John's real-time WW1 blog: Heroic Harborough pilot’s dogfight plane falls to pieces as it crashes out of the skies

John Dilley
John Dilley

August 20, 1918...

Life in the Great War trenches was a dirty ritual of mud, blood and boredom – a far cry from the glamorous image of the daring pilots flying new-fangled fighters in the newly-created Royal Air Force.

The advert promoting the War Supplement inside the newspaper

The advert promoting the War Supplement inside the newspaper

There was a danger to both, of course, although in the summer of 1918 there was a marked decrease in battleground bad news about Market Harborough soldiers.

Just how dangerous it was for the men in their flying machines became apparent in the August 20, 1918, edition of the Market Harborough Advertiser, which reports on the heroic and tragic story of a young man blown out of the skies above France.

Everyone would have known Lieutenant Archie Cort. He was the youngest son of Councillor W S Cort of Church Street, he had been a pupil at the town’s Grammar School, and had worked at the London City and Midland Bank in St Mary’s Road.

He had joined up at the age of 18 and won a commission in the Royal Flying Corps (the precursor to the RAF) – a move that would have made him almost a celebrity in the town, such was the national press excitement around this new way of fighting a war.

The Market Harborough Advertiser War Supplement masthead

The Market Harborough Advertiser War Supplement masthead

And he wasn’t just a backroom boy according to the Advertiser’s report: “He soon proved himself a very capable aviator of skill and courage and he saw a great deal of active service in France.”

In the middle of the war the life expectancy of a British pilot was just 11 weeks. By 1918 the Allies had a much stronger command of the skies through technology and numerical superiority – but it was still very dangerous.

Like all WW1 pilots, Cort was taking his life in his own hands every time he took off.

The story of his death is told in dramatic fashion in a letter from his commanding officer to the family. Major T Smith says: “Lieutenant Cort was flying one of the 12 British fighters which were escorting a bomb raid and when over Peronne his flight of four machines attacked five enemy machines which were approaching from the north.

The Morecambe Times

The Morecambe Times

“During the fight which ensued, two enemy machines were sent down in flames and two out of control. The machine which shot down Lieutenant Cort was itself shot down in flames.”

Sometimes pilots were able to land their planes and survive but it appears not in this case. “There is practically no hope that either he or his observer survived as their machine was seen to fall to pieces before it reached the ground,” says Major Smith.

He adds a touching tribute: “Though Lieutenant Cort has only been with this Squadron a few weeks he was universally liked, he was probably the best pilot in the Squadron and always did his work splendidly and never hesitated to accept a fight.”

There is no other information of Harborough’s frontline men in this edition but readers once again are treated to a further two pages of news in a ‘War Supplement’, a publication produced with superb photographs and general war updates by the Government’s Press Bureau.

A photo of a machine gun from the Supplement

A photo of a machine gun from the Supplement

The supplement was introduced to the Advertiser last week – with no explanation – although this week there is a front page advert promoting the inclusion of the additional news.

The publication was printed weekly for the hundreds of local newspapers around the country and the masthead was even customised for each title – except this week there has been a bit of mix-up. The Advertiser’s supplement carries the wrong newspaper name and instead proclaims itself to be the Morecombe and Heysham Times!

Despite the confusion the mistake no doubt causes, the readers will lap up the many photographs and editorial insights – like this picture of mobile machine gunners – even though it is of course jingoistic PR designed to keep up British spirits in the last push to victory.

- This column is published every Monday by John Dilley on the Newspapers and the Great War website and will continue until the 100th anniversary of the final armistice in November 2018.

- My fellow researcher and De Montfort University lecturer David Penman is conducting a similar real-time project with the Ashbourne Telegraph. Check out his Great War Reports.

- Check out this week’s Harborough Mail for current news from the Market Harborough area.