Just over 100 years ago, in April 1915, the renowned Jesuit preacher, Fr Bernard Vaughan, spent several days at Farnborough with Lord Kitchener’s new army. At the conclusion of the event, he was given a ride in a military biplane, becoming the first priest to fly in an aircraft. In this blog post, we examine archival material surrounding the event, and the role of aircraft in the First World War.
At the start of the War, aircraft like the one Fr Vaughan likely went up in, were primarily used for reconnaissance. Due to the static nature of trench warfare, aircraft were the only means of gathering information beyond enemy trenches, so they were essential for discovering where the enemy was based and what they were doing. As trench systems developed and became more complex, it became harder for pilots to accurately record what was happening on the ground and formal aerial photography was introduced early in 1915. Aerial reconnaissance was a dangerous job as taking photos of enemy positions required the pilot to fly straight and level so that the observer could take a series of overlapping images, making them an easy target. At first most aircraft were unarmed, but as the importance of aerial observation grew, both sides developed tactics to try and shoot down enemy aircraft and to protect their own. By 1915, forward-firing machine guns were being fitted onto aircraft, but the real breakthrough came with the invention of an interrupter mechanism which allowed machine guns to fire through moving propeller blades. Throughout 1916and 1917 aerial warfare developed from lone fighting to ever larger formations of aircraft and patrols.
The Jesuit publication, Letters and Notices, reported on the occasion at Farnborough in July1915 (vol. 33, pp. 189-191):
…It would be difficult to express the fine impression Fr Vaughan’s visit has created among the men, Protestant as well as Catholics. They were proud to see him flying like an airman and riding like a cavalryman, and talking to them like one who not only knew soldiers, but loved them….
Fr Vaughan said, of ascending in a biplane,
What is good enough for our gallant airmen is good enough for me – or any other man. I wanted to know something of what our fliers experience, and as the machines are made now there is not much danger. If you went through the aircraft factory and saw the scrupulously careful manner in which every little bit of the machine is made and fitted together, and how thoroughly all the parts are tested, you would not be afraid to make a voyage in any of the military aeroplanes… Except in the first few minutes of the ascent, when all my attention was devoted to holding on like grim death, I was very comfortable… It was a biplane that carried us, and I sat in front of the pilot, well protected from the cold – and it was cold – by a leatherjacket… It was so clear (panorama) that every object on the earth could be distinctly made out, and I felt that I could drop a bomb on any spot below to an inch. As we travelled sometimes at the rate of seventy-five miles an hour, that might have been, perhaps, rather difficult… There is, I found, a curious fascination about flying – a feeling of freedom and exhilaration – and when I reached the ground I wanted to go up again at once.
Among Vaughan’s personal papers is a volume of press cuttings for 1909-1916 (ref. 99/8/14), which includes an article entitled ‘Flying Fr Vaughan’ from The Advocate, 1915:
…On Saturday morning, Fr Vaughan celebrated Mass at Aldershot, and afterwards ascended in a military biplane to a height of 4000 feet thus achieving a record as the first priest to go on an aerial excursion. He thus described his sensations while whirling through the air to a journalistic interviewer:- “Not bad for an old man of sixty-nine,” he said, “to risk a journey to the clouds! It was my first flight towards heaven, but (with a twinkle in the eye) I am hoping it won’t be the last.”
Another remarkable clipping in this volume is taken from The Daily Telegraph, dated 29 June 1914, and relates the tribute paid by Vaughan to the Archduke Franz Ferdinand of Austria and his wife Sophie after their assassination, which would spark the outbreak of war:
Father Bernard Vaughan SJ who was preaching yesterday evening at the Westminster Cathedral, was informed by a Press representative of the tragedy, after he had left the pulpit. Referring to the late Archduke and his wife, the eminent Jesuit said: ‘I remember that when last they were on a visit to England how I was struck with their extraordinary goodness and piety. On the morning after they had been at Windsor attending a function late at night, they were up early and attended mass and received Holy Communion at Farm-Street.’
Fr Vaughan’s personal papers have been catalogued and an overview of the collection can be found here. If you would like to make an enquiry, please contact us: firstname.lastname@example.org.