Winged Victory - V.M. Yeates
Tom Cundall is a pilot flying Sopwith Camel scout planes in France, 1918. The novel methods of aerial warfare have stabilised somewhat, and with four months experience, he's avoided becoming part of the terrifyingly large fraction of flyers who die during training or on their first few missions. It's not a pleasant lark, certainly, and Tom is no hero or 'jingo', but he's confident that he can see out a war that, after the entry of America, seems to be close to its finish.
Of course, with American troops pouring into Europe, Germany knows that it will have to move soon if it is to stand any chance of winning. When the inevitable offensive arrives, Camel squadrons are ordered to bomb and strafe the advancing troops. Suddenly, Tom's experience in the air counts for nothing, suvival becoming a matter of simply failing to occupy the same point in space and time as any of the thousands of machinegun bullets being fired from the ground. For one reason or another, it seems that Tom's last few months flying on the Front will be the ones to see him physically or psychologically undone.
Yeates wrote Winged Victory in 1933, hospitalised for the tuberculosis that would kill him a year later. The book was initially praised, and then forgotten; briefly revived by pilots during the Battle of Britain, who adored its uncompromising realism; and then out of print for the rest of the century. Only after seventy years of praise from historians citing it as an honest, realistic and almost autobiographical novel, did it finally seem to catch on, now readily available to anyone interested in the First Air War. For example: me.
And if that is your interest, this book will certainly see you well served, but it deserves to be far more widely read than that. Although the operational details of the Royal Flying Corps (and then, midway through the book, the Royal Air Force) are fascinating, they're merely the backdrop for a deeply human story that mixes satirical farce with the blackest of humour, and the most terrible tragedies with a spark of vicious wit. It's a platonic love story between three fast friends, whose brilliant and terrible philosophies and politics make up pages of inspired or ridiculous banter, and whose tragedies are heart-wrenching. It's a portrait of the toll of war on lives and minds. And its a historical indictment of the way that millions of men across Europe suddenly started killing one another, as efficiently as possible, for four long years.