| No Empty Chairs
Weidenfeld & Nicolson
Publication: Spring 2012
A moment came when even the most supremely self-confident aces began to wonder when their turn would come. You sat down to dinner faced by the empty chairs of men you had laughed and joked with at lunch. They were gone. The next day new men would laugh and joke from those chairs. Some might be lucky and stick it for a bit, some chairs would be empty very soon. And so it would go on. And always, miraculously, you were still there. Until tomorrow.
Thus Cecil Lewis described, in his classic 1936 memoir of service as a fighter pilot on the Western Front, the slender thread on which life in the Royal Flying Corps hung. Lewis was one of the few lucky ones. He came through with his body and mind intact. After shooting down eight enemy aircraft he was spared by a posting back to England before his chair joined the never-ending procession. Most of his colleagues had been killed – or would soon die.In the spring of 1917, when the world’s first great air war was at its height, the British squadrons were losing 200 pilots a month. Life expectancy for a young flying officer, freshly arrived in France with perilously few hours flying experience, was eleven days. Some squadrons suffered such huge losses all the faces had changed in the space of a couple of months. A squadron’s entire aircrew could be decimated in thirty days.
The aeroplanes they flew, barely a dozen years after the flying machine had been invented, were rudimentary open-cockpit biplanes. The flying techniques of aerial combat didn’t exist at first. The weapon with which they were expected to shoot down the equally frail German planes was a single machine-gun bolted to the wood and fabric wing. Unlike the impersonal warfare raging in the Flanders mud below, in which enormous armies were anonymously slaughtering one another in holocausts of shell and machine-gun fire, the air battles overhead were intensely personal affairs. Deadly old-fashioned duels in which two pilots, their goggled faces often staring at each other, engaged in desperate combats of wits and skill to shoot the other down. The end for the victim was often agonizing incineration in a flaming parachuteless cockpit. Although the German squadrons had begun to use them, the British Air Board had forbidden the use of parachutes. ‘The presence of such an apparatus,’ it declared, ‘might impair the fighting spirit of pilots and cause them to abandon machines which might otherwise be capable of returning to base for repair.’
Desperate to maintain the morale of the survivors, the Flying Corps field commander, General Trenchard, famously ordered that there were to be ‘no empty chairs.’ The departed aviators were to be replaced the very same day. Their chairs were filled by an unceasing flow of eager volunteers. Foot soldiers escaping from the horrors of the trenches for a seemingly more glamorous mode of warfare. And, inspired by the exploits of the pilot heroes, a stream of public schoolboys, often falsifying their ages, rushing from the 6th form to fight for King and country. Some signed up at the age of sixteen.
'The brief lives of these doomed pilots is the subject of Ian Mackersey's latest book, No Empty Chairs. It tells the story of the 1914-18 air war through the eyes of the participants, poignantly recorded in the private letters they poured back to their families at home.'
What the critics said of No Empty Chairs
Journal of the League of WWI Aviation Historians: 'Extremely readable and well researched book ... one of the more comprehensive and interesting overall accounts of flying in the First World War that has appeared in recent years... will qualify as a modern-day aviation classic.'
Amazon book review: 'A rare book in that it is of interest not only to the general reader without a specialised knowledge of the subject, but also to those who have studied the Great War and the part played by the Royal Flying Corps. A fine, thought-provoking book... with a great deal of new material.'
Warfare: 'This book has a very human feel. It doesn't simply look at the combat or the planes, but at the people who flew them, risked their lives in them and who died in them. An appealing work that is both moving and efficiently accurate in its details.
Amazon reader: 'Ian Mackersey has written a superb book about an air war often romanticized but little appreciated... a compelling glimpse into the short but remarkable lives of the young men who fought WWI in the air.'