Testaments to Character: Reflections and Memories in the Imperial War Museum Archives

On May 29 I went on a research visit to the Imperial War Museum (IWM) in London. Although most of my resources are at the Royal Air Force Museum, there were a few sources I wanted to look at the IWM. Due to copyright reasons, I cannot include the photos of the sources I consulted online, but I will include a brief summary and interesting points of each below. I will go more in depth with each of these sources in later blog posts on different themes and ideas related to their content.


BOS 148: “McCudden, the Airman V.C.” (August, 1918 reprint from The English Review)

This piece was written by Mrs. Alec-Tweedie, who was heavily involved in the publishing process of Major James McCudden’s memoir, Five Years in the Royal Flying Corps. Published posthumously, the memoir describes McCudden’s life in the Royal Flying Corps after transferring from the Royal Engineers and rising from the rank of mechanic to Major in five years. Mrs. Alec-Tweedie’s article aims to make McCudden a human, an individual, in a time when increasing casualties meant individuals were lost to the masses. Here, her focus on character is primarily in regards to his memoir-writing process. This is particularly interesting, as his lack of education compared to many of his upper class comrades would suggest (if we stuck to the stereotype about social class) that he would be unable to produce coherent letters, much less a lengthy, extensive memoir about his own life experience. Alec-Tweedie presents McCudden as a special case in both his personality and his capabilities. I will include this piece in later blog posts about the character of Major James McCudden, his memoir, and the presentation of pilots in wartime newspapers.


K.75325: 19 January 1975 Sunday Express Article on Captain Albert Ball

Ralph Barker’s article is focused on highlighting what made Albert Ball unique and worthy as Britain’s first “wartime celebrity”. The headline itself is rather sensationalist: “Girls mobbed him in the streets…this flier was too valuable for combat”. Although the second half of the title is correct- Ball was indeed viewed as too valuable to send to the frontline and High Command pushed to keep him at home as an instructor, later seen with McCudden- the first half uses an almost modern tabloid-esque headline to capture the reader’s attention. The rest of the article attempts to show Albert Ball’s character and make him seem like an individual set apart from the masses that the reader could connect to through intimate details, like the description of him as “special case” of a loner with extreme talent.

What intrigued me about this piece is that it comes from the 1970s. This makes the article important, as it shows the post-war generation chose to remember these pilots and the key elements uniting these memories. The article’s author, who went on to write many books about the Royal Flying Corps and pilots like Albert Ball, wrote at the height of a movement to document the lives of First World War servicemen. As veterans, nearing their eighties, began dying off in increasing numbers, individual biographers and institutions like the BBC and IWM partnered together to preserve their stories through oral histories, articles, and biographies.


Oral Histories

I am going to do a full-length post on the oral histories, included a separate one for the three H.N. Charles interviews. Below, I briefly outlined the key points from each of the oral histories I listened to during my visit. These mainly center on training/recruitment process, descriptions of squadron life, and, most importantly, opinions on the characters and performances of other pilots.

4060: Hubert Noel Charles 1963 Oral History

  • Describes his contributions to the Royal Flying Corps and 56 Squadron as an Engineering Officer
  • Opinions of Major James McCudden, Captain Albert Ball, and Lieutenant Arthur Percival Foley Rhys Davids
  • 56 Squadron life under the leadership of Major Blomfield

4226: C.K. Shaw 1963 Oral History

  • Opinion of Captain Albert Ball from the perspective of an engineering officer at an aircraft depot

4140: Thomas Isbell 1964 Oral History

  • Opinion of the character and leadership of Major James McCudden

24: Archibald William Henry James 1973 Oral History

  • Comparison of General Officer Commanding Brigadier-General Hugh Trenchard to Sir Winston Churchill
  • Education, Public Schoolboy Camaraderie, and Old Etonians in the Royal Flying Corps
  • Opinions of Commonwealth Servicemen in the Royal Flying Corps
  • Description of Royal Flying Corps Identity and Morale
  • Opinions of Major James McCudden, Lieutenant A.P.F. Rhys Davids, Captain Albert Ball, and Major William “Billy” Bishop


  1. Bruce Campbell says:

    Abby: This is great. Remember that “character” is not a neutral noun, but one which is heavily weighted by cultural assumptions.

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