Nearly two decades ago, I spent a couple of years reading all the Great War novels, memoirs, diaries etc that I could find published by British ex-combatants between November 1918 and August 1939. 'British' in that context included Australians, Canadians, New Zealanders etc who fought in British units. I read a total of 200 of these books by ex-combatants. By the end of the exercise (which resulted in a D.Phil.) I found that I had read myself out of my previous interest in Great War writing. My life also became less academic, as I returned to school mastering (it was 'school mastering', as the school was Eton), and I put that sort of reading on the back burner (switched off). However, over the last month, I've read three books by Great War veterans of the RNAS and the RFC:
I found The Spider Webb in the second hand books shack at Baddsley Clinton. Wind in the Wires jumped out at me from my local book shop chain, and I have had Arthur Gould Lee's No Parachute for 10 years. The latter was a Christmas present from my son, but in 2005 I still couldn't face a Great War book. Hallam's The Spider Webb was originally published in 1919, and parts of it were published during the Great War in The Times and Blackwood's Magazine. Grinnell-Milne's Wind in the Wires (a nod to Wind in the Willows (?), itself illustrated by the veteran, and MC winner, E.H. Shepherd) was published in 1937, while Arthur Gould Lee's memoir didn't appear until 1966, but it is essentially his wartime letters to his first wife, with some diary entries. One of the interesting contrasts between the books seems to me to reflect the time of writing. Hallam's book, which deals with flying boat patrols in the North Sea, includes some pretty lurid passages imagining the deaths of German U-boat crews that are bombed by RNAS flying boats. That pretty much reflects the general, contemporary, British, view of the U-boat (probably in both wars). Grinnell-Milne's book fascinates because a good deal of it covers the early days of the RFC when the corps was flying basically useless aircraft with inadequate training, meaning that pilots and observers were more likely to die training or in accidents than in action. Finally, Lee's account is what brought to mind the phrase 'the world we have lost'. The letters to his wife make one wonder how she could bear to open and read them. They are matter-of-fact, but the facts were frequently simply awful. As 1917 drew to a close, it is clear that Lee was really feeling the terrible strain (he was shot down three times by ground fire at Cambrai, including once when he ended up in the inverted wreck of his aircraft soaked in the contents of his fractured petrol tank). Yet much of the strain that he endures can only be felt in a 'reading between the lines' way. Nothing is said out loud in the sort of puffed up, overblown, self-pitying way that seems to characterise too much of our times. Here's Lee opening in a letter to his wife following another episode of being shot down by ground fire: 'I've come to the conclusion that I'm getting fed up with narrow squeaks. I had another one this afternoon, on this confounded trench-strafing'. I wonder how we got from there to here? In four generations.