The war to end all war stories.
A Lost Classic renewed for Contrary by David M. Smith

        Winged Victory, with its rather colorless title, comes to us as the first and only published work by the British author Victor Maslin Yeates. Outside of the small and dwindling ranks of World War I aviation enthusiasts, the novel has largely been forgotten. Those few who read it, however, know that Winged Victory is more than an object of merely historical interest; it is a beautiful work of literature in its own right, rivaling such canonical works as All Quiet on the Western Front and A Farewell to Arms. Yet its obscurity nags and demands an explanation.

        Writing a decade ago, Hugh Cecil speculated that by the book’s publication in 1934, the Anglo-American public had lost its taste for Great War novels, and the author's death a few months later (from tuberculosis effected by the strain of the war) robbed him of the reputation a longer career would have brought. Initially, I held another explanation: I blamed Yeates' thorough descriptions of early air combat, which can be intimidating without some background in the airplane mechanics, tactics, and pilots’ slang of that era. However, I suspect that in the end, the real explanation lies not in us, not in our behavior towards Winged Victory, but rather in something inherent in its challenge to us. 
        By and large, the World War I flying aces have come down to us as legendary figures. A work of contemporary war propaganda, The Romance of Air-Fighting by one R. Wherry Anderson, is not far from the picture that persists nearly a century later: “From their respective hangars Ivanhoe and Sir Brian de Bois-Guilbert sally forth to personal combat. Each has his machine gun couched along the fuselage and pointed at his antagonist. […] Now consider the feelings of the victor, as he sees his adversary hurtling down to the ground. Did any tournament of old provide encounter more picturesque or more sublime?”
        Yeates, as the reader will no doubt expect, had a different perspective. Drawing on his own experience flying patrols on the Western Front, he was able to describe the feeling of shooting down enemy aircraft thus: 
A yellow flame came from the [enemy aircraft’s] tank amidmost. The observer stood up, leaning from it with his hands over his face. The pilot put the machine into a vertical dive, and the observer jumped or was jerked out. He went down in the dreadful wake of the aeroplane with legs and arms asprawl in the unresisting air. Tom felt sick. O God, why did they do these things? [...] He calmed. He was being a fool. But, O God, this bloody war, this lawful holy murder.
        Through his alter ego, Tom Cundall, Yeates doesn’t spare us much. Tom is an atheist and well over any patriotic feelings that may have caused him to enlist in the first place. He and his comrades at the RAF aerodrome fill their long hours between missions with talk, mainly about the gulf between the “official,” R. Wherry Anderson-style accounts and the bleak reality. British commander Douglas Haig’s famous last-gasp exhortation, “With our backs to the wall and believing in the justice of our cause, each one of us must fight to the end,” is cynically ripped to shreds: “Generals can only think in well-worn phrases,” Tom laments. “Why in heaven’s name does anyone write that?  If that isn’t inability to think except in conventional phrases, then it’s wilfully lying nonsense.”
        Oh, if only he had been around for "Mission Accomplished" or "Heckuva job, Brownie." These vacuous slogans are such a given, now as in Yeates’ day, that they have almost lost their power to shock us. If this were the extent of Winged Victory’s anti-war message (assuming that is the right word), then there would not be much to recommend it, after all.
        What we find rather is Yeates’ characters trapped between two impossible extremes. On the one hand, the stark terror of their missions: “All the time to know that perhaps ten machine guns were firing at them; that at any moment the fatal bullet might be fired; that to live through each minute was marvellous.”  On the other, their complete inability to comprehend their situation as they sit around the aerodrome, praying for rain and bloviating about the hypocrisy of generals. As possible causes of the European war, they bandy about “an atmosphere of solemnity,” “a fog of holiness,” “national souls” conjured up by such unspeakable scoundrels as Tennyson and Beethoven; essentially, “some fundamental trait of human nature in the mass.”  All of which leaves them no closer to the truth than the pre-war system of alliances and a bullet in the brain of Archduke Ferdinand.
        When it comes to the horror of their situations, no system of irony or cognition whatever can tell them where they stand; they are either too close for comfort (to put it cutely) or impossibly far away; and if nothing can help them make sense of it all, then the only real option may simply be to forget:  
He [Tom] must forget. No, not forget. He must remember without rancour. God, how could he? He loathed utterly this damned war and the sordid system that created it. He must endure till he was killed or could go away, clean away from the disease of civilization. He would never forget, but time would blunt the harsh edge of remembrance; he would grow old and callous; it would be a dream.
        “There was yet one iron god that could make life noble: truth,” Tom later thinks. But everything he has experienced has shown him that “the truth” is not beautiful, not worthy, and ultimately, hardly even true. He has no way of imagining catastrophe, whether personal or global, without it becoming eyewitness news, a triviality.
        Near the beginning, I spoke of the obscurity of Winged Victory and its author, and how this obscurity may arise from something inherent to its greatness. Now, as I look at the back cover of my modern reprint, I read off various phrases: “One of the real books of the war”…“uncompromising courage”… “a powerful indictment”… “vigorous and authentic.”   The main selling point of Winged Victory is that, in short, it is a very true book. 
        I suppose I would be gratified if this little piece inspired someone to seek out a copy of Winged Victory and read it, and share in the pleasure I felt when I read it. But if this "Lost Classics" review is supposed to be an argument for the continued memory of this book, should rescue its subject from oblivion, something tells me I should not be overly disheartened if it fails to achieve that purpose.
 


David M. Smith is an American writer living in Norway.
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Winged Victory

V.M. Yeates

1934, Jonathan Cape

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