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July 14, 2010

The Cavalry of the Clouds in the First World War?

by Mark Meynell

How about this for an opening paragraph?

January 15th, 1918, was a cold, sparkling, sunny day. Not much happened in the Great War that day. As usual, about two thousand men (of the millions along the Western Front) died; some because they stuck their heads up too high and got shot; some because they got their feet wet too often and caught pneumonia; many by accident; and a steady few by their own hand. It was one thousand two hundred and sixty days sine Britain and Germany had declared war. Not that anyone was counting.

So begins Derek Robinson’s 1971 novel about the Royal Flying Corps, Goshawk Squadron. It is now regarded as something of a classic – and it’s easy to see why. Set in the last year of the war, the opening paragraph sets the tone: matter-of-fact and sardonic, cynical and war-worn. Robinson searingly conjures up the brutality and insanity of war, as these young men, commanded by a deranged and fatalistic young major, Stanley Woolley (aged only 22), flew S.E. 5‘s (see left). They were lambs to the slaughter, in some ways even more vulnerable in their flimsy planes than the millions ranged in the trenches thousands of feet below them.

This gives another flavour:

‘Somebody did tell me he thought they might be a tiny bit stronger than us at the moment. I believe the figure mentioned was one and half million in rifle strength… Of course I got that from a chap in Intelligence,’ Woodruffe said. ‘They’re always wrong.’
‘What I can’t understand,’ Richards said, ‘is why we have to wait. Why don’t we hit them first?’
‘It’s been tried,’ Lambert told him. ‘Remember Passchendaele? That was our idea’
‘Passchendaele,’ said Dickinson softly. ‘Passion Dale. There’s something almost Miltonic about it. or do I mean Bunyanesque? Ranks of valiant warriors crashing to catastrophe, with a great deal of rolling thunder and rather too much sulphur and brimstone.’
‘It was pretty horrible,’ said Kimberley severely.
‘Don’t tell me, chum. I was there. I flew forty-three patrols in one week.’
‘Have you really been in the Corps that long?’ Woodruffe asked in surprise. ‘I had no idea it was that long.(p75) [NB Passchendaele was only about 6 months before]

As Robinson says in the afterword, he was deliberately seeking to shatter the myth of airborne chivalry, Lloyd-George’s so-called cavalry of the clouds. Far from fighting with decorum and dignity, the only hope was to get the other guy in the back before he got you – no evenly matched noble dogfights here. Woolley is determined to see his young recruits kill rather than survive – he doesn’t even bother to learn some of their names – because he knows they won’t last.

The squadron spent the rest of the day settling in. Three replacements arrived: Callaghan, Peacock and Blunt, straight from Flying Training Schools in England. The adjutant, holding his head with one hand, took them to Woolley, ‘Replacements, sir,’ he said. ‘Their names…’

‘I don’t want to know,’ Woolley said flatly. He looked at their fresh, serious, eager-to-impress faces and turned away. He was eating a cold sausage; his tongue located a piece of gristle and spat it out. ‘I am a genial, jovial and well-liked commanding officer,’ he told them. ‘My warmth and charm are exceeded only by my old-fashioned courtesy and my f***ing sympathy.’ He started at Lambert’s stranded plane. ‘As long as you are in this shoddy squadron, there are certain words you will not use. Here they are. Fair, sporting, honourable, decent, gentlemanly.’ Woolley felt in his pocket, took out a flimsy telegram, read it, blew his nose on it, and threw it away. ‘Those are bad words,’ he said. ‘Bad, murdering words. Don’t even think them.’ (p105)

Robinson uses the 12 forces of the Beaufort scale as a nice device to ratchet up the tension – each chapter begins with the description of the next force up. This grows the sense of chaotic doom – who survives or dies is as much a matter of chance as anything else. It is as raw as it can get – the ultimate expression in the bestial side of human nature. Just as for those who fought, this book is remorseless and dark. But all the more important for that. Because in this war, as with so many, there were no real winners

Goshawk Squadron does in prose what so many of the greats like Sassoon, Wilfred Owen, and Rupert Brooke did in poetry. It’s an extraordinary read.

Now, regulars may well wonder what on earth sparked reading this book.

Well, my great-grandfather, Henrik Loeffler, (right) was British (having naturalised aged 14 when his father did, having been born here 1876), despite the fact that the rest of the family had all been born in Germany. He subsequently married a Swedish wife, and lived in England for the rest of his life – but even more extraordinarily, he himself was a member of the Royal Flying Corps (although we’ve not yet established what his role exactly was). So he fought for the British … against the Germans.

Now that’s a story I’d love to know more about…

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