Aces over Ypres
© 2016 John Stack
Charlie Sexton didn’t choose the RFC life, the RFC life chose him. Literally. As the Great War opened in Europe, Charlie was a member of the 119th Artillery, the same unit his father had served in with distinction, but evidently the Army is in need of lunatics to go up in their airplanes as observers. It’s like artillery spotting, but thousands of feet up and with only canvas protection from the rifles of two startled armies. Aces over Ypres is an unexpected aerial thriller from a successful naval author, one which is set in the skies of the Western Front, at a time when military aviation was still in its infancy. Stack combines aerial combat, espionage, and the personal feud between a German pilot and Sexton for an all-round pageturner.
Charlie begins with the book without the slightest in going up in an airplane, and the experience doesn’t too much grow on him. He is instantly in the soup, branded a coward by an officer who wants to smear Sexton’s reputation to save his own. The work is difficult, to say the least: ripping through the air and staring at a surreal landscape below, one with recognizable landmarks yet so far removed from everyday experience as to be unrecognizable, and tasked with trying to make meaningful observations and scribble them down on an actual map. Stack’s experience with conveying the power and energy of the seas translates well here; despite its thinness, the air has a presence, one which can destroy a plane that isn’t cared for by its pilot and mechanics. When the war begins, airplanes were merely used as recon tools, but Stack depicts the development of regular aerial warfare with Sexton as his text subject. Within a few weeks observers are toting rifles with them to take pot-shots at enemy scouts; later, they are given hand held machine guns to do more than scare the enemy away. Stack doesn’t hesitate to kill or maim recurring characters, and Charlie is shot down at least twice — and by the same German plane, flown by a man with a score to settle. But Kurt, the man on the other side, isn’t his bloodthirsty enemy: he’s a talented pilot and a loving brother with a score to settle against the English airmen.
Although this is a decided break from Stack’s forte, his bringing to life of both English and German pilots, engendering a reader’s care about them, and then throwing them into combat against one another makes for a compelling story by itself…to say nothing of the constant aerial drama, the attempts to keep out of “Archie’s” way, and a little spycraft on the side. Considering that this only covers the first few months of the year, ending before the one-year mark, one hopes a sequel could be in the works. It’s certainly refreshing to see aerial fiction that doesn’t jump into WW2-style dogfighting.
To the Last Man: A Novel of the First World War, Jeff Shaara. Read this when it was released in 2004, and I still remember the story of the American airman.