William Henry Coates was a New Zealand pilot during the First World War, and was attached to the Royal Flying Corps.
Born at Matakohe, Kaipara, in 1887, William was one of seven children and the youngest of three brothers. One of his brothers, Gordon Coates, served in the war, and later went on to become Prime Minister of New Zealand. William trained as an engineer in Scotland and then worked in Belfast. Returning to New Zealand in 1911, he worked as a marine engineer for the Union Steam Ship Company.
In late 1914 William volunteered to join the New Zealand Mounted Rifles, and by August the following year, he was on active service at Gallipoli.
In a letter to his mother in October 1915, William wrote about his dream of joining the Royal Flying Corps and the potential career opportunities it would afford him after the war:
Perhaps you will be surprised Mother to hear I am trying to get into the Royal Flying Corps. It has been my heart’s desire for a long time & I know you will be pleased if it is my wish.
I am not merely taking it up as a mad venture but I have grand hopes of being able to follow up the engineering branch of that service later on, after the war if I get the opportunity of learning now.
Really I think it is the golden opportunity of my life. I like the military life, especially if connected with engineering…
Unlike Australia, New Zealand did not have its own flying corps at the time, so those who wanted to serve as air or ground crew generally had to join a British service, either the Royal Flying Corps or the Royal Naval Air Service.
By early 1917, William had begun his flight instruction in Egypt, and earned a promotion to Lieutenant. He then moved on to England where he gained his ‘wings’, graduating in late May of that year.
In its infancy, flying ranked among the most hazardous forms of military service, and almost half of the pilot deaths happened during training exercises in the air.
William said he felt ‘wonderfully at home’ in the Flying Corps, and after six months of training, he became a pilot on active service.
In June 1917, he wrote to his mother:
I have passed all the tests now including fighting in the air, have got my wings & am a full blown scout pilot.
I can’t help thinking I deserve my wings because it has been an up & down path this last 5 months: but it has been worth all one’s worry & perseverance to eventually succeed especially when you learn to love this game & feel you can put up a fairly good fight against the hun [sic] when the time comes.
I have gained great confidence & ability since being in fast scout machines. They are lovely little things & you can thoroughly appreciate the joy of flying.
As a pilot, William became engaged in coastal scouting duties. By 1916, specialist military airplanes had been developed, which, in addition to bombers and reconnaissance machines, included ‘scouts’ – for fighting and air combat.
William continued to enjoy his service and wrote to his mother again on 2 July:
…This flying is a wonderful game & the only thing I have taken up that I really love & could give my whole mind to. The more I fly the more I like it.
The fighting in the air tactics are frightfully fascinating & one gets so excited that the thought of danger never enters one’s head.
As a rule a pilot’s life out here is a short one but even so it is a gay & glorious one…
In his next letter home, William attempted to reassure his mother.
I don’t know whether I have told you but I have pledged myself not to marry until you are comfortably well…
I am going to try & write more regularly now I have at last got settled down…
Mother dear there is no need to worry about me I am enjoying life… & the risks are really no greater than in any other part of the Services…
Au Revoir Mother dear.
Ever your loving boy, Will.
Less than a week later he was shot down by anti-aircraft gunfire while patrolling over Geluveld, Belgium.
Initially listed as missing, William was confirmed to have been killed on 22 July 1917.
He has no known grave.