b. 03/08/1888 Newcastle upon Tyne. d. 31/08/1915 De Panne, Belgium.
John Aidan Liddell (1888-1915) was born on 3rd August 1888, the first child of five born to John Liddell, the Northumberland Justice of the Peace and his wife Emily Catherine. The family home, and place of John Aidan’s birth was Benwell Hall, Newcastle upon Tyne. Aidan, as he was known, saw his first education at Stonyhurst College, in Lancashire, where he spent eight years from the age of 12. His academic career was unremarkable until he became a student at Balliol College, Oxford. He showed an interest in the sciences, but also in the fields of art and music, However, although he did finally take a honours degree in Zoology, he was to prove remarkable in attaining election to the British Astronomical Association at the early age of just 19.
Aidan was extremely passionate in his enthusiasm for motoring, a pastime enjoyed by many of his male contemporaries. Aidan was also at this time offered a travelling scholarship to the islands of Krakatoa to study zoology further. Aidan, though, declined the opportunity and choose a career in the Army. He didn’t as he quoted himself “wish to be a slacker” and enlisted with the Officers’ Special Reserve of the 3rd Battalion of Princess Louise’s Argyll & Sutherland Highlanders at the beginning of 1912. Despite enlisting, his interest in machines continued, and he became interested in the new means of travel – flight. He journeyed to Surrey, and enrolled with the Vickers Flying School at Brooklands. Here, on 14th May 1914, he successfully gained his RAC Pilot’s Certificate, and the year was further marked for him two months later when the regiment saw fit to promote him to the rank of Lieutenant.
Four months later, on 28th August 1914, Liddell, now promoted to Captain, was to leave with his Battalion for France. Before long the Argyll & Sutherlands were engaged in the heavy fighting that had broken out around Mons. It was here that on 23rd the BEF had been compelled to retreat in the face of the German forces. It was for his involvement in this fighting that he was mentioned in despatches and awarded the Military Cross, announced in the London Gazette on 18th February 1915. However the strain of some five months continuous fighting had made serious demands on Liddell’s health so that in the same month he was granted home sick leave. He was never to return to the horrors of trench warfare.
Aidan considered his options. He felt a return to the trenches would have further effected his health, and would probably led to a complete medical discharge. However, he decided to change and serve his country a different way – in the air. During May 1915, he was provisionally seconded from the Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders to the Royal Flying Corps.
Aidan’s service flying training was brief, and after a short time at Shoreham, followed by Dover, and finally to Farnborough where on 20th July he was officially accepted as an RFC officer and posted to No 7 Squadron. Three days later, he joined its “A” Flight at St Omer. Six days after his arrival for service, he made his first operational sortie. He gained out reconnaissance over Ostend, Bruges, Ghent, Audenarde and Heesteert. His second mission took place three days later on 31st July, this time at the controls of 2457. It would be his final mission.
On 31st July 1915, while flying reconnaissance over Ostend-Bruges-Ghent, Belgium, Liddell was severely wounded in his right thigh. This caused momentary unconsciousness, but by great effort he recovered partial control of his machine when it had dropped nearly 3,000 feet and succeeded, although fired on, in completing the course and brought the plane back into the Allied lines.
On landing, he took some pieces of wood and with them put together first a splint and then used the second as part of a tourniquet to stem the flow of blood. The cockpit was already stained crimson, making it slippery to the touch. He was then lifted out of the cockpit and placed on a stretcher made ready on the ground, managing to smile and raise a feeble wave of the hand at the camera that one of the men had the presence of mind to seize. He was then taken to the local hospital for medical attention.
He spent four weeks there, and his condition remained stable. Whilst he was being treated, news came through that he was to be awarded the Victoria Cross. The news cheered him a little, and actually, astonished him. Sadly, his medical condition was deteriorating. The reason was that his badly mutilated right leg was showing signs of gangrene, and it was reluctantly agreed to amputate his leg. However, this drastic attempt was in vain, and exactly a month after his last flight, on 31st August 1915, he died. It was just eight days after his Victoria Cross was gazetted.
Three days later, the body of John Aidan Liddell VC MC was brought to London en route for burial in the Roman Catholic division of Basingstoke Cemetery. On 16th November, his father received his son’s VC from the hands of King George V at Buckingham Palace. Aidan’s medals including his VC and MC, and his 1914 Star with “Mons” clasp, British War Medal 1914-20 and Victory Medal 1914-19 with Mentioned in Despatches oak leaf are now held by the Ashcroft Collection, Imperial War Museum.
LOCATION OF MEDAL: LORD ASHCROFT GALLERY, IMPERIAL WAR MUSEUM, LONDON.
BURIAL PLACE: THE HOLY GHOST CEMETERY, BASINGSTOKE, HAMPSHIRE.
SECTION E, GRAVE 2257-8
Thomas Stewart – St Tarcisius Church Liddell VC Memorial, Camberley, and also the Lochnagar Crater Memorial.
Andrew Swan – Discovery Centre, Newcastle Upon Tyne Memorial to Liddell VC.