce & Co., 1922)