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  • Writer's pictureWendy Percival

A shared history - #WWI and beyond

Alfred Joseph Saunders, my husband’s grandfather – pictured here with his wife Caroline and daughter Eunice Irene – joined the Royal Naval Air Service (RNAS) in May 1916.

Officially he was assigned to the “ship” President II but this wasn’t a ship on the high seas but a land-based reference for administration purposes.

Alfred was not a pilot but a carpenter and his joinery skills would surely have been in demand maintaining aircraft, given the nature of their basic construction at the time - fabric stretched over a wooden skeleton.

In a conversation on Twitter about our WWI ancestors, it emerged that several of my fellow #AncestryHour followers had someone on their family tree who served in the air service, including Helen Baggott, author of Posted in the Past (see details below).

Royal Air Force

Helen’s grandfather, Albert Tatchell, (pictured below with his brother, Ken) was born in Swanage, Dorset. He enlisted with the Royal Flying Corps (RFC) in October 1917 and transferred to the Royal Air Force on his 18th birthday the following April, when the RNAS and the RFC merged to create the RAF.

Albert served with the RAF until after the Second World War. By then he’d trained as an electrician and worked on Beaufighters and Dakotas.

Posted to France

At the end of May 1917 my husband’s grandfather, Alfred was sent overseas to the Royal Naval Air Service Training Establishment (RNASTE) in Vendome, France. Where once the embryonic air service’s flimsy planes had been used for reconnaissance missions, now they would take on a combative role.

Ironically, more pilots were killed during training and in accidents than in combat. I can imagine Alfred and his colleagues were kept busy rebuilding broken aircraft.

Alfred did, however, find time to write to his daughter and we have several postcards he sent home while serving in France - his “address” generally noted at the top as, Hut Q, RAF Vendome, France, often with his service number alongside.

One message, probably sent in December 1917, reads:My darling little girl, I hope you are keeping well also that you will have a happy Xmas. I suppose you will have all your little friends into tea. With love and kisses, from Dada xxxxxxx"

Sad coincidence

Thankfully, both Helen’s grandfather, Albert Tatchell and Alfred would survive the First World War, Alfred returning home to his daughter. But, in a sad coincidence, both men’s lives ended tragically.

Helen’s grandfather was drowned in 1953 when the MV Princess Victoria was caught in a storm between Stranraer and Larne. More than 130 people lost their lives.

Alfred, sadly, only survived the war by a few years. Another postcard to his daughter sent from Patching in West Sussex, would be one of his final messages: "I arrived all right, Bus into Patching (8.30) You can get a bus to anywhere from Patching. Love Dad." Added almost as an afterthought at the top of the postcard he’d written, "Keeping fine".

What he was doing in Patching remains a mystery, but his scribbled postscript would prove to be a poignant untruth. Three weeks after sending the postcard, Alfred succumbed to TB and died on 29th August 1929, at the age of 45.


Intrigued by a postcard from 1913 purchased by her parents at a car boot sale, Helen Baggott wanted to learn more about the recipient, a Somerset soldier.

Using her genealogist’s toolbox she set about investigating and uncovered his tragic story.

The fascination for the stories behind postcards sent long ago continued, and resulted in Helen’s book, Posted in the Past.

Click on the image to find out more.


Trevor Walhen
Trevor Walhen
Apr 25, 2021

Found this article interesting as I am writing a book on the RNAS, didn't know about the training establishment at Vendome.


Wendy Percival
Wendy Percival
Nov 13, 2020

Yes, it’s desperately sad isn’t it, Carolyn? I wonder how long Alfred had been suffering with TB. We also wondered whether his trip to West Sussex had anything to do with his health - to spend some time on the coast for some bracing pure air, perhaps? I guess we’ll never know.


Carolyn Retallick
Carolyn Retallick
Nov 13, 2020

How very sad for both of them to survive that hellish conflict only to succumb in such awful ways afterwards. Of course many soldiers also died in the flu epidemic of 1918! Really makes one wonder!

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