Wednesday, July 20, 2011

The Knights of the Sky: Thoughts On World War I Myth and History

Growing up, most kids are introduced to the concept of the knight errant at a relatively young age. Before they know that Lancelot is an adulterous, murderous jerk, they know him as a fair-haired gallant. The image of two men galloping towards each other trying to unhorse each other is an image we all know and can associate with a specific period in history and myth. It doesn't take too imaginative a person to think of a similar situation – heroic dog fights with planes “jousting” against each other. The “Gallant Knights of the Air,” were immortalized during World War I.

The Air and Space WWI exhibit. (Photos by Matt Sablan)

While you can read about Naval aviation before World War I, the Air and Space museum serves to bring us through the Great War with a description of how to airplane replaced the horse for the gentleman's mount. Most people are familiar with two of the most famous fighter pilots from the era – though one is a fictional Beagle. The second, German ace Manfred von Richthofen, is remembered today in song and pizza. However, Richthofen was known for his skill as a pilot, and probably owes a share of his fame to “The Red Knight of Germany” by Floyd Gibbons.

Amazing what you find in the Smithsonian!
It wasn't just the Germans and rock groups that embellished on the history of the World War I fighter pilot. After the war, movies like “The Dawn Patrol” would serve as propaganda to buoy the war efforts of World War II. Aerial combat and adventure was pulpy, vivid and captured the imagination. In movies, the German air force often consisted of Pfatz D.XII – which the museum says saw more action in film than in the war.

It isn't just Hollywood that found ways to mythologize the air war. In 1938, for example, in “The Lone Eagle Fighting Ace” by Lt. Scott Morgan, the lieutenant wrote: “This man (the ace) carried alone a responsibility as great as that of the mighty generals behind the line.” So, how did reality measure up to the 1930s and beyond era myth?
“Bombardment and pursuit formations... would have an independent mission very much as independent as cavalry used to have.” – Maj. William Mitchell to Maj. Gen. John Pershing
While some of the myth making began during the Great War, there instances of heroism. The first air victory for the U.S. (by Lt. Douglass Campbell and Lt. Alan Winslow) lasted 10 minutes over France. One portion of the exhibit provides another look at the growing history of American-French military alliances with the Lafayette Escadrille and the Lafayette Flying Corps. A bust of one of the many American volunteers in the French armed forces was Eugene Jacques Bullard is also on display; Bullard was the first African-American military pilot in history and the only one to serve in World War I.

The Smith IV
While I was viewing the the various restorations and models (like the Smith IV and the French SPAD XIII), I came to the same thought that the Smithsonian exhibit designers seemed to have thought. I thought that the view of the knightly jousts and gentleman combat in the air of World War I would, in a few short decades, give way to the horrific bombing campaigns and total war of World War II. When I saw the transition, I thought that, perhaps, that is what lead to the world's attempt to glorify the fighter pilot.

After all, people have a general desire to try and ignore the least beautiful aspects of any endeavor. In addition, being a fighter ace is an amazing achievement. It takes physical skill and training that is beyond even the best of the best. In the trenches, people died in nameless droves. But, in the air, you could have heroic, dashing figures, locked in vital, single combat. Perhaps Snoopy and the Red Baron are simply the Great War's Arthur and Mordred; heroic figures who stand in for a terrible reality that most, perhaps only really the historians any more, keep close track of.

A model Sopwith Camel plane. Can you see the wires?

 I'm not exactly sure where this essay was meant to go. My mind just sort of meandered.

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