No 4 Squadron Australian Flying Corps: Australians in World War I

Running time
7 min 41 sec
Date made
Place made
Canberra, Australian Capital Territory, Australia

CC BY 4.0 Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International

A short film telling the story of 2 men who served in the Australian Flying Corps (AFC) during World War I. Air Commodore Arthur Henry 'Harry' Cobby was a pilot with No 4 Squadron. Air Mechanic 2nd Class Timothy William Tovell was a fitter with No 4 Squadron who adopted a French orphan called Henry Edelman (later Henri Hermene Tovell).


When Australians think about the Western Front, it is the experiences of the infantry that often capture their imagination. The desperate conditions in the trenches and the sea of mud, which stood out in the memories of so many of those who served. The deafening artillery barrages. The increasing role of tanks in action. The utter destruction of industrial warfare. Perhaps lesser known are the stories of those who served in the air and the many ground crew who supported them. Three Australian Flying Corps squadrons were engaged on the Western Front in 1918. The numbers 2, 3 and 4 squadrons. No 4 Squadron was established in 1916 and embarked from Melbourne for further training in the United Kingdom before arriving in France in December 1917, beginning operations the following month. The squadron undertook a range of duties, including ground attack, offensive patrols and escort duties for bomber and reconnaissance missions. Life for pilots of the AFC squadrons could be precarious. Non-flying days offered opportunities to relax or socialise in relatively comfortable circumstances, but in the air, danger was ever-present. Any number of threats could and did bring down aircraft. Among them were dogfights with the enemy, poor weather, fire from the ground and even midair collisions with other squadron aircraft. No 4 Squadron pilot, Hairy Cobby, wrote of the trepidation that accompanied a novice pilot in the air. ‘I do not care who the man is or how stout of heart, his early days of flying over enemy country are characterised by fear.’ With experience, some of their fear gave way to skill and strategy. Height was the key advantage in any aerial dogfight. A higher altitude gave the pilot the chance to decide whether to engage the enemy or escape if circumstances were not favourable, and if he did engage, height offered an advantage in the fight. Cobby reflected that aerial combat could be accompanied with an ill feeling as one watched a defeated aircraft and its pilot hurtle towards the ground in flames. The stories of pilots like Harry Cobby tend to dominate the history of the AFC. Their experiences in the air were dramatic and dangerous, but pilots were a minority in Flying Corps squadrons. The majority of personnel were ground crew, who kept the pilots in the air and managed complex logistics and transport, which allowed the squadron to move on short notice. Riggers, fitters and armourers all felt a keen sense of responsibility for their aircraft and for the pilots who flew them. Their lives were literally in the hands of these skilled tradesmen. A lapse in concentration or errors in work down on the ground could prove just as fatal to a pilot as any mistake made in the air. For all who served, the loss of pilots on operations or in accidents was deeply felt. From January to November 1918, No 4 Squadron accumulated close to 9,000 flying hours and claimed almost 300 enemy aircraft destroyed. Throughout its time on the Western Front, the squadron supported Allied ground forces through both the Allied retreat during the German Spring Offensive in March and April and the Allied Offensive, which was launched in August 1918. After the armistice, the squadron moved to Germany as part of the British Army of Occupation. The prospect of a safe return home was on the horizon. But for countless civilians in Europe, home had been destroyed, and many family members had been killed or displaced. So it was for the family of a young French boy named Henri Edelman, whose parents were killed in the war when he was only about 7 years old. For years, he wandered through France, surviving by attaching himself to various British units. At one stage, he was wounded above the knee by shrapnel and admitted to a casualty clearing station. By the end of 1918, Henri was with the Royal Air Force, which was flying in Bickendorf, Germany. On Christmas Day, he wandered into the No 4 Squadron's AFC Christmas banquet. The Australians shared their meal with the young orphan, and he captured their hearts. Henri became their unofficial mascot. Members of the squadron gathered some money and had a child-sized AIF uniform made for the boy they called ‘Henry’. Over the initial weeks he spent with the squadron, Henry grew close to a mechanic named Tim Tovell, who took the boy in his charge. When it was time to return home, Tim and other members of the squadron came up with a plan to get Henry back to Australia. First, they smuggled him onto the ship crossing the English Channel in an old sack. Henry lay in the sack on the wharf, completely still for hours, before they boarded and made it safely to England. When they boarded the ship to Australia, Henry was hidden in a basket filled with sporting goods. He was discovered after they left port, but some persuasive negotiation with the captain secured his passage, and permission was sought and granted for him to disembark in Queensland with Tim. Henry went home with Tim and became part of the Tovell family. They affectionately called him ‘Digger’. After spending a number of years with the Jovells in Queensland, Henry moved to Melbourne and eventually gained a coveted civilian apprenticeship with the RAAF as a fitter and turner in Point Cook, where No 4 squadron had been established. While in Victoria, Henry missed his home with the Tovells in Brisbane. He planned to return when he turned 21. But Henry’s wish was not to be. One night in May 1928, he rode a motorbike into the city, and on his journey back to Point Cook a little before midnight, he collided with a taxi cab and died in the hospital early the next morning. He was 21 years old when he died. The Tovell family grieved Henry’s loss deeply. As Tim expressed in his letter back to the Secretary of the Air Board, Major Coleman, who had written to advise him of plans for Henry's burial. ‘You will understand how both Mrs Tovell and myself feel about the loss of our own Dear boy for he is to us as our son. We are both heartbroken at the sad news which still seems a dream. It seems almost impossible to believe that as I pen these few lines that you were laying him to rest in Melbourne. God bless him, as he was a good lad. And it is comforting to us to know that you were there, Sir, to see the last of him on this Earth. All our bitter tears will not bring him back to us.’ Henry was buried in Faulkner Cemetery with military honours. The Argus ran a subscription to pay for a memorial headstone. The fund raised 150 pounds, and a memorial was erected over Henry’s grave in 1932. When Tim Tovell and other members of No 4 Squadron enlisted, they could never have expected to form such strong bonds with a young French orphan who became – if only for a short time – a treasured part of their lives.

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