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Aces low;The Big Picture

(Photograph) - The contemporary propaganda, First World War pilots were presented as knights of the air, jousting above the battlefields of the Western Front, engaging in the kind of single combat that had been lost in the mud and blood of the trenches down below.

But the reality was far grimmer. By 1917, the average life expectancy of front-line pilots was being measured in days, sometimes as little as 11 days of combat. Initially parachutes were banned as likely to undermine morale, so pilots whose planes were damaged faced the near certainty of death -so much so that they nicknamed their planes "flying coffins".

As well as the threat of enemy attack, they faced limited technology (the first powered flight was only in 1903): the stress of aerobatics could cause planes, usually made of little more than painted linen stretched over wood, to break up in the air.

Perhaps some of that apprehension is apparent in this photograph of British aircrews stationed near Ypres, taken from the late Alan Clark's account of the air war, 'Aces High'. Although there are a few brittle smiles, and a pet dog to add a little humour, there is a pre-occupied look to many of these faces.

"For most pilots their first sight of a death in combat was traumatic. Repeated in close succession it led to nightmares, depression, withdrawal - symptoms that were ignored by a medical service that had no psychiatric branch," writes Alan Clark.

Even those pilots who were celebrated as "aces" faced the knowledge that they were unlikely to survive the war. the most famous on both sides, Von Richthofen and Albert Ball, were killed.

By the time the war drew to a close in 1918, there were only 2,500 pilots in the German air force, compared with nearly 16,000 who were killed, wounded or went missing. The British air forces suffered similarly.

Sean Coughlan

'Aces High: the war in the air over the Western Front 1914-18' by Alan Clark (Cassell pound;25)


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