The War in the Air


‘An Irish Airman Foresees His Death’

I know that I shall meet my fate
Somewhere among the clouds above;
Those that I fight I do not hate,
Those that I guard I do not love;
My country is Kiltartan Cross,
My countrymen Kiltartan’s poor,
No likely end could bring them loss
Or leave them happier than before.
Nor law, nor duty bade me fight,
Nor public men, nor cheering crowds,
A lonely impulse of delight
Drove to this tumult in the clouds;
I balanced all, brought all to mind,
The years to come seemed waste of breath,
A waste of breath the years behind
In balance with this life, this death.

NOTES

This poem is a eulogy to Major Robert Gregory, a man whom Yeats greatly admired. In it, the dead man (who was killed in action with the Royal Flying Corps over Italy) is given voice by Yeats. The airman’s joy in flight, it is found, transcends all other claims on him and provides his sole motivation and justification for going to war.

An Irish Airman foresees his Death: Yeats wrote four poems in total about Robert Gregory, two of which feature in the anthology (the other being the later, sourer ‘Reprisals’). Gregory’s mother, Lady Augusta Gregory of Coole, was a much admired friend of Yeats. She was an important figure in the Irish literary revival, a dramatist whose interest in the Irish language and Irish mythology helped convert her to cultural nationalism (which would in turn inform Yeats’ own outlook). Robert Gregory in his turn was admired by Yeats as a “painter, classical scholar, scholar in painting and modern literature, boxer, horseman, airman”. Yeats declared that “his very accomplishments hid from many his genius”. This poem is a eulogy to the dead man. The title contains a remnant of Yeats’ early mysticism— Gregory “foresees” his own death (Yeats had been fascinated by the occult as a young man). The notion of Gregory foreseeing his fate and choosing it nonetheless allows this poem to reflect on death, service and an Irishman’s sense of purpose in the British military.

“I know that I shall meet my fate / Somewhere among the clouds above”: A surprisingly romantic beginning to the poem, perhaps. The “clouds above” carry traditional associations of dreaming and sublime transcendence in the skies above: the sense that, in flying, we move into a realm beyond earth, and beyond material things.

“Those that I fight I do not hate, / Those that I guard I do not love;”: A renunciation of patriotic or xenophobic motivations for war. Gregory does not hate Germans, but neither does he love those he guards— the British, Italians, or even Irish people? The sentiment can be interestingly compared with Edward Thomas’ feelings for England in ‘This is no Case of Petty Right or Wrong’ (“I hate not Germans, not grow hot / With love of Englishmen, to please newspapers”). In Yeats’ work– as in Thomas’– there is a strong sense of rhetoric in the parallel phrasing used.

“My country is Kilkartan Cross… Kilkartan Poor”: Kilkartan was a small town, part of the Gregory’s barony, and home to the Gregory family in Ireland. Two readings suggest themselves here: that the reference to Kilkartan is specific, and that Gregory feels he belongs not to a nation but a specific locality, Kilkartan; next, that Kilkartan stands for the whole of an ideal Ireland (in literary terms this would be an example of synecdoche, where part of something stands for the whole). The voice given to Gregory declares solidarity with the poor of this area. Yeats seems to be suggesting that the Gregory family’s relationship with the peasantry of the district is sympathetic and friendly (we are entitled to ask, however, how far this imagined solidarity really extended between landlord and peasantry. Is this a false note?).

“No likely end could bring them loss / Or leave them happier than before”: the poor are so poor, the voice seems to declare, that they could lose nothing of material value; yet their fortitude in bearing their poverty is such that they cannot be made miserable. These lines suggest a number of things: that Yeats understood the peasants’ lives in the same fatalistic terms he conceives Gregory’s fate; that the poor in fact understood their lives in just the same way, fatalistically; and that despite poverty, the poor were happy. That this is an ideological rather than a realistic point of view seems likely, given the tendency of people the world over since money was invented to choose not to be poor— one presumes because it is not a particularly joyous state to be in. Again, there seems a romantic tone to Yeats’ eulogy.

“Nor law, nor duty bade me fight, / Nor public men, nor cheering crowds”: The voice given to Gregory declares that neither conscription nor social obligation was a motivation to fight— nor ephemeral patriotism. The “public men” are politicians. There’s a hint of contempt here, perhaps, like Edward Thomas’ “hate for one fat patriot”.

“A lonely impulse of delight / Drove to this tumult in the clouds”: Here we find expressed the true motivation for Gregory joining the Flying Corps, as ascribed by Yeats: “A lonely impulse of delight”. There is an almost instinctive personal need to experience the pleasure of flying. “Delight” emphasises some of the high, giddy joy of flying, an intoxicating pleasure in the new sensation (and it is interesting that the pleasure Yeats ascribes as a motivation to Gregory is, in a sense, the pleasure of the modernist artist— an aesthetic motivation, rather than simply martial or pragmatic).

“I balanced all…”: Here is a justification for ‘choosing’ death in the skies— Gregory weighs up his choice, accounting for his decision. Note the ‘balance’ is reflected in the line; the alliterative ‘b’ sounds and the repetition of ‘all’ establishes a formal balance that Yeats uses until the end of the poem.

“The years to come seemed waste of breath / A waste of breath the years behind”: The formal balance continues here with the use of a technique known as chiasmus. On your book, draw a line in the poem from “the years” to “the years”; then from “waste of breath” to “waste of breath”. Between the two lines you’ll notice that you’ve just drawn a cross. Now, ‘chi’ (pron. ‘Kai’) is what the ancient Greeks used to call the letter ‘X’. Chiasmus creates this ‘crossing’ structure, where the beginning of the first part of a line is repeated or rephrased at the end of the second; while the end of the first line is found repeated at the start of the second (you can find this structure in a well known phrase like “nice to see you, to see you, nice!”). Here, the effect Yeats creates is a balancing of the claims of the future with the past in Gregory’s mind: neither seem worthwhile, compared to the moment between the two.

“In balance with this life, this death”: The careful formal balance of the end of this poem (the word ‘balance’ is even repeated here) is retained until the end. “This life” is counterpoised with “this death”. The poem ends with this graceful and calm poise— reminiscent, perhaps, of a fearless man in a plane in flight who has chosen his fate.

[ANTHOLOGY NOTE: This is an interesting poem: the ending in particular shows off Yeats’ massive formal and technical skill. It particularly bears comparison with poems that examine soldiers’ motivation for fighting. From outside the anthology, Edward Thomas’ ‘This is no Case of Petty Right or Wrong’ bears comparison; within, poems like Asquith’s ‘The Volunteer’ and Brooke’s ‘The Dead’.]

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In my last post on Zeppelins, I promised some pointers to texts about dirigibles and the First World War. Today I’ve got two texts to look at: a passage from HG Wells’ novel, ‘The War in the Air’, describing an imagined air attack on New York and a poem entitled ‘Zeppelins’, written by Nancy Cunard in 1918.

HG Wells first. ‘The War in the Air’ isn’t strictly a First World War text at all: it was written in 1907. It’s worth posting here, however, because it so cleverly anticipated the nature of aerial warfare– and it captures a set of common anxieties about Germany in the years leading up to the war. It’s interesting to read Wells’ foreword to the book when it was republished after the First World War in 1921. Wells reminds the reader of the central idea of his novel: that “with the flying machine war alters in its character; it ceases to be an affair of “fronts” and becomes an affair of “areas”; neither side, victor or loser, remains immune from the gravest injuries.” Wells was horrified that his warnings about the First World War had been ignored. “Seven years before the Great War, its shadow stood out upon our sunny world as plainly as all that… the great catastrophe marched upon us in the daylight. But everybody thought that somebody else would stop it before it really arrived.”

If you haven’t heard of HG Wells, you will have certainly heard of the books he wrote: Science fiction classics such as ‘The Time Machine’, ‘The War of the Worlds’, ‘The Invisible Man’ and ‘The Island of  Doctor Moreau’. Wells called these novels ‘Scientific Romances’, and he wrote them as he started out as a writer, in the last years of the nineteenth century. Through them, Wells became one of the most famous writers in the world.

As the nineteenth century turned into the twentieth, Wells started penning stories that struggled to predict what the future would bring. He called these stories his ‘fantasies of possibility’. ‘The War in the Air’ predicted a world massively transformed by science, technology– and air travel.

The full name of Wells’ story is ‘The War in the Air: and particularly how Mr. Bert Smallways fared as it lasted’. Bert Smallways is Wells’ hero. He’s just an average Londoner, living in Bun Hill, somewhere near Bromley. One weekend Bert goes on a cycling tour with a friend. When he gets to the coast, as the two pals rest near a beach, a balloon drops out of the sky containing a famous British aeronautical inventor. A mishap occurs, and Bert and the inventor swap places; Bert rises up into the yonder in the balloon, with the inventor’s plans for a new aircraft. When his balloon finds land again, Bert is captured by Germans, mistaken for the inventor and is taken across the Atlantic in a fleet of dirigibles. He witnesses the new war in the air first-hand, and is horrified by it.

In this extract, the Germans, led by the Crown Prince Karl, are about to attack the USA. The German airship, the Vaterland, hovers over Manhattan. Bert, trapped on board, looks out the window. The attack begins:

“Something had dropped from the aeroplane, something that looked small and flimsy. It hit the pavement near a big archway just underneath Bert. A little man was sprinting along the sidewalk within half a dozen yards, and two or three others and one woman were bolting across the roadway. They were odd little figures, so very small were they about the heads, so very active about the elbows and legs. It was really funny to see their legs going. Foreshortened, humanity has no dignity. The little man on the pavement jumped comically–no doubt with terror, as the bomb fell beside him.

Then blinding flames squirted out in all directions from the point of impact, and the little man who had jumped became, for an instant, a flash of fire and vanished–vanished absolutely. The people running out into the road took preposterous clumsy leaps, then flopped down and lay still, with their torn clothes smouldering into flame.”

Wells, remember, was writing in 1907- his description of watching bombs falling from above onto poor civilians below was still stuff of the purest imagination (the Wright brothers, after all, had only invented the first working powered airplane in 1903). What is remarkable here is Wells’ realisation that the real distance that flight gives you from humans on the ground also translates to an emotional distance- hence the “really funny” little people below, seen as they desperately attempt to run in panic to safety. The narrator continues:

“In this manner the massacre of New York began. She was the first of the great cities of the Scientific Age to suffer by the enormous powers and grotesque limitations of aerial warfare. She was wrecked as in the previous century endless barbaric cities had been bombarded, because she was at once too strong to be occupied and too undisciplined and proud to surrender in order to escape destruction. Given the circumstances, the thing had to be done. It was impossible for the Prince to desist, and own himself defeated, and it was impossible to subdue the city except by largely destroying it. The catastrophe was the logical outcome of the situation, created by the application of science to warfare. It was unavoidable that great cities should be destroyed. In spite of his intense exasperation with his dilemma, the Prince sought to be moderate even in massacre. He tried to give a memorable lesson with the minimum waste of life and the minimum expenditure of explosives. For that night he proposed only the wrecking of Broadway. He directed the air-fleet to move in column over the route of this thoroughfare, dropping bombs, the Vaterland leading. And so our Bert Smallways became a participant in one of the most cold-blooded slaughters in the world’s history, in which men who were neither excited nor, except for the remotest chance of a bullet, in any danger, poured death and destruction upon homes and crowds below.

He clung to the frame of the porthole as the airship tossed and swayed, and stared down through the light rain that now drove before the wind, into the twilight streets, watching people running out of the houses, watching buildings collapse and fires begin. As the airships sailed along they smashed up the city as a child will shatter its cities of brick and card. Below, they left ruins and blazing conflagrations and heaped and scattered dead; men, women, and children mixed together as though they had been no more than Moors, or Zulus, or Chinese. Lower New York was soon a furnace of crimson flames, from which there was no escape. Cars, railways, ferries, all had ceased, and never a light lit the way of the distracted fugitives in that dusky confusion but the light of burning. He had glimpses of what,it must mean to be down there–glimpses. And it came to him suddenly as an incredible discovery, that such disasters were not only possible now in this strange, gigantic, foreign New York, but also in London–in Bun Hill! that the little island in the silver seas was at the end of its immunity, that nowhere in the world any more was there a place left where a Smallways might lift his head proudly and vote for war and a spirited foreign policy, and go secure from such horrible things.”

Twenty years after his 1921 foreword, Wells’ mood had darkened even more. Britain was at war with Nazi Germany and death from the skies in war was commonplace: the Blitz had begun. Wells rewrote his introduction, concluding furiously: “I told you so. You damned fools.”

The second of our texts today is a poem, written by Nancy Cunard. In 1914 Cunard was an 18 year-old heiress to the Cunard Shipping firm. As the Zeppelins flew over London, she witnessed the bombing of the city. Late at night during the air raids, searchlights would light up the sky and the crump of bombs could be heard across the town. Policemen would ride around on bicycles, ringing their bells in warning. Londoners would stay in their homes, or if caught out, flee to the tube stops and safety underground. Anti-aircraft guns fired at the Zeppelins overhead as the bombs and incendiaries fell. Some Londoners died of fright: no-one had experienced war this close to home.

Cunard was a fascinating woman. She was born into privilege but rejected convention. During the war she married an injured army officer, but this relationship ended after two years. Cunard would go on to live in Paris, helping to support writers and artists with her fortune. Later she would become an anti-fascist campaigner involved in the French Resistance; later again she became a civil liberties protester in the US. ‘Zeppelins’ however, a poem written during the bombings of London, is the mourning voice of a young on the Home Front during the First World War.

‘Zeppelins’

I saw the people climbing up the street
Maddened with war and strength and thoughts to kill;
And after followed Death, who held with skill
His torn rags royally, and stamped his feet.

The fires flamed up and burnt the serried town,
Most where the sadder, poorer houses were;
Death followed with proud feet and smiling stare,
And the mad crowds ran madly up and down.

And many died and hid in unfounded places
In the black ruins of the frenzied night;
And death still followed in his surplice, white
And streaked in imitation of their faces.

But in the morning men began again
To mock Death following in bitter pain.

You can watch a BBC animation of the poem here. If you’re interested in the air raids of the First World War, an excellent book to get hold of is Neil Hanson’s ‘First Blitz’. You may well be able to get this at your local library. The air-raids of the Second World War– ‘the Blitz’– were so massive that today they crowd out our imaginings of the earlier Zeppelin raids. Yet it’s worth learning something about the first war in the air– and its effect on the civilians who endured the German bombings of British villages, towns and cities in 1914-18.

A Zeppelin.

January 19th is not necessarily a date that makes it into many people’s diaries. It’s an ominous anniversary, however- whether we’re thinking about the First World War or beyond. On this day in 1915, 96 years ago,  the quiet of a Norfolk evening was smashed apart by bombs: high-explosive bombs and burning incendiaries dropped from two cigar-shaped aircraft, vast rigid balloons filled with hydrogen, known as Zeppelins.

It must have been a strange but not entirely unexpected moment for the inhabitants of the towns and villages beneath the Zeppelins’ paths. The indiscriminate wartime killing of civilians from the air had been predicted for seven years and more. The coming of the war made phantasmal dream reality: it took no longer than the end of August 1914 for a Paris train station to be bombed by Zeppelins. Yet the arrival of two Zeppelins above the English coast on January 19th, 1915 could not have been anticipated.

The Routes of Zepellins L3 and L4 over Norfolk.

That evening two aircraft, prosaically called L3 and L4, propelled themselves over the undulating darkness of the North Sea. They had left Hamburg only that morning and had run into bad weather- so bad, in fact, that a third zeppelin, L6, was forced to abort its westward mission. L3 and L4, however, continued to force themselves on through driving wind and snow until they finally reached the line of land below.

At this point, on the very edge of England, the two Zeppelins split up. L3 made its way south-east along the coast, around and down to the town of Yarmouth. There it dropped its bombs on and around the harbour. L4 drove north-west to the village of Sheringham, swiftly getting lost. In a meandering way it travelled west, dropping incendiaries on the villages it passed below, until it finally found Kings Lynn. The bombs that L4 dropped there, at 10.50pm, like the bombs dropped on Yarmouth by L3 two and a half hours before, caused death and destruction. As the Zeppelins left England behind they also left four people killed and nineteen injured.

Given the large and gruesome canvas of the First World War, the four lives lost in Norfolk that evening might seem insignificant. Yet with the visit of those Zeppelins to England on a dark night in January there also arrived a new age of strategic bombing and modern, total warfare- obscured by the quiet anonymity of the first victims. In Yarmouth a shoemaker named Sam Smith and an elderly lady called Martha Taylor were killed instantly by a bomb that fell in St. Peter’s Plain, a working class district of the town. In Bentinck Street, Kings Lynn, bombs blew open several terraced houses, resulting in the death of a 26 year old woman, Alice Glazely, and a 14 year old boy, Percy Goate.

These were no military men. They were an old man, an elderly and young woman, and, most horrifying of all, a child. And they all were dead, killed at home, in Great Britain. From these small, murderous beginnings, greater horrors were to grow in the twentieth century. It is possible to trace a line across time from Great Yarmouth to the Japanese cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, where the first atom bombs fell: and beyond, to the “shock and awe” city bombardments of today. It is a frightening thought that in war today, nearly everyone is a fair target: even civilians. This grim journey towards military modernity began on January 19th 1915.

More feared than bullets: a British propaganda poster from World War One.

The Zeppelin played a minor but significant role in the First World War. You can read about the use of Zeppelins during the war on a number of sites on the web: but one of the most interesting stories you can read is about that first night over England. Steve Snelling has written a fascinating account of the January 19th bombing that fully recounts the actions of that day. Sean Palmer has also written a concise account of January 19th 1915, snappily called ‘Dirigibles from Deutschland‘, citing newspaper articles from the time.

If you want to know more about the growing use of Zeppelins as the war went on– and the first ‘blitz’ of London– there are articles across the web. There’s a decent, comprehensive history of the use of Zeppelins during the war at FirstWorldWar.com written by Ari Unikoski (though unfortunately he gets the amount of dead and injured in the January 19th raid wrong). If you’re interested in the history of the dirigible check out the articles at Airship.net (Count von Zeppelin was a man who made dirigibles- his name simply became the most popular moniker for the aircraft, just like we call vacuum cleaners Hoovers or ask for Coke when we want Cola). There’s some nice pictures and posters over at Trenches on the Web too. For a more contemporary spin, check out this Guardian article that looks at the possible return of dirigibles to our skies- this time with environmental concerns in mind, finding the cloudy heights without that pesky, highly flammable hydrogen gas.

More on Zeppelins in literature later on this week, I hope: with a book from HG Wells, a short passage from Rebecca West, and a poem by Nancy Cunard from the home front, among others.

The moaning in my last entry was, it seems, premature. Last night the Beeb showed a new documentary on the First World War: ‘The First World War From Above’. I haven’t had the chance to see it yet, but it’s here on iPlayer, and is narrated by Fergal Keane, who is an excellent journalist. As a documentary it should be worth watching.

That sounds a little grudging, perhaps. OK, to come straight to the point: the big idea behind the documentary (why do all documentaries need a ‘big idea’ today? Why do all cookery programs need a ‘mission’?) annoys me a little. The documentary is about showing the war as it was seen from the skies– from Zeppelins, observation balloons and aircraft. This should indeed give us some interesting pictures of World War One– looking at things literally from a different angle, after all– but however novel the perspective, I wonder if the basic idea isn’t really quite trivial.

Let’s hope ‘The First World War From Above’ turns out to be a little more informative and useful than all those ‘Second World War in Colour’ docs. I’ll write my verdict in the Comments section– perhaps I’m just being an old misery! Give your verdict there too.