Winged Victory (1934), by Victor Maslin Yeates (1897-l934), is a semi-autobiographical account of life as a Sopwith Camel pilot on the Western Front during World War I.
Yeates was a philosopher - although by all accounts he would modestly deny it. In essence, his book is an air map of the stages of annihilation of the minds and bodies of a whole generation of young men. In some cases the annihilation was swift, in others agonisingly gradual, continuing long after the war was over.
His prescience is evident in his philosophising - his experience a taste of things to come:
They called this the war to end war; so men were encouraged to fight on. Somehow it was understood to mean that the final victory of the Allies would end war forever. But the blood of the German dead would remain unavenged; it would go on calling and calling through future years. War could never be ended by victorious war.
Yeates writes about the things we have now come to expect, but which, at the time, on the scale perpetrated, were unprecedented. He depicts the horror and the pointless sacrifice of the many souls so badly served by their governments and generals. But his book, unexpectedly, is about so much more.
Although only a teenager when he went to war, he was well educated - and it shows. I know of no other book on the subject of flying that refers to Shelley, Swift, Lilliput, Dante's Inferno, Alice in Wonderland, The Old Wives' Tale, and Boswell: Yeates's main character, Tom Cundall, on reading a friend's copy of Boswell says: "Boswell was the only book in the world likely to triumph over a queasy stomach." I concur.
The pathos of Yeates's story is further made more digestible by his wonderfully wry sense of humour, as this incisive description of the character, Smith, shows:
He seemed already dead and buried so far as interest in life was concerned. He moved and performed necessary actions with some appearance of cheerfulness, but his heart was dead in him; his agony was over; he was frosty with living death. Tom liked this moving corpse but he found it was no use trying to cheer it up. He could only hope it was being kept in cold storage, and would in the fullness of time be given back to its legal owner preserved from mortification and decay, and with only that slight loss of flavour which cold storage causes.
It also shows in the nitty-gritty of the story-line:
all you had to do when caught [flying] miles from home by dozens of Huns was to go into a vertical bank and keep on turning to the right until the Huns got hungry and went down to their black bread and sauerkraut, or it got dark: the difficulty was that you might run out of petrol and have to shoot them all down on the reserve tank, so that it might be as well to shoot them all down at once, as recommended in patriotic circles.
This touches on some of the most prescient parts of his book: the flying - specifically the combat flying.
Before World War I, flying was in its infancy, combat flying unheard of. Yeates's descriptions of the development of operations and flying techniques by pilots under the unique circumstances of war in the air, are simply superb. These developments benefited all pilots that came afterwards, not just military.
RAF pilots of World War II were known to pay up to £5 a copy for Yeates's scarce book, because, they said, it was the only book about war-flying that "wasn't flannel", an accolade not to be underestimated, from individuals best placed to recognize the authenticity and prophetic value of his experience.
But it wasn't just the flying that the World War II crews related to - Yeates's own personal nightmare is laid bare in this penetrating extract:
He was not fit for war, and his anger against it came ultimately from his sense of unfitness.
And yet, even greater than his fear of . . . but what was he afraid of? He loathed death because it was the end of life, but he could hardly think that he feared it. Was it, after all, fear that troubled him, or was it love of life? It was difficult to decide, and all the time, no doubt, pride was trying to persuade him that he was a coward; love of life was much more admissible than fright. There was some old Johnny who used to say timor mortis conturbat me, but no doubt he was rightly afraid of hell. But Tom was not concerned with hell, and saw no more reason to be afraid of dying than going to sleep. Yet fear persisted, and could not be reasoned out of existence. Perhaps it was fear, not of death, but of being killed. That was more likely, but almost as ridiculous. So very many people have been killed and were none the worse for it; compared, that was, with people who had merely died; and unfortunately one had to do one or the other sometime; why not while life was still good? . . .
No doubt it was [the] old visceral Adam that made all the fuss about being killed, and turned one stiff and cold with fright and got hold of nerves and pulled them taut. It was no use reasoning with Adam: you might as well tell a scared baby to stop its yelling. You had to soothe him, cajole him, get him interested in something else. You could say 'don't be frightened, we won't go too near the silly old Huns; we know all the tricks, and we won't be caught.' Then you might try 'look nobody else is frightened. You be a brave little Adam like them, and don't let them see you crying'. And again, 'be a good Adam and daddy will give you lots of nice things' and you took him up for joy-rides in your aeroplane and chivvied people on the ground, which made him laugh: you poured alcohol on him that made him wildly excited till he fell asleep: you found girls for him to play with: Adam's delights were easy to get for him in wartime; had they not been, millions of Adams would have been yelling day and night, driving their owners mad, and that would have been bad for the war.
The old Adam that inhabited him, Tom thought, was especially susceptible to the persuasion 'don't let them see you crying'. He was terribly frightened of being jeered at, and that seemed to be how he could be kept in some control; one fear must be set against another, and a delicate Gothic balance obtained.
Yeates's real-life annihilation was of the gradual and prolonged kind. Seriously ill, he wrote his book in a desperate attempt to provide for his wife and children. But, like most prophets, he went unrecognised in his own time. Winged Victory had small sales, despite recognition from Lord Trenchard, Marshall of the RAF, T. E. Lawrence, and John Masefield.
Yeates suffered from the euphemistically called 'Flying Sickness D'.
"D. for drink?" [Yeates's character Tom, asks in the book.]
"No. Debility." [The doctor tells him.] "It's the usual phrase applicable to people in your state. Too much war-flying. You'll soon get over it."
Tom didn't. And neither did Yeates: he died, aged thirty seven, of tuberculosis brought on by war-strain, mere months after the publication of Winged Victory.
He was republished in 1961, posthumously garnering some of the acclaim he'd so rightfully deserved in life.
Tragically, Yeates's experience is still as relevant today as it ever was.
© Jenna Austin, September 2008