I was going to write about the Blériot XXVII, built for speed, bright yellow, the canvas body stitched together making it look like a craft project. I was going to write about the Caudron G3, the strangest aircraft I have ever seen, the cockpit short and stubby. I have walked from plane to plane learning the names and their nicknames, beginning to understand the part they played, not only in the First World War, but as crucial moments along the developmental timeline of early flight.
Then I stopped and thought about what I have been doing over the last few weeks. I have been to three openings of the ‘First World War in the Air’ exhibition – a press preview, a royal opening and the official launch. I have been talking to people, lots and lots of people: staff, volunteers, visitors, enthusiasts, re-enactors, school children and locals. I have asked lots of questions – What is their favourite part of the exhibition? Two answers have consistently been given to me by lots of different people.
Seeing the aircraft suspended in the air, creating a dynamic display, provides an inspiring view that has captured lots of visitors. Previously the planes had been arranged in straight lines, wheels firmly on the ground. Now they soar, silhouettes drawing your eyes up to the sky. More than this, surprisingly, for many it is the objects in the central display cabinets that are the highlight. The archival material, the letters, maps, sketches and drawings, the clothes, personal belongings and smaller artefacts.
These objects bring personal stories, and ultimately, people to the very heart of this exhibition. Some are challenging to look at, the flechettes in particular. These steel arrows are a stark reminder that, however beautiful the planes are, they were also used as weapons of war, the chilling reality is never far from your mind. Even the untouchable ‘aces’ like Manfred von Richthofen have their human vulnerable side revealed. A tiny blue dog, a lucky charm that he flew with, easily overlooked in the display case makes a legend become more real and human, if you add layers of superstition, belief and fear.
I was privileged to meet the relatives of both von Richthofen and Albert Ball, the British ace who died at the age of 20. Talking to them you realise these great legends are also simply great-uncles and cousins, their objects and stories handed down. The memories are often as fragile and fragmentary as our own family histories. Their letters are an echo of the past, their sepia-toned faces peer out at us, their thoughts masked. Snippets reach us from these objects and letters, they are the vital heart of understanding the reality of war.
“Oh I do get tired of always living to kill and am really beginning to feel like a murderer.”
Albert Ball, 6 May 1917, letter
As I sit and write I keep coming back to Brendan, the 19-year-old apprentice working at the museum who I met a few weeks ago. He works on the planes and is at college studying engineering, on the day we met he was dressed in a First World War uniform. You often see re-enactors, but they are older men, to see this 19-year-old dressed in a time capsule it makes it so real and fresh. They were so young, what they had to do breaks your heart.
So as important as these planes are, they are nothing without their pilots. Lifting the planes up to the skies is an important step, honouring that ingenuity and gravity defying design. But it is the objects and stories revealed in the very heart of the exhibition that brings everything to life for me and pays the ultimate homage to human life.