13 of 14 people found the following review helpful
on 14 March 2013
This is a sprawling, amorphous book which tries to do two things at once and does not quite succeed at either. The title suggests that this is a book on how WW1 fliers lived and died, but it isn't, or at least only partly. Much of the book is a history of the RFC/RAF on the Western Front, but an incomplete one, as it hasn't a great deal on the last year of the war. Much is left out and other matters are treated at disproportionate length. It is almost as though the author started with the idea of a social history of British fliers and then, as his research progressed, started to add chapters and background material that had little to do with his original objective. As a result Trenchard gets a disproportionate amount of attention based on Boyle's uncritical biography, there are two chapters on Mannock, a book of letters between pilot and wife rates a whole chapter, and two bereaved mothers get another. The Germans appear in Zeppelins, Gothas and in the shape of the Richtofen brothers. Elliot White Spring's book gets a chapter to itself as does the death of Richtofen. Some aeroplanes are studied in detail, others do not appear. The chapter on bravery deals with just two VC winners.
For a book that aims to cover all aviators not many are mentioned. Practically every chapter is based on a previously published work. This is a pity as it appears from the acknowledgements that Mackersey has done plenty of research, but not much shows up in the book, which is heavily reliant on a few books such as `Sagittarius Rising'.
There are minor quibbles. The front cover is a picture of a mess in Italy - which is never mentioned. A photograph of a dogfight is not described as the fake it is. But there are good things - the chapter on bereavement is unusual as is the discussion of Billy Bishop's fraudulent victory claims. The revelation about Albert Ball's womanising was new, but perhaps not a surprise for a fighter pilot, and I was interested to learn that `High Cockalorum' was only banned in the 1950's.
This is not a book for the WW1 aviation aficionado who will have read the books on which it is based but should serve as a starting point for beginners. On the other hand you could get the First of the Few by Denis Winter and Ralph Barker's History of the RFC which do a better job in my view.
As is usual these days, the publishers have not bothered to get an editor who knew the subject. Had they done so, this could have been a much better book.
1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
on 17 July 2014
"No Empty Chairs" is an excellent personal history of those who fought in the air war during World War One. The author makes the point at the begining that he is not attempting to tell the whole history of that conflict so much as tell the stories of the individual pilots involved. In this he succeeds admirably.
I have read many books on the RFC but few which show the emotional and human aspects as well as this one. Numerous quotes from letters and diaries are used to describe the experiences of the pilots in their own words. In addition the book covers all the major aspects of the conflict in roughly chronological order, showing how the planes and tactics developed and discussing the effects of the war on individuals and families. The text mainly focuses on the RFC (there is little mention of the French air force), but it does also tell the story of the German airmen and shows how both sides suffered in similar ways.
This is an excellent book for anyone wanting to know what it was like to be a pilot in WWI, an experience every bit as traumatic as fighting in the trenches. Even if you have read other books on the air war this one gives a much more personal and sympathetic account then most histories. Highly reccomended.
11 of 13 people found the following review helpful
on 29 May 2012
Ian Mackersey is a documentary film maker and an aviation writer of repute, whose books include the acclaimed biographies of the pioneer aviator Jean Batten, the great record breaking Australian pilot, Charles Kingsford Smith, and the Wright brothers. No Empty Chairs is his first book to deal with the aviators of the First World War and is a rare book, in that it is of interest not only to the general reader without a specialised knowledge of the subject, but also to those people who have studied the Great War and the part played in that conflict by the Royal Flying Corps, later the Royal Air Force.
The book is divided into thirty-one chapters, covering such diverse subjects as the proliferation of public schoolboys as commissioned pilots; flying training; the Fokker scourge; the raids by both Zeppelins and aircraft on Britain; Bloody April; the Bishop controversy; the death of Richthofen; the role played by Trenchard, etc.
Each chapter deals with an aspect of the RFC and RAF, from the early days to the end of the war, but collectively gives an excellent overall picture of the development of the RFC and RAF, putting the air war in context with the fighting on the ground, detailing the part played by the British air services in each of the main battles.
In the literature of the air war, the essential and all-important work of the two-seater crews of the reconnaissance and artillery spotting aeroplanes is all too often overshadowed by the more colourful, and wrongly perceived, glamour of the part played by the fighter pilots. The author has corrected this and has successfully detailed the part played by both.
The main thrust of the book, however, the personal side of the war by those who fought, is brought vividly to life with the quotation of many letters and diaries of the pilots, observers, and - unusually - those unsung heroes, the ground crew. These personal, and often intensely moving accounts, vividly bring home how the strain of daily flying and fighting in the air took a incredible toll on the physical and mental health of the combatants, resulting in shattered nerves, and often complete nervous breakdowns: conditions which were met with scant sympathy and little understanding by the high command. The author returns to this theme throughout the book and for me this is a slight flaw, in that it tends to give the impression that all aircrew suffered in this respect. The other side of the picture, of those pilots and observers who, despite their fears, and frequent nightmares of being shot down in flames - every fliers dread - successfully contained them and avoided the extremes, is not mentioned.
The book also paints a shocking picture of the incompetence, even stupidity, of the hierarchy of the RFC, many of whom were not pilots nor had any knowledge of aviation. One chapter, entitled The Instructors Who Stuttered, relates how pilots, whose nerves were completely shattered by war flying, were allocated as flying instructors, as a `rest' from combat flying. Many of these `instructors' were completely unfit to teach, regarding their pupils as being as dangerous as their erstwhile opponents on the Western Front, and their disinterest led to just over two thirds of trainee pilots losing their lives in flying accidents - a shocking statistic. Other chapters detail how the rigid class system of the day, with a recruitment selection favouring the public schoolboy, led to a waste of potential talent, and how the high casualty rate later necessitated a relaxation of the officers and gentlemen only rule for commissioned rank.
No Empty Chairs is a fine, thought provoking book. Recommended without reservation
on 31 October 2013
WWI aviation is not a historical topic with which I am overly familiar but I was riveted by Mackersey's account from the first page. On the technical side, he makes his in-depth knowledge and meticulous research accessible to the non-expert. The book includes numerous powerful photographs, showing this new technology in action, in addition to the men who flew it.
Mackersey's exploration of what they went through is as unflinching as it is compassionate. The popular, romanticised depiction of the flying ace is a great untruth, an untruth which the author deftly exposes. Over two-thirds of all pilots and observers died in training accidents at flying schools. If they did survive, these terrified, traumatised young men took off daily to face frightening battles in the air. Death was usually to go down in flames, the `flamerinoes', which survivors repeatedly witnessed. But they had to climb back into their planes and face it again the next day. Most only survived a number of weeks.
Mackersey digs deep into the associated psychological trauma suffered by those who flew. He presents their hell in their own words, with their diaries and letters home. We recognise today the symptoms of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, with accounts of men crying, stuttering, having nightmares, undergoing dramatic mood changes and drinking too much. Even Germany's infamous Red Baron, Manfred Von Richthofen, was probably affected.
No-one can give these men back their lives. But Mackersey's thoughtful, engaging book serves as a noble tribute. Highly recommended.
Note: I received a free review copy of this book via the Historical Novel Society. This review (or an edited version) has appeared in the Historical Novels Review
on 10 February 2015
My interest in the RFC dates back to when I was a schoolboy and over the years have read plenty of 1st and 2nd hand accounts of the war over the trenches. I rate this book highly on the list. It is well researched and, considering the host of historical material available, well edited with the right balance of personal anecdotes and military facts being achieved. The one regret I have is that the French contribution to the struggle is barely mentioned. (Surely a little space could have been found to balance things a little better.) I was particularly pleased to see that Duncan Grinnell-Milne was included as I corresponded with him in the mid-sixties after his book, Wind in the Wires came out in paperback…he was a charming man who sent me three letters in answer to various questions I had. He even sent me a ‘Profile’ publication on the SE5a in which he scribbled a few comments. But back to this book in question…I would thoroughly recommend it to anyone as a ‘way into the subject’.
1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
on 25 July 2014
I have read quite a lot of books over the year on aviation WW1, and certainly prefer those that look at the people.
Ordinary people that managed extra ordinary things at the birth of the aerial combat.
You feel their loss, through the excellent writing of the author.
3 of 4 people found the following review helpful
on 13 October 2012
I picked this book up in my local library and just could not put it down.
For anybody interested reading about the experiences of the young airmen on both sides of the conflict in the First World war, this is the book to read.
In the past I have read many books on warfare topics and have to say this is one of the best researched. Its written in an easy to read flowing style that almost puts you there with them. The whole book was thoroughly enjoyable and unlike a lot of historical books it's well structured, doesn't get too bogged down in the fine detail and keeps you wanting to read more. I enjoyed every chapter, but especially liked the piece in Chapter 26 on Roy Brown and the relationship with his close friend Stearne Edwards and the mental pressures those young men had to endure. It brings home to you the human side of those bright young men, many just out of school or university, wrestling with those "old string bags", having been thrown into the deep end with little or no support or formal training.
I was so impressed with this book that for the first time in my life I just had to write to the author, just to complement him on such an excellent book.
Highly recommended - five stars.
on 8 June 2015
Excellent book which tells the story of the ww1 air battle both from the viewpoint of the allies and the Germans. A good balance between description of and information about the planes and the battles but also of the personal lives and experiences of the men who fought. Thoroughly enjoyed this book and will re-read it again sometime in the future.
2 of 3 people found the following review helpful
on 23 September 2012
Ian MacKersey has written a superb book about an air war often romanticized but little appreciated. "No Empty Chairs" focuses on the British experience of the First World War in the air, with some attention to American and German flyers. The book is thus not a comprehensive history of air combat in WWI, but it does an admirable job of explaining what it must have felt like to be one of those early pilots.
Extraordinary courage was a job requirement: the aircraft were new and untested, and roughly half of the would-be pilots died in training accidents before arriving at the front. Those who survived the depredations of poor instructors and miserable training machines had a very short life expectancy in combat, usually only a few weeks or months at best. Surviving pilots had to struggle with what we would now call post-traumatic stress disorder and even aces often lacked basic skills for taking off, landing or navigating their aircraft. To make matters worse, the Germans always seemed to be a step ahead in technology and doctrine--they were the first to invent the interrupter gear that allowed a machine gun to fire through a plane's propeller, and their pilots were the first to take advantage of the parachute; the Fokker Triplane and D.VII and the Albatross set a technological pace that the Allies struggled to keep up with; and the ace Oswald Bolcke developed the Bolcke Dicta, principles of fighter combat that are still observed to this day. Despite all this, the British and their Allies prevailed: how they managed to maintain their legendary "stiff upper lip" long enough to do so is part of the story that "No Empty Chairs" tells.
The first efforts at city-bombing using Zeppelins and Gotha and DeHavilland bombers were ineffective, but the airplane came to play a vital role in WWI reconnaissance, essentially replacing the cavalry as the mobile intelligence service of the armed forces. Toward the end of the war, the British and Germans learned to combine their combat aircraft with the ground offensives, foreshadowing the blitzkrieg tactics that would figure so prominently in WW2.
MacKersey more or less follows the time line of World War I, but the book is not a chronological or comprehensive history. The focus is on the pilots' experience of the officer's mess, the gulf between British offices and enlisted men, the ruthlessness of the commanders, the terror and exhilaration of aerial combat, and the loved ones left behind. The personal sides of the pilot lives and tragic deaths are very poignant--they were able to write long letters from comfortable quarters when they weren't flying, but as often as not they did not survive the next day's mission.
"No Empty Chairs" is not just a dry tale of campaigns and battles, but a compelling glimpse into the short but remarkable lives of the young men who fought WWI in the air. Highly recommended.
2 of 3 people found the following review helpful
on 13 October 2012
I was contacted by Ian Mackersey when he was doing research for this book. He was investigating a parachute invented by my great-great grandfather. This was offered to the War Ministry, but no order was ever placed. The lack of parachutes left our pilots without any means of escape, effectively sentencing them to death if, as often happened, their plane was hit and caught fire.
This was of course but a tiny detail of WW1 and became about half-a-page in Ian's book. I must confess it was initially my prime interest. But I became engrossed the extraordinary story of 'No Empty Chairs'. This book is a wonderful synthesis of an overview of the conflict and the personal experiences of those who developed the various element of the air force, and the young men (and latterly women) who flew the planes. Superbly written, I found it utterly compelling. It seems to me to shed so much light on the incredible courage and resolve shown by many individuals, but also on the collective madness at the root of the conflict.
The book provides a great deal of information, but never for a moment loses its narrative thread. Aspects that are better understood today than they were at the time, such as combat stress, are very clearly presented but the author is scrupulous in his judgements. Above all, 'No Empty Chairs' is profoundly moving. I cannot recommend it highly enough.