Who's Who - Arthur Rhys Davids

Arthur Rhys Davids Arthur Percival Foley Rhys Davids DSO, MC With Bar (1897-1918) was a pilot on the Western Front during 1917.

He joined the Royal Flying Corps immediately after leaving school, deferring his entry to Oxford University.  During six months in France he had a hand in 25 victories before he disappeared flying East of Roulers on 27th October 1917.

Arthur was born on the 26th September 1897, at Honour Oak Park in South London.  His father Thomas William Rhys Davids had joined the civil service and been posted to Ceylon in the 1860's where he became interested in the Pali language.  After writing for the Ceylon branch of the Royal Asiatic Society his career ended controversially and he returned to London to study and then briefly practice Law, before taking up a position as Professor of Pali at the University of London.

It was this position which led him to meet Arthur's mother, a student of his by the name of Caroline Augusta Foley, who became a Pali scholar in her own right.  The couple had been married in 1894 and already had one daughter Vivien Brynhilda born in 1895.  In 1904 the family, which now included a second daughter Nesta, moved to the North of England when Thomas Rhys Davids accepted a teaching post as Professor of Comparative Religion at Manchester University.

After attending various schools, Arthur was enrolled at Summer Fields in Oxford in 1909.  He proved himself an apt scholar, although he was regarded as being impaired by a speech impediment.  He enjoyed sports too and represented the school at Football.  In the summer of 1910 he was taken to Eton College to sit a varied examination for potential Kings Scholars, in which he was successful.

As one of the younger boys to have gained entry he placed near to the bottom of the list, and according to College tradition, (which states a set amount of 70 King's Scholars at Eton at any given time) had to wait until another Scholar left before he could take up his place.

Arthur began his Eton career, following in the footsteps of two of his uncles, in May 1911 and his tutors were immediately pleased with his academic achievements.  Their only concerns lay with his health.  He was small for his age (He was still only 4'11'' tall and 6 Stone in weight at the age of 14), and as well as struggling to overcome his stammer he suffered at the hands of Asthma and other afflictions.

However, despite the fact that he may not have fallen whole heartedly in love with the school as some of his contemporaries did, Arthur worked hard and the College environment, which suited a motivated and hardworking student such as himself, agreed with him.  He joined the Officer Training Corps later that year and although not a huge participant in sports at this early stage his passion for cricket was satisfied by following the school XI that summer.

Arthur had a tendency to push himself too far as far as his academic career was concerned, and at one point it even resulted in a collapse and his being sent home.  As he moved up the school he found support regarding his speech impediment in the form of a visiting coach and his Classics tutor, a Mr. John Crace, who dedicated much of his free time to exercises designed to combat Arthur's stammer.

As he reached the top of the school Arthur came into his own.  In his final two years he found his health much improved and to the delight of Mr. Crace he finally began to grow.  He became a serious contender in some of the school's academic prizes directed at Classical Studies.

Despite his successes in this field Arthur was also developing a real love for English Literature, and in particular Poetry.  During the 1915-1916 season he found himself a regular member of the School's Rugby team and rarely is there a match report that does not single him out for his valued contribution to a game.

As the top scholar in College, Arthur was made Captain of the School in his final year and found himself a member of the Eton Society, nicknamed "Pop", which generally constituted the most popular boys at the school.  With his position as Captain and the many responsibilities it entailed he admitted that it had caused him to think less of himself and more of those around him.

As the premier academic competition, The Newcastle Scholarship, came around for the final time in his Eton career, Arthur was far from enthusiastic.  He studied hard though, and having come second and taken the medallist position behind his great friend "Thor" the year before, to the delight of his family he won the prize, following in the footsteps of his beloved Mr. Crace, who had himself won the Newcastle 20 years previously.

At the end of 1915 Arthur also learned of his acceptance as an Exhibitioner to Balliol College, Oxford for the following year.  Having genuinely come to love Eton, Arthur was sad to see his time there come to an end but at the same time looked forward excitedly to going to Oxford, where his elder sister was already an undergraduate.

As a member of the Eton College Officer Training Corps, Arthur had been afforded the luxury of finishing his education, despite the Conscription Act taking effect at the beginning of 1916.  He had already witnessed one of his good friends enjoy a substantial amount of success as a pilot in the Royal Naval Air Service on the Eastern Front and the Royal Flying Corps were recruiting in earnest, looking for young men with an interest in all things mechanical, cars, motorcycles etc. and those with an aptitude for games, proving good reflexes.

Arthur reported for duty as a 2nd Lieutenant, Royal Flying Corps Special Reserve, on August 28th 1916 in Oxford.  A course to induct the recruits as to general matters relevant to a career as a pilot began.  Practical courses in Rigging, Gnome Engines and Instruments were coupled with lectures on Artillery Observation, Photography and "The Theory of Flight" among others.

Having completed this Arthur travelled to Netheravon, close to the Central Flying School at Upavon in Wiltshire where he began to tackle the practicalities of flying an aeroplane.  Having attained his wings Arthur was ready for active service.  At about the same time Major Richard Blomfield was recruiting the best (and the most musically minded) personnel he could find for his new squadron.

Arthur was ecstatic at the prospect of joining him, in particular serving with Captain Albert Ball, and after a dramatic turn of events which almost saw him redirected to another unit he found himself with 56 Squadron at London Colney, which he dramatically referred to as "The Land of The Gods."

The Squadron flew out to France at the beginning of April 1917 and it was stationed first at Vert Galand.  During one of the first patrols Arthur was involved in an accident when he was supposed to be familiarizing himself with the local landscape.  In an incident he blamed on the quality of his goggles he misjudged his landing and in the process of writing off his machine he also badly sprained his back.  Without a plane to fly he found himself out of action for almost a month.

During his first experience of aerial combat on 7th May 1917 Arthur survived an encounter with an experienced German Pilot.  Three flights (eleven SE5's) from 56 Squadron had been drawn up to patrol offensively east of Lens.  "B" flight comprised Arthur and three other pilots, led by Captain Crowe.

One of these, Lt. Musters disappeared early on.  Arthur saw him dive, apparently in pursuit of another aeroplane and he was never heard from again.  As combat ensued Arthur was preparing to dive on an Albatros with Captain Crowe and Lt. Leach when the experienced German appeared.  Arthur found his plane full of bullets, his engine in bad shape and the rest of the aircraft badly damaged.  Both of his guns had jammed and had his opponent not abruptly left he may have found his combat career at an end before it had even started.

His engine stopped completely and he managed to glide into a field.  Captain Ball was not quite so lucky.  It was a sad day for 56 Squadron.  Only five aircraft returned to Vert Galand that evening.  News came in that both Arthur and Captain Crowe were down safe on the British side of the lines, but another pilot, Leach, was in a critical condition in hospital.  They did not yet know that Musters was not to return and Meintjes and Ball were simply missing with no word.

Albert Ball was already dead.  He had emerged upside down from low lying cloud and crashed apparently without prior injury in the air.  His back was broken, his chest crushed and he suffered numerous broken bones on impact.  He had died shortly afterwards at the scene.

On 5th June 1917 Arthur received a telegram informing him that along with Captain Crowe and 2nd Lt. Hoidge, he had been awarded the military cross:

For conspicuous gallantry and devotion.  On many occasions he has shot down hostile machines and put others out of action, frequently pursuing to low altitudes.  On all occasions his fearlessness and dash have been most marked.

Arthur proved modest about the whole affair. He claimed that although he was excited, he didn't consider that after a month at the front he deserved such an award when Crowe had been to France on three separate occasions.

At the end of July James McCudden found himself at Estree Blanche, 56's new home in France, researching current methods of flying with another of the Squadrons.  He hit it off with Major Blomfield immediately and decided that he should like to join his unit.  By the middle of August the necessary moves had been made and he had arrived.

As Commander of "B" Flight, McCudden was only one of a handful of people who had cause to lecture Arthur about unnecessary risks and their consequences.  Arthur would confess to his mother that once in the air he became a different man and that people could not understand the nature of aerial combat.  His reckless bravery did not go unrewarded. Arthur continued to be successful and later received a bar to his MC.

For conspicuous gallantry and devotion to duty whilst on offensive patrols.  He has in all destroyed four enemy aircraft, and driven down many others out of control.  In all his combats his gallantry and skill have been most marked, and on one occasion he shot down an enemy pilot who had accounted for twenty-nine Allied machines.  His offensive spirit and initiative have set a magnificent example to all.

On 23rd September 1917 Arthur was credited with having shot down the much admired Werner Voss, in one of the most famous dogfights of the Great War.  It was an evening patrol and several members of 56 Squadron, including Arthur, James McCudden and Cecil Lewis were patrolling.

Voss, apparently flying alone, attacked and ran rings around the British pilots, putting holes in every machine.  For a good ten minutes at least he danced around "B" Flight until Arthur dived on him.  They came within yards of each other before Arthur pulled up to avoid a collision.  As he turned Voss made the mistake of pulling his aircraft in the same direction.

Arthur turned again to avoid a mid air crash and dived on Voss again as the German glided away with his engine off.  He shot once before reloading and fired up to thirty rounds into the falling triplane.  Arthur had no comprehension of who his victim was, indeed there were two to his name in that fight.

Although a significant victory, Arthur is quoted as having remarked "...If only I could have brought him down alive."  Nevertheless celebrations ensued in the Squadron Mess and James McCudden wrote home excitedly to his sister.

...Voss fought us... with the utmost determination and skill, and put bullets through all... of our machines.  One of my flying officers named Rhys Davids got him eventually.

Arthur himself would be gone a little over a month later.  He was last seen flying east of Roulers when he went missing on 27th October 1917.  In the absence of McCudden he had been leading a patrol and in following him the rest of his flight had been distracted by an attack from the side.  When they turned around he had gone.

Arthur was one month past his 20th birthday.  His family hoped he had simply been caught and imprisoned and continued to write to him despite a message claiming he was dead that was dropped over British lines by the Germans.  Arthur carried a book of poetry by William Blake with him into combat every day in case he was shot down and captured.

Sir William Orpen, the artist who painted Arthur's portrait in France, had the following recollection of him.

General Trenchard and Maurice Baring chose out two flying boys for me to paint, and they sat to me at Cassel.  One was 2nd Lieutenant A. P. Rhys Davids, D.S.O., M.C., a great youth.  He had brought down a lot of Germans, including two cracks, Schaeffer and Voss.

The first time I saw him was at the aerodrome at Estree Blanche.  I watched him land in his machine, just back from over the lines.  Out he got, stuck his hands in his pockets, and laughed and talked about the flight with Hoidge and others of the patrol, and his Major, Blomfield.

A fine lad Rhys Davids, with a far-seeing, clear eye... was terribly anxious for the war to be over, so that he could get to Oxford.  He had been captain of Eton the year before, so he was an all-round chap, and must have been a magnificent pilot.

The 56th Squadron was very sad when he was reported missing, and refused to believe for one moment that he had been killed till they got the certain news.  It was a great loss.

The British Army declared Arthur Rhys Davids as having been killed in action on the date that he disappeared on 18th March 1918.  On the same day he was gazetted again, this time for the Voss victory, obtaining the Distinguished Service Order:

For conspicuous gallantry and devotion to duty in bringing down nine enemy aircraft in nine weeks.  He is a magnificent fighter, never failing to locate enemy aircraft and invariably attacking regardless of the numbers against him.

When another pilot, Richard Maybery, died in 1918 their commanding officer wrote:

...He and Captain Ball and Lieutenant Rhys Davids did more harm to the moral of the German Flying Corps than any other fifteen pilots between them.  They all, always, took on any odds. They were too brave and reckless.

Bibliography and References
The Faculty of Oriental Studies, Cambridge University
Ms. P. Hatfield, Eton College Archivist
The Eton College Chronicle 1911-1916
Eton School Lists 1911-1916
Summer Fields Register 1864-1909
The Wellington Yearbook 1918
Rhys Davids: His Contribution To Pali and Buddhist Studies, Lorna S. Dewaraja
An Onlooker in France, Sir William Orpen
AIR1 Series, National Archives
London Gazette
Albert Ball, V.C. Chaz Bowyer
Five Years in the Royal Flying Corps, Captain J. T. B. McCudden
September Evening, Barry Diggens
AC72 Series RAF Musuem, Hendon
With thanks to Mrs. K. Hoidge

Contributed by Alexandra J. Churchill

'Bantam' was a term to describe members of battalions between 5ft 1in and 5ft 4in.

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