Monday, 28 July 2014

Countdown to the Centenary

As the Centenary of the First World War approaches, I am posting extracts from my new book, Bristol in the Great War, which is out in August. Using military events as background, it describes what life was like in the city between 1914 and 1918 and takes a look behind the scenes to see how ordinary people coped. As always on this blog, the extracts include the words of people who were actually there. For more details about Bristol in the Great War and to pre-order, click the link on the left.

'Mr Wadlow was in  terrible state and fell to the ground'

Harry Wadlow - middle row, right - wasa talented
sportsman who me a tragic end
(Credit: Frenchay Village Museum)

Despite all the advances, flying was still a hazardous occupation for pilots during the Great War, especially as they didn’t carry parachutes. Estimates of life-expectancy at the Front vary considerably but most are measured in days or weeks. The riskiness of it all was brought home to the community of Frenchay in May 1917 when the son of a local headmaster was killed in a flying accident in Kent.
As a child Harry Wadlow had been a pupil at the Frenchay National School, where his father Henry was still the head. He went on to Bristol Grammar School where he excelled at sport as well as his studies, and when war broke out Harry joined the Army Service Corps. He served in the Dardanelles and France, where he was promoted to captain, then transferred to the Royal Flying Corps in 1916.
The fatal accident happened when he was training to fly a single-seater De Havilland fighter at Joyce Green Aerodrome near Dartford. Situated on marshland, the airfield was not a popular one and Air Vice-Marshal Arthur Stanley Gould Lee, a pilot during the First World War, later explained why: ‘A pupil taking off with a choked or failing engine had to choose, according to wind direction, between drowning in the Thames (half a mile wide at this point), crashing into the Vickers TNT (explosives) Works, sinking into a vast sewage farm, killing himself and numerous patients in a large isolation hospital, being electrocuted in an electrical station with acres of pylons and cables; or trying to turn and get back to the aerodrome. Unfortunately, many pupils confronted with disaster tried the last course and span to their deaths.’

Exactly what happened to Harry is unknown, but he died instantly when his aircraft struck a hut on his landing approach. The news was broken to his father at morning school and the effect was awful. ‘Mr Wadlow was in a terrible state when he got the news and he fell to the ground,’ recalled one pupil. It was the second time tragedy had struck, for in 1901 his wife Laura had died, aged 31, of scarlet fever.  Harry Wadlow was buried at Frenchay with full military honours in a grave shared with his mother. He was 22 years old.

(Copyright © 2014 Jacqueline Wadsworth)

NEXT POST: 'The Tommies were out of luck if one of us Yanks were around' - 1918


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