Saturday, 14 July 2012

Rarified Atmosphere

It has always struck me how our impressions and visualizations of the history of war are coloured by the media that recorded it and the attitudes of those who wrote it. The Great War was, to all intents and purposes, fought in black and white running at 1.25 the speed of reality. What is sometimes difficult to appreciate given the power of this media, is that all wars are fought in Technicolor and full surround-sound with no volume control. Hot is hot, cold is cold and tortured spinning steel has no respect for rank, title or script - as there isn’t one. To get the full benefit and understand it at a visceral level, you had to be there really, which in our case is impossible. Enough of the obvious.

 I am reading Alex Revell's brilliantly researched history of 56 Squadron (Revell, 1995) and his story of the short life of Arthur Rhys Davids, the scholastic RFC SE5a ace who flew with '56' during 1917. All this as background work for a closer look at Arthur Keen about whom little has been written.
Whilst I have read much of what is available penned by those who took part (in the air war), I am trying to tune back into his time, build a context within which to place him, and gradually frame the greater story of his association with his contemporaries within 40 Squadron.

Alex captures (Revell, 1984) Rhys Davids’ schoolboy life at Eaton illustrating for us a kind but effete and elitist soul who struggles later to adapt to the 'army life' that he is thrust into whilst still a teenager (18). Like us all he was a product of his upbringing, his parents being late Victorian scholars of some distinction. Little surprise that they should produce a youngster driven to achieve at his studies, pushing himself to the point of ill-health in the process. How this prepared him for what was to come becomes apparent later.

Quite how either of these characters would have changed had they survived the war is an interesting question to consider. Those who survived returned to experience a seismic demographic shift within society, one that had altered forever the life they had left behind but a few years previously. Labour shortages and the transformed role, station and expectations of women has remodelled attitudes to service and the costs associated with business.

No, we will never know what ‘our Arthurs’ would have made of Blighty after The Armistice, but we can detect the strength of their influences and their early responses to it through literature of the quality served by Alex Revell and others. That Arthur Rhys Davids became one of the most popular and promising fighter pilots in the RFC is testament to his qualities; I have those to look forward to in the latter half of the book.

Revell, A (1995) High in the Empty Blue, the story of 56 Squadron RFC RAF 1916-1919, Flying Machines Press, Mountain View - California, USA.

Revell, A (1984) Brief Glory, the life of Arthur Rhys Davids, DSO MC, William Kimber & Co, London.

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