Dying to fly

War Birds: The Diary of a Great War Pilot

Elliott White Springs

Annotated by Lieutenant Horace Fulford.
Introduced by Mark Hillier.

Published by Frontline Books, 2016.
ISBN 978-1-47387-959-1

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.

Elliott White Springs in the cockpit of Curtiss JN-4 ‘Jenny’ at Princetown University’s flying school, May or June 1917. (Courtesy, The Springs Close Family Archives, Fort Mill, SC)

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.

Lieutenant H.C. Fulford in front of an R.E.8 during his pilot training with 15 Training Squadron at Doncaster. (Mark Hillier)

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.

A photograph of a crashed Royal Aircraft Factory F.E.2b taken in 1917, almost certainly whilst Lieutenant Fulford was at Hounslow. (Mark Hillier)

Straight aces

The fate of one Royal Aircraft Factory B.E.2 in a picture dated 1917, one of a number of photographs collected by Fulford and which he entitled ‘Comedies and Tragedies’. It is unlikely the pilot survived this crash. (Mark Hillier)

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.

A portrait of Major W.A. ‘Billy’ Bishop V.C., D.S.O. & Bar, M.C, D.F.C. (Courtesy of Andy Thomas)

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.

Fulford’s handwritten note on this picture clearly explains who features in it. Another caption he had added to the page also states that Mannock had ‘one eye quite sightless’ and that the ‘small “dug-out” is for dogs and Rosie’s goat’. (Mark Hillier)

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.

Confronting reality

A portrait of Lieutenant John McGavock Grider. The image was probably taken in April or May 1918. (Courtesy, The Springs Close Family Archives, Fort Mill, SC)

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.

A view of the top gun mount on a S.E.5a, showing the Lewis machine-gun on a Foster sliding rail mount. The aircraft also had a fuselage mounted synchronized Vickers machine-gun. (Courtesy of Andy Thomas)

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.

Personnel of 85 Squadron at St. Omer aerodrome, France, on 21 June 1918. From left to right, they are: Cushing, Dymond, Daniel, Canning, McGregor, Callahan, Springs, Horn, Randall, Baker, Cunningham-Reid, Longton, Rosie, Carruthers, Dixon, Brown, Brewster, unidentified, Abbott, and Inglis. (Courtesy, The Springs Close Family Archives, Fort Mill, SC)

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.

The cockpit of a S.E.5a, the type used by 85 Squadron during 1918. (Courtesy of Andy Thomas)

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.

Men of ‘C’ Flight, 85 Squadron, pictured in front of a dispersal hut at St. Omer. In the front row, left to right, are: Horn, Thomson, Callahan, Grider. The pair in the back row are McGregor (on the left) and Springs. The dog beside MacGrider is Horn’s Alsatian, Lobo. (Courtesy, The Springs Close Family Archives, Fort Mill, SC)

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.

Another image of officers from 85 Squadron. Left to right can be seen Fulford, MacDonald, Inglis and Bishop. Fulford noted beneath the image that ‘Bishop objects to the photographer’. (Mark Hillier)

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’.

Elliott White Springs photographed in front of an upended Sopwith Camel of the US 148th Aero Squadron at Remaisnil Aerodrome, France, on 16 September 1918. During a combat with a number of Fokkers, Springs’ Camel, that seen here, lost its left wheel. Spings attempted to make a landing on the aerodrome, at which point the undercarriage leg dug in, tipping the aircraft on to its nose. Springs recalls that ‘the funny thing was there was a movie man on the ‘drome to take some pictures and he had his camera all set and had taken a movie of the whole thing’. At the time of the crash, Springs was serving with the 148th, having been posted out from 85 Squadron. (Courtesy, The Springs Close Family Archives, Fort Mill, SC)

About This Review

Pen & Sword logoI 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.)

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8 thoughts on “Dying to fly

    1. Cheers Nick. ‘Sagittarius Rising’ is definitely another must-have book. It’s also a great comparison – Lewis writes so beautifully, even when describing the torture of surviving far beyond the average RFC pilot’s life expectancy. Springs was a talented writer, but there’s none of that same craft or reflection in ‘War Birds’. It’s completely raw and immediate. A “lice and all” account.

  1. Wow, I really do need this book! Thank you so much for sharing it with us. The segments you quoted are very stirring.
    I’ve found that the sentiment, “I’m all right in the air, as calm as a cucumber, but on the ground I’m a wreck and I get panicky,” was true among most all pilots during WWI and WWII. It’s quite ironic, but so true. True of even non-combat pilots, for that matter.
    On a very strange side note, what’s your nationality?

    1. You’re right, I’ve seen that sentiment expressed before too – always in direct proportion to the levels of exhaustion and danger. Battle of Britain pilots are a good example. I’m not an expert in such things, but the risk seems to become like an addiction, as if the brain focuses all its resources on survival and can’t deal with anything else. I wonder if there’s more learned paper on the subject somewhere…?
      And as to the side note – I’m a (proud) New Zealander, although I now live in Adelaide, South Aust. Why? Is it the spelling??

      1. Replying to the side note-Oh, okay! Partly the spelling, but not really. I just could never figure out were you’re from. I thought you might be from Canada or England and then I thought of Australia. I hope I didn’t offend you…?

  2. To me, Billy Bishop has always been one of the most fascinating characters in the annals of airborne warfare. He’s well known in Canada; less so here in the States, which is a shame. By all accounts he wasn’t that great of a pilot — I recall one episode where he crashed his plane virtually at the feet of a general officer who was visiting the airfield — but in combat he was blessed with excellent eyes, a fearless nature, and more than a little bit of luck.

    He’s also the subject of one of my favorite plays, a one-man musical called “Billy Bishop Goes to War”. The show was on Broadway (or was it Off-Broadway?) in the 70s or 80s.

    1. Oh yeah – I remember you mentioned your interest in Bishop when I published his memories of first learning to fly (still a great read: http://wp.me/p3EbK5-7y). He certainly mentions struggling with the controls then…
      Apparently he was blessed with that other essential attribute for an air ace too – he was a crack shot. One of HC Fulford’s handwritten notes in ‘War Birds’ says “Bishop could, and did, saw through a plane mainspar with one burst of fire”. Springs gives an account of Bishop’s last flight over the front (“…he went up to have a final look at the war…”) in which he shot down three E/A and caused two more to collide. Fulford adds a note that he damaged his guns on this sortie, from the prolonged firing.
      He also appears to have been a superb leader and organiser. He handpicked his initial pilots for 85 Sqn and manipulated the system to make sure he got them. They were bereft when he was transferred. But their loss would be Canada’s gain, as the great man truly became ‘the father of the RCAF’. Definitely one of the best ever.

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