How do you respect someone you're trying to kill?
"There is a bond of sympathy between all who fly"
How is it possible to respect someone who is trying to kill you?
In every war the enemy is demonized. Those guys on the other side of the line are unfeeling monsters who have no God and are just trying to kill us. It’s what makes them scary, but also makes it imperative that we kill them first. And so on.
When both sides believe this about each other, which they always do, then you know it can’t be true. Men have families back home, friends, plans for the rest of their lives. They don’t want to die, and they know the enemy soldiers are the same.
They also know they have a job to do, ideas and ideals to fight for. The outcome of the war will bring about a certain type of world, depending on which side prevails. The fight is bigger than any one soldier, so they are willing to die if it comes to that. On an individual level, an entire war reduces itself to, “kill him, or he’ll kill me.”
But not always. There are famous stories of British and German soldiers emerging from the trenches to trade cigarettes and play a bit of football. Officially forbidden as “fraternizing with the enemy.”
That bond with, and respect for, the enemy went deeper when it came to pilots and other airmen of the First World War.
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Pilots and observers (on both sides) were highly trained compared to infantrymen, possessing skills that put them in a rare fraternity. Few people at this time in history could fly planes, and it was a talent that was not to be wasted. Replacing a pilot who died was difficult. Not just anyone could do it and training them was time-consuming.
Early in the war, in 1915, Wing Commander W.S. Douglas encountered a German plane in the air for the first time while he was an observer on a flight with his pilot, Harvey-Kelley. This was in the days before guns were mounted on aircraft. Normally the crew would have pistols, or maybe a rifle they could use to shoot at enemy planes. But on this flight, neither man had a gun. To keep the plane light and maneuverable, they left behind virtually everything other than the camera they needed to take pictures of the trenches from the air.
While they took photographs, a German airplane appeared. The crews waved at each other, and that was that. Douglas explains:
“At the time this did not appear to me in any way ridiculous — there is a bond of sympathy between all who fly, even between enemies.”
On subsequent flights, Douglas carried pistols and rifles, and describes his engagements with the enemy as more like a game of football when you kick your opponent in the shin. It’s a bit nasty, but where’s the fun if you can’t do that?
In the ensuing two or three months I had an occasional shot at a German machine. But these encounters can hardly be dignified with the name of ‘fights’. If we saw an enemy machine nearby, we would fly over towards it, and fire at it some half-a-dozen rounds. We scarcely expected to shoot the enemy down; but it was a pleasant break in the monotony of reconnaissance and artillery observation.
The sporting attitude could be seen elsewhere too. Maybe it was easier to accept your role in a war if you saw it more as a player in a cricket match, where a trophy was at stake rather than the fate of the world.
At one aerodrome, the Germans found a package dropped for them from a British plane. It contained a tin of cigarettes and a playful but sardonic message:
The British airmen send their compliments to Captain S. and are pleased to welcome him back. We shall be pleased to offer him a warm reception in the air… Au revoir. Our compliments to the other German airmen. The Royal Flying Corps."
No point in winning if you don’t win fairly
The Tour de France is known not just as the most famous bike race in the world, but also the toughest. Anyone hoping to win needs to be in top physical form, mentally sharp, must have a great team to support him, and needs luck to break his way. Virtually every year there is a select number of riders who can win, and the differences between them are miniscule. A seemingly tiny advantage can easily be the deciding factor.
So it makes sense that riders would happily take advantage of another’s misfortune, as it may be the only thing to give them an edge. But this is not the case. The Tour de France, a fierce, often bloody, ruthless competition, is also known for its gallantry.
On a decisive climb up a mountain, when one man gets a flat tire or his chain falls off, the other riders do not capitalize on his bad luck and dash away. They stop and wait until the bike is fixed, so they can all continue their battle on a fair, level playing field. The strongest man must win, not the luckiest. A win at the top of the mountain would mean nothing if it came because of a mechanical breakdown of a competitor. In fact it would be worse. It would be shameful.
This level of gallantry is almost unheard of in other sports. But it is strikingly similar to the way airmen in the First World War treated one another.
In November 1917, the British were operating a balloon squadron in Macedonia that was attacked by German airplanes. These hot air balloons were used throughout the war for reconnaissance. Observers would go up in them with cameras and photograph the ground below.
Repeatedly, the Germans would swoop in and fire on the balloons. In one case, an observer managed to jump out of his balloon with a parachute and survived. In another, the observer was wounded and couldn’t deploy his parachute, so he fell to his death.
The British needed to stop these attacks, but they had no planes in the region that could keep up with the superior German ones. So they came up with an idea. They sent up an unmanned balloon packed with 500 lb of explosives in the basket. Detonators were attached and wires strung from it that led back to the men on the ground.
A German airplane approached. As soon as it flew close to the balloon, the observer on the ground detonated the explosives, the German plane broke into pieces, and the pilot was killed.
The British approached the wreckage, recovered the body, and discovered that the German they killed was one of the most accomplished pilots in the region, Leutnant von Eschwege.
No champagne was opened at the discovery of this fact. The feeling was one of regret for not having killed this fine pilot in a fair fight. They had used a dirty trick that was beneath their honour as airmen. In the subsequent months, new Royal Flying Corps pilots would arrive in the region disappointed to hear that Eschwege was no longer around to be challenged.
We killed your man, but he was a hero nonetheless
In another battle not long before that, a British airplane was shot down while it was part of a bombing attack on Turkish forces. The pilot was presumed dead but there was no immediate word on his fate.
Then a few days later an enemy airplane dropped a message on the British aerodrome. It read:
On the 29th October, 1917, one of your comrades met with a hero’s death in an air fight. He was buried with due honours and a memorial stone has been put up over his grave, but without an inscription as his name is not known to us. In order that we may make good this deficiency kindly inform us as to his name and the date and place of his birth.
Apparently, messages like this were not unusual. Respect for those that had been killed in a fair fight was widespread.
But it wasn’t all honour and gallantry
It’s hard to accept the contradictions that go along with this. We all know the First World War was full of dirty tricks, unspeakable brutality and indiscriminate killing. Entire lines of soldiers were mowed down by machine guns. Chemical attacks was used by both sides, an indefensible war crime because of its cruelty and inability to target specific individuals.
And in the air, heavy bombers repeatedly dropped their payloads on civilians who had no ability to defend themselves or escape the attack. Pilots and observers who did this were carrying out a strategy that had been set from the top, but they still had to live with it. There’s nothing “fair” about bombing families in their homes while they sleep.
So it’s hard to reconcile. Respect for the skill and duty of fellow airmen was real. There was an unwritten code of honour that weaves these warriors together. It can be comforting to know that they at least thought twice about the idea of “win at all costs.”
But strategic decisions made by top generals, and the latest aerial bombing technology suggests there was a willingness to sacrifice just about anything to win. Gallantry seems to have been applied arbitrarily. When it came to overall war policy, it was disposed of or forgotten. Rejected, possibly because it was inconvenient or just too risky.
A win is a win?