View Full Version : New book by Ian Mackersey

17th Feb 2010, 20:21
Ian Mackersey, biographer of Charles Kingsford Smith, Jean Batten and others, is working on his latest, based on the correspondence between First World War fliers, their families, their wives and their lovers. He has unearthed some veritable treasure troves in libraries and archives,and is still searching. Any fresh leads, a PM to me would be appreciated, which I'll relay to Ian. Doubtless their are some grandchildren who know of the existence of such letters. According to Ian's researches the volume of mail that was processed in Europe during the First World war was staggering, of the order of five million articles per week.

Book Proposal 'NO EMPTY CHAIRS'
Ian Mackersey

A moment came when even the most supremely self-confident aces began to wonder when their turn would come. You sat down to dinner faced by the empty chairs of men you had laughed and joked with at lunch. They were gone. The next day new men would laugh and joke from those chairs. Some might be lucky and stick it for a bit, some chairs would be empty again, very soon. And so it would go. And always, miraculously, you were still there. Until tomorrow.

Thus Cecil Lewis described, in his classic 1936 memoir of service as a fighter pilot on the Western Front, the slender thread on which life in the Royal Flying Corps hung. Lewis was one of the few lucky ones. He came through with his body and mind intact. After shooting down eight enemy aircraft he was spared by a posting back to England before his chair joined the continuous procession. Most of his colleagues had been killed – or soon would be.

In the spring of 1917, when the world’s first great air war was at its height, the British squadrons were losing 200 pilots a month. Life expectancy for a young flying officer, freshly arrived in France with perilously few hours flying experience, was eleven days. Some squadrons suffered such huge losses all the faces had changed in the space of a couple of months. A squadron’s entire aircrew could be decimated in thirty days.

At the start of the war their aeroplanes were rudimentary open-cockpit biplanes. Barely a dozen years beforehand the flight of the world's first successful powered flying machine had ushered in the dawn of the air age. Furthermore, at the outbreak of the war, techniques of aerial combat did not exist. Typically, the weapon with which they were expected to shoot down the equally frail German planes was a single machine-gun bolted to the wood and fabric wing. Unlike the impersonal warfare raging in the Flanders mud below, in which enormous armies were anonymously slaughtering one another in holocausts of shell and machine-gun fire, the air battles overhead were intensely personal affairs. Deadly old-fashioned duels in which two pilots, their goggled faces often staring at each other, engaged in desperate combats of wits and skill to shoot the other down. The end for the victim was often agonizing incineration in a flaming, parachuteless cockpit. Although the German squadrons had begun to use them, the British Air Board had forbidden the use of parachutes. ‘The presence of such an apparatus,’ it declared, ‘might impair the fighting spirit of pilots and cause them to abandon machines which might otherwise be capable of returning to base for repair.’

Eric Lubbock

Here is a book in itself. The extraordinary love that existed between a son and his mother. He was the Honourable Eric Lubbock, an Eton and Oxford educated Royal Flying Corps pilot. His mother was the widow of the 1st Baron Avebury, a Victorian banker, politician and biologist.

What makes this collection such a great find is Lady Avebury’s memoir, privately published after his death, which gives us the rarity of her letters to her son. The passionate, elegant correspondence within this aristocratic family is one of the most powerful First World War collections in its expression of the beliefs and attitudes of that age to duty, patriotism and religion. Eric Lubbock was 21 when he joined up within days of the declaration of war in 1914. He saw active service on the Western Front as a private in the Army Service Corps before becoming an observer, then a pilot with the RFC in which he earned a Military Cross.

These extracts, drawn from the correspondence with his mother at High Elms, the Avebury country estate near Orpington, their London house in Grosvenor Street, and from her and Eric’s diaries, give the flavour of their unusually close relationship and of the astonishing sensibility of her son.
From France Lubbock sent her the news of his acceptance into the Flying Corps as an observer:

My darling Mum,

I am most awfully excited about it – but there’s just one fly in the ointment, that is, that I’m afraid you’ll worry. You needn’t Mum as there is nothing to worry about and I promise that I won’t take to it in peace time. Men who are keen about it in peacetime of course are always trying tricks and looping loops and being foolish. One admires it and all that but that is ‘pas pour moi.’ Out here they just go straight along and take no risks . . . (23 July 1915)

Mum bears it all so well, but I cannot imagine what she suffers. She doesn’t sleep well and somehow it is too awful to think of her suffering. I owe her so much more than I can ever give and yet I cause her pain. Oh! What an awful thought, what an awful life, and yet the world is so beautiful. I love her so dearly and there are so many many lovely things. (Eric’s diary August 1915)

My darling Mum (Eric wrote from France),

I have promised always to tell you of anything that happens to me. I am laid up with a slight cut on my left leg. It is nothing bad, just another ‘jelly’ trick below the knee. We had a take-off smash this morning and fell. It took a long run to get off, then we rose to some 40 ft. The engine stopped. The nose went absolutely straight down. I was thrown clear as we hit the ground. Loraine the pilot was not hurt but our lovely machine was absolutely in pieces. The gun stuck in the ground and the camera flew about 50 yards, while I finally got up 30 yards from the machine. I landed perfectly upside down in very soft plough and got up with my head covered and my mouth and nose absolutely full of earth!
I am in a very nice airy room. But I mustn’t move my leg as it’s important I should get well quickly. I am on the floor with my blankets quite warm and comfortable and for the moment not sorry to have a rest. My coat serves to prop me up but they are going to see if any pillows can be got for me. (18 September 1915).

I have always looked on death as a thing of the remote future. Today for the first time I look upon it as a likelihood for the near future. I don’t know that the idea appals me, only that I think of Mum. For her it would be too unthinkable. However, I am always lucky so ‘laissons à Dieu.’ (Eric’s diary, 18 September 1915)[/SIZE][/FONT]
[FONT="Book Antiqua"][SIZE="3"]
In case it was to be their last, an extraordinary number of Flying Corps men wrote from horror and loneliness every day – sometimes two or three times a day. The quality of some of the writing is astonishing. For these were letters written in an era – before fax, email, staccato texting and social website chatting - when people poured out what is so rare today: proper letters, pages long, gently delivered by post.

Some of these letters make truly heartrending reading. Many are graphically descriptive of the terrifying excitement of action, the close companionship of friends and the agony of watching them die. The stress and trauma of war induced a potent, urgent need to communicate intensely private feelings probably, for many, rarely hitherto easily expressed. Almost all talk of loneliness and the yearning to see again loved ones and the green and pleasant land of England. Not only did war seem to quicken affection for families and friends, it was also a powerful aphrodisiac. It generated wonderful love letters. Girl friends back home became fiancées and wives in the space of weeks.

The letters in both directions reflected the heroic attitudes to war, less familiar today, of an era in which every class of British society believed implicitly in the nobility of the great and glorious cause, of acceptance of a duty, if necessary, to die for one’s country. The almost universal vocabulary displayed the ideals of patriotism, stiff upper lip courage and an absolute belief that, despite the staggering toll of death and mutilation, the fate of the combatants lay in the hands of a higher power. God figures prominently in many of the letters. To question the need for the wholesale slaughter of millions was to suggest cowardice.

Hundreds of these epistles, many never published, reside in various collections throughout the UK. Furthermore they continue to arrive, deposited by descendants. Unfortunately only rarely have the reciprocal letters from home survived.