Why WWI?

One day not too long ago, while I was out peddling my first novel, Endure the Dawn, a docent at a local air museum, one that focuses on World War Two warbirds, asked me, “Why did you write a book about World War One? It seems so long ago. Why would that interest you?”

I was taken aback by the question. I suppose some might think it was rude of him to ask me that, but it didn’t bother me. I realize each of us has our own perspectives on things. However, I had to think a bit before answering because I simply had never had a reason to ask myself that question. I stumbled in my answer, but came up with something like, “Because it all started there.” I still think that is a good answer. In my opinion, Sir Isaac Newton’s quote applies,

 “If I have seen further it is by standing on the shoulders of giants.”

For all the magnificent warbirds of WWII, none of them would have achieved their glory if not for the intrepid lads who took to the skies in the rickety planes of WWI. If we can fly faster, higher, and farther, it is by learning from those who came before us.

Not wanting to leave it at that, however, I wondered what other folks would have to say. I asked the members of one of my favorite tribal Facebook groups, Airplanes and Aces of World War I, “Why are you so interested in WWI aviation?” Here is a list of mashups of the more notable responses. See if you agree!

  • WWI ushered in the birth of the vertical battlefield. Warfare would no longer be in front, behind, or at the flank. It would now be overhead and changed the entire dimension of waging war, an absolute epoch-shattering innovation.
  • This was the genesis of aviation. It was the most significant change in weapons and tactics since the knights and cavalry, hundreds of years before. It was a pioneering age, where it all began, a time when aviation was first given practical application.
  • Everything was brand new. Innovations were inventions, not just extrapolations of existing technologies or doctrines.
  • It was the end of an era, the last time of chivalry and gallantry in action as we know it, the knights of the sky. For some, it was still a sort of sporting affair. The Poor Bloody Infantry would cheer their pilots on with, “That’s our boy!” as a plane flew overhead locked in mortal combat with the enemy.
  • It was the end of an era, and the beginning of an era. The end of the chivalrous knights, the beginning of modern air warfare. The pilots and aircraft designers and builders blazed the path for all of us that fly today. What a time to be alive!
  • I have been fascinated with the crude simplicity of the engineering of early flight. The airplanes were beautiful in their fragile, open cockpit designs. The designs to 'one up' the enemy to secure a strategic advantage fascinated me, no matter how far-fetched some of them were. Unbridled innovation.
  • On a personal level as a craftsman the hand-built machinery touches me. The aircraft were works of art.
  • Air war so intimate, visceral – staggering brutality with a tempo entirely unique. Ghastly, grand and evocative. Air combat at its purest form. The skill of taking these birds and inventing what air combat would become.
  • It's where the rules of air combat were formed, those rules still apply today. Many of the fighter tactics we still use today were developed in WWI by people like Boelke, Immelmann, and McCudden. Boelke’s Dicta remain the foundation of air combat to this day.
  • I've always been taken with the bravery of the pilots that flew these motorized kites. The aviators and innovators in WW1 blazed the path where no man or machine had gone before. Flying a plane made of wood, wire, and canvas without a parachute. I thought these guys were crazy and I needed to know more. Daredevils in kites.
  • The aces were national heroes, iron men with wooden wings, purebred warriors like Oswald Boelke, Baron Manfred von Richthofen, Albert Ball, Georges Guynemer, and Eddie Rickenbacker.
  • It is now long enough ago that there is a lovely patina of romance and glamor about them. They have taken on the mythic proportions of Wellington’s chargers. Those early airmen used their skills to the utmost, man to man, without all the technology we have today.
  • We're in the middle of the centenary at the moment!

And finally, the following quote from one of the best WWI memoirs out there:

“The way the earth looked, falling; swallowing to stop deafness at altitude; the scream of wires; stars between wings; grass blown down when engines were run up; the smell – of dope, and castor oil, and varnish in new cockpits; moonlight shining on struts; the gasps before the dive; machine guns.” – Cecil Lewis, Sagittarius Rising.

I would have to say that writing this was perhaps more for me than anyone else. I needed to better understand the allure of WWI aviation. Many thanks to my fellow enthusiasts. I am happy to know that I am not alone!

 

Bly Moments - The Mutiny and the Escadrille

What do the Mutiny on the Bounty and the Lafayette Escadrille have in common? On the one hand, the Mutiny on the Bounty was about a mutiny on board the HMS Bounty in 1789 and on the other hand, the Lafayette Escadrille was a squadron of American volunteer pilots who flew for France in World War one. That’s an odd combination for sure, but it’s one I fell into serendipitously several years ago, oddly enough because of my last name. You see, when you are born with the last name of “Bly,” it’s almost a forgone conclusion that the Mutiny on the Bounty is a topic of interest. I grew up with “Captain” as one of my nicknames and later found others wanting to call me that when we worked together. I didn’t mind then, and still don’t to this day. After all, the persona of Captain Bly was a good one for a project manager, e.g., “The floggings will continue until morale improves!”

Naturally, I read all three volumes of the Bounty trilogy as a teenager: The Mutiny on the Bounty, Men Against the Sea, and Pitcairn’s Island by Charles Nordhoff and James Norman Hall. I had to learn about this guy whose last name is so much like mine. It’s not quite the same, he spelled it Bligh, and we’re not related. The books are good reads and I highly recommend them. The Mutiny on the Bounty was even made into an Oscar-winning movie with Clark Gable and Charles Laughton in 1935. This was followed by two more versions, one with Marlon Brando and Trevor Howard in 1962 and another with Mel Gibson and Anthony Hopkins in 1984 (based on other source material).

The serendipitous connection didn’t come to me until I was vacationing in Hawaii several years ago. I happened to be perusing books about Polynesia in a bookstore in Kona when I came across a book entitled In Search of Paradise: The Nordhoff-Hall Story by Paul L. Briand. I read the back cover and immediately decided to pick it up. What I learned fascinated me.

Both Charles Nordhoff and James Norman Hall were volunteer pilots for the French in World War One. Hall flew for the famous Escadrille Lafayette No. 124 and Nordhoff flew for Escadrille No. 99. During the war, even though they did not know each other at the time, they both wrote for the Atlantic Monthly of their experiences in the war and happened to share the same editor, Ellery Sedgwick. Having gained some recognition for their writings, the U.S. Army asked them to collaborate on a history of the Lafayette Escadrille, The Lafayette Flying Corps During the First World War, Volumes 1 and 2. The two got to know each other working together on this assignment in a borrowed cottage on Martha’s Vineyard.

Like so many young men home from war, they had difficulties settling back into peacetime life in the states. With this common bond, they decided on a joint venture to the South Seas. Their editor from the Atlantic introduced them to a counterpart at Harper’s Magazine and a contract ensued to send them to French Polynesia to write a book about Polynesia for Harper’s, Faery Lands of the South Seas.

Surprise of surprises, they fell in love with the islands, the people, and the life style there. They built homes in Tahiti and Nordhoff took a native wife. They tried writing individually for a while, but came back together to collaborate once again. They wrote a novel based loosely on their flying experiences called Falcons of France.

Following this, they decided to write the Bounty trilogy about the well-known mutiny that took place after the ship visited Tahiti. First, they wrote of the mutiny itself in Mutiny on the Bounty. In the second volume, they wrote of Captain Bligh’s miraculous journey across the Pacific in Men Against the Sea, and in the final volume, they wrote about the survival of the mutineers in Pitcairn’s Island. As before in other collaborations, the two writers divided the book into segments, each writing their own segments. They read their chapters to each other to keep the stories consistent. Five years of effort from 1920 to 1934 brought a triple success for the authors.

Later in life, Nordhoff returned to live out his days in California. He died in 1947. Hall remained in Tahiti until his death in 1951.

So there you have it. Someday, when the moon turns blue or a pig flies by, you might be asked what the Mutiny on the Bounty has to do with the Lafayette Escadrille. Now, you will be able to answer with glee.

References:

Briand, Paul L. 1966. In Search of Paradise: The Nordhoff-Hall Story. Honolulu: Mutual Publishing Company.

Hall, James Norman and Charles Bernard Nordhoff, eds. 1920. The Lafayette Flying Corps, Volumes 1 and 2. 1920. Boston and New York: Houghton Mifflin Company.

Hall, James Norman and Charles Nordhoff. 1921. Faery Lands of the South Seas. New York and London, Harper & Brothers Publishers.

Nordhoff, Charles and James Norman Hall. 1929. Falcons of France. Derby: Monarch Books. Inc.

Nordhoff, Charles and James Norman Hall. 1932. Mutiny on the Bounty. New York: Little, Brown and Company.

Nordhoff, Charles and James Norman Hall. 1934. Men Against the Sea. New York: Little, Brown and Company.

Nordhoff, Charles and James Norman Hall. 1934. Pitcairn’s Island. New York: Little, Brown and Company.

Mutiny on the Bounty. 1935. Warner Bros.

Mutiny on the Bounty. 1962. Warner Bros.

The Bounty. 1984. Orion Pictures Corporation

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Bly Moments

My far-better half, Annie, tells me that I possess a VSUK. It’s an acronym that stands for “Vast Storehouse of Useless Knowledge.” Furthermore, when I share a factoid or story from my VSUK, she calls it a “Bly Moment.” She coined the term one day in 1998 on an RV trip when we stopped at a roadside historical marker about the Oregon Trail. She and our four children rolled their eyes as I began to wax eloquently about the historical significance of the Oregon Trail. I only got about ten words out before she interjected, “Oh Lord, another Bly moment!” The kids fell to the ground, clutching their bellies in uncontrolled laughter. Needless to say, the term has persisted to the point that I have now been suitably humbled and speak only when authorized. So, I write instead.

When it came time for me to write a blog, the name just had to be, “Bly Moments.” I hope you enjoy some tidbits of this, that, and everything. I expect it will be mostly about airplanes because that’s what jazzes me up more than anything, but you never know!

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