This is the first of several blogs I’m going to post about the process of research – how and where to look for an RFC officer in official records.
I still hadn’t decided to write a book about Lionel Morris when I took my first trip to Kew, back in October 2014, and it took a while before my visits were as fruitful as I needed them to be. As the RFC would have recognised, time in reconnaissance is never wasted, so I invested many hours in familiarising myself with the National Archives online Discovery catalogue before each trip. The biggest drawback to finding really good stuff is not knowing where to look – it wasn’t difficult to find service records for Lionel Morris, (just putting his name in the search box came up trumps) but it was much harder to work out where the hidden gems might be.
Officers’ service records are available online for a fee of under a fiver in the AIR 76 series of the catalogue. Finding Morris’s gave me a bare, but essential chronology of postings and squadrons, and I leapt into research oblivion from there. The Nazis fatally compromised World War One historians by lobbing an incendiary bomb into a London archive store in 1940 and around two-thirds of 6.5 million military records were burnt. But there are some RFC officers’ records still available, and I had little trouble finding Morris’s War Office file in the catalogue. I collected a satisfyingly bulging bunch of documents from the pigeon hole in the Reading Room at Kew on my first visit. It may well have been my last visit to Kew if WO 339/3910 had perished in the flames at Arnside Street. The WO (War Office) designation marks the fact that the RFC was part of the Army before 1918, but helpfully AIR 1 is where the majority of RFC records are now kept. The official historians of the RFC, Raleigh and Jones, were responsible for the anatomy of the RFC’s catalogue, as they were the first people to systematically trawl through the records.
Within a few minutes of opening the WO 339 file I was looking at documents in Morris’s own hand-writing, including his application for transfer to the RFC from the Queens’ Royal West Surrey Regiment in the autumn of 1915. His public school, Whitgift, gave him many things, and one of them, mercifully, was a fairly easy-to-read hand. He listed in bullet points the reasons why he felt he would make a good candidate for flying training. I was puzzled by some of them initially. I needed a really solid background knowledge of RFC history that came with months and months of reading.
I had taken dozens and dozens of photographs on that first day and felt a bit inadequate as most of the grown-up researchers were scribbling away madly at their desks. But it was the only way I could hope to get the most out of the records in the limited time I had at Kew. I could download the images and study them properly once I was at home. It continued to be the most practical way for me to study the documents. I lament the loss of the in-house cameras at Kew – they were clunky and prone to breaking, but the images were sharp and documents could be emailed home with their full catalogue numbers. It saved a lot of time in the long run and avoided that problem of realising later that you couldn’t actually read the text on your hastily-snapped camera phone shot.
The WO file was also full of endless abbreviations on minute sheets, many of which are still unclear to me. But I was less concerned with numbers and letters when there was so much good narrative detail in the file. Medical reports, his attestation document (the beginning of the legal process of signing up) and all the administration of his death were included. There was a copy of the bald telegram sent to his parents three days after he went missing. I sat back in my seat and took a deep breath at that point. Morris’s father Albert Morris, like most other bereaved parents of the Great War, needed guidance about what to do when his son died – questions of proof of death and probate needed answering and his deeply patient and respectful enquiries were perhaps the documents that were the most affecting. The replies often had a touch of the Jarndyce v Jarndyce, never using one word when three or four round-the-houses ones would to.
There’s another striking document that I keep meaning to go back to at some point. It’s a memo from the War Office to the Commanding Officer of 2nd Brigade RFC with a list of other officers who were transferring from the Army for flying training at the same time as Morris.
I’m still wondering how many of them survived the training. Let alone the war.
Here’s a couple of resources in case I’ve inspired you to start your own searching:
William Spencer’s book Tracing Your Air Force Ancestors is a must – most libraries will have a copy.
The National Archives website has a range of research guides too.
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Not so much a journey of discovery, more of a commute of compulsion
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