The Wartime Diaries of an RFC Officer

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(Continued from the November issue)

We left the young Officer, whom I shall refer to as X, living-it-up in customary fashion in London, after having been given sick-leave following a short spell of winter service with the RFC at the Front, and a Christmas journey in a hired Singer. It was January 1916, when X met Capt. Campbell at the Berkeley Grill Room, and was very friendly with “Stewie”, as he called Capt. W. A. Stewart. That war-weary winter also found X searching for a car. He went to Harrods with his mother, Lady X, to look at them and with Stewart to get the latter’s Itala out, from its garage in Cricklewood, an outing sandwiched between lunch at the Marlborough Club and dinner at the Carlton with various friends, including the brother of the late Capt. Liddle, VC, and Kemp of the Irish Guards. Next it was to the Mercedes Co., where X had been promised a staff job by Major Warner, VC, this during the war when civilians with German-sounding names were accused of spying! The next day, after lunch with a party of friends at Claridges, X saw his doctor (he was still on sick-leave from the RFC) and then, with Stewart, “messed about in the Berliet”, having previously taken a Silent Knight Mercedes out for a trial run. At this time X went before another Medical Board at Caxton Hall and was given three months’ light-duty. This he immediately spent by lunching at the Berkeley, seeing about his job with the Mercedes Company when at the Ritz, dining at the Berkeley, going on to the Empire, and finally having supper at the Savoy.

Another entry tells of dining at the Carlton, going on to see “A Little Piece of Fluff”, taking his escort home, meeting some other friends at Ciro’s, going to someone’s flat for drinks, and ending up “feeling rather tired”! There was a January Sunday when they motored down to Leatherhead and back in someone’s Rolls-Royce. Four days later X met Stewart at the Scott-Robson’s and “We motored off to Newmarket in his new Mercedes car”, a journey that took from mid-afternoon until dinner. The next two days were devoted to shooting parties — “About 9 guns. Couldn’t hit a haystack at first but improved later on. After lunch we all improved and had a great time, and some fine drives”. After tea on the first day Stewart played the piano and after dinner six of the party, including two girls, drove over to Cambridge in the Mercedes, and X drove it back. The following day the Mercedes was driven down to London, not starting until after tea but getting in by about 7.30 p.m.— in the winter of 1916, remember.

At this time X had an Adler out on trial and one Saturday he used it to go with Archie de Pass to the Mercedes Co., where they got out a 120 h.p. Itala, but leaving X time to lunch at home at Ennismore Gardens, take tea at Queens Gate, see a girlfriend home, dress for dinner, dine the aforesaid Rolls-Royce owner, and go in this car to see a performance of “Carmen” at the Shaftesbury Theatre. Alas, it all ended with “an awful headache”. . . .

On the Sunday X, after going to Mass, used the 120 h.p. ltala for a run to Leatherhead, lunching with the Petersons before motoring on to Dorking to call on Mrs. Ricardo, the lady in one of whose fields he had force-landed when trying to fly a BE2c to France the previous year. [Incidentally, Itala listed a 12-litre 120 b. h.p. model from about 1908 to 1915, so this was not necessarily a racing car – Ed.].

It might be thought that the social round would soon be curtailed, because on the Monday after this run X reported to Lt.-Col. Cormack at RFC Headquarters, at the War Office. He was put to work at once, “inspecting a small factory”. The second day at the War Office X was “very busy, dodging about on the Staff cars”, and working until 8.15 p.m., yet he was able to lunch at the Carlton with Capt. Stewart and Sir Richard Musgrave and his two daughters and dine with a lady at Prince’s. This was the norm when X was in town, although varied at times by lunching at the Berkeley and taking tea at Rumplemeyer’s, before going to the Bachelors’ Club or to the 400. After which, on one occasion, X was not above catching an evening train to Derby, getting to the Royal Hotel well after midnight, for a visit to the Rolls-Royce works next day. He was very busy all the morning “and a big R-R landaulette took me to lunch and fetched me after. Went all over R-R works and at 4.30 a RFC tender came for me and motored me to Birmingham. . . .” Not bad for a 2nd. Lt., which is what I believe X’s rank then was. Moreover, he managed to meet a lady friend at Birmingham station and go back with her to her hospital (a reminder of the war) in her car, before walking back to the Grand Hotel. The reason for X’s journey to Birmingham is explained by the entry: “Was very busy and got all things settled up with Messrs. Lanchester’s”. He lunched with a friend and got a train back to London. Presumably the visit to the Lanchester Company was in connection with War Office contracts, not motor-cars. . .

There was daily work to do at the War Office but one entry reads: “. . . was only able to do one job, as cars were so scarce”. So X “saw about the Adler” before lunching at the Carlton and then he had tea at his fiat, dined at home, and later went to “Samples” to see Mabel Russell in this show, “which was awfully funny”. The usual routine in January 1916 was to work at the office until late in the evening, after going about in a Crossley tender during the day, but taking time off, for instance to lunch at a favourite place such as the Pall Mall, Hatchett’s, or at the Marlborough Club, and then to go to the Ambassador’s or another theatre in the late evening. This round of lunches, dinners and shows with friends, and even getting engaged, was varied by looking at cars, with presumably a view to buying them or finding buyers for them — one being “Miss Crawshay’s Berliet”, after meeting her mother at lunch.

It seems that X, who had seen Father Talbot about his marriage banns and who had had to get Col. Proby to give permission for him to marry, was getting a Berliet coupe ready, for the occasion.

Glossing over the diaries’ social entries, which include mention of a wedding party at the Savoy for Martin’s sister (the motorcycle Martin, probably) and “making a tremendous noise at the piano” and having “a decidedly noisy evening” at Ennismore Gardens, only the Berliet and a Mercedes limousine driven by a girl are mentioned for some time. Work took X to Croydon and “over the Gamage-Bell garage and then onto Darracqs”, in the Mercedes. There was also a run to Farnborough in the Itala with Jenkins. “Had new tyres put on”, which suggests that the RFC may have been using this big car as Staff transport. There was also a visit to see how the Berliet and Itala were getting on at “the works”, which could imply the RFC garage. At this time there is a reminder of the war, for X’s fiancee’s brother-in-law, Major Douglas Reynolds, VC, died at Le Touquet hospital.

It seems that X may have been doing some business in cars at this time, as he went to Gamage-Bell garages to look at taxicabs. One Saturday “the Itala came round” to Ennismore Gardens (suggesting that it was perhaps a RFC car allocated to X) and a party motored off in it. They were in Brighton two-and-a-half-hours later and that evening “went to the Grand Theatre and had a tremendous rag and after a free fight. Went back to King’s hotel and had a very cheery supper and went to bed. The roads were snow-covered but the Itala ran magnificently!” Next day, on the Sunday after church, they went to Shoreham in the Itala, which someone called Tollerton drove back, before lunching at the Metropole. It seems that the car was left in Brighton, as X returned to London by train. There he used the Mercedes for theatre visits (“topping show at the Victoria Palace”) and at lunch at the Savoy with Guy Edwards and others met “old Vernon, just back from the Dardenelles”. . .

Otherwise, the war must have seemed far away, apart from X’s work at the War Office, for the social activities went on daily, with many visits to Claridges, theatres, pantomime and cinema, in that winter of 1916, when it snowed heavily right into March.

Tollerton would “bring the Itala round,” and once that great car was driven on a Saturday to Birmingham. Tollerton, who was presumably an orderly or a chauffeur, taking the luggage there by train. This for a mere weekend! They “had a magnificent run and got there about 6 and had tea and got tidy. Car went magnificently”. On the Sunday, after Mass, and lunch at a friend’s, the Itala was driven back to London, X driving it as far as Coventry, Tollerton thereafter. After tea at St. Albans they got in in time for dinner.

There is mention of going down to Hounslow one Thursday so that Jack Leamouth could have a joy-ride in a BE2c, and where X met Major Higgins, after which they had tea at the Batchelors’ Club, and after X had done some work in his office it was on to the RAC for Leamouth’s farewell party, — “Flora met me there. Took her home to Claridges and then went home to bed, very tired.” The Mercedes would be used for visits to Napier’s and Joukes at Willesden and one Sunday Wentworth arrived with a 135 h.p. Lorraine-Dietrich, which was the cue for a run to Brighton and Shoreham, lunching, of course, at the Metropole. In the middle of March, when X had a 50 h.p. Adler on trial, he ran down to Brooklands in it, where he “went over the Martinsyde works” and on to Farnborough to see someone with two 160 h.p. RAF engines, getting back to dine at St. James’s Palace, where X was on Guard Duty.

There were visits to the RFC garage in London – where, I wonder? – from which X collected gears for the Itala, using the Berliet coupe for social calls. He then bought a 27 h.p. Adler from Morgan’s, for £100. Its first long run was the usual Sunday trip to Brighton and Shoreham — they started back to London after having dinner at the Metropole, — “perfect moonlight drive”, ending at midnight, on a day when X had been up for 8 o’ clock Mass. Incidentally, the RFC garage was no myth, because X showed his father, the 5th Baronet, over it, after a lunch at Prince’s Grill Room. But on the next visit to Birmingham X used the train, and a Staff-car from 5th Brigade. The Adler needed attention to its radiator, and after lunching at the Piccadilly Grill with General Henderson’s son (General Henderson was in command of the RFC) they went to Cricklewood to see about it and the next day X got the Itala out and “saw about tyres for her”.

For the weekend jaunt to the coast the Itala and Read’s Vauxhall were now pressed into service. “Had a topping run down there and arrived about 6. Met several fellows at the Metropole and we all dined together and after had a box at the local theatre. Got bored of it and went on to a private dance at the Hove Town Hall. Had a great time and thoroughly enjoyed it. Got to bed about 1 a.m.” A headache kept X in bed until lunchtime at the Old Ship Hotel on the Sunday but the Itala made the Brighton-London run home in two hours, ten minutes. The following day X went to see Cunningham-Reid’s Rolls-Royce and then to Hounslow in his friend Stewie’s Mercedes to give him a ten-minute flight in a 90 h.p. RAF-engined BE2c at 2,500 feet. Otherwise, the routine was much the same. The Itala was taken to the Palmer Tyre Co. and to Paddon’s, a colleague called Wentworth ran X about in a Sizaire-Berwick, and there was “Please Help Emily” (a “topping show”) and “My Lady Frayle” to pass the time between dining at the Piccadilly Grill and taking supper at the Savoy.

(To be continued)

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