I went to Nottingham a couple of weeks ago to spend some time in the county archives looking for the great (and simultaneously diminutive) Albert Ball, ace par excellence of the First World War. Although his final total of forty four victories* surprisingly only just scrapes him into the top twenty highest scoring fighter pilots of WW1, his methods were extraordinary, and more importantly, the example of personal bravery that he set ensured him a unique place in the annals of air combat.
Ball arrived at No. 9 Reserve Squadron at Mousehold Heath in Norfolk on 23 October 1915 – just a few weeks before Morris, who began his flying training there on 12 November. A compare and contrast exercise was irresistible. Thanks to this timing, it was a period of Morris's life, like that of his death, which I was able to light up with detail, thanks to the ubiquity of Ball biographies. A search for a mention in Morris's notebook diary of a singularly talented but not always terribly sociable pilot, whose list of victories and appealingly rosy cheeks looks put him in the pantheon of celebrated British aces, is doomed to end in vain - but the career coincidences between the two young men are striking. Not just in their eventual tragic ends, but also in their progression through training and eventual arrival in No.11 within weeks of the beginning of the Battle of the Somme. Ball’s diary and correspondence illustrated experiences and environments that were often exactly the same as Morris's. His story was not as glorious as Ball’s, but proximity lends adventure: a run after Morris in the archives holds the prospect of arriving at the aerodrome just minutes after Albert had taken off in search of another Hun.
These connections with the legendary figures of the air war have a historic frisson, without taking away from the fact that Morris's yeoman work, like that of thousands of other RFC aircrew, led to the Allies’ dominance of the skies for a large part of the period of the Battle of the Somme.
I found Ball’s letters impossible to read on microfiche; some had been scanned in horizontally, some vertically, and without dates on every page, I ended up with a sore neck and feeling frustrated. On the principle of if you don’t ask you don’t get, I asked for the originals, which are pasted into a handsomely-bound leather volume. It’s not everyone’s idea of a thrilling way to spend a morning, but I was quite entranced to read these letters. A hastily scribbled note has an immediacy that is powerful anyway, but when you see that it was written on 1st July 1916, there’s an extra historical punch. Most moving of all were the fragments of medal ribbons that Ball had attached to a couple of them, complete with rusty pins. I have to admit that after four years of RFC research, I’m a bit over descriptions of dogfights. What fascinated me most were the everyday, banal details – who’s on leave, what it’s like to be orderly officer for the day, and how upsetting it is when your family don’t take to your girlfriend. Albert Ball showed a maturity beyond his years in the air, but in the letters, he is sometimes a refreshingly petulant teenager.
When I’d finished reading the letters, I made my way in the rain to Nottingham Castle, where they have a few Ball mementoes, including one of his RFC caps, his Victoria Cross and a windscreen, veined with cracks from a bullet. It's believed to be from an SE5a, an aircraft he flew after leaving No.11 Squadron, although I found an anecdote from an 11 contemporary, Joseph Hellingoe, who described seeing a similarly perforated windscreen on Ball's plane in the early summer of 1916: he claimed to have got into the pilot’s seat to try and work out why he hadn’t been killed – concluding that Ball must have had his head down to site his gun when the shot was made, thus missing his head by inches. It's likely that there are many stories like it in the RFC's history; everyone would want to have shared their own 'memories' of Albert.
I left the Castle museum and walked down the path that leads to the Grade One-listed memorial statue erected in 1921. It’s a heroic representation – Albert with the angel; but I particularly liked the beautiful bas-relief image of an SE5a on one side of the plinth. There were half a dozen wreaths left over from November that a hooligan wind had thrown around the sodden ground. I rescued a couple of them, (one from the current officers and SNCOs of 56 Squadron, Ball’s final unit, another from his family), and put them back on the base of the statue, wiping off the worst of the mud. The imperative for remembrance was strong enough for me to forget the embarrassment of fumbling around with sad old bits of plastic in the rain that someone else might have put in the bin. I wonder what the considered lifespan is for memorial wreaths – and who decides when it’s decent to quietly dispose of them.
It was a privilege to spend such an immersive couple of days in Albert’s company. This robust description of him, at home in Nottingham and very much alive, comes from the biography by Briscoe and Stannard:
‘It was while waiting in the hall of the house (in Nottingham) that one heard strange sounds, reminiscent of the jungle, coming from upstairs: ‘That is him,’ said his mother. A few seconds later, preceded by an unearthly yell, there came tumbling down the staircase a schoolboy in the uniform of an officer of the Royal Flying Corps. A short stocky fellow, rather below the medium height, with somewhat untidy dark hair, a round jolly face, fresh complexion, and a pair of eyes brimming with laughter.’
Albert Ball died in action eight months after Morris, on 7 May 1917, aged 20 years.
*Alternative totals are available, victory lists being open to endless interpretation
Not so much a journey of discovery, more of a commute of compulsion
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