Wednesday, February 06, 2019

V. M. Yeates - Winged Victory

Having recently finished Derek Robinson's classic novel of war in the air Goshawk Squadron, I was directed towards V.M. Yeats' book Winged Victory. This, I was told, is the definitive novel about the subject written in the aftermath of World War One by someone who had reached Ace status flying Sopwith Camels on the Western Front.

Winged Victory deserves its accolades. It is a powerful denunciation of that particular war and what it did to the men who fought it. The key figure in the book, Tom Cundall, who we can suppose is a proxy for Yeates himself, begins the novel relatively cynical, but by the end has been destroyed emotionally and psychologically by the deaths of his friends and the strain of combat.

Ironically this is a novel where little happens. The main characters in the story exist against the backdrop of wider conflict, but their space in the war is reduced down to small areas, intense, short lived conflict with enemy planes or horrible periods of dangerous ground strafing. Despite their height above the battlefield the pilots, like the men in the trenches, lack the over-view of the war. Inevitably their is a disconnect - from far behind the lines the squadron is ordered into the air, despite the weather meaning its dangerous to fly and the enemy can't be scene. Pilots die on the whims of commanders, through accident or through enemy action they don't even see. Names come and go, and few pilots last long enough to develop the skills and instincts to survive. Even fewer pilots last the six months that Tom endures; and increasingly he copes through heavy drinking.

Tom and his closest friends try to understand the war. Tom's and some of his friends blame a nebulous group of financiers and capitalists who are making massive profits out of the war - given the book was written in the early 1930s I was struck by occasional references to Jewish people. Tom's closest friend Seddon argues:
Do you think we're fighting for England? In private life I'm a ruddy bank clerk, and it's some of those big bank balances we're fighting for. They're not England: they're what gangs of financiers, Jew and Gentile, get out of England. It's too damn funny the way people think England belongs to them because they've nearly all got the vote, whereas its parceled out among a lot of blasted tradesmen who run it as a business for their own profit.
These ideas are confused. Later Seddon sees the war as originating in "Germanic revolt against the International Jew". It's impossible to know whether Yeates intended Seddon's anti-Semitism here as commentary on the growth of fascism in Europe while he was writing, or whether they reflected real arguments in the mess halls of his squadron in 1918. But they have the ring of truth of the type of debates that take place when people are struggling to understand what is going on around them; and the only source of information is propaganda.

Tom is pulled in different directions. On his leave he sees the green pastures of England from his train window, but also visits the East London slums to try and understand what they are fighting for. But by the end of the novel he no longer sees England as his own. The decline in belief in the war - the rapid erosion of patriotism, or indeed humanity, is a great theme in this microcosm of wider arguments around the conflict.

Furious arguments like these, the occasional fantasy of life after the war, heavy drinking, food and a preoccupation with women are the only things that keep the men going between combat. But even these aren't enough and boredom is the day to day reality.

Some will read Winged Victory for its accounts of combat. But there's much more to this than a tale of flying. This is a detailed account of the way the war ruined lives; it demolishes the myth of Biggles and "knights of the air", replacing it with alienated, scared, confused and drunk young men, desperate to survive but with little hope. It deserves to be read alongside great anti-war novels like All Quiet on the Western Front or Catch-22.

Related Reviews

Robinson - Goshawk Squadron
Macdonald - Passchendaele
Romains - Verdun
Bücher - In the Line 1914-1918

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