Review by Adrian Roberts.
Second Lieutenant William John ‘Jack’ Lidsey and his pilot, Flight Sergeant Sidney Quicke, were the 29th victims of Manfred von Richthofen, on 22 March 1917. Author Andrew White, an established historian and ex-RAF officer, went to the same school as Lidsey, Magdalen College School, Brackley, Oxfordshire, and noticed Jack’s memorial cross while still at school. Many years later he found Jack had kept a diary and, with the blessing of the family, has been able to write an account of his short life (Lidsey was 21 when he died).
The service history of many First World War fliers involved service in the trenches, followed by a successful application to the RFC as an observer, and then pilot training, usually being commissioned at some point. These men brought a wealth of military experience to the RFC, compared with those who joined straight from civilian life, and often went on to have successful careers, but, of course, it could all be cut short at any point, often by bad luck rather than lack of skill.
Jack Lidsey enlisted in the Oxfordshire and Buckinghamshire Light Infantry as soon as the war broke out and this unit was in France by 1 April 1915, in time for the second battle of Ypres. Jack does not seem to have stood out at school, academically or at sports, but was promoted to lance corporal later that month so he must have had qualities noted by his superiors. His diary, like many others, is matter of fact and does not dwell on the horrors of war, but its understatement speaks volumes, such as “…beastly smell of dead bodies…” and “…four hours standing nearly waist-deep in mud and water. Was absolutely fed up and felt jolly rotten.” Temperatures in the trenches sometimes dropped to -10 degrees C at night in the winter.
He served on the Western Front, including the Battle of the Somme, until November 1916, apart from three months of officer training. He survived fighting, unscathed, that killed many of his comrades. He was then accepted as an observer with the RFC. Observer training was then even less formalised than pilot training, and all but a couple of weeks were ‘on the job’. He was posted to 16 Squadron, which was still flying B.E.2cs. The publishers have opted to pursue the cliché of the B.E.2c being ‘Fokker Fodder’ in the title. While this is not unjustified, the casualty rate of B.E.2cs in the first half of the war was barely higher than any other two-seater and probably less than some. The term ‘Fokker Fodder’ was coined by a particularly histrionic MP, whom the author admits had a financial interest in criticising the Royal Aircraft Factory. The introduction to the book is written by a retired lieutenant-general who describes the B.E.2c as a ‘kite powered by a lawn-mower engine’. This is sloppy at best. I would like to see a lawnmower powered by a 90hp V-8! Admittedly, Jack was unlucky to be posted to one of the few squadrons still flying B.E.2 variants in spring 1917. He was aware of its deficiencies, and was looking forward to the squadron getting new types, but in truth his life expectancy would have been barely greater if he had been flying the replacement R.E.8. As it was, he was killed in B.E.2 A3154 during preparations for the Battle of Arras.
The book is well worth reading for its insight into the life of an ordinary soldier and airman; the background to the diary is competently fleshed out. Maps are provided at the back, though the purposely-drawn sketches are more useful than the reproduced W.W.I maps. Only the last third of the book is about flying, but most readers should find the rest interesting, even those who normally only ever read about aviation!