Book Review: Marked for Death
by James Hamilton-Paterson
Pegasus Books, 2016
As any of the three dozen people who watched Tony Bill’s 2006 movie Flyboys in the theater can attest, there’s a persistent nimbus of heroism that surrounds the whole subject of aerial combat during the First World War. “A mysterious aura of futurism and romance undoubtedly attached to men who flew,” James Hamilton-Paterson reminds readers in his superb new book Marked For Death: The First World War in the Air. “The idea of pilots as knights of the air was very appealing.” He sets out to disabuse people of such notions, and this often necessitates the adoption of a scolding tone that’s startling the first time and then increasingly (albeit inadvertently) funny every successive time.
He writes of how readers and TV viewers loved it when the valiant beagle Snoopy confronted the “Bloody Red Baron” Manfred von Richthofen in the cartoon Peanuts … and then he swoops in for the kill:
This is surely one of the strangest trajectories of contemporary myth, stretching as it does directly rom a modern child’s bedroom back to a war in which many a nineteen-year-old victim of Richthofen, his flying gear soaked in petrol, fell wrapped in flames from 8,000 feet, trailing smoke and screaming for the thirty-odd seconds it took him to hit the ground.
He recalls the fighter-ace shenanigans on the beloved TV series Blackadder … and then, infuriated at the mere idea that somebody somewhere might be having fun with his subject, pounces again:
For ever after, this merry fantasy has somehow preserved itself untouched by the grim daily realities of early and wartime flying: of men falling to their deaths through a mile of air because their aircraft had without warning shed a wing at 5,000 feet, or of a pilot blinded by the entrails of his front seat observer who’d been cut in half by shrapnel.
By the time you’re finished with his book’s 350 pages, you’ll be 100% convinced that war is downright awful.
Along the way, Marked for Death (the title is from a grandiose comment by Anthony Fokker, the handsome Dutch founder of the Fokker aircraft works, who said “Every man who went aloft was marked for death, sooner or later, once his wheels had left the ground” and died in his bed twenty years after the war ended) tells its inherently vivid story with more sheer comprehensive energy than any previous English-language history has ever done, although memoirs of the events by actual “aeronautists,” such as Cecil Lewis’ Sagittarius Rising, still take pride of place for sheer mendacious readability.
The numbers, Hamilton-Paterson immediately admits, are not large in any comparative sense. The war accounted for some 9 million killed and another 21 million wounded, and, as our author writes, “Even allowing for the first-ever air war’s restricted dimensions, the toll it took of flying men was minuscule compared to that of the trenches.” He reports that 6,994 British and Empire air crew members were casualties on the Western Front between 1914 and 1918 – and that thousand more died in accidents and training without ever seeing action. And as you’re reading Marked For Death, the very smallness of these numbers comes to enhance the feeling of elite heroism in the adventures of these airmen, including of course – he always steals the show – the Red Baron, who held a record of 80 confirmed kills and hardly ever opened his mouth without coming out with a, you should pardon the phrase, killer line – like: “When I have shot down an Englishman my passion for the hunt is satisfied for fifteen minutes.”
Hamilton-Paterson’s book traces the rackety youth of human flight and its initially sloppy and largely undirected adaptation to the field of warfare, and his storytelling skills are on point and gratifyingly varied – there isn’t a dull page in this book. In fact, it’s tempting to call it a terrifically enjoyable read – but who wants entrails in the face?