Surprising finds come in all year round – even just before Christmas, writes Charles Hanson.
Right now, our militaria expert Adrian Stevenson is cataloguing a collection that stunned him so much he confessed he started to shake as he slowly delved into the treasure trove of memorabilia. As an eminent expert, he immediately knew just how important it was.
The discovery was initially sparked by the arrival of a photo frame which was brought in for free valuation at our Etwall HQ. It was no ordinary photo frame. It was made out of a First World War aircraft propeller. This did not surprise Adrian too much. It was waste not, want not after the war and people looked to recycle anything and everything.
Nevertheless, he was fascinated and discussions with the owner revealed that he had more items relating to the war. Shortly afterwards he returned with a large box which, much to Adrian’s amazement when he discovered its contents, had been languishing in a barn in Leicestershire. The owner had no idea who the items related to but said his mother had been the recipient of old family heirlooms.
As he delved into the box, Adrian was flabbergasted. One after another, he pulled out a wealth of rare and fascinating items relating to the military service of a First World War pilot named S Leslie.
The box contained everything from his early cadet training instructions and technical notes about planes to aircraft maps which he would have had on his knee in the cockpit as he took to the skies to seek out the enemy.
Back then he was a second lieutenant with the Royal Flying Corps which changed its name to the RAF in 1918. Pilot's wings reflecting both names are in the collection along with a badge which tells us he had been wounded.
His papers also reveal that he enlisted in London on October 30, 1915, aged 22. He was born in East Finchley, Greater London, was 5ft 8ins and worked as a merchant before he signed up for military service.
Other finds included pennants from the plane and a host of rolled-up gun camera photos. Guns were turned into cameras so pilots could see the accuracy of their shots.
But the golden nugget for Adrian, the rarest find of them all, was Flt Lieutenant Leslie’s pilot’s flying log book. These are few and far between. Adrian has seen one before but has never had the honour of consigning one into his militaria sale.
It’s a complete record with dates, times and notes of every flight the young pilot took part in throughout the 1914-18 conflict. It contains dramatic passages such as ‘Plane hit by machine gun fire’ or ‘Forced down due to engine trouble’. The notes also tell us that Flt Lieutenant Leslie often acted as an ‘observer’.
This remarkable find immediately sweeps us back 100 years to the Great War, a conflict that devastated a generation of young men.
Research tells us that out of every 100 British military pilot deaths during the first year of the war, 90 resulted from individual deficiencies, mainly physical defects, eight from aircraft defects and two from enemy action.
As a result of these appalling findings, the British established a special service for the 'Care of the Flier’ which reduced deaths from physical defects to 20% during the second year and 12% during the third.
Analysis from academic British sources demonstrate that of 153 British military fliers who died while flying between August 1914 and December 1915, 89 (58%) were killed in action or died of their wounds soon after being shot down. Meanwhile 64 (42%) perished from injuries suffered in training or operational mishaps.
The statistics are shocking but these were the very early days of aviation. It was only a decade or so earlier, on December 17, 1903, that Wilbur and Orville Wright made four brief flights at Kitty Hawk with their first powered aircraft.
We also learn a great deal about the training process young men like S Leslie had to go through in the Royal Flying Corps. His Standing Order papers from the No 5 School of Military Aeronautics deliver a long list of instructions relating to everything from haircuts and not wasting hot water at bathtime to use of motor cars.
One note says, ‘Cadets must at all time keep their hair properly cut; nothing looks more slovenly and unsoldierly than long, untidy hair. There is a barber’s shop in the camp’.
Another paragraph states, ‘Cadets will parade for dinner at least five minutes before the time for dinner. Dinner will be announced by the Orderly Sergeant of the squadron’.
Then there is, ‘Cadets are not allowed to wear mufti when on leave’, mufti being casual civilian clothes. The rules go on and on, underlining the intense military discipline enforced amid the chaos of war.
Adrian is still assessing the items but believes the entire collection could fetch £2,000 in our March 27 Medals and Militaria Auction. We’re welcoming more entries for this sale. Free medals and militaria valuations are available on Wednesdays, 10am-4pm, at Hansons, Heage Lane, Etwall, DE65 6LS, or email [email protected]. Free general valuations are also available on Wednesday, 5-7p, and Friday, 10am-4pm. We will be closing for the Christmas break on December 20.