Review – Aero-Neurosis by Mark C. Wilkins

Updated: Jul 21

Whats is about?


The young men who flew & fought during the First World War had no idea what was awaiting them. The rise of science & nationalism during the late 19th & early 20th centuries came to a head in 1914. The ‘technology shock’ that coalesced at the Western Front was not envisaged by anyone in a position of leadership. These men did the best they could & gave their full measure but each suffered from their experiences, some better than others. Each knew it was a defining moment in their lives never to be repeated & many felt that the dynamic context of aerial combat was something that, after the war, they still longed for, despite the attendant horrors.


The medical & psychiatric profession evolved symbiotically with the war. Like the patients they were charged with treating, doctors were unprepared for what awaited them. Doctors argued over best practice for treatment. Of course, the military wanted these men to return to duty as quickly as possible; with mounting casualties, each country needed every man. Aviation psychiatry arose as a new subset of the field, attempting to treat psychological symptoms previously unseen in combatants. The unique conditions of combat flying produced a whole new type of neurosis.


Terms such as Aero-neurosis were coined to provide the necessary label yet, like shell shock, they were inadequate when it came to describing the full & complete shock to the psyche. We are fortunate that many of these fliers chose to write. They kept diaries & letters about their experiences after the war & they are, of course, an invaluable record. But perhaps more importantly, they were also a means for many of them to heal. Mark C. Wilkins finds the psychology undergirding historical events fascinating & of chief interest to him as an historian. He has included expert medical testimony & excerpts where relevant in a fascinating book that explores the legacies of aerial combat, illustrating the ways in which pilots had to amalgamate their suffering & experiences into their post-war lives. Their attempts to do so can perhaps be seen as an extension of their heroism.


Our Review


As many of you know I have an interest in WW1 Airmen & as an Aviation Historian regularly research some of the men who served. Another interest of mine is Shell Shock & although you often find books relating to the struggles of men who fought on the battlefield there are not many that focus on what WW1 Airmen had to endure.


When I think of WW1 Aviation, I always think how strange it must have been for these men to embrace this new technology, I wonder what a battlefield might have looked like from above & how these men may have felt looking down on such a sight. One of the things that had never occurred to me was what flying through a cloud must have felt like, Wilkins brought this experience to life for me & I could almost feel the delight through his words.


This book tells us about the experiences of airmen from the United States, Canada, Ireland, Germany & France…. some of them pretty famous! Each story tells us about their origins, family life, inspiration for joining up, wartime experience & how this affected each of them in different ways. These stories are mostly drawn from biographical books & letters sent home to family.


By highlighting their experiences of air combat, the fear experienced, losing comrades & the constant feeling that they were destined to die we can understand how they ultimately suffered from fatigue/combat stress or PTSD as it is now known.


Many of the books on Shell shock tend to detail facts about the symptoms & cover medical treatments & studies that were carried out in relation to the subject. As this book focuses on telling us more about the lives & service of some of the men who served & suffered it is much easier to see things through their eyes.


It is said that the life expectancy of an Airman during WW1 was 2 weeks & this book allows us to see the day-to-day struggles that these men were put under, this was a brutal battle & each of them were under considerable strain.


Although this book does not go into the subject in any great depth if you have an interest in WW1 Aviation it is a great introductory book as it covers everything from the early beginnings of aviation to how this new technology was embraced during WW1 & the psychological effect that this new combat had on the men who served.


Sadly, not much was learned before another war came along & again men would suffer from the same stresses as those did during the Great War!


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