/ Published October 26, 2018
Marked for Death: The First War in the Air by James Hamilton–Paterson. Pegasus Books, 2016, 356 pp.
World War I aviation typically conjures visions of biplane dogfights, silk scarves, and mess halls filled with drunken ballads dedicated to fallen comrades. Marked for Death, James Hamilton-Paterson’s work, explores these stereotypical aspects of the “Great War” alongside entertaining vignettes of fear and boredom on the front, hypoxia in the air, and the finer points of machine gun interrupter gears. In the process, he sheds light on aspects of early military aviation often lacking from general aviation histories.
The work takes a nonstandard approach by exploring various topics revolving around the war, as opposed to a chronological account of battles, campaigns, and specific aircraft descriptions. The author instead explores everything from the construction and capabilities of the earliest warplanes (both were considerably lacking), to contemporary understanding of aerospace physiology, to the training and daily life of aircrew on the western front.
The information is primarily from the British point of view, including chapters discussing the difficulties in aircraft production due to British politics and interservice rivalries, but the author does a decent job of offering views from French, German, and American veterans as well. Each topic is well-researched and could serve as a stand-alone essay. Hamilton–Paterson dispels several myths along the way including the memory of the valiant “knights of the air” and replaces time-honored images with more historically accurate understanding.
The writing is clear and typically enjoyable, but American readers may find themselves bogged down in overly British-centric topics. The good news is that since each chapter works on its own, the reader should feel free to “fly over” various chapters and focus only on the rich aviation history that catches their interest. Pilots like me will find great pleasure in the chapters discussing early airplanes and training and may even enjoy the analysis of World War I thinking on high-altitude flying and the impact on human physiology. We may consider their decisions ludicrous when compared to modern science, but here the author excels at making the reader understand the World War I aviator’s thought process. The reader will be left with a grudging respect for those pioneers’ decisions and the difficulties they faced.
Pilots, aircrew, and history buffs alike will appreciate this book. Although not worth putting on a professional reading list, it will help flesh out aspects of early aviation not often considered. For those looking to understand what it was like for the men who braved the skies during the “War to End all Wars,” Marked for Death is an interesting read.
Maj Ian S. Bertram, USAF
Kirtland AFB, New Mexico
"The views expressed are those of the author(s) and do not reflect the official policy or position of the US government or the Department of Defense."