William W. Whitson

Test of BattleAuthor's Note

This story of the Harrison and Mansfield families and a handful of fictional pilots draws energy from many sources. For a general context of the war, especially the political and social culture in which human beings lived and died, I appreciate Page Smith’s masterful, America Enters The World. Equally concerned with stories of human beings in crisis, Martin Gilbert’s, The First World War, leads the reader from Olympian decisions to the trenches. The six-volume set of True Stories of the Great War, edited by France Miller in 1918, offers eye witness accounts that convey the tone of the period. Paul Fussell’s, The Great War and Modern Memory brilliantly recaptures that tone as if to remind us in the early 21st Century that most men and women a hundred years ago saw their world through very different lenses. For critical biographic and battle facts, Anthony Bruce’s, An Illustrated Companion to the First World War is invaluable. Cameron’s Year of Decision: 1916 riveted my attention on the short-term pressures that confronted political and military leaders during that year of slaughter. For a balanced perspective on those casualties, I was grateful for John Terraine’s, The Smoke and The Fire, Myths and Anti-myths of War (1861-1945).

The novel focuses on the first battle of the Somme in the last six months of 1916. Macdonald’s, The Somme was my general guide, greater details of terrain and pictures being provided by The Somme, Volume I, the Michelin Guide to the Battlefield. Although essential to an understanding of the battlefield, neither book begins to cover the context of the air campaign, a unique six-month period of history when relatively powerful flying machines first tested a human being’s ability to endure unprecedented emotional and physical challenges from weather, frail technology and anxiety.

60 Squadron Christmas Card, 1916
60 Squadron Christmas Card 1916

Three excellent books provide a superb overview of that campaign: The Great War in The Air (John Morrow), The First Air War (Lee Kennett) and The First Air Campaign (Lawson). Liddle’s, The Airman’s War, 1914-1918 offers details about the life of air crews and pilots in squadrons while Maurice Baring’s famous, Flying Corps Headquarters, 1914-1918 gives the headquarters perspective. For details about key historical figures in that famous air campaign, I quickly became obsessed with a rich harvest of memoirs and biographies, especially the biographies of Arthur Balfour (Dugdale), Trenchard (Boyle) and Albert Ball (Bowyer)

Foremost among collections are stories in Cross and Cockade International, including a fine history of 60 Squadron, and Over The Front, the quarterly journal of the League of World War One Aviation Historians. The Vintage Aviation Library series, including Sixty Squadron, R.A.F, (1916-1919) (Captain A.J.L.Scott), An Airman’s Outings (Alan Bott) and Flying Fury, Five Years in The Royal Flying Corps (James McCudden, VC) added further depth. Saggitarius Rising by Lewis offers a very detailed account of a pilot’s experience at the front. Wings Over The Somme, 1916-1918 (Gwilym Lewis) is a revealing collection of letters. Airfields and Airmen (Somme) (Mike O’Connor) provide photos and maps.

Fictional accounts by eye witnesses offer penetrating examinations of the war in ways that no other genre of literature could provide. Fiction of The First World War, A Study (George Parfitt) is an excellent summary. Books like Death in The Air, No Parachute, The Blue Max, Hawker’s War, and especially Winged Victory (Yeates) are essential yeast for a student’s empathy for the men and women of those times.

The airplane is such an important ingredient in the novel that I assembled a small library on World War I aircraft. The best ready reference on fighters is Fighter Aircraft of the 1914-1918 War by Lamberton.

Pilot stress is a unifying theme in the story. It began in training when a student pilot’s senses were assaulted by noise, air pressure, g-forces, cold, the smell of castor oil, nausea and the inescapable vibration and sound of the engine. The best description of those forces is available in Colonel Steven Ruffin’s, Flying In The Great War: Rx For Misery, in Over The Front. Physical pain and discomfort were the least of a pilot’s worries. The mental and physical exhaustion of 60 Squadron pilots by the end of the First Somme Campaign in November, 1916, warned commanders and doctors that there were limits to the stress that “scout” pilots could endure. Parts III, IV and V of the story examine the insidious process by which many pilots suffered the onset, consequences and (occasional) recovery from post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), labeled neurasthenia and “shell shock” in World War I. Too many ignorant commanders accused victims of PTSD of cowardice even as sensory overload and inescapable stress drained their physical and emotional vitality. I am grateful to Lt. Col. David Grossman’s book, On Killing for clarifying the subject. The Ace Factor by Mike Spick provides ample precedent for my fictional David Harrison’s use of his sixth sense in air combat. In World War I, many pilots called that gift the pilot’s “inner eye.” Today it’s called “situational awareness.”

To give that skill a wider context, I drew on a rich literature about the Society for Psychical Research (SPR), founded in England in 1882. For a contemporaneous exploration of the SPR’s exploration of precognition and “cross correspondence,” I drew on The Future and Beyond by H.F. Saltmarsh, recently republished by Hampton Roads in 2004. The Survival of Human Personality After Bodily Death (Myers) is a must for those who would like to gain greater insight into the SPR’s collective wisdom at that time. Sir Oliver Lodge’s biography of his son, Raymond, offers a personal validation of Myers’ thesis.

Former Prime Minister Arthur Balfour was one of the SPR’s active members, as was his brother, Gerald. From a reading of Balfour’s memoirs and biographies, I have tried to capture his attitudes as he tried to help David Harrison find a working reconciliation between the air war’s assault on his senses and his inner (spiritual) development.


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