Great Uncle Billy

Earlier posts show my maternal grandfather serving with the Royal Flying Corps in Egypt during the Great War.  Fred was dispersed from Fovant Camp near Salisbury on 18th February 1919.  His brother William, also in the Royal Flying Corps but based in the UK was already gone, dying in the last gasps of conflict from Spanish flu.  “La Grippe Espagnole” killed more people than were lost during the entire Great War.  It has been cited as the most devastating epidemic in world history, killing more people in a single year than during the four years of the Black Death.

His distraught parents received this acknowledgement of a life taken too early:

The King commands me to assure you of the true sympathy at His Majesty and the Queen in your sorrow.  He whose loss you mourn died in the noblest of causes.  His Country will be ever grateful to him for the sacrifice he has made for Freedom and Justice.

An unthinking example of disconnected bureaucracy, it fails to acknowledge who He is, whilst succumbing to flu is somehow deemed a noble cause rather than the tragic chance act of nature it really was.   The standard letter is ‘signed’ (printed) Winston S Churchill, Secretary of State for the Royal Air Force (the RFC became the RAF on 1st April 1918).  ‘Billy’ died on 5th November 1918 aged 25 and was buried six days later on a day heavy with symbolism, November 11th, Armistice Day.  His funeral was marked with military honours at Andover Cemetery in the presence of his mother, father, ‘chums and superior officers’ and his fiancée, Miss Coombes.  Miss Coombes and Billy, the great aunt and uncle I never had.  Fred was still half a world away in Egypt and given the communications of the day, almost certainly unaware of his loss.


  1. Jake Borthwick · May 3, 2013

    Hi Robin,
    I’m working for a BBC show, and the film we are making is on the Fovant Badges and The Great War. I’m interested to know a bit more about your great uncle Billy and was wondering if you could possibly contact me via email. Many Thanks Jake

    • northumbrianlight · May 3, 2013

      Sounds interesting – I have emailed you with a contact telephone number.

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  4. Malin H · February 9, 2015

    Interesting story! And now I’m reading the comments… I am a bit curious so I would like to know if BBC did something on this?

    • northumbrianlight · February 9, 2015

      That’s a very good question Malin – I had forgotten about this – I had a great number of exchanges with Icon Films including sending the history of my grandfather but I have heard nothing since. I will now try to find out.

    • northumbrianlight · February 10, 2015

      Thanks for the prompt Malin – this is the reply I have just received!
      Hi Robin,
      We shot this film on the Fovant Badges some time ago and I believe it has been broadcast. It won’t be available on the iplayer but I could see if I can get a copy of the film sent out to you.
      Hopefully I will receive a copy soon. If copyright allows, I will make it available through this blog.

      • Malin H · February 10, 2015

        My pleasure, Robin ❤️ I really hope to see it on your blog.

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