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

An original and absorbing study of the psychological factors of the first air war. This new book considers how the young men pioneeering war in the air were affected by their environment and battle experiences – Most Highly Recommended.

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NAME: Aero-Neurosis, Pilots of the First World War and the Psychological Legacies 
of Combat
FILE: R3002
AUTHOR: Mark C Wilkins
PUBLISHER: Pen & Sword
BINDING: hard back
PRICE: £19.99
GENRE: Non Fiction
SUBJECT: WWI, WW1, World War I, World War 1, First World War, The Great War,
aerial combat, biplanes, open cockpit, parachutes, aircraft fire, battle fatigue, PTSD, 
psychology, shell shock

ISBN: 1-52672-312-3

IMAGE: B3002.jpg
BUYNOW: tinyurl.com/y2gmrodt
LINKS: 
DESCRIPTION: An original and absorbing study of the psychological factors of the 
first air war. This new book considers how the young men pioneeering war in the 
air were affected by their environment and battle experiences – Most Highly 
Recommended.

The Great War was many things and the abiding images are of life and death in the trenches, rather than life at sea or in the air. The Royal Navy was well-rehearsed in the consequences of battle which in very many ways had remained unchanged since naval warfare relied on naval artillery to attack and defend. The exception was the RNAS which for those pilots afloat combined the traditional factors with the new factors of flying into combat. The RNAS however also flew from land bases, including the hastily formed airfields behind the trench lines. These pilots has a similar set of experiences to their soldier colleagues of the RFC.

Exactly how the pilots faired is not well known because attitudes were very different then. A soldier in the trenches might eventually break under the horrors and run away. When caught, he would most probably be shot for desertion. Some shot off a toe or finger in the hope of being invalided home, but the Army frequently made an example of these unfortunates and shot them also. For aircrews it was different in several respects. Once in the air and away from base they might also be out of sight of other friendly aircraft. If a pilot turned and ran there might be no one to question his actions. If in combat his aircraft caught fire, many a pilot shot himself rather than burn because denied a parachute the only alternatives to suicide were a painful death by burning or the prospect of hurtling into the ground.

The RNAS pilots tended to be somewhat older than typical RFC pilots because the RN had taken experienced naval officers and trained them to fly or to act as navigators and observers, where the RFC frequently took boys fresh from school and hastily trained them before sending them into combat with a hopelessly small number of flying hours in their log books. As a result, there could be different psychological factors even when they flew similar aircraft from similar air strips.

There were also some special factors. As the aircraft of the day were powered by engines lubricated by castor oil, this had an unfortunate effect on the digestive system as the pilot breathed in the fumes during a flight of up to two hours duration. A common practice was to dig latrines for the pilots near to the ends of the runways/ take off and landing tracks. To delay the symptoms, it was found that alcohol could prove effective and pilots were given chits to buy brandy or whatever they favoured from the twons behind the lines. That inevitably meant that pilots were often flying under the influence of alcohol and this could become an increasing problem.

To the difficulties of living with engine fumes, pilots flew in open cockpits without oxygen to as much as 20,000 ft. That could introduce a number of problems, including frostbite and breathing difficulties. All of this before they came any where near an enemy firing on them.

Physical health conditions could lead on to psychological problems, and to the psychological issues caused by many other factors. The other factors could be diverse and combine to create even greater health risks. The common factor for sailors, soldiers and airmen was that WWI was the first industrial war. It was industrial in many ways. It was a war where machines became as, or more, important than physical strength and courage. It was a war of numbers and a huge scale, the only exception being in the air where even the largest air battles broke down into individual combat, frequently at very close range. It was a war where the conduct of the battles was heavily influence by the war industry and logistics. The machines consume huge qualtities of ammunition, fuel and spare parts.

The aviation pioneers of this war had nothing to really rely on to prepare them for the realities of an industrial war. They were often living for months on their nerves. The levels of stress were enormous and the industrial factor made matters even more difficult because the air war was as much a battle of technologies and designers as it was of pilots. A period of success because the technology was superior to that of the enemy, was quickly followed by a period of heavy losses because the enemy had matched and then overtaken the technologies which had been superior. Pilots could not take a few weeks off until their manufacturers caught up and handed them new advantage, but they knew that they were likely to die during the period of disadvantage. When that combined with young men fresh from school with inadequate training, the life expectancy of a new pilot could be measured in weeks and often only in days. At table in the mess the survivors were painfully aware of the new gaps in their ranks.

The author has nicely analyzed the psychological factors in service and the legacies of combat that followed long after the war had ended.