‘At last, nearing the aerodome, the rain would bar our way. Engine off, we would charge at it. The golden curtain became a whirl of flying water, the gentle raindrop a stinging bullet, spinning against the planes, spattering on the wind-screen. Crouching down in the cockpit, we dived, gauging our distance as the earth rose up at us; but even as we landed, the curtain passed, the sun was out again, shining on the last desultory drops, and we leapt out of the machine to marvel at the rainbow!’ (92)
Sagittarius Rising chronicles the life of British ace Cecil Lewis, exploring the exhilaration and terror of the first war in the skies. The autobiography recounts many compelling incidents – dog-fights over No Mans’ Land, including an encounter with the Red Baron, to his innovative defence of London against night raids – but at its heart it reveals a fundamentally different perspective of WWI: the pilots, and Lewis in particular, led a life in many ways above that of the trench-bound men below.
Volunteering to join the Royal Flying Corps during WWI appealed to a certain personality type – the risk-seeking young bloods. ‘You should live gloriously, generously, dangerously. Safety last!’ Much glamour surrounding the ‘birdmen,’ as flying was still considered something of a miracle (‘On the ground you know where you are, but in the air – well, where are you?’). ‘We who practiced it were thought very brave, very daring, very gallant: we belonged to a world apart.’ Throughout his youth Lewis dreamed of flying, making models and reading everything he could get his hands on. ‘I hardly remember a time when I was not air-minded’ (31; 136; 263; 16).
When the war broke out he seized his chance. A year too young and several inches too tall – at 6f 3in, the staff captain remarked, ‘I don’t think you could get into the machine’ – he feared being turned down, but after an agonizing three-month wait, he was admitted to the RFC.
It wasn’t long until he was flying. ‘I lived for the air. There was nothing in life to compare with taking a machine off the ground, wheeling away into the sky, trying turns, spirals, dives, stalls, gliding, zooming, doing all the stunts a pilot needs to give him confidence and nerve in a tight corner’ (36). Such stunts prepared the airmen for making decisions at 10,000 feet, split-second maneuvers at five hundred feet, and diving at a hundred miles an hour.
From the cockpit of a Parasol or Biplane, the landscape was seen with different eyes: ‘The earth, so far below! A patchwork of fields, browns and greys, here and there dappled with the green of spring woods, intersecting ribbons of straight roads, minute houses, invisible men.’ The soldiers below were also seen in new light: ‘Men! Standing, walking, talking, fighting there beneath me! I saw them for the first time with detachment, dispassionately: a strange, pitiable, crawling race, to us who strode the sky’ (57).
From the air, Lewis’s perception of his situation from that of an infantryman was stark: ‘You did not sit in a muddy trench while some one who had no personal enmity against you loosed off a gun, five miles away, and blew you to smithereens – and did not know he had done it! That was not fighting; it was murder. Senseless, brutal, ignoble. We were spared that.’ In a sense, it was true. Lewis notes that even under the most arduous conditions, pilots were never under fire for more than six hours a day. After patrol each day, their war was over, and they returned to a bed, a bath, a mess with good food, and peace until the next patrol: ‘we were never under any bodily fatigue, never filthy, verminous, or exposed to the long disgusting drudgery of trench warfare’ (45; 137).
Aerial dogfighting was more noble, more heroic: ‘if the world must fight to settle its differences, back to Hector and Achilles!’ (46). Only rarely was the diving Lewis gun used on the enemy gathered in the trenches below; and only on a single occasion was a bomb dropped, a twenty-pound explosive with a fuse pin, literally thrown overboard (most planes were not yet fitted with bomb racks).[i]
In 1916, planes were used mainly for reconnaissance. A squadron of twelve planes – three flights of four – had three main tasks. The first was observing artillery. Pilots were notified of the targets that the batteries wished to range. A firing time was agreed upon and, map in hand, the pilots took to the air. Once they were over the correct spot at the agreed time, the guns would fire below. Observing the range of the field guns, the pilot would let out his aerial – a long copper wire with a lead plummet on the end – switch on the transmitter, and call up the battery in Morse code. Various directions would be given – ‘Over,’ ‘Short,’ ‘Left,’ ‘Right’ – until the enemy target was correctly sighted (82-3).
The second task was aerial photography. Lewis’s job was to check the accuracy of the maps ahead of the Somme offensive. This required going over the front line at 7500 feet, and flying all along the enemy second-line trenches from Montauban, around the Fricourt salient, and up to Boisselle, photographing as they went. Of course, aerial reconnaissance in 1916 was a complex and difficult procedure:
‘The observer could not operate the camera from his seat because of the plane directly below him, so it was clamped on outside the fuselage, beside the pilot; a big, square, shiny mahogany box with a handle on top to change the plates (yes, plates!). To make an exposure you pulled a ring on the end of a cord. To sight it, you leaned over the side and looked through a ball and cross-wire finder.’
The difficulty, and the danger, did not stop there.
‘The pilot, then, had to fly the machine with his left hand, get over the spot on the ground he wanted to photograph – not so easy as you might think – put his arm out into the seventy-mile-an-hour wind, push the camera handle back and forward to change the plates, pulling the string between each operation’ (65).
The third vital service the planes performed was trench reconnaissance, or ‘Contact Patrol.’ Confirmation of exact positions was difficult. Even on the fourth day of the Somme offensive, the Corps Intelligence was not clear on the point. Patrolling at low altitude, often below the thousand-foot mark, pilots waited to see the flares, the position of which was marked on the map. ‘We sailed over the mines and called for flares with our Klaxon. After a minute one solitary flare spurted up, crimson, from the lip of the crater. It looked forlorn, that solitary little beacon, in the immense pitted miles of earth around. We came down to five hundred feet and sailed over it, trying to distinguish the crouching khaki figures, huddled in their improvised trenches in the khaki-coloured earth. It was not easy’ (109). Once the coordinates were established and copied down, they were dropped over battalion headquarters in a weighted message-bag.
There was, of course, much to be frightened of. Enemy guns might get the range (anything below one thousand feet received attention from machine-guns below), or the dreaded Fokker appear before them in the skies, or the engine give out and the plane go down ‘in Hunland’: ‘We were at the mercy of the fragility of the machine and the unreliability of the engine. One chance bullet from the ground might cut a thin wire, put the machine out of control, and send us, perfectly whole, plunging to a crash we were powerless to prevent’ (60). Other fears reigned, too, aside from the fragility of the machine.
As the war continued, fear became more internalized: ‘we had to win victories over ourselves long before we won any over the enemy, for it was not impossible to turn back, to tell a lie – not always easy to verify – of faulty engine, bad visibility, jammed guns, and so stave off the inevitable for one day more’ (60).
‘Inevitable’ isn’t hyperbole. The average lifespan of a WWI pilot was three weeks. ‘It was the fear of the unforeseen, the inescapable, the imminent hand of death which might, and any moment, be ruthlessly laid upon me. I realized, not then, but later, why pilots cracked up, why they lost their nerve and had to go home. Nobody could stand the strain indefinitely, ultimately it reduced you to a dithering state, near to imbecility’ (66).[ii] Lewis was forced to confront this urge for self-preservation. But first he had to get the lay of the land.
Woefully unprepared – he arrived in France with thirteen hours’ flying, when he should have had at least sixty – Lewis tried to log as many hours as possible, to map-read the earth beneath him, to learn how to identify landmarks at 10,000 feet, to master different types of aircraft, to judge the hazards that materialized without warning, and to find his way back through any weather like a homing pigeon.
In many ways, pilots saws themselves as fighting a different war from the soldiers below – ‘The air was our element, the sky our battlefield’ (93). Still, the trenches loomed below, a horrible place. ‘The war below us was a spectacle. We aided and abetted it, admiring the tenacity of men who fought in verminous filth to take the next trench thirty yards away. But such objectives could not thrill us, who, when we raised our eyes, could see objective after objective receding, fifty, sixty, seventy miles beyond.’ From the detached perspective of the pilot, the futility of the war was even more clear, more glaring: ‘the mountainous waste of life and wealth to stake a mile or two.’ It soon became impossible to miss the absurdity: ‘a prodigious and complex effort, cunningly contrived, and carried out with deadly seriousness, in order to achieve just nothing at all’ (93).
Other horrors lurked in ‘ground warfare,’ such as the creeping yellow mist of poison gas. Already a mile above the earth, Lewis instinctively climbed higher to escape it. ‘In the light westerly wind is slid slowly down the German trenches, creeping pantherlike over the scarred earth, curling into dugouts, coiling and uncoiling at the wind’s whim. Men were dying there, under me, from a whiff of it; not dying quickly, nor even maimed or shattered, but dying whole, retching and vomiting blood and guts; and those who lived would be wrecks with seared, poisoned lungs, rotten for life’ (120).
On one occasion, Lewis did see the trenches up close, as his plane went down (a connecting rod crystallized and snapped in half). Reality exceeded his fears.
‘It was a desolation, unimaginable from the air. The trees by the roadside were riven and splintered, their branches blown hither and thither, and the cracked stumps stuck up uselessly into the air, flanking the road, forlorn, like a byway to hell […] Every five square yards held a crater. The earth had no longer its smooth familiar face. It was diseased, pocked, rancid, stinking of death in the morning sun’ (113).
Lewis experienced much else in the skies during WWI, but it was these early experiences that stayed with him longest. Haunted by the image of yellow drifting gas below, Lewis thought of the future and feared for the worst.
‘To-day all treaties, conventions, leagues, all words of honour, contracts, obligations are evidently worth nothing once the lust for power has infected a nation. Within twenty years of these days I write , every country, under a veneer of self-righteous nationalism, is preparing, with increased ingenuity and deadlier weapons, a greater Armageddon – all the while protesting their love of peace.’
Lewis felt the lesson was clear to anyone willing to look. ‘We are, collectively, the most evil and destructive of human creatures. We back up our greeds and jealousies with religion and patriotism. Our Christian priests bless the launching of battleships, our youth is urged to die gloriously “for King and Country.” We even write on the tomb of the Unknown Warrior that he died “for God!”’
Pilots were the advance guard for the wars to come. Lewis had a sense of what lay ahead; even the heroic and distant pilots could not escape the onslaught of violence matched with the advance of science.
‘The next war will see that yellow drift not stealing down into front-line dugouts, but along London streets. My breed, the pilots […] will be ordered to do violence to the civilian population. We shall drop bombs and poison the reservoirs. We shall kill the women and children. Of course the thing is insane; but then if the world submits to the rule of homicidal maniacs, it deserves to be destroyed’ (122).
For that brief period, war in the skies was clean and noble, high above the crescendo of shells and the eerie silence of the poison gas. The corpses and rats and slaughtered horses were made invisible by the distance. ‘Why, God might take the air and come within a mile of earth and never know there were such things as men. Vain the heroic gesture, puny the great thought! Poor little maggoty men!’ (57).
But pilots were men, too, and even from the loftiest height, Lewis could not sever his connection with the tragedy below, or the role he played in it. Pilots, gallant and daring though they were, were not truly a world apart. They were parts of the same whole, the body of war, and even floating above the gas or enjoying the mess hall and a bed, he did not forget it: ‘The Infantry admired our nerve while we admired their phlegm’ (137).
After the war the soldiers would meet at grand parties, dancing and drinking with ladies and civilians, both airmen and infantry, bound to the earth by their shared humanity:
‘The last notes died away and left us stranded on a hush. The goddess was created, here in the gloom, carved from a fair white silence. Then music came again: a waltz, an old slow waltz, that swung us out in couples on the turf. The journeying was over, the wandering was done; we had come home. Would there not always be, as now, a rhythm we both heard and moved to, lightly, firmly held? Should we not find, as in these mazy silent steps, a common path to last us to the end?’ (265).
Cecil Lewis, Sagittarius Rising (London, 1936; 2009)
*All images courtesy Wiki Commons. 1) Nieuport biplane fighter, Haut-Rhin, France, 1917; Paul Castelnau; 2) RFC recruiting poster, 1913; 3) British planes in formation. Unknown; 4) Aerial photograph showing German trenches east of Arras; 5) A RFC B.E.2c reconnaissance aircraft with a camera fixed to the fuselage, 1916; Imperial War Museums collections, UK; 6) Fokker aircraft; 7) Battle of Verdun; 8) Vimy Ridge, 1917; 9) German Albatross D.III fighters, Huj airfield, 1917.
[i] In 1916, the Germans were Achilles. While they had machine-guns capable of firing through a propeller, Allied planes had only a single-drum Lewis gun, handled by the observer from the rear cockpit. ‘So to fight we had to run away’ (131).
[ii] Tragedy did come for his flying partner, Pip. ‘In September I went on leave; Pip carried on with another pilot. One morning, on the dawn patrol, they, flying low in the arc of our own gun fire, intercepted a passing shell. The machine and both the boys were blown to bits’ (114).