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I'd appreciate any help with the following. My wife's grandfather served in the Northumberland Fusiliers as a private at least as late as August 2017, and (according to his medal card) finished the war as a 2nd Lieut in the RAF. We have a number of family photos taken in winter 1917/18 (no leaves on trees!) in which he is wearing what appears to be infantry rather than RFC dress uniform, complete with the cuff distinction of a 2nd Lieut, the cap badge of the Northumberland Fusiliers -  but with the half wing brevet of a fully-trained air observer. 


Any help, please, with understanding this combination of uniform elements? It did occur to me that he might have been seconded rather than transferred from the NF to the RFC - however, his medal card shows "Dis 392 (xixa)", which denotes "discharge for the purposes of being appointed to a commission", with the "dis" implying that he parted company with the NF altogether. And it surely can't have been a case of not yet having received his RFC uniform, since he left the NF as a private, not 2nd Lieut, and he must have been with the RFC long enough to complete his training before receiving the brevet with the 'O'.


(I'm also intrigued that he seems to have leap-frogged the NCO ranks.)


I'm baffled!


Many thanks. 


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Hi John,


Other more knowledgeable people will undoubtedly be along shortly to help.  However, here are a few initial thoughts from my more limited perspective.


It was not uncommon for RFC officers to continue wearing badges of their prior regimental affiliation.  Sometimes it's because the individual was merely attached to the RFC but that's not always the case.


As regards "leap-frogging" NCO ranks, by early 1917 it was clear that there weren't enough sons of gentlemen to keep the officer corps resourced, so the Army greatly increased commissioning from the ranks.  Typically the commissioned ex-rankers had been NCOs but that wasn't always the case.  


It would be helpful to have details about the individual (name, date of birth, regimental number(s) etc) to provide more focused help based on the original records.




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Many thanks for your help.


Personal details:

Henry George Cowley 

DoB: 5/3/1896, Gateshead

Service number: 16/826


He joined the 16th Battalion, Northumberland Fusiliers (a Newcastle and Gateshead pals battalion recruited by the Chamber of Commerce and called the 'First Commercials') on 14 or 15 September 1914, aged 18 years 6 months. He went 'over the top' on 1 July 1916 at the Somme and saw more than half of his platoon killed or wounded (sources: battalion war diary and battalion history). He ended up in hospital in France in November 1916 for six weeks (cause uncertain, possibly gas), and was out of the war for a total of six months. He was allocated to the 10th Northumberland Fusiliers on his return, serving at the Battle of Messines (which he described as worse than the Somme). He went on home leave in late August 1917; and the wording of his personal pocket diary (only Dec 1916 - Aug 1917 has survived) implies that he was leaving the battalion for good. Before he left, he had an interview with the Brigadier (topic not mentioned); and he visited the War Office in London on his return (not routine for a private?). So I assume that was when he was commissioned and transferred to the RFC.


I can make out the NF cap badge and the trained observer brevet on the attached photo (he's on the right in the photo with two men), and the 2nd Lieut cuffs on other photos. If his commission came after his transfer, it seems odd that his first post-commission uniform was an army one rather than an RFC one. But if he was commissioned before the transfer, why did he still wear an army dress uniform some months later, after his training as an observer was complete?




1917-18 - Copy (2).jpg


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1081805958_photo0280001.thumb.jpg.f18bcc7953caee6438eb8a4a4a14ddff.jpgI understand it was quite common for soldiers joining the RFC/RAF to retain old uniforms/badges (was there a shortage?  This is my great great grandmother with her 3 sons after the war.  My great great uncle Jack in the middle, a lieutenant in the KOSB, but by 1918 he had transfrred to the RAF as you can see with his wings 

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1 minute ago, gmac101 said:

I understand it was quite common for soldiers joining the RFC/RAF to retain old uniforms/badges (was there a shortage?

The RAF didn't actually receive their own uniforms until after the War. I've seen pictures of men still wearing their RFC and Army uniforms/insignia well into the 1920s

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i may have misunderstood, but it sounds from what you say that your information is based on private records rather than official ones?


His RAF file at the National Archives is under reference AIR 76/109/157.  This can (currently) be downloaded for free thanks to Covid.  These can be tricky to work out and don't show the whole picture but from a quick look at it it appears he was already an officer when seconded to the RAF in the summer of 1918 - it mentions the 3rd Northumberland Fusiliers.  He appears to have qualified as an Observer shortly before Christmas 1918.  His time in the RAF (it would appear that he was not in the RFC) seems to have been spent training before demobilisation in early 1919.

Far more interesting will be his Army file which has the reference WO 374/16028 .  This has not been digitised so you will need to visit in person or get someone to do so (check the opening status of the NA as they have been closed). In my experience this may include his record from enlistment as a private as well as his time as an officer and his secondment to the RAF.


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The RAF List for May 1919 confirms 2nd Lieut Cowley as having been appointed an Observer in the RAF on 3 November 1918 and transferred to the Unemployed List on 10 April 1919.  Given the brevity of his length of service in the RAF, I doubt his AIR 76 file will contain much more detail than given by pierssc.


The London Gazette of 22 February 1918 carries the announcement:


The undermentioned cadets to be temp 2nd Lts. (attd.). 30 Jan. 1918: —


North'd Fus.—

Henry George Cowley.


The London Gazette of 20 December 1918 carries the announcement:


The undermentioned are granted temp. commns. as 2nd Lts., Observer Officers: —

3rd Nov. 1918.

Henry George Cowley (temp. 2nd Lt., North'n Fus.).


both of which tend to confirm that he had been commissioned in the Northampton Fusiliers prior to his transfer to the RAF.




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23 hours ago, JohnSchultz said:

his medal card shows "Dis 392 (xixa)", which denotes "discharge for the purposes of being appointed to a commission", with the "dis" implying that he parted company with the NF altogether. 


I think you're misunderstanding the nature of his discharge - he was discharged from service in the ranks (which happened to be in the Northumberland Fusiliers) in order to allow him to take up a commission (which, according to your photos, also happened to be in the Northumberland Fusiliers). So, not discharged from the regiment but discharged from the ranks. He was then attached to the RAF while maintaining his commission in the North'd Fus. 

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gmac101 and Tony: many thanks. 


pierssc and Graeme: I feel rather embarrassed that you have had to do basic research for me. I had previously obtained some official records, and thought I'd got as far as I could with other National Archives records, but I obviously need to improve my research skills. I've now obtained the AIR 76/109/157 record and the London Gazette entries. So, very many thanks to you both.


headgardener: you're right, I had misunderstood. It now makes much more sense! Thank you.


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