The RFC, Soarer Campbell and the Grand National

"Soarer" Campbell - 1896 National winner

Today is exactly 100 years on from the formation of the Royal Flying Corps, the forerunner of the RAF. From its earliest days the RFC had connections with the world of horse racing.

The Army had established its first aerodrome at Larkhill, close to Stonehenge, in 1910, and this was therefore an obvious place for the new service to use. The nascent RFC had just three squadrons, with No 3 Squadron installed on the Wiltshire Downs. You can still see the three bay hangar, Britain’s oldest surviving aviation building, at the junction of Fargo Road and Wood Road, about half a mile South East of the point-to-point circuit at Larkhill.

Activities of the Suffragette movement in 1913 opened up the way for the RFC to take over another racecourse. On 8 June 1913 Emily Davidson died from injuries sustained in her attempt to disrupt the Derby when she stepped out in front of the king’s horse, Anmer. That night, two fellow suffragettes, Clara Giveen and Kitty Marion, set fire to the grandstand at Hurst Park. Although a new stand was soon built, the onset of the war led to the RFC taking over the circuit as a training ground.

Many other racecourses, simply by nature of their large open space, became encampments, airfields and training locations. Birmingham racecourse, at this time in Erdington, gave up its jockey’s quarters to a squadron of pilots stationed at Castle Bromwich, which would not have made an early morning scramble very easy, as they are a good five miles apart.

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There certainly were jockeys who enlisted and fought in World War 1, though I have yet to identify any who served in the RFC. riding to victory. In his early days in the cavalry Lt David Graham Muschet Campbell was a junior officer in the 9th Queens Royal Lancers who had been stationed at Seaforth Barracks in Liverpool, and then at the Curragh, and by 1894 had established himself as a successful amateur jockey.

He regularly rode at the military meetings at Sandown and Kempton, but it was his return to Liverpool in 1896 that provided his greatest sporting achievement. That year he rode the Grand National winner, The Soarer, a horse he had won a few years earlier on the toss of a coin, and then sold a coupe of weeks before the race. The Times reported that "he drew to the front two fences from home and won by a length and a half." Throughout his military career he was known as “Soarer” Campbell.

There are many tales and books about the football, rugby and cricket players who served during World War 1, but relatively little has been recorded about racing’s contribution. But it was a significant one, even if much of it lay in providing the space for troops and pilots to prepare, rather than in the combatants themselves.

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