Alfred Edwin “Eddie” McKay was a rugby star, hockey player and strong Arts student at Western in 1914 – the first of nine siblings in his family to go to university.
What then, prompted him to leave, after only a year, to join the British Royal Flying Corps as a fighter pilot in the First World War? What does local newspaper coverage tell us about McKay’s time as a student? What do his pilot logs and correspondences say about his combat experiences during the war?
In a new book published by the University of Toronto Press, King’s University College professor Graham Broad, BA’98, MA’00, PhD’09, explores the life and times of the locally famous young man who learned to fly with none other than Orville Wright, the man who – along with his brother Wilbur – invented the world’s first successful airplane.
The book, One in a Thousand: The Life and Death of Captain Eddie McKay, Royal Flying Corps, is a ‘pedagogical microhistory.’ In addition to sharing a short biography of McKay, it also outlines the process involved in uncovering and re-telling history and how to do so in a way that respects and honours a historical subject’s life.
“The idea is that I write the biography and then unpack how I wrote it – what kind of choices did I have to make as an historian? How did I find and use sources? What sources did I reject?” said Broad. “Doing a biography is different than every history book I’ve written, because it felt like such a momentous responsibility. You’re dealing with an individual’s life and you want to get it right.”
While the actual book itself began to take shape about three years ago, McKay became a person of interest to Broad more than 10 years ago, when he was working as a teaching assistant at Western.
“I was invited to give a lecture on Canada and the First World War. In the lecture, I decided it would be interesting to talk about a Western student who had died in the war. I found Eddie’s name in one sentence of a book on Western’s history, published in 1925. It mentioned he was on the rugby team and had served as a pilot and, I thought, those two things, that’s interesting,” said Broad.
Ten years ago, Broad engaged a fourth-year seminar class in a research project to dig up more information on McKay. The project, which was covered by Western News, served to unearth some local press coverage related to his sports involvement – the rugby team had won the Dominion Cup, which was a big deal in the team’s league at the time – and McKay was a star player. His service records were harder to uncover since they were held in the United Kingdom at a time when there were no digital records.
In the process of researching and writing his recent book, Broad learned more about McKay, and his history, thanks to interviews with descendants. McKay grew up in Harrington, Ont., just outside of Stratford. He was born, the second youngest of nine, in 1892.
“For some reason he alone, out of all his siblings, decided to go to university. There’s family lore that said he might have wanted to be a dentist, but he entered the Faculty of Arts,” said Broad. “He did pretty well. Believe it or not, they have his grades on file from 100 years ago. Where he really stood out on campus though, was in sports.
“But, coincident with him going to Western, the First World War erupts. Like a lot of students, he seems to have been torn over what to do. He stayed a year and got good grades – then he left. He decided to become a pilot, and I’m not entirely sure why.”
Before joining the Royal Flying Corps in Britain, potential pilots were required to get their civilian pilot’s license. At the time, there were no flight schools in Canada, so McKay went to the nearest flight school, which happened to be in Dayton, Ohio and belonged to the Wright brothers. In the spring of 1916, after graduating from aviation school, he went overseas to serve with the Royal Flying Corps. With digital records now readily accessible, Broad was able to pull service records on McKay and also get a hold of his flight log.
“He had a really outstanding career. He became a fighter pilot and served from the summer of 1916 and the beginning of 1917 at the front. He survived, incredibly, that tour – there was about a 40 per cent fatality rate. He was then promoted to Captain and they had him train pilots. They figured if he survived nine months at the front, he was probably pretty good at what he did.
“In October of 1917, he volunteered to go back to the front, which is hard to fathom since he knew what he was getting into. If you read the earlier sports reporting, he hated losing and was mean on the field, actually. I think there was a bit of that in him as a fighter pilot. I think he wanted to get back into it and actually fight.”
McKay served for another two months before being killed in action the day after his 25th birthday, on Dec. 28, 1917. In total, he logged more than 450 flight combat hours.
“It’s intriguing to me because he wasn’t drafted. He wasn’t conscripted. He was a volunteer. I think part of it is it was a very anonymous war and there were so many millions of men on the ground that it rendered you anonymous, but pilots could appear to be prominent because now you’re talking about a few dozen, or a few hundred. Pilots did become celebrities at the time – the knights of the air.”
Due to his extensive and in-depth research, Broad was left with a significant amount of material that didn’t make it into the biography. He intends to use it to write another book, this time about McKay’s entire squadron, which was made up of men from all over the world, including the U.K., New Zealand, Australia and the United States.
“I never, in a million years, thought this was going to be a book, because there wasn’t enough material – turns out there was,” said Broad.
To learn more about McKay and the history of the First World War, follow his Twitter account (@aemckayRFC), which is run by Broad.