‘Low work’ over the Western Front
Comedian Jerry Seinfeld once said that the mark of a great joke is that it stays with you long after the first hearing. There’s something about its premise or symbolism that makes you see the world — or some small part of the world — differently. A great poem functions in a similar way, wrote Poet Laureate Ted Kooser. I also feel this way about Victor Maslin Yeates’s autobiographical novel, Winged Victory. I will never think of aerial warfare during the First World War in the same way after having read this book.
It’s not just that Yeates describes the historical moment well. Tom Cundall’s, the protagonist, two flight commanders (Captains Beal and MacAndrews) seem to me like literary recreations of two of the Royal Flying Corps’s legendary aces. Their names even sound similar to the real historical figures. Captain Beal seems to represent Albert Ball, one of the RFC’s earliest heros. Like Ball, Beal is seemingly fearless in accomplishing his gruesome work. Thousands of machine gun bullets fired in his general direction don’t seem to faze him: he is a rare specimen in war. Both the historical and literary figure die in the war, unable to beat the odds against such reckless courage for too long.
The character of MacAndrews (“Mac”) seems to represent the British ace and winner of the Victoria Cross, James McCudden. After Albert Ball’s death, McCudden became one of the leading stars of the RFC. His tactics differed vastly from Ball’s lone-wolf gallantry. McCudden developed the principles of aircraft working in concert with one another to press their advantage against an enemy air formation. If the advantages were not there, McCudden would have no qualms with fleeing the field of battle to fight another day. Through these characters, Yeates gives us an insider’s view into the real-life heroes of the Royal Flying Corps.
But Yeates’s true genius is in the complex emotional world he is able to convey through the protagonist. Tom Cundall flies the Sopwith Camel during the last year of the war, when the Germans make their last desperate push on the Western Front. The Sopwith Camel is a temperamental plane specifically designed to be unstable in flight and give the pilot an edge over the typical, balanced German machine. Many young pilots die during their first solo flight in a willful Sopwith Camel.
Tom survives his Camel training and first months at the front. But he resents the war and the missions assigned to Camel pilots. By 1918, the Allies established air superiority over the Germans, so enemy planes were not a dire threat to British pilots. But there were other dangers. Because of their aircraft’s unique maneuverability, Camel pilots were assigned to ground attack missions. Flying low over No Man’s Land, the Camels sought trucks, guns, and infantrymen to destroy with bombs and machine guns but ran an enormous risk of getting gunned down from the ground.
This ‘low work’ grinds Cundall’s mental state down during the course of the book. Resenting the war but unable to let his courage be called into question by his comrades, Cundall continues to soldier on and follow his flight commander, Beal, through one punishing sortie after another. In between flights, he discusses philosophy and politics with his hut mates, Seddon and Williamson (like so many 20-year-old college roommates). To forget about their gruesome daytime work, they also drink copiously in the evenings. Like the aircraft that he flies, Cundall’s wartime life is fundamentally unstable.
The little details really humanize this world. One feels the hand of familiarity reach out over the chasm of a century to draw one into the reality of 1918. They were like us, these now-dead people! The irresistible temptation of Cundall to fly over the aerodrome when the plug in his engine failed, just so that everyone (especially the squadron commander) could hear the malfunctioning engine and not call his courage into question for quitting the mission. The comfort of a cat that comes to perch himself on one’s stomach during a restful afternoon. The greasy satisfaction of a good English breakfast: eggs, bacon, toast, and coffee. The daily execution of work that one hates but feels bound to fulfill. Cundall’s is a tragic reality punctuated by simple human pleasures.
Not only Cundall’s mental state deteriorates visibly during this time but so does all of Europe’s. Interestingly, Yeates’s novel is written in the frank postwar style but sometimes lapses into grandiose literary descriptions more reminiscent of the Victorian era. These floral outbursts are rare, but they do remind the reader that this book straddles two distinct worlds: Europe before the First World War and Europe after it (the book itself was published in 1934).
The contrasts of Winged Victory, though, I think are the most beautiful part of the book. ‘Low work’ brings out the best in people like Beal (and even Cundall). Riding the wave of one of humanity’s most sublime achievements — the invention of powered flight — Cundall and his comrades are asked to mar the pure joy of flying with the ancient animal instincts of the hunt. But most importantly, Cundall’s argumentative cynicism belies his ultimate optimism about life, so clearly portrayed in the last lines of the book. Europe will survive even this: not all is Death.
To wrap this up, I don’t believe that I’ve done Yeates’s book justice. If you like this time period: read Winged Victory! The First World War may never seem as distant as a century ago to you ever again.