In this guest blog post, Dan Ellin examines the culture of the Royal Flying Corps, in particular looking at the songs that many of the officers would sing with lyrics that reflected the risks they took every day.
The culture of the Royal Flying Corps was one of ‘carefully contrived callousness’ as Max Hastings has commented. This insensitivity was necessary because of the rate of loss among flyers during the First World War. Some replacement pilots arrived at operational squadrons with less than 15 hours solo flying experience, and a new pilot’s life expectancy could be as short as a few weeks. As many were killed in training as in combat, and early flyers were as much at risk from mechanical failure as enemy action. By November 1918, Royal Flying Corps, Royal Naval Air Service and Royal Air Force casualties exceeded 16000 killed, injured, captured or missing.
As well as the enemy, flyers battled mechanical failure, the cold and lack of oxygen from high altitude, bad weather, ‘G’ forces, and the laxative effects of the castor oil used to lubricate rotary engines. They were refused parachutes, and the ace scout pilot, Mick Mannock, famously carried a revolver to use if he was ever trapped in a burning aircraft. For airmen, the stresses of flying were countered by times of relaxation in the comparative comfort and camaraderie of the mess; music and songs were important to the young men who flew during the war.
Studies of songs from the war have highlighted themes including the construction of identity and shared experience, protest and resistance, as well as nostalgia and resilience. New lyrics relevant to their situation were often sung to existing popular tunes plagiarised from the music hall, hymns and other popular sources; many were bawdy and full of sexual content. Following the oral tradition of the folk song, songs particular to one unit evolved as they were passed to others. Many have been lost, and usually only sanitised versions appear in print. Like songs sung by the infantry, songs in airmen’s messes were used to ‘let off steam’, however, a noticeable theme in aviator’s songs were the causes and consequences of crashes, and many songs contained seemingly callous and brutally fatalistic lyrics.
Evidence of the concerns of early combat pilots can be found in the songs that have survived, and they often acknowledge that crashes, deaths and injuries were not necessarily caused by enemy action. ‘Poor Old Pilot’, sung to the tune of ‘Ring a Rosies’, had the repeated lyric ‘He’s killed himself’, and in 1918, 54 squadron sang ‘we haven’t got a hope in the morning’ to the tune of ‘John Peel’. It contained the lines:
He was diving at the Hun
At two hundred miles an hour
When his wing tore off like a leaf
Sung to the tune of ‘The Tarpaulin Jacket’, ‘The Bold Aviator’ (or ‘The Dying Airman’) was a particular favourite. It was sung in many flyers’ messes during the First World War, and had the longevity to be sung by members of the RAF in the following war. There is no definitive version, different verses and several variations of the chorus exist, but the first verse and chorus was usually:
Oh the bold aviator was dying
And as ‘neath the wreckage he lay, he lay
To the sobbing mechanics around him
These last parting words he did say
Take the cylinders out of my kidneys
The connecting rod out of my brain, my brain
From the small of my back take the crankshaft
And assemble the engine again.
The character of the pilot in the song casually acknowledges that he is dying, and that he is dispensable; his priority is to salvage as much as possible of the valuable aircraft. Indeed, as the lyric of an alternative chorus claimed, ‘there’s a lot of good parts in the wreck.’ Further lyrics list more parts of the aircraft that could be found in the unlucky pilot’s internal organs. It was said that to fly successfully, the airman had to become one with the aeroplane. In ‘The Bold Aviator’, the pilot’s body was interchangeable with mechanical parts of the aircraft; in his death he really did become part of the machine. By singing the song, the flyers were subtly reminded that they were a small and expendable part of the new industrialised warfare.
‘The Bold Aviator’ also effectively set an example of how to stoically face death; it was the mechanics rather than the heroic pilot who ‘sobbed’, and the ‘bold’ aviator in the song died bravely with dignity and honour. In order to continue to fly, airmen were forced to either come to terms with their mortality or maintain the belief that death was something that would happen to someone else. The lyrics of other songs display a similar defensive detachment. In one, the apocryphal pilot ‘was butchered beyond belief’, while in another, flyers sang of the pilot of a Sopwith Camel: ‘his throat was cut by the bracing wires, the tank had hit his head’.
As in the ‘The Bold Aviator’, the black humour of many of the songs undermined and belittled death. The songs inured the flyers to the dangers of flying and aerial warfare and promoted indifference toward the death and injury of others. The airmen’s courage was boosted by acknowledging and singing about their fears, and by sharing the apparent bravado displayed by their companions as they sang, however contrived it may have been. The songs composed and sung by the airmen reflected and reinforced the culture of ‘carefully contrived callousness’ towards life and death in the air services during the war.