Today we Remember: Lt. Col. Cyril Dudley Hely Corbett
The Armistice on 11th November 1918 did not end the war for all our servicemen and women; 18,355 British & Commonwealth troops died between 12th November and 31st December 1918. As part of Remembered’s drive to commemorate all those who didn’t make it home after peace was signed, we spent some time looking into the lives of the men and women who survived the war, but fell victim to the influenza epidemic, wounds sustained during the hostilities, accidents, or further fighting in places such as Russia or Ireland.
During our search, we came across the name Lt. Col. Cyril Dudley Hely Corbett, who died on the 4th of December 1918, in the military hospital at Felixstowe. Further investigation allowed us to make contact with his granddaughter Sarah Kelen, whose research into his life has given fresh insight into how the military attempted to make sense of the effects the war was having on the mental state of their troops. We finally heard back from Sarah on 4th December this year, 100 years to the day on which her Grandfather died. After speaking with Sarah and carrying out further research supported by Forces War Records, we are honoured to share her Grandfather’s story.
Prior to the War, Cyril, or ‘Dudley’ as he was known in the family, was a doctor working at St. Thomas’ Hospital in London, married to Evelyn, an artist and fashion illustrator. The couple lived in Beaconsfield with their 3 children. At the outbreak of war, Dudley joined the Royal Flying Corps, a precursor to the RAF and in 1916 he was sent to France in command of the 5th Brigade of the RFC, with a particular charge to study the physical and mental challenges faced by pilots. The British were keen to understand more about this fairly new technology and how using them for warfare was affecting their men. Perhaps unsurprisingly, considering pilots and observers were making regular perilous ascents in unpressurised and flimsy aircraft, Dudley’s research found significant numbers of men were suffering in ways that made them unfit for flying. This was groundbreaking research, and his paper on the subject was included in “The Medical Problems of Flying”, for the Medical Research Council.
Sarah has also had access to further detailed reports Dudley contributed to, which studied men who had been considered mentally unsuited to continue active service:
“These are very revealing of the stress undermining the airmen: ‘ “Worked to death” Wants to jump out of machine’, ‘Has lost his dash’, ‘Admits to being terrified’. Amazingly some of the crashed and concussed airmen bounce back, and are keen to fly again, but there are sad cases of those deemed ‘permanently unfit for flying’ and invalided home. One tried to jump out at 10,000 feet (probably without a parachute). Vomiting, loss of consciousness and giddiness are common. These studies contributed greatly to an understanding of the challenges faced, so that reluctant airmen were not accused of cowardice or shirking their duties.” Sarah Kelen.
It was a challenging role, not only because the work was entirely new to him and the Air service, but also because many expressed doubts on the advisability of giving command of a Brigade to a Medical Officer. However, a letter of appreciation sent to Dudley’s hospital after his death reads: “In less than a month Dudley Corbett had won… the affectionate esteem of the whole Brigade, while every pilot instinctively looked to him for that intimate personal assistance and advice, the want of which is felt so acutely by nearly every young officer on active service.”
The war went on to claim the lives of millions, but Dudley, working across two field hospitals with a group of other doctors, did survive and returned home to the joy of his wife and three little girls. It was to be their first Christmas together for three years. Then came the summons: report to the Military Hospital in Felixstowe where large numbers of troops were arriving from across the Channel, many afflicted with virulent Spanish ‘flu’.
“I know from my grandmother’s diaries that he caught the 9.15am train from Beaconsfield to London on November 26 1918. I often stand on the platform where he stood in his uniform, looking at the same station buildings on the opposite side. He must have known the risks of infection. He wrote home as soon as he arrived in Felixstowe: “I am afraid that I have lost most of my zest for my work….the ginger has gone out of everything.” But then, “I’ll show what I can do, I’ve succeeded in the war, I’ll succeed in peace. Granted health, nothing will stop me now.”” Sarah Kelen
Nine days after writing that letter, on December 4th 1918, Dudley was dead, another victim of the influenza pandemic. Evelyn arrived at the hospital in time to be with him at the end. Her diary entry on the day Dudley died reads simply: FINIS. Grannie came too late.
Dudley’s death was mourned both by his family and his colleagues, who sent a number of letters of condolence, expressing their shock and sympathy: “I am grieved and shocked beyond words at the news I have just received of the death of your husband. This terrible influenza strikes down the best and dearest of men with such terribly sudden blows.”
The emotional impact on Dudley’s wife Evelyn and his three daughters was furthered by the financial implications of losing what was then the head of the household, something experienced by families across the world in the post-war years. According to Sarah, the impact of Dudley’s death affected the family for at least a generation.
Remembering after 11th November continues to be important, so that we do not forget the sacrifices made or the veterans who continue to need our support today.
With thanks to Sarah Kelen for sharing her family’s story and photographs and to Forces War Records, for the below images, showing pilots during the war, when Dudley would have been working with them.
If you would like to buy a Tommy to remember one of the 18,355 British & Commonwealth servicemen and women who didn’t make it home after the signing of the Armistice, you can do so from our shop. If you would like it as a gift in time for Christmas, you can purchase it from John Lewis or Timpson’s store around the UK. See the full list here.