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Could have been better
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.