War Birds: The Diary of a Great War Pilot
Elliott White Springs
Annotated by Lieutenant Horace Fulford.
Introduced by Mark Hillier.
I imagine most Great War aviation enthusiasts are more or less familiar with Elliott White Springs’ War Birds – Diary of an Unknown Aviator. If it isn’t actually out of copyright, the internet is doing a grand job of distributing free copies.
I first read it several years ago as a PDF scanned from the George H Doran Company’s 1926 printing, which I found in an online archive of ‘orphan’ books.
However this new edition makes a powerful argument for buying yourself a properly published, bound copy of titles like this. (Or at least getting your local library to do it for you!)
Springs first published just 210 copies of his book in 1926, for family and friends. One copy found its way to Liberty magazine which serialised it, creating an immediate sensation. The book was soon released commercially and became a best seller with rave reviews and several subsequent reprints.
October 19th, 1917
I hope I can stick it thru. I know I’m not afraid to die. I’m pretty young to be ready for it and I’m not. Why, I’m just beginning to live! And after going to all this trouble to help make history, I want to be able to live a little while to be able to tell about it.
A first-hand view
British aviation author and historian Mark Hillier ordered a pre-owned copy of War Birds while researching 85 Squadron, RFC, and was initially disappointed by the tattered book that arrived on his doorstep. But when he looked closer, he found the book was filled with hand-written margin notes and had various captioned photos inserted between its pages. One note in the endpapers revealed the previous owner’s name – Wing Commander Horace Fulford.
Further digging revealed that Fulford had been trained as an RFC pilot in 1916 (after seeing active service with the Royal Engineers since 1914), but was then declared unfit for flying duties. He became a gunnery instructor instead and, by 1918, was back in France as Armaments Officer for 85 Squadron.
In that role, Fulford had a first-hand view of the characters and events covered by the second half of War Birds. His marginalia added depth and veracity to Springs’ record, while his photos brought the long-dead fliers back to life.
Those unique, hand-written notes are printed into this very special edition of a truly historic account, along with Fulford’s photos plus others sourced from the Springs family’s own private albums.
The result is an incredible window into the stark realities of World War One aviation.
Elliott White Springs and his comrades-in-arms were Americans who enlisted after the United States’ declaration of war in 1917. They joined the US Air Service as prospective pilots and were shipped to England for training.
The diary begins aboard transport in Halifax harbour – a last sight of North America – then progresses through training in England and service over the Western Front.
February 9th, 1918
A horrible thing happened today. We were all out on the tarmac having our pictures taken for posterity when somebody yelled and pointed up. Two Avros collided right over the airdrome at about three thousand feet. God, it was a horrible sight. …They came down in a slow spin with their wings locked together and both of them in flames. Fred Stillman was in one machine and got out badly burned and Doug Ellis was in the other one and got burned to a cinder.
I sat there watching. I kept trying to imagine what those poor devils were thinking as they went spinning down into hell. It made me right sick at my stomach to watch. We all went up later and felt better after a little flying.
Eventually they would by seconded to the Royal Flying Corps and see action in France from May 1918, as the nucleus of 72-victory Canadian ace Major W.A. ‘Billy’ Bishop’s 85 Squadron, the ‘Flying Foxes’.
When Bishop left to organise the Canadian Flying Corps in late June 1918, his place was taken by Major E. ’Mick’ Mannock (61+ victories) and then Major J.T.B. ‘Mac’ McCudden (57 victories). It was a brief but notable parade of great allied aces.
Both Mannock and McCudden would be dead within a month. The squadron’s ‘regular’ pilots must have been left wondering what chance they had.
The historical record in this special edition of War Birds includes a short history of 85 Squadron and a list of its commanders, along with a Squadron Roll naming all its officers. No fewer than 46 Combat Reports – given on the day by Bishop, Mannock, McCudden and others – make fascinating appendices.
Initially, Springs and his friend John McGavock Grider both kept diaries and made an agreement that if either was killed, the other would publish the dead pilot’s memoirs. Grider was killed on June 18th, 1918, less than a month after 85 Squadron arrived in France and, as agreed, his diary formed the basis of War Birds.
But Springs also included events from his own diary, plus letters, combat reports, diary entries, and the personal recollections of several other squadron pilots. Indeed, Springs was transferred from 85 Squadron RFC to the U.S. 148th Aero Squadron in July 1918 while his ‘first person’ account continues from within 85. And, curiously, Springs receives frequent mentions in his Unknown Aviator’s diary entries.
However the amalgam of memoirs remains seamless and bone-raw. While most of the famous, first-hand accounts of World War One aerial service were carefully edited and polished for publication, War Birds retains its confronting reality.
June 10th, 1918
What a nightmare this war is! …Both the Allies and the Germans pray to the same God for strength in their slaughter! What a joke it must seem to Him to see us puny insignificant mortals proclaiming that we are fighting for Him and that He is helping us. Think of praying to the God of Peace for help in War! The heavens must shake with divine mirth.
I can’t kick. It’s the best war I know anything about. It’s been worth a lot to me so far. Sooner or later I’ll join the company of the elect but I want to get a Hun first. I want to get one sure one – a flamer or a loose-winged flop. I know how hard it is, but unless I get one, the government will simply be out all it cost to train me. If I get one, it’ll be an even break. If I get two, I’ll be a credit instead of a debit on the books.
Spiral into hell
There is certainly no glamorous veneer on this account. The events follow a slow but inexorable spiral into hell – starting with the high spirited antics of well-off young men on a great international adventure, through the all-too-frequent deaths of training, and on into the deadly, soul-destroying grind of service in France.
The lack of romance, chivalry and heroics riled some 1920’s reviewers who wanted more of the dashing, ennobled version of events being popularised at the time. Others were electrified by the book’s stark truths and recommended it widely.
In a sense, War Birds led the anti-war backlash against all the Great War pulp fiction of the 1920s, that reached its apex with Dalton Trumbo’s 1939 Johnny Got His Gun.
Wing Commander Fulford clearly felt it was a true and accurate reflection of 85 Squadron’s service. He effectively adopted it as his own record of a hellish five months in 1918, merely adding his explanatory notes and the occasional factual correction.
This is the book
History was lucky to receive Springs’ intimate portrait of war in 1926, and we’re even luckier to have it with Fulford’s notes a hundred years later.
If you want to know what being a young pilot in 1918 was really like, this is the book you need.
June 30th, 1918
We got into a dogfight this morning with the new brand of Fokkers [the D.VII] and they certainly were good… We climbed up to twenty thousand five hundred and couldn’t get any higher. We were practically stalled and those Fokkers went right over our heads and got between us and the lines…
I got to circling with one Hun, just he and I, and it didn’t take me long to find out that I wasn’t going to climb above this one. He began to gain on me and then he did something I’ve never heard of before. He’d be circling wiht me and he’d pull around and point his nose at me and open fire and just hang there on his prop and follow me around with his tracer… If I had tried to hang on my prop that way, I would have gone into a spin. But this fellow just hung right there and sprayed me with lead like he had a hose. They have speeded up guns too… This war isn’t what it used to be.
War Birds‘ troupe of ‘unknown aviators’ lived life to the full, in full appreciation of what fate had in store for them. And even then, the spectre of waking up to death day after day aged and destroyed them faster than they ever expected.
I can’t help thinking that Springs could have sub-titled his book ‘A diary of THE Unknown Aviator’, as a parallel to the unknown soldiers being interred in national memorials around the world; a record of the hilarity and horrors experienced in equal measure by all Great War flyers.
July 28th, 1918
I can’t write much these days. I’m too nervous. I can hardly hold a pen. I’m all right in the air, as calm as a cucumber, but on the ground I’m a wreck and I get panicky. Nobody in the squadron can get a glass to his mouth with one hand after one of these decoy patrols…
Hilarious, horrific, inspiring, incredibly raw and ultimately tragic, this new edition of War Birds is a confronting memorial to all who flew and died (often without firing a shot) in ‘the war to end all wars’.
About This Review
I wrote this review at the invitation of the publisher, Pen & Sword Aviation. If you’ve heard of them, you’ll know they’re one of the UK’s leading military and aviation publishers, so I was more than happy to agree.
Pen & Sword were kind enough to provide a review copy of the book, but no money has changed hands and the views I’ve expressed are entirely my own.
(If you plan on ordering a copy, be sure to check the ISBN at the top of the review to make sure you get the right edition.)