In remembrance of The Great War during this centenary year, this blog will explore the intriguing social history of that tumultuous time. The first two of my Muskoka Novels – "The Summer Before the Storm" and "Elusive Dawn" – take place from 1914-1918. During my four years of research I accumulated a trunkful of notes, and will illuminate some of the more interesting and unusual tidbits, beginning with the Age of Elegance.
Wednesday, April 23, 2014
The Glamorous Birdmen
In the summer of 1914, London’s Daily Mail offered a £10,000 prize for the first man to fly an
airplane across the Atlantic. It had been just over a decade since the Wright
brothers’ successful flight, and planes still seemed little more than kites.
So when war broke out, few people expected airplanes would
have any military use, except for perhaps reconnaissance. But before long,
pilots and their observers were dropping bombs and shooting each other out of
A British B.E. 2C - Notice the machine guns added to this reconnaissance plane
To many intrepid young men, one-on-one combat in the vast
heavens was preferable to the mud and blood of the trenches. There was a sense
of freedom, gallantry, the thrill of seeing the world as few ever had.
There’s a delightful passage from Cecil Lewis’s memoir, Sagittarius
Rising, in which he recalls flying with his friend, Arthur.
“Sometimes, returning from our patrol, we would break off
and chase each other round about the clouds, zooming their summits, plunging
down their white precipitous flanks, darting like fishes through their shadowy
crevasses and their secret caves.” Like too many others, Arthur was killed.
Royal Flying Corps (RFC) pilot training was often cursory,
especially in the early days of the war. Many recruits had only 2 to 3 hours of
instruction before being expected to fly solo. Training was so hazardous that ambulances were
always on standby at the airfields. 8000 young men died in Britain during flight
training, more than from enemy action.
A downed German airplane
If they survived training and had logged as little as 15
hours of flying time, pilots were sent to the Western Front, where most lasted
only an average of 3 weeks. Those who weren't killed, wounded, or taken
prisoner might be posted out because of "nerves". Flying was
extremely stressful and dangerous.
But according to Lewis, there was glamour surrounding the
“birdmen”, who were considered brave and daring. “The R.F.C. attracted the
adventurous spirits, the devil-may-care young bloods of England, the fast
livers, the furious drivers – men who were not happy unless they were taking
risks. This invested the Corps with a certain style (not always admirable).”
In fact, the RFC considered a sporting man who could ride a
horse and drive a car as a good candidate for pilot training. One third of all
RFC pilots were Canadians.