Update: (10.12.2021) The MOD has issued a number of subsequent documents during an email exchange that can be read HERE. Group Captain Clive Montellier has kindly clarified a number of issues for my family. At the point of discharge – and contrary to what was previously speculated – Archibald Britton Wyles was an ‘Air Mechanic First Class’ (AC1) which was recorded in an incomplete manner on his War Record as ‘C!’ – which might have been an accepted abbreviation at the time (and possibly also used to refer to a ‘Clerk’ in a separate administrative rank). He was an ‘Air Mechanic’ and not a ‘Clerk’ as assumed below. This has been proven through the finding of other documents in the MOD Archive which also recorded that my great grand-father was also awarded the ‘British War Medal’ (WWI) and the ‘Victory Medal’ (WWI) copies of which we have now obtained and include below.
Around fifteen-years-ago, a friend of mine who worked as a Civil Servant in the British Government, accessed the online National Archives and discovered that the WWI War Record of my paternal Great Grandfather – Archibald Britton Wyles – who was the last of my direct relatives to be born in the picturesque Northamptonshire village of Duddington (a place the ‘Wyles’ family had inhabited for around five-hundred-years and probably longer). As child he trained as a groom (with his father) serving the local gentry – but when motor-cars began to take the place of horses – his father became a ‘chauffeur’ at nearby Uppingham.
This new career involved not only ‘driving’ the owner of the vehicle around, but also included learning how motor worked and how to repair it when and if it broke-down. Like the essential horsemanship skills required for ‘grooming’ – these may have been the ‘modern’ skills that Archibald’s father – John Thomas – also conveyed to him, so that this early exposure to ‘car mechanics’ may well have been the inspiration for his later military service. Whatever the case, Archibald left for Birmingham around 1905 (when he was eighteen-years-old) seeking new employment and experiences in life. He acquired a job working in a Department Store working as a ‘Draper’s Assistant’ learning how to sell fabric and sewing equipment and other similar paraphernalia.
He married Helen Edwards (my great grand mother) in 1910 and they soon had a son – Joesph Wyles (c. 1914) together – before my grandfather – Alfred Gregory Wyles was born in 1916. On September 28th, 1917, at the age of thirty-years-old, Archibald Britton Wyles decided to join the ‘Royal Navy Air Service’ (RNAS) which was an experimental military unit involving the (then) novel idea of landing, storing and launching fighter-planes from the decks of stationary or moving Royal Navy ships! The RNAS had previously been famous at the beginning of WWI due to a special ‘Armoured Car’ Section (later ‘Division’) developed and Commanded for a time by the politician Winston Churchill (as ‘First Lord of the Admiralty’) – where it operated within France and Belgium.
This blasé approach to use of the early motor-vehicles for modern warfare my well have attracted Archibald Britton Wyles into joining the RNAS on September 18th, 1917. He trained in and around London on what appear to be various moored Royal Navy ships that were used for various duties – including defending the skies against German air-raids (although we are not certain as to his actual duties). Whilst still serving in 1918, his wife – Helen Wyles – passed away (on the 30th January) during the terrible ‘flu’ pandemic that struck the Western world at that time.
I have included her Death Certificate as the Coroner had the decency to write that my grandfather could not be present because he was serving in the ‘RNAS’ (I am told he was probably refused ‘leave’ due to the war situation – as German destroyers had bombarded Yarmouth in Norfolk on January 14th, 1918). During his military Service in WWI, Archibald Britton Wyles served aboard four separate ships – the HMS President, the HMS President II, the HMS Roehampton, and the HMS President V – and held three distinct ranks recorded as ‘ACII’, ‘ACI’ and ‘CI’. (Recent research [see below] suggests that the designation ‘HMS President’ was administrative rather than actual and could represent changes in ship placement – without naming the real ship itself. That is, other than on paper, my great grandfather may never have set foot on any of these ‘President# ships, or ‘stone frigates’.
If this is the case, then Archibald’s War Service remains a mystery). Deciphering these ranks has taken me time but it appears that the RNAS operated a dual training system whereby the middle and upper-classes recruits trained as high-ranking Officers who learned how to take-off and land, ‘fly’ and ‘fight’ using the old WWI-era biplanes (constructed mostly of wood, paper, fabric, string and glue set around a heavy metal engine and the required machine-guns) – whereas working-class recruits (like my great grandfather) trained as an ‘Air Mechanic’ learning how to strip, construct and repair the engines of these by-plane, and how to strip, construct and repair the operating machine-guns (often co-ordinating the rather improbable idea that a burst of machine gun rounds could, with the right setting of tempo and timing, actually ‘fire through the gaps’ offered by a spinning propeller, without those bullets touching the propeller at any time! Another skill of the ‘Air Mechanic’ also involved the proper maintenance of the fuselage of the biplanes in question, so as to ensure the highest standards of aerodynamic combat ability available at the time. Anyone who has been lucky enough to see up close an old by-plane in one of the UK’s air museums will understand just how precarious such a ‘balanced’ efficiency was for these very delicate martial machines!
It would appear that an ‘Air Mechanic’ serving within the RNAS would be referred to as an ‘Air Mechanic’ (long-hand) in a number of externally viewable Royal Navy official documents (so as to distinguish him from a ‘flyer’ who was invariably a fully fledged ‘Officer’), but would also be referred to as an ‘Aircraftman’ (and by the short-hand designations of ‘AC’ and ‘C’) in official (internal) Royal Navy documentation. Invariably added to these designations were the ‘Class’ or ‘Level’ of the rank held, as can be clearly seen within the RNAS War Record of Archibald Britton Wyles – who entered the RNAS at the lowest rank of ‘Aircraftman’ 2nd Class (ACII). The next promotion in the RNAS should be to the (temporary) rank of ‘Aircraftman’ Acting 1st Class (ACI – Acting) – but Archibald Britton Wyles appears to have been promoted straight to the next rank of confirmed ‘Aircraftman’ 1st Class (ACI) missing-out the ‘temporary’ designation – although oddly an MOD document (see below) has Archibald Britton Wyles recorded as ‘AC3’ (probably originally written as ‘ACIII) and this only goes to show the confusion that exists due to a lack of accurate records (I think many such WWI records were destroyed during Nazi German bombing raids in WWII).
I assume that as the recruit ascends the ranks within the RNAS the numbers ‘decrease’ rather than ‘increase’. Of course, it is logical to assume a ranking system of ‘ACIII’, ‘ACII’ and ‘ACI’ – but why Archibald Britton Wyles would be recorded as winning a medal at ‘ACIII’ is mysterious – unless the ranking system is ‘ACI’, ACII’ and ‘ACIII’ – with the last rank being that held by Archibald in the last months of his service during 1919. More research is required, as there is some suggestions that Archibald may have been a ‘Clerk’ (‘C’) but no one knows for sure due to the inconsistency the RNAS had in recording its ranks in official documents. It has also been suggested that Archibald Britton Wyles had ascended the ranks and moved beyond the usual Aircraftman designations – but we simply do not know. (An example of this is ranks such as ‘Leading Aircraftman’ and similar). As Archibald Britton Wyles passed away in 1941, we can only strive to re-build the history of the past with what know in the present.
Interestingly, whilst researching RNAS casualties during WWI, I found records of a number of ‘Air Mechanics’ who were ‘Killed in Action’ during WWI, often as the result of ‘drowning’ after the Royal Navy ships they were serving upon were sunk by German U-Boat or Naval actions (occasionally, RNAS personnel would also be recorded as dying by ‘enemy fire’ or be recorded as dying of ‘illness’ or ‘injury’, etc). On every occasion, however, ‘Air Mechanics’ are always recorded as ‘Air Mechanics’ (in long-hand) so as to distinguish their loss from ‘fighter-pilots’ who often died whilst operating their biplanes in all kinds of situations (including direct combat) – and are invariably referred to by their proper ‘Officer’ ranks (in other words, those acting as fighter-pilots were NOT ordinary enlisted men). It would seem, rather illogically, that an ‘Air Mechanic’ in the RNAS was also designated as an ‘Aircraftman’ – even though such working-class recruits were never allowed to fly the very aeroplanes they worked so hard to keep airborne! As matters transpired, Archibald Britton Wyles was demobilised on July 27th, 1919 – after serving one-year, ten-months and nine-days. A number of sources agree that the RNAS merged with the ‘Royal Flying corps’ (RFC) previously associated with the British Army – and formed the ‘Royal Airforce’ (RAF) on April 1st, 1918. It is further agreed that anyone still serving in the former RNAS after the 1.4. 1918 were automatically recategorized as being members of the RAF and that their War Records (as of after the 1.4.1918) were then viewed as no longer belonging to the Royal Navy, but to the RAF! Although this might well be the case, there is no mention of this transition within my great grandfather’s War Record – as he appears to have joined the RNAS in 1917 and left the RNAS in 1919!
Update: RAF Museum Emails (25/26.11.2021)
From: Andrew Dennis <Andrew.Dennis@rafmuseum.org>
To:Adrian Chan-Wyles PhD <firstname.lastname@example.org>
Subject: FW: Research: Royal Navy Air Service (1917-1919)
Date: Thursday, 25 November 2021 12:47
Thank you for your reply, ACII and ACI refer to Aircraft-hand (or ‘Aircraftsman’) second and first class respectively, although in the RNAS they were usually termed ‘Aircraft Mechanic’. I believe that CI refers to the rank of Clerk 1st Class.
The Collections Enquiry Team
Royal Air Force Museum London
T: 020 8358 4873
If travelling to our London site and using SatNAV please use the postcode: NW9 5QW
Subject: RE: FW: Research: Royal Navy Air Service (1917-1919)
Date: Friday, 26 November 2021 06:45
Thank you for your reply, I am sorry to say I do not know the locations of HMS President II & V, I suggest that the National Museum of the Royal Navy should be able to assist you with this.
I cannot say for certain what medals your great grandfather would have been awarded due to different eligibility criteria. However, as I understand it for the Royal Navy there was no requirement to serve overseas as there was in the army and RAF to qualify for the British War Medal. If he qualified for the War Medal, he also would have been eligible for the Victory Medal. Only one War Medal and Victory Medal were issued. To confirm his medal eligibility, I would contact the Medals Office.
There was no requirement at this time to take an individual’s photographs.
Date: Friday, 10 December 2021 15:10
Dear Doctor Chan-Wyles,
As Head of the MOD Medal Office and Joint Casualty and Compassionate Centre, your email of 29 November has been passed to me for a response. From the outset, I apologize that the quality of our reply fell below the standard we aspire to, and this is echoed by the member of staff who initially dealt with your enquiry.
To answer more fully, I am afraid that we are unable to carry out formal medal assessments for those who served in the First World War. The vast majority of medals for that conflict were issued in the immediate aftermath, based on records that existed at the time. Since then, most surviving records have been transferred to The National Archive, and the records of many of those who served were damaged or destroyed in the Second World War ‘blitz’. Consequently, we do not have any consistent source of data beyond that already available to members of the public nor, the specialist historic skills necessary to interpret individual and unit records from the period to make assessments as to what medals an individual might have been eligible for to the degree of certainty that we usually operate to. This contrasts with the Second World War where the medallic recognition was not finally decided until 1948 and the onus thereafter was on individuals to apply for medals; hence there were many thousands who did not claim their medals and we maintain a constant service of assessment and issue based on records that are still mostly held by the MOD and the Services and for which we have a team of trained specialist assessors. I know that will be little consolation in your particular case, but I include it to demonstrate that the limits on our services are driven more by the simple practicality of being able to deliver to a consistent standard rather than any devaluation or lack of respect for those who served in past conflicts.
As my colleague mentioned, our official access to records at The National Archive would produce only the same copy of the service record that you have already obtained. To make amends for our overly brief initial reply, however, I have asked a colleague in a different department who has access to the commercial Ancestry system to conduct a search for me. That has turned up a copy of the same Royal Navy record of service that you have, together with a brief summary of RAF service and very sketchy original document (copy attached). We have also found a medal roll card (also attached) that indicates that one medal was issued to AC3 (Aircraftman 3rd Class) Archibald B Wyles with the correct Service Number, which the annotation of ‘B’ would indicate was the British War Medal. That would suggest that he also received the Victory Medal, but there is no record of that on this particular document (which has other recipients annotated with ‘V’ which might indicate the Victory Medal). Notwithstanding Mr Dennis’ comment below, the international Medal Yearbook confirms that the Victory Medal was issued to ‘most’ of those who had the War Medal, so the two are not always combined. That does not constitute an official assessment of entitlement, of course, but will hopefully add to what you know already.
Again, I am sorry that our initial reply was so short; we get many hundreds of letters and emails around Remembrance season and, in attempting to provide prompt responses to them all, we fell below our own standards. I hope that this more fulsome response explains the background and provides at least some new information.
Group Captain (Retd) C A Montellier OBE FCIPD FCMI RAF | DBS(Mil Pers) AHd JCCC & MOD Medal Office
Innsworth House, Imjin Barracks, Gloucester, GL3 1HW
Tel Mil: 95471-7058 | Civ: 01452-712612 Ext 7058 | Skype tel: 0300 1629713
As an advocate of flexible working, I will often send messages early or late in the day, but there is no expectation of a response or action outside your own working hours.
Update: Royal Navy-MOD (14.12.2021)
Subject: RN Enquiry
Date: Tuesday, 14 December 2021 10:59
Good morning Mr Wyles,
HMS President II and V were not ships but “stone frigates” located across various London area locations and served as an “accounting base” for the Royal Naval Air Service.
As such, a person may have simply been recorded as serving on “HMS President” whilst they were “in between” ships, serving at an external base, and as it was an accounting base someone listed at President II could also be on a ship or boat too small for its own paymaster.
I hope that this helps with your research into your grandfather’s service.
Tracey Goodall | RN FPS Information Officer | Royal Navy Family & People Support, Information Office, Hamworthy Barracks Community Centre, Fort Cumberland Close, Hamworthy, Poole, Dorset BH15 4NX | Telephone: 0300 157 6348 |
Update: 15.12.2021 MOD-Navy Email
HMS President – History
From: White, Jonathan Lt Cdr MOD
RE: Royal Navy Air Service (1917-1919)
Date: Wednesday, 15 December 2021 10:25
Many thanks for your email, Mr Chan-Wyles and I apologise for the slight delay in getting back to you.
However, I have been looking into the history of HMS PRESIDENT since I took over as the Operations Officer a couple of months ago. I believe I can answer your question regarding the ships PRESIDENT I-VI and provide a bit of the history of the name PRESIDENT as well. As background, it is common for the Naming Committee to re-use names on newer Ships or Establishments, especially where there is a historical link.
The first ship PRESIDENT was actually the French frigate President captured in 1806 who then served as HMS PRESIDENT between 1806 to 1815. The Royal Navy has a history of this sort of thing as the next was an American ship captured in 1815 and renamed as HMS PRESIDENT. Having been found to be unfit for repair in 1818 she was broken up but the design was copied for the next HMS PRESIDENT in 1829. This was considered to be a political manoeuvre at the time more than a testament to the design as the Royal Navy wished to retain the name and likeness of the American ship on their register as a reminder to the United States and other nations of the capture. She served in the Royal Navy until 1903, latterly as a Drill/Training Ship moored in the West India Dock for the Royal Naval Reserve (RNR) and all subsequent RNR training ships berthed in London have been called/renamed PRESIDENT.
Turning to the Divisions themselves:
In 1903, the Naval Forces Act created the Royal Naval Volunteer Reserve and HMS PRESIDENT took on the role as the accounting base for Admiralty personnel as well as other locations onshore in the City of London. As these developed, new departments were established in buildings across the city and all of them took on the name of PRESIDENT with a different numeric suffix:
HMS President I
Located both in London and Shrewsbury it was established as an accounting base, in operation between 1918 and 1928. It took over the accounting from the Stornoway based HMS Iolaire, which had closed on 19 May 1919. It was at the Royal Victoria Yard in 1939, and moved to Shrewsbury in September 1940. It returned to London on 6 July 1945, setting up operations at Chelsea Court. It took over some Naval Party accounts from HMS Odyssey when that office closed on 31 January 1946. The department remained operational between 1947 and 1957, seeing the merging into it of HMS President III and HMS Pembroke III.
HMS President II
This was another accounting base, based at times at Chatham, Crystal Palace, Chingford and Shrewsbury, and extant between 1916 and at least 1947. Also at Felixstowe in 1917. (Possibly also at Calshot and Bembridge during 1917.)
HMS President III
A third accounting base, this time alternately based at Bristol, Windsor and London. It covered the accounts of the active services of the Royal Fleet Reserve, the Royal Naval Volunteer Reserve and the Royal Naval Reserve from 1916 onwards, also extending to covering demobilisation accounts from December 1918 onwards. The Defensively Equipped Merchant Ship accounts were transferred to HMS Vivid on 1 October 1919. In August 1935, President III also took over the accounts of the Mobile Naval Defence Base Organisation. It was re-established on 28 August 1939 in Bristol to train those allocated for service on the Defensively Equipped Merchant Ships. It was later transferred to locations across Windsor and London. By 31 May 1944 the command held over 30,500 accounts. The ledgers were closed after the war on 1 July 1946, and the accounts covered by President III and Pembroke III were merged into President I.
HMS President IV
This was the London accounting base, in operation between 1918 and 1926, handling the accounts of the commands of the Coastguard ships and the Reserves.
HMS President V
Another London accounting base, initially set up in 1918 it covered a wide variety of accounts but was paid off on 30 September 1919 and the accounts were transferred to HMS Pembroke. It was recommissioned on 1 November 1941 as a training establishment for Accountant Branch Ratings. It closed on 14 July 1944 and its operations were moved to HMS Demetrius.
HMS President VI
Also established in 1918, it handled transport service accounts, and from February 1919 was the base for the Murmansk tugs, whilst handling the accounts of officers assigned to Northern Russia. These accounts were transferred to HMS Lobster in July 1919.
HMS PRESIDENT, as in her current format as the largest RNR training division in the country, open in a purpose-built building at St Katharine’s Docks in 1998.
I therefore suspect that your grandfather might have served in several ships as aircrew who’s records were managed by PRESIDENTS II and V but I’m not in a position to find out which exactly they were and it is unfortunate that the records don’t give that information but I would imagine that this wasn’t thought a priority at the time. I do know that people have been successful using this service from the gov.uk https://www.gov.uk/get-copy-military-service-records.
I hope this helps.
Lt Cdr Jonathan White RN | Unit Operations Officer | HMS President | 72 St Katharine’s Way | LONDON | E1W 1UQ | Tel: +44 (0)300 169 1793 Civ: +44 (0)207 481 7360 Mil: 93 645 7360| Jonathan.White932@mod.gov.uk