First Published November 2012
The Armchair Pilot suggests …. flying over the trenches in 1918
Back in the mid-1970s, one of the first decisions I had to make as part of my education was to choose between studying History or Geography. Figuring that being able to read a map to find my way around an unknown city would be more useful than being able to ascertain that the town hall was built in 1847 by Johannes Vorsprung, I opted for the geographic life.
That early decision has left me bereft of any real knowledge about the Great War, and I sadly confess that most of my education about what happened between 1914 to 1918 was gleaned from the war poets as studied for English Lit in that mid-70s period and latterly from Blackadder IV to wit that the entire period was spent by soldiers of both sides sitting in trenches full of mud whilst a select few flew overhead before heading home to “Tasty tuck, soft beds and a uniform so smart it’s got a PhD from Cambridge”.
With such a poor background understanding of World War 1, Aces Falling: War above the trenches, 1918 by Peter Hart came as a shock to me. Written in the same style of the “Forgotten Voices ….” Books, Hart includes a lot of personal material from letters & diaries of those who were there.
To be fair, the image of the pilots as lampooned by Rik Mayall as Squadron Commander Lord Flasheart may have served at the outbreak of the war in 1914, but lessons were learned the hard way in the first three years and in the book Peter Hart looks at how mechanistic the war had become by 1918.
At the outset the book looks at how artillery had become the defining factor in battles, after all both sides were firmly entrenched in a stand-off stretching from the North Sea down to Switzerland. Whilst tanks got the press, it was actually bombarding each other with heavy shelling became the only real way to inflict the sort of damage that alters the balance of power. It was the allied forces who quickly realised the value of being able to support the artillery by target spotting from planes, and thus the war in the air began. And where pilots & observers are garnering an advantage, then the only defence is to get up there and shoot them down leading to aerial combat & the emergence of the “aces”.
By 1918 the war was moving apace, and air warfare had been called upon for defence, observation and even offensive bombing which lead to ever increasing demands for pilots and air crew. The logistics of supplying a cadre of the needed 2,000-plus pilots into theatre from a pool of over 11,000 were enormous with well over 100,0000 supporting staff required.
Hart starts with the training process. Not for these students a comfortable C42 with a modern Rotax, but something far more rudimentary. No intercom, the lucky students had a “Gosport tube” through which instructions could be shouted, else a sequence of bashes on the head. Nor were the aircraft as easy to fly, the Sopwith Camel, like other types, had one or two small handling vices ready to catch out students.
As the book goes on, we learn that the battles on the ground in 1918 were more intense than any previously. For the flyers and their crews, this meant that rather than a soft bed back near Paris, the fighting was conducted constantly moving from airfield to airfield. Read any books about battle and the constant thread is that flying continues at a pace rarely seen in peacetime and for the pilots in 1918 this was no different.
Many of us have seen the aircraft of the period at museums like the Shuttleworth Collection, and we read how difficult they are to fly especially relative to what we have today. Yet for the RFC flying these aircraft was the norm, in any weather conditions. The pilots were exhausted from constantly being in the air avoiding enemy fighters, and Hart describes how a pilot returning from action over enemy territory has to find the new airfield that he his squadron has just moved to in thickening mist. Additionally the flyers would climb for height, 20,000 feet without oxygen not only being pretty much the norm, but Hart uses descriptions of dogfights at that level. It is little wonder that one chapter describes the physical & mental strain the pilots were constantly subjected to.
Bombing raids into Germany were being flown from 1915, but later in 1918 the heavier Handley Page DH4 aircraft were pressed into long-range bombing raids far deeper into Germany than before. A raid on Cologne by 55 Squadron in May 1918 is described in detail, a four hour journey each way with constant harassment by German fighters.
Hart closes as the war itself closes, describing the emptiness that a lot of the pilots felt as the Armistice is declared as they face an uncertain future.
I had come to this book expecting a lot of narrative about flying the different aircraft. There is some, recorded first hand, yet for me this book is about the bravery of those who flew. The demands placed upon the pilots were probably not that different to those in other conflicts, yet the machinery of 1918 was so simple that the skills of those who flew shines through. As we approach Remembrance Sunday, this is such a thought provoking book