In a corner of a foreign field just north of Ypres rests a young man named Edwin Benbow. He is no relation to me and I know very little about his life, but at my day job I found a negative of him taken just after his king had given him a Military Cross for destroying eight German aircraft. He had a year and a bit to live at that high point in his life and died at the ripe old age of twenty-two. Edwin Benbow shot down the Red Baron on one occasion, but the great ace survived with a big fright and polished off his twenty-fifth victim that same day.
This detail goes a long way to illustrate the moments of fate and the vagaries of the air war of 1914-1918. Survival and success were never guaranteed and although we can ignore the nonsensical image of Blackadder’s Twenty Minuters we do know how dangerous and cruel the struggle between the Allies and the Central Powers was to control the skies.
Howard Hughes and others have done so much to build the strong images we have of Great War aviators and some of it has become currency but there is so much more. One thing the exponents of aerial warfare enjoyed in those crazy four years was the safe harbour of being humanised. They were not part of the faceless masses slaving in mud so beloved of class warriors and malcontents still finding oxygen in our media a century on. You can still get many of the classic accounts of the aviators – Sagitarius Rising, and so on, to get contemporary accounts of what it was all about. In addition, a number of fine historians have done a great deal to preserve the authenticity of the stories of those magnificent men in their flying machines. This is all good stuff.
Norman Franks is one of the reliable historians we are lucky to have and he pops up here with a genuinely charming and engaging photo album of the Great War aces. The book seems to benefit from a much stronger attention to photo reproduction on the part of the publisher and the effect is immense. This is a wonderful book. As ever, the accompanying text does the business in support of a genuinely beautiful collection of portraits and snaps of aces from across the conflict. Edwin Benbow is among them. I have been to his grave and he has become my adopted fighter jock of the war.
My way of reviewing is to make you want to check the book out without giving away too much. If you like photographic books you will know the Images of War series already. I have enjoyed so many of them, but this one rates highly overall. You will find so much to learn and to be pleased by; great archive, lots of info; all done in a very pleasing style with added value for money. The dates betray the notion Mr Franks will bring us a volume detailing the final years of the war with equal quality and passion. Here’s hoping!
Reviewed by Mark Barnes for War History Online
GREAT WAR FIGHTER ACES 1914-1916
By Norman Franks
Pen & Sword Aviation
ISBN: 978 1 78383 182 1