Wednesday, March 15, 2017

Song of the Air, Part I

Close Up A Bombing Formation, George Horace Davis
© IWM (Art.IWM ART 3071)
For the British Royal Flying Corps, April 1917 became known as “Bloody April.” That month, “the average life expectancy of a British flyer at the front fell to a mere 93 hours of flight time, just 21 days of active service.”* Flight was in its infancy at the start of the First World War: the Wright brothers’ first successful attempt had occurred just over ten years earlier in December of 1903, and it wasn’t until September of 1904 that they managed to maneuver their plane in a circle (before that, their flights had been limited to short and straight lifts over a flat field). 

Yet the military was relatively quick to recognize and develop the killing power of the flying machine. The first use of massed airplane squadrons for strategic bombing occurred in September of 1914; the first time a machine gun was mounted to a plane so as to fire at enemy aircraft was in the spring of 1915, and the first time a plane was shot down from the ground (with a modified cannon) occurred in September of 1915.**

Airplanes came to serve a vital role in reconnaissance missions, bombing raids, enemy aircraft attacks, and support of infantry. By the end of the war, more than 115,000 military planes had been lost (more due to accidents than attacks); the total number of pilots killed is much more difficult to estimate.

Captain Gordon Alchin was a pilot with both the British Royal Flying Corps and the Australian Flying Corps. Awarded the Air Force Cross for his service, he also wrote about flying in the Great War.  

A Song of the Plane

This is the song of the Plane –
   The creaking, shrieking plane,
   The throbbing, sobbing plane,
And the moaning, groaning wires: –
   The engine – missing again!
   One cylinder never fires!
            Hey ho! for the Plane!

THE NCO Pilot, RFC (Flight Sergeant WG Bennett)
William Orpen ©IWM Art-2397
This is the song of the Man –
   The driving, striving man,
   The chosen, frozen man: –
The pilot, the man-at-the-wheel,
   Whose limit is all that he can,
   And beyond, if the need is real!

            Hey ho! for the Man!

This is the song of the Gun –
   The muttering, stuttering gun,
   The maddening, gladdening gun: –
That chuckles with evil glee
   At the last, long dive of the Hun,
   With its end in eternity!

            Hey ho! for the Gun!

This is the song of the Air –
   The lifting, drifting air,
   The eddying, steadying air,
The wine of its limitless space,
   May it nerve us at last to dare
   Even death with undaunted face!
            Hey ho! for the Air.
                        --Gordon Alchin

Alchin’s poem appears to celebrate the plane, the pilot, the gun, and the air, and yet the sounds of the poem communicate a darker message. The marvelous plane appears chillingly fragile: it creaks, shrieks, throbs, and sobs, while its wires moan and groan at the strain of each climb and dive.  Most alarmingly, the engine is dependably unreliable – one cylinder never fires. 

As for the pilot, he strains to control the unsteady machine, and no matter how much effort he gives, more is always required if he is to survive.  As the flyer freezes in the thin air of high altitude, the plane’s gun sullenly mutters and stutters, breaking into evil laughter as it watches another man fall from the sky to his death.

The struggle and noise of the man, the gun, and the plane contrast with the calm of the air they inhabit.  They are the unnatural invaders of the sky, and they sully the steadying space of the heavens with the death and chaos they bring.  

And yet the limitlessness of the air is like an intoxicating wine, and the serenity of the skies are what brace the men to face death. The poem raises an unspoken question: Which is vaster and more all-encompassing: the war that demands such sacrifice, or the air that inspires and accepts it? 

*Eric and Jane Lawson, First Air Campaign: August 1914 – November 1918, p. 11.


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