Now all roads lead to France and heavy is the tread
Of the living; but the dead returning lightly dance.
Edward Thomas, Roads

Tuesday, January 14, 2020

Aero-Neurosis: Pilots of the First World War and the Psychological Legacies of Combat

by Mark C. Wilkin
Pen and Sword, 2019
Peter L. Belmonte, Reviewer

German Ace Ernst Udet

For many, World War I aviation conjures up images of daring pilots dogfighting in biplanes, their white scarves flapping in the slipstream. But the devil-may-care attitudes adopted by some pilots masked the stresses and horror of air combat. Beneath the veneer of derring-do many men wrestled with demons brought forth by their experiences. In Aero-Neurosis: Pilots of the First World War author Mark C. Wilkins examines the flying history of six men against the backdrop of the stresses of World War I combat aviation. In doing so, Wilkins seeks to "match expert testimony and medical opinions of the time as closely as possible with the case studies included where applicable" (p. x).

Wilkins presents the stories of six men: Elliott Springs (American), William Lambert (American flying with the British Royal Air Force), Roy Brown (Canadian), Ernst Udet (German), Edward [Mick] Mannock (Irish), and Georges Guynemer (French). The author, a historian and museum professional who has worked for the Smithsonian Institution, Mystic Seaport, and the Cape Cod Maritime Museum, quotes heavily from the memoirs and biographies of these pilots. This is too small a sample size to make any positive assertions beyond the obvious fact that air combat during World War I was very stressful. How individuals handled that stress differed, as Wilkins acknowledges: "Each man responded to the crucible of war differently according to his latent and manifest qualities" (p. 138).

The initial chapters cover the rise of nationalism and the growth of mechanization in warfare that ushered in the 20th century. The development and improvement of machine guns, submarines, poison gas, and aircraft all presaged the horrors of the Great War. Just as aviation was in its infant stage at the start of the war, so too was aviation medicine. Combat tactics, airplane design, and the different roles of military aircraft developed alongside the understanding of how all of this affected aircrew. As Wilkins states, "Really what happened to these fliers was a synthesis of shell shock and flying—or a mechanized warfare in the air—both were new to the human experience" (p. 29).

After a six-chapter "introduction," Wilkins covers each of the pilots in turn. The men all had similar combat experiences, but of course they all fared differently. Wilkins uses memoirs, letters, and diaries, among other primary sources, to describe the men's wartime experiences. Both Springs and Lambert suffered "nervous breakdowns" and had to be temporarily hospitalized. Brown suffered from various physical and emotional ailments, and he too was hospitalized. Udet was a sensitive man who deeply felt his own inadequacies despite his success. Mannock was physically and emotionally affected and, prior to his death in action, took increasingly dangerous chances. Guynemer was a French national hero who did not like the attention; he also was killed in action. Using the sources mentioned above, Wilkins recounts some of the air battles the men fought as well as some of their emotional struggles on the ground.

Mick Mannock, VC, on Leave
Just Before His Death
A modern-day description of flying a Fokker E. III replica, written by a pilot of vintage aircraft, leaves one wondering how these men could fly effectively in combat a century ago. The physical and mental stresses of the endeavor must have been debilitating after a while. In connection with the outward appearance of sangfroid, Wilkins quotes Taffy Jones, a pilot with the Royal Flying Corps (RFC): "In the mess [where officers met to eat and socialize] it was an unwritten law for pilots to forget their sorrow and assume a cheerfulness which gave the impression of 'living for the day.'" (p. 110).

In the end, Wilkins concludes that, as stated above, each man handled the horrors he was exposed to differently, even though there were some similarities (such as an aversion to strafing missions). Perhaps the best one can say about it is that "aviation psychiatry evolved with the war and was frustrated by inadequate diagnosis, treatment, and infrastructure but these improved by the war's conclusion" (p. 137).

Thirty photographs illustrate the men and machines covered in Aero-Neurosis: Pilots of the First World War. The end notes and two-page bibliography will be helpful to readers who want to learn more about the subject. This is not a history of wartime aviation psychiatry, aviation physiology, or flight medicine. Rather it is a case study of six men and how the stresses of combat flying affected them. There is probably not much in this book that will be new to dedicated students of the air war, so it will probably appeal mostly to those who are new to the study of World War I air combat and to those who want to read about how abnormal stresses affected these airmen.

Peter L. Belmonte


  1. This nicely brings out the terrible realism behind movies like 'Wings'. It's easy to get carried away with the thrill and heroism we see and to forget the inner human toll. Thanks for reminding us in this review, Pete!

  2. Excellent review. Considering all these pressures I was always amazed that there existed a rivalry among German pilots to bring down more than the other guy or be better than the recently killed. I have not been exposed to reports of such rivalries among Allied pilots. Cheers