Early in Mark C Wilkins’s ‘Aero-Neurosis’, the author makes the point that the condition itself was a product of aerial combat and had nothing particularly to do with being in the air. The physical discomforts of altitude and cold suffered by the early fliers, in open cockpits without oxygen were unpleasant enough - hypoxia, bleeding ears and constipation amongst others, but it was the mental sufferings of air fighting that gave them every bit as much exposure to trauma as Tommy in the trenches.
Wilkins’s book provides a good narrative introduction to a subject that’s been so far neglected (although surely not for much longer). Scholars are excavating the air war’s darker corners for academia, but in the absence of expensive subscriptions to journals, ‘Aero-Neurosis’ is a survey that’s thoughtful and accessible to most of us.
After an introduction giving a well written survey of the rise of flight and how it was applied in warfare, there’s a fascinating section on aviation psychiatry. I would have liked this to be longer, which is perhaps unfair when you consider that aviation psychiatry hadn’t really been invented in any meaningful way until well after the last ace had landed, or fallen. The emphasis on individual personality, be it the ‘wrong’ or ‘right’ kind for aerial combat is painful to read but the ignorance on behalf of the recruiting officers is forgiveable in an age that had had no experience of mechanised warfare on such a horrific scale. The judgement is still shocking, though, as this quote Wilkins uses from the historian Fiona Reed shows: ‘the language of cowardice permeates the wartime discourse and even in its absence doctors assumed that war neurosis arose in men who were predisposed to some kind of mental breakdown and were therefore flawed, if not culpable.’
The remainder of the book is given over to case studies of individual pilots; mostly from the winning side, but also memorably from the German ace Ernst Udet. His description of the ‘vicious eyes’ of the cockade on French ace Guynemer’s machine uses an anthropomorphic metaphor that is peculiarly apt for early aircraft; machines that had a fatal sting despite the fragility of their slender wires and thin canvas.
The writings of the pilots provides a wealth of detail that Wilkins mines effectively: the black humour that twisted through the early fliers like barbed wire comes out in the American pilot Elliott White Springs’s autobiographical novel ‘Warbirds’: in the book his pilots fantasise about making their tombstones hollow and filled with cognac ‘so it will leak on them.’ For those that were able to face their fears, there was some hope of recovery in time; for others without a watchful CO to spot the danger signs, there was a terrible inevitability that if the enemy didn’t claim them, the flying sickness would, and they would die in accidents or because of baffling errors of judgement.
For traumatised airmen, periods of leave were a mixed blessing. For those pilots who were famous, having to negotiate the strain of public life was an added pressure. Guynemer’s discomfort comes through in an account written by a sensitive former commander who talked of an invasion of the French ace’s physical privacy that Albert Ball would have recognised, as the ladies ‘leant over over Guynemer, wanting to touch or graze against him.’
Wilkins includes the unforgettable image of Mick Mannock’s desperate half-smile at a horrified friend who had seen him collapse and shudder with unstoppable tears. Mannock’s story is particularly poignant. He was unforgiving of any sign of cowardice whilst he himself struggled with it so terribly. When a friend was determined to fly on Christmas Day, Mannock had the compassion to deliberately sabotage the aeroplane so that there was no danger of his friend killing himself.
Any conclusion to a book like ‘Aero-Neurosis’ is in some ways unnecessary. But Wilkins’s is measured and empathetic. His demonstration of the unique duality of emotions fliers suffered - the ‘intoxication and horror’ that inflicted them as they gloried in powered flight whilst experiencing the violent unpredictability of combat in the air - is helpful to give these sad histories perspective. It’s a book that gives some measure of understanding about a kind of warfare that for the airmen, as Wilkins points out was ‘not worse or better, just different.’
Aero-Neurosis: Pilots of the First World War and the Psychological Legacies of Combat by Mark C Wilkins is published by Pen and Sword
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