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Henry Tabor's 1916 War Diary

 

Introduction

 

The First World War

World War One, or the Great War, started a year and a half before this diary. On 28th June 1914, the Archduke Franz Ferdinand, the heir to the Austro-Hungarian empire, was assassinated in Sarajevo, Bosnia. One month later Austria-Hungary declared war on Serbia. This was rapidly followed by other declarations of war, in line with the system of alliances which had formed in an effort to maintain the balance of power in pre-war Europe. 

Germany's decision to invade France through neutral Belgium led to the British declaration of war on Germany on the 4 August 1914. The 'Great War' which developed between the allied powers (led by France, Russia, Britain and, from 1917, the United States) and the Central Powers (led by Germany and Austria-Hungary) was to last until 1918. 

On the western front where Henry Tabor was to be based, the two sides rapidly became entrenched, and the technology of warfare at the time made it difficult to overcome the ensuing stalemate. This front was virtually static from the end of 1914 and consisted of continuous trench lines from the Channel coast in Belgium to the Swiss border near Belfort, in all some 400 miles. Although a variety of strategies were employed, including poison gas from 1915 and tanks from late 1916, World War One was remarkable for the extraordinary loss of life in these trenches. 

The German army was being driven back but was not defeated on the western front, at the time the Central Powers surrendered, signing an armistice on 11 November 1918. In June 1919 the Treaty of Versailles was signed with Germany. An estimated 10,000,000 lives had been lost during the war, of which some 750,000 were British, with twice as many wounded.

 

The Royal Flying Corp (RFC) and 9 Squadron

Great Britain founded the Royal Flying Corps (RFC) in May 1912, less than nine years after the Wright Brothers first flight, with eleven qualified pilots. By the end of 1912 the RFC had one squadron of airships and three of aircraft. Each squadron had twelve machines.  

By May 1915, the Royal Flying Corps had 166 aircraft.  The vast majority of early operations on the Western Front was carried out by the French Aéronautique Militaire, which had 1,150 aircraft available.

 In August 1915 Hugh Trenchard became the new RFC field commander. Trenchard took a much more aggressive approach and insisted on non-stop offensive patrols over enemy lines. British casualties were high, and by 1916, an average of two aircrew crew were lost every day. It became even worse the following year, and in the spring of 1917 the RFC were losing nearly fifty aircraft a week.

By the time the Battle of the Somme started in July 1916 the RFC had a total strength of twenty-seven squadrons (421 aircraft), with four kite-balloon squadrons and fourteen balloons. The squadrons were organised into four brigades, each of which worked with one of the British armies.

Number 9 Squadron was formed in April 1915 in Brooklands under Major HCT Dowding, later to be Air Chief Marshal of Fighter Command in the Battle of Britain.  It was the first squadron with a special wireless section.

 

The RFC, wireless radio and the artillery

The first wireless transmission was made in 1892 by Sir William Preece. Soon afterwards, Gugliemo Marconi, a young Italian scientist living in England , found out that radio waves could be reflected into narrow beams by using sheets of metal sheets around the antenna.

The RFC's wireless experiments, under Major Herbert Musgrave, included research into how wireless telegraphy could be used by military aircraft. By the start of the war in 1914 Musgrave and his team had devised a system where pilots could use wireless telegraphy to help the artillery hit specific targets. The aircraft carried a wireless set and a map and after identifying the position of an enemy target the pilot was able to transmit messages such as A5, B3, etc in morse code to the RFC land station attached to an artillery battery.  The transmitter filled the cockpit space normally used by the observer and a trailing wire antenna was used which had to be reeled in prior to landing. 

These land stations were generally attached to heavy artillery units, such as Royal Garrison Artillery Siege Batteries, and were manned by RFC wireless operators, such as Henry Tabor.  These wireless operators had to fend for themselves as their squadrons were situated some distance away.  This led to concerns as to who had responsibility for them and in November 1916 Squadron Commanders had to be reminded “that it is their duty to keep in close touch with the operators attached to their command, and to make all necessary arrangements for supplying them with blankets, clothing, pay, etc”[1]

The wireless operator’s work was often carried out under heavy artillery fire in makeshift dug-outs.  The wireless aerials were an obvious target and were often hit, requiring immediate repair under fire.  As well as taking down and interpreting the numerous signals coming in from the aircraft, the operator had to communicate back to the aircraft by means of cloth strips laid out on the ground or a signalling lamp to give visual confirmation that the signals had been received.  The wireless communication was one way as no receiver was mounted in the aircraft and the ground station could not transmit.  

 

By May 1916 306 aeroplanes and 542 ground stations were equipped with wireless.

This is a description of a typical “aeroplane shoot” with a Siege Battery of the Royal Garrison Artillery.

“Ranging a battery by aerial observation was generally considered to be the most effective method of destroying a target. The aircraft crew would often go to the battery beforehand and discuss the shoot with the officers.

During the flight the observer communicated with the battery using morse code. This could be delivered by wireless. Directing a battery was not necessarily very difficult to an experienced crew but it was always dangerous.

Edward Packe recalled a successful shoot before the beginning of the battle of the Somme . "It is topping being in the air when you are ranging a battery and to feel that you are in charge of that battery, as you really are, and can do what you like. It makes me feel I am getting my own back on the Bosche for the first time since I was in action and it is very satisfactory. My second shot hit the church (Beaumont Hamel) and raised a glorious cloud of dust."” [from Lieutenant Burleigh’s last flight by Alastair H Fraser - http://www.litandphil.org.uk/oddvols2001.htm#odd2Lieutenant]

 

Henry Tom Tabor

Henry Tabor was born on 21st December 1897 in Hackney, London

His decision to join the Royal Flying Corp was brought about by witnessing one of the first air raids by five German Zeppelin airships near his home in Leyton on 9 August 1915 in which there were 27 casualties.  He joined the RFC eleven days later on 20th August 1915 .  He was aged 17, well under the official minimum age for the forces of 19, but somehow managed to persuade the RFC to take him on.  The minimum joining age was later reduced to 18 when conscription began in January 1916.

He was given the rank of 2nd Class Air Mechanic (2/AM) and with the serial number 7754 (ie he was the 7,754th member of the RFC – by 1918 the RFC had had 329,000 recruits).

He spent three and a half months training in morse code, principles of electricity and wireless radio at the Polytechnic Institute in Regent Street , London .  After which, Henry Tabor moved with his Squadron (No 9 or IX) from St Margaret’s (Swingate Down), Dover to France on 10th December 1915, eleven days before his eighteenth birthday. 

After brief stops in Rouen and St Omer the squadron arrived at Bertangles, four miles north of Amiens , on 23rd December 1915 under 3rd Wing RFC working with the III Army.  In April 1916 it came under the command of the Fourth Army and the Squadron moved two miles south-east to Allonville.  In July the squadron moved South to Chipilly and on to Morlancourt in September.

No 9 Squadron’s main role was to carry out artillery observation and artillery patrol missions with outdated BE2c aircraft (the B.E. stood for Bleriot Experimental). 

Henry Tabor was a wireless operator whose job was to take communications from the squadron’s aeroplanes and inform the artillery batteries he was attached to, where to aim.

This diary covers most of 1916 and includes the whole of the battle of the Somme , his award for gallantry and promotion to Corporal. 

After 1916 he remained in France on active duty for over two more years to after the war ended, and took part in the Third Battle of Ypres in 1917.  During his time in France he was promoted twice more ending his service as a Flight Sergeant.  He was a founding member of the Royal Air Force (RAF) when it was created on 1st April 1918.

On 13 February 1919 Henry Tabor returned to England aged 21.                                                               

 

Read the diary

 

 

 

Peter James Tabor

21st December 2003



[1] Letter from Headquarters, 2nd Brigade RFC dated 18th November 1916 [Public Records Office AIR/1/864]

 

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This page was last updated on 10 July 2010.