Among the 900 solicitors and articled clerks who died on active service in the first world war, Captain Charles Edward Tudor-Jones has a unique distinction: his entry in the Law Society's Record of Service is the only one to name the individual German soldier who killed him.
This is because, in December 1915, the Moraine-Saulnier 'Parasol' monoplane in which Tudor-Jones was flying became the seventh aircraft to be downed by Germany's first figher ace, Max Immelmann. The Record of Service notes that Tudor-Jones, who had been articled to H.W. Michelmore of Exeter, was 'buried by the Germans with full military honours'. He was 20; his killer, famed for an aerobatic manoeuvre still named after him, followed him to the grave six months later, aged 26.
Perhaps for Tudor-Jones' family, the words 'Shot down over German Lines by Immelman' in the brief particulars they submitted to the Law Society was a way of divining meaning in a short life. Certainly for propagandists at the time, and novelists and film-makers thereafter, the idea of single combat between knights of the air provided more compelling narratives of the war than the deaths of nameless millons on the ground.
But alas for the solicitors and articled clerks who joined Britain's pioneering air services, the only thing real air war had in common with the myth was the likelihood of horrific death. Air operations were less about gallant tumult in the clouds than the relentless slog of patrolling and artillery spotting, with the constant risk of your contraption of wood, canvas and wire bursting into flames even without the enemy's attentions. Assuming, of course, you had lived to get to the front in the first place: roughly one fifth of new pilots were killed in training. (The French and Germans, not wedded to the cult of the amateur when it came to training pilots, had less need of the bloodwagon at their nursery fields.)*
For Law Society members who flew between 1914 and 1918, the numbers are stark. A quick count of the Society's Record of Service lists 177 solicitors and articled clerks serving in the two pioneer air services, the Royal Flying Corps and Royal Naval Air Service (The RAF was founded in April 1918; for the purpose of this analysis I omitted members whose record shows only RAF service). Of the 177, rather more than one third - 68 - were killed, wounded or captured. Bad enough, but the record implies that at least half of the 177 served in non-flying roles, as non-commissioned air mechanics, experimental technicians, clerks and brass-hats, including one Brigadier General. In other words, for a flying solicitor, at a conservative estimate, the odds of unscathed survival were roughly zero. If any proper historians would like to work on my raw figures, please get in touch.
But statistics count little against young men's sense of invincibility. Take Ralph Cyril Stoddard, articled to W.M Wilson of Alfreton, who joined up in 1914 and wangled a transfer to the RFC the following year. On the third day of the Battle of the Somme Stoddard was granted permission to bomb the German lines from his BE2, an obsolete death trap of a biplane. Later that day, his commanding officer wrote to Stoddard's father: 'He was engaged with two hostile machines this morning over the enemy lines and was seen by another machine, which went to his assistance, to fall from several thousand feet in a spinning nose-dive.'
Details of any mid-air cremation were tactfully omitted. 'I know that you will be proud that he died for his country in such a gallant way, fighting odds,' Major Carthew prompted.
Of course there were survivors. The Record of Service lists several charmed lives, for example 'Henry Aloysius Petre, admitted November 1906. Managing Clerk with Blount, Lynch & Petre, of 48 Albermarle St, W.' It doesn't say that Petre (pronounced Peter, and nicknamed the monk) was Australia's pioneer aviator, who learned to fly by building his own aeroplane and crashing it on its maiden flight. Undaunted, he set up Australia's first flying school before transferring to the Royal Flying Corps and RAF, and serving in Mesopotamia where he was five times mentioned in dispatches and awarded the MC and DSO. Remarkably, Petre lived to found his own legal practice in London and was still flying for fun almost up to his death in 1962.
At least a few flying solicitors achieved the fabled 'crack at the Hun'. Leslie Vincent Pearkes, 'articled to A. E. Pearkes of Cannon St EC', joined the Royal Naval Air Service in 1915. In November the following year he was gunner in a Sopwith One-and-a-half Strutter (forerunner of the famous Camel) escorting bombers in a raid near Verdun. His pilot, flight commander Draper, described the ensuing combat: 'Sighted two enemy biplanes. These two machines were engaged by turning quickly and meeting them end on. After manoeuvering and fighting continuously for about 10 minutes one was driven off and the other hung on to our tail. It is probable his gun had jammed as he approached close in without firing. Sub.Lt Pearkes fired a whole tray at him and he was seen to nose dive to earth.'
A vital part of the Royal Flying Corps' work was passive observation from hydrogen-filled tethered balloons. It must have taken a special kind of courage to coolly direct an artillery barrage from a wicker basket attached to the most conspicuous target for miles around, with only a primitive static-line parachute as protection against flaming death. Hugh Mowbray Meyler, admitted 1898, and member of Sheppard & Meyler of Taunton, volunteered for for the job.
Meyler was already a hardened veteran. As a young man he had served for two years as an infantry officer in the Boer War, afterwards settling in Natal and founding a legal practice there. In 1910 he was elected to South Africa's first parliament, but in 1914 returned to England to re-enlist in the infantry. On the western front he displayed conspicuous courage, being wounded, gassed and winning the Military Cross. In March 1916, when he transferred to the Royal Flying Corps, many of his fellow officers would have been half his age. Yet he continued to go aloft as a lieutenant colonel commanding a balloon squadron, logging nearly 70 hours of front-line observation.
In September 1918 Meyler's luck almost ran out when he was forced to parachute out; a resulting injury left him with 'buzzing in the ears'. Nonetheless, the war's end found him in another hot seat, as an army legal officer in Ireland's savage war of independence, at constant risk of assassination.
In 1923 Meyler finally hung up his uniform to become Blackpool's first Liberal MP. It would be nice to record that he enjoyed a peaceful and prosperous old age, but the following year he lost his seat and set up a 'poor man's' legal practice in Pimlico, then a London slum. Within a few years the practice was in difficulties and, on 30 April 1929, sheriff's officers arrived with a court order to seize goods. Meyler asked to be left alone to make a telephone call and locked the door. A few minutes later the waiting officers heard a single shot.
No LawCare, in those days, and Meyler was far from the only ex-serviceman to find that way out.
In his haunting poem about an Irish airman of the Great War, W.B.Yeats wrote: 'The years to come seemed waste of breath.'
*James Hamilton Paterson's new history Marked for Death (Head of Zeus ISBN: 9781784970390) is an excellent introduction to the air war.