The young men who flew and fought during the First World War had no idea what was awaiting them. The rise of science and nationalism during the late 19th and early 20th centuries came to a head in 1914. The “technology shock” that coalesced at the Western Front was not envisaged by any of the leadership. These men did the best they could and gave their full measure but it wasn’t enough. Each suffered from their experiences, some better than others. Each knew it was a defining moment in their lives never to be repeated. And many felt that the dynamic context of aerial combat was something that, after the war, they still longed for, despite the attendant horrors.
The medical and psychiatric profession evolved symbiotically with the war. Like the patients they were charged with treating, doctors were unprepared for what awaited them. Doctors argued over best practice for treatment. Of course, the military wanted these men to return to duty as quickly as possible; with mounting casualties, each country needed every man. Aviation psychiatry arose as a new subset of the field, attempting to treat psychological symptoms previously unseen in combatants. The unique conditions of combat flying produced a whole new type of neurosis.
Terms such as Aero-neurosis were coined to provide the necessary label yet, like shell shock, they were inadequate when it came to describing the full and complete shock to the psyche.
We are fortunate that many of these fliers chose to write. They kept diaries and letters about their experiences after the war and they are, of course, an invaluable record. But perhaps more importantly, they were also a means for many of them to heal.
Mark C. Wilkins finds the psychology undergirding historical events fascinating and of chief interest to him as an historian. He has included expert medical testimony and excerpts where relevant in a fascinating book that explores the legacies of aerial combat, illustrating the ways in which pilots had to amalgamate their suffering and experiences into their postwar lives. Their attempts to do so can perhaps be seen as an extension of their heroism.
GUEST REVIEW FROM MARK MAGUIRE
Today I am delighted to be able to hand over my blog to my husband Mark and he is sharing with you his review for Aero-Neurosis – the book sounds fascinating to me!
“It is hard to think of a conflict which has inspired more soul-searching than the First World War. The conflict has been scrutinised from almost every angle albeit with an understandable preponderance of life in the trenches. Accounts of gas attacks; Going over the Top, the death of Liberal England, and that football match in December 1914 all underpin established teachings in this vast area of human suffering.
Whilst the geographical scars of the conflict are less visible than they once were, the generational trauma on all sides remains. Notions of ‘lost’ generations still underpin commemorative services along with the sentiment that such a monumental sacrifice should never be forgotten, or repeated.
Whilst there are endless works devoted to the industrialisation of World War, the predominant discourse is concerned with the net result – the glorious dead. Little, if any, consideration is given to those who survived the conflict with acute psychological and emotional injuries. Rarer still, are works devoted to how such invisible injuries were initially viewed; assessed and then treated as an exigency of war. This work represents a qualitative break from the old format. It provides an invaluable insight into the 1914-1918 air war and the all pervasive mental trauma experienced by many of the celebrated ‘Aces’. The Author goes beyond a mere re-telling of their exploits in the air and humanises the Aces with a view to better understanding the physiological impact of war.
The deeply personal and candid accounts of the aviators included within this work make for compelling reading in their own right. Once the battle was over, the sights and sounds of the conflict quickly took hold and manifested as symptoms ranging from increasing levels of pre-deployment anxiety; nervous exhaustion, self-loathing, shock, and even the temporary loss of motor skills in the immediate aftermath. The term applied to such mental anguish came to be referred to as Aero-Neurosis.
In this work, the Author skilfully weaves his way through this deeply emotive conflict by initially exploring the contrivance of factors which ultimately led to the broader conflict. The opening chapters cover such topics as the rise of nationalism and mechanisation; the birth of military aviation, and a striking account of the emergence of the ‘faceless enemy’ where the fabled pre-war promise of a glorious death defending one’s country were subsumed by unrestricted U-Boat warfare; chemical weapons, and the blunt trauma caused by dramatic increases in the calibre of artillery. In essence, the mechanisation of death has rendered the First World War as the turning point in the development of human civilisation. As the author observes, the conflict effectively forced the hand of medical science to provide guidance on how best to deal with the associated physical and mental trauma of total war which went beyond simplistic notions of being either “incapable” or “unwilling” to fight, an ‘understanding’ frequently grounded in long-standing notions of cowardice.
Having set the scene, the Author continues by examining six high-profile aviators from all sides of the conflict. Many of those featured became a cause celebre both during and after the conflict, featured pilots such as Roy Brown, ‘Mick’ Mannock, and Ernst Udet will be familiar to many. The individual exploits of these pilots soon became the stuff of legend and provided valuable propaganda for domestic and international audiences. However, once the official veneer and the associated glamour are removed, the assembled pilots are quickly humanised with all of the associated frailties and apprehensions common to most of us. The Author’s skill lies in the presentation of each pilot as a human operating under the combined pressures of fighting a national and personal war of survival, in machinery which required great skill to operate.
As the Author highlights, the plight of the aviators, and their counterparts in the trenches, was largely determined by the overarching pre-war context of ‘moral fibre’, thereby rendering mental health as a personal failing rather than an illness. Whilst frontline coping strategies quickly flourished on an informal level, it was only when operational strength began to degrade that a new understanding was sought to try to return the wounded to front line operations as quickly as possible. It was at this juncture that the pioneering psychiatric work of William H R Rivers and his prototypical variant of Cognitive Behavioural Therapy treatment came to the fore.
Thanks largely to Rivers, the pre-existing, and largely ineffective courses of treatment were gradually replaced by a new method of confronting war time experiences and managing trauma with a view to establishing a manageable, rather than all-encompassing mental crisis. Without such advances in the field of battlefield medicine, it is highly likely that many more lives would have been lost in the post war world as combatants wrestled with the private and inescapable turmoil caused by their own actions and the actions of others. In many ways, the work of Rivers should be seen as a counterpoint to the glorification and industrialisation of death by re-humanising those who fought and survived.
This book is highly recommended for anyone seeking to go beyond the superficial labels of “dog fighter” and “Ace”. This book lays bare the grim reality of life on a frontline squadron during the First World War and provides a powerful insight into the comprehensive physical; emotional, and mental decline these Aviators endured whilst in active service.
It is a testament to the Author that the essential humanity of the featured aviators is allowed to permeate through one of the darkest periods in human history. It is a testament to the candour of the Aviators themselves that battlefield medicine was able to advance the longs that were necessary.”