In this World War I–era novel, a British soldier confronts how shameful it is to abandon the honor and glory of his country—and maybe his best friend.
As the First World War breaks out, aristocrat and English public school product James Caulfield joins the Royal Flying Corps in France. Debut novelist Hughes depicts how the flying life during that era was mild to say the least: In flimsy B.E.2 biplanes, unarmed pilots and observers, safe from the maelstrom of trench warfare, gazed down from 8,000 feet to sketch the position of the German front line. The Germans do likewise; often, opposing pilots wave to each other. But then, however, the Germans have the cheek to start shooting at their opponents and—outrageously—mount machine guns on their new planes. True war catches up with Caulfield as his comrades, outgunned by their foes, meet grim deaths. In a hospital after being shot down himself, he woos and matches wits with a nurse who turns out to be a strong-minded suffragette. Sent back to England to recuperate, he finds that the politicians and military commanders have no idea what is really happening in France. Back in action, this time with his best friend from high school, Caulfield is shocked to realize that although the average age within the squadron is mid-20s, everyone looks 20 years older. An urgent order comes for a patrol to check on the presence of a far superior plane, the German Eindekker monoplane. Caulfield faces the twin demons of terror and despair as the enemy greets him. The British planes haven’t a hope, but he can’t abandon his best friend, who’s gone missing. Or can he? Hughes succeeds in emphasizing the individual and technical aspects of the war’s main themes, including jingoism, class distinctions, women’s rights, aircraft development, trench warfare and political blundering. But the tale falls short in highlighting, and linking, genuine emotion and believable reasons for individual actions. The historical accuracy mixes uneasily with an awkward attempt to weave a tale of how ordinary men react in moments of crisis.
High-flying excitement that’s missing an emotional edge.