A Working-Class Hero, Part 1: Proletariat, Prisoner, and Pilot

18 Nov

You may wonder what on earth the following is doing on “a history of computer entertainment.” If so, please trust that the meaning behind my madness will become clear in the course of the next few articles. In the meantime, I hope you’ll enjoy getting away, just for a little while, from computers and games and business machinations involving them to an earlier time that was even more fraught and no less fascinating.


Edward Mannock, Great Britain’s ace of aces of World War I and of all time, was also a man of a bewildering number of names. He wasn’t even born as Edward Mannock, but rather as Edward Corringham.

His father, another Edward Mannock, was the black sheep of an otherwise respectable middle-class London family. In 1878, in debt and likely in trouble with the law, he joined the army as an enlisted soldier, an occupation that was considered so ignoble at the time that his family begged him to assume an alias. Thus he became Edward Corringham, and it was as Corporal Edward Corringham that he married an Irish girl named Julia Sullivan in 1883 in Ballincollig, Ireland, the village at which his regiment was stationed. Four children, two boys and two girls, followed, the family moving all the while around Ireland and England behind Edward’s regiment. Young Edward, the third of the children, was born on May 21, 1888, in Brighton, England. Despite being born in England to an English father, the boy would always self-identify as at least as much Irish as English. That identity came complete with his mother’s brogue, an accent he may have actively cultivated as an act of defiance against his cruel drunkard of an English father.

In 1891, his father was discharged from the army, and the family reverted to his old surname of Mannock, with young Edward taking Corringham as his middle name for old times’ sake. Moving back to London in the hope of being accepted back into the respectable Mannock family’s good graces, they found nothing of the kind on offer. On the contrary, the other Mannocks were all too willing to visit the father’s sins upon his children, continuing to disown them all completely. Edward the elder had difficulty finding steady work, both due to the disrepute in which an ex-soldier was held and his own fondness for drink, and the £40 severance he had been awarded at the end of his service quickly evaporated. By the end of eighteen months, the family was living in horrid squalor and poverty, abused daily one and all by the man of the house, who took his frustration out on his wife and children with fists and kicks.

With no other prospects on offer, Edward the elder rejoined the army, enlisting with a regiment that was about to be shipped off to India. Once again, wife and children duly followed him to this latest posting. Life there was a little better; the family, not even considered on the level of the servant class back in England, could actually afford a servant of their own in India. With the economic stresses now eased, some of the physical abuse slackened, although it would never entirely go away.

It was in India, in these much improved if hardly luxurious conditions, that young Edward, now typically called “Eddie,” passed most of his childhood. In the beginning, he was a rather sickly boy, a result of the malnutrition, unsanitary conditions, and constant abuse that had marked his old life back in England. He contracted a serious amoebic infection in his eyes, which blinded him completely for as long as a fortnight.1 But in time he grew into an active boy with a keen interest in sports of all types.

Eddie received a reasonably good primary-school education in India via a local Jesuit mission. In 1899, his father sailed with his regiment to South Africa to take part in the Boer Wars while his wife and children were left to await his return in India. He wound up spending three years in South Africa, at one point actually volunteering to join another regiment and remain there rather than return to his family — as sure an indication as any of just how estranged he really was from them. At last, in 1902 he was shipped back to Canterbury, England, without ever returning to India at all; his wife was left to book her own passage with her children to join him.

Eddie was 14 upon their return. With virtually no memory of England, he had to acclimate himself to life in Canterbury, which was not yet the tourist trap it is today, just a rather anonymous English market town surrounding a grand cathedral. Then, within a few months of the family’s arrival, his father walked out on them for the last time. Father and son would never see each other again.

Any thought of further schooling for Eddie must now be forgotten. With no other means of support, the entire family had to go to work. For years, Eddie worked menial jobs. His first was that of a grocer’s boy, schlepping crates full of food around the town. Later he worked as a barber’s boy, sweeping floors, washing hair, and mixing vats full of shaving soap. Both jobs offered only long hours of the most stultifying labor for the most meager of wages, but needs must.

But meanwhile his older brother Patrick had had a stroke of luck. The best educated of the family thanks to his having come to the good offices of the Jesuits in India at an older age than his little brother, he found employment as an accounting clerk at the National Telephone Company. When another opening came up some time later, he was able to secure it for the now 20-year-old Eddie. This really was an extraordinary stroke of luck by most people’s measure. A clerk’s job offered relatively reasonable working hours spent indoors in an office, sitting relatively comfortably behind a desk. At the end of 45 years or so, it even offered the relative security of a modest pension. For a young man of Eddie Mannock’s social standing, this was about the most he could reasonably hope for in life. No, the work itself wasn’t especially exciting, but what work open to him was? The vast majority of young men in his position would have accepted the job gratefully and remained there for the rest of their working life. Indeed, Patrick Mannock did precisely this. Eddie, however, accepted it only with some reluctance, and almost immediately started looking for a way out.

Eddie Mannock was developing into an ambitious man who refused to accept that this seeming best lot in life offered him by the Edwardian class system was the only one possible. Well over his childhood sickliness, he was now a strong young man who, while hardly well-educated, had a certain native mechanical intelligence that made him very good at solving practical problems of many descriptions. He played cricket at every opportunity, loved to fish, and loved to tinker with engines and electricity whenever given the opportunity. He joined the Territorial Force, the forerunner to the modern British Army Reserve, where he drilled regularly with his cavalry unit, becoming quite a good horseman.

From the beginning, the circumscribed indoor life of an accounting clerk rankled. Better, he thought, to be at the scene of the action, rigging cable out in the field as a linesman for the same National Telephone Company that now employed him as an office worker. At last, after some three years behind a desk, he asked for a transfer to the field, thus stating his willingness to forgo his cushy office job for a much more difficult and dangerous life of physical labor. Everyone thought he was crazy, but his request was finally granted.

To take up his new duties, Mannock was transferred to the village of Wellingborough in the East Midlands. His fellow workers there, taking note of his Irish brogue, rechristened him “Paddy.” Products of the working class just as he was, they accepted with equanimity his radical politics, which he didn’t hesitate to share with them. At some point during his years in Canterbury, you see, Edward Mannock had become a committed socialist.

It should be noted that most of the policies for which Mannock argued, so radical in the context of Edwardian England, have thanks to the steady march of progress long since become accepted baseline standards by even many conservative Western politicians. He wanted universal suffrage for all, regardless of class, sex, race, income, or land ownership (or lack thereof). He wanted, if not necessarily to abolish the nobility and the monarchy, at least to strip them of political power. He wanted a livable minimum wage, a ceiling to the number of hours one could be expected to work per day and per week, and the abolition of child labor. He wanted a progressive tax system to redistribute the nation’s wealth more equally, but he was certainly no full-blown Marxist. His socialism didn’t even imply any particular discomfort with the notion of a British Empire, or the notion of taking up arms to defend it, as shown by his enthusiastic continuing participation in the Territorial Force. Likewise, he remained, while not overly religious by any means, a member of the Catholic Church. Even his views on the age-old question of Ireland, with its inflamed passions on both sides, sound oddly moderated today. Despite his proud Irish ancestry, he was in favor only of Home Rule — the creation of a separate Irish Parliament that would be able to adjudicate many questions of domestic politics for itself — rather than a fully independent Ireland.

The three years Mannock spent in Wellingborough were good ones, perhaps the best of his short life. The work was every bit as difficult and dangerous as had been advertised, but he found it suited his need for physical activity and his tinkerer’s instinct alike. Soon after his arrival, he met Jim Eyles, the manager of a small foundry in town which made pipes and gutters. Typically enough for Mannock the avid cricketer, they met at a cricket match. Eyles was playing, Mannock was only watching, but the former had a boil on his neck that was giving him all kinds of problems, and so the latter offered to bat for him. He was out for a duck, but the two struck up a conversation and, soon, a friendship which grew so close that Eyles asked Mannock if he’d like to move in with him and his wife and son. Mannock became known around the Eyles household, the first version of a comfortable family life he had ever known, by the slightly more dignified sobriquet of “Pat” rather than “Paddy.”

He regarded Eyles, who shared his political views, as a mentor and a father figure, a role the latter was more than happy to play. Eyles encouraged him to read the books found in the family library, which helped to give his socialism, previously a patchwork of good intentions and intuitive beliefs, the framework of a coherent political ideology. The two would sit up well into the night after the rest of the family had retired, discussing the ideas therein along with all the latest political news. And with Eyles’s encouragement Mannock’s socialism began to go beyond mere talk: he helped to found a branch of the socialist Independent Labour Party right there in Wellingborough. Passionate, idealistic, and articulate in his rough-hewn way, he might, Eyles began to think, have a real future in politics.

Nevertheless, a certain endemic restlessness that seemed always to exist at the root of Mannock’s character began in time to reassert itself. He sought adventure, wanted to make his way in the world outside of provincial England. He considered trying to become a diamond miner in South Africa or a plantation owner in the West Indies, but in the end he settled on the slightly more sober scheme of continuing his current trade in Turkey. The “sick man of Europe” though the Ottoman Empire may have been for decades if not centuries, its government was still doing its feeble best to modernize. Of late, these efforts had come to include the construction of a telephone network. It seemed the perfect opportunity for an ambitious man of Mannock’s’s talents. Thus one bleak winter day a melancholy Eyles family walked him to the local train station to begin the first stage of a long journey to the edge of the fabled Orient.

Mannock’s new life in Turkey could hardly have started out better. He showed up at the offices of the National Telephone Company in Constantinople, which was responsible for installing the new telephone network, showed his credentials, and was immediately offered a job as a rigging foreman. Placed in charge of others for the first time in his life, Mannock showed a knack for leadership, even though those he was leading were Turks with whom he could barely communicate thanks to the language barrier. He proved himself an eminently capable man on a project where capable men were sorely needed, and moved up quickly in his superiors’ estimation, being handed more and more responsibility. When not working, he lived, like virtually all of the British expatriates in Constantinople, in a small enclave with the air of a country club, where opportunities for swimming, rowing, riding, and playing tennis, croquet, and of course his beloved cricket were abundant. All told, it made for a fine life for the vigorous young man, who was now going by  the nickname of “Murphy,” yet another name given him in tribute to his Irish heritage. The only problem was the date: the 27-year-old Edward “Eddie/Paddy/Pat/Murphy” Corringham Mannock had arrived in Constantinople in February of 1914. A war that absolutely no one saw coming was soon to engulf much of Europe and the world.

Why should anyone have been thinking about war as the lovely spring of 1914 turned into the most bucolic summer anyone could remember? There hadn’t been a truly major, extended war in Western or Central Europe since Napoleon’s final defeat back in 1815. The intervening century had been on the whole the most peaceful in recorded European history, marked only by a handful of brief conflicts that had ended with fairly minimal casualties, along with more extended but remote proxy wars like the Crimean War and the Boer Wars in which Mannock’s father had fought. Historians of later times would be able to identity all sorts of plausible reasons to call the Europe of 1914 a “powder keg”: an entangling system of ill-considered alliances all but guaranteed to turn local conflicts into continent-spanning ones; the rising tide of nationalism and its less pleasant little brother militarism; the decrepit dysfunction of the Ottoman Empire, the Austro-Hungarian Empire, and Czarist Russia; the destabilization that resulted from dynamic young Germany sitting right next to all these staid old men; a nostalgic glorification of the wars of old, and with it a feeling that, with Europe not having had a really good war in such a long while, perhaps now was a good time for one; a desire on the part of many nations to try out all the modern military hardware they’d been so busily accumulating. But none of these feel terribly satisfying as a real reason to wage war. The greatest tragedy of the First World War must be that it was waged for very little concrete reason at all.

The Turks had been drifting closer to Germany for years. Indeed, they had quite the crush on the younger power. They struggled with mixed results to remodel their ragtag military in the German Army’s hyper-disciplined image, and their commanders and statesmen affected the side whiskers favored by the German general staff. The prospect of using Germany to inflict revenge for past slights upon Greece and Russia, their two most longstanding ethnic enemies, held immense appeal. When the assassination of the Austrian Archduke Francis Ferdinand by a Serbian nationalist caused the dominoes to begin to fall in Europe that summer of 1914, Mannock wrote home that “things [are] very serious here. War in the air. Great anti-British feelings displayed by the people.” Still, Turkey remained at least ostensibly neutral through that fateful summer and for some time thereafter, leaving the little expatriated community in Constantinople in an uncomfortable limbo. Certainly for Mannock, who was moving up so quickly, forgoing his life in Turkey must have felt like a bitter pill to swallow. So, like many of his fellows, he cooled his heels. If it held true to recent form, this latest European war would be a quick, clean one, after which everyone could settle down again and concentrate on the jobs they’d come to Turkey to do. And if the government of Turkey did begin to make a clear public shift in the direction of Germany, there should still be time to get out before war was declared.

He was wrong on both counts. Referencing a list of recent grievances against Britain in particular, the Ottoman Empire unexpectedly declared war on Britain, France, and Russia on October 29. Mannock and his fellow Britons were immediately interned.

Actually, “interned” is far too soft a verb to use. While the women and children were treated comparatively gently and soon sent home, the men were thrown in prison, where they lived under the most appalling conditions; not for nothing has the term “Turkish prison” become such a cliché in reference to man’s inhumanity to man. Eyewitness accounts of Mannock during this period are somewhat sketchy, but they describe a man who repeatedly defied the guards, and in return was subjected to beatings, starvation, and solitary confinement even more extreme than that endured by the other prisoners. He came to be regarded as a leader and a role model by his comrades, many of whom were older and more frail than he. One of them later described him as “our philosopher, friend, and guide”: “He was always cheery and helpful, and kept the men ‘British’ all through.” He dug a hole under the fence surrounding the prison, which he used not to attempt to escape but to make nighttime journeys to a nearby black market, returning with food to supplement the prisoners’ meager daily ration of black bread and water. For the first time in his life, he showed himself capable of genuine heroism. In a different, perhaps better world, we might admire him more for what he did during these five desperate months than for what he would later accomplish in the cockpit of an airplane.

After much negotiation, largely undertaken by the American ambassador to Turkey on behalf of the British government, an exchange of British and Turkish nationals was finally worked out. On April 1, 1915, Mannock and his fellow prisoners were released — only to be packed on board a train for a long, circuitous journey across the Balkans that proved as physically trying as life in prison had been. Reaching Greece at last, they sailed for home. Upon Mannock’s return to Wellingborough, Jim Eyles was shocked at the appearance of his surrogate prodigal son. He looked, Eyles would later say, “an absolute mess,” still wracked by dysentery and malaria from his time in prison and quite possibly pneumonia from exposure to the elements on the long journey home.

Still a strong young man at bottom, Mannock would recover physically from the Turkish nightmare. But in another sense he was changed forever. He had become a very bitter man, his idealistic enthusiasm for the international socialist movement now exchanged for a darker, more violent worldview. He reserved his greatest hatred not for the Turks but for the Germans; manifesting the casual racism of the times, he regarded them as the Turks’ masters, and thus the true cause of all his recent suffering. What with his connections to international socialism, Mannock must have known at some intellectual level that Germany as a whole was no more of a political piece than was Britain, that there were plenty inside the country, even plenty fighting on the front lines, who lamented the reactionary militarism of the Kaiser and the war that was being fought in its name. But somehow none of that seemed to register anymore. Germans were a scourge, an affront to everything Mannock and his fellow socialists believed in. He wanted not just to make the world safe for socialism; he wanted to kill Germans.

This darkness in Mannock’s character, which would only grow more pronounced with time, is something his biographers and hagiographers alike have always struggled to come to terms with. Certainly it’s tempting to put on one’s psychologist’s hat, to speculate on whether in hating Germans so rabidly he was sublimating the frustration and rage of a lifetime over the course of which, no matter how capable he proved himself or how nobly he conducted himself, he must always be looked down upon by his alleged betters in the strict Edwardian class hierarchy, must always be condescended to and made subtly to understand that he could never truly be of the class of men who were so happy to make use of his talents. Then again, maybe a cigar really is just a cigar in this case. It certainly wasn’t unusual for even ardent socialists to support the British war effort wholeheartedly. For each of them who elected to endure ridicule by sitting out the war, sometimes in prison, as a conscientious objector, several more went to war willingly, convinced both that the war was worth fighting on its own merits to combat German militarism and that, having fought and won it for their alleged betters, the British working classes would have to be rewarded with new opportunity and equality.  It would only be after the war was over, when new opportunity and equality most conspicuously failed to materialize, that the British left’s view of the war would harden into that of a colossal, pointless, criminal sham perpetuated by the ruling classes upon the working men who fought and died in it.

In this sense, then, Mannock was fairly unexceptional among his creed in eagerly rejoining the Territorial Force just as soon as his health would allow, well before mandatory conscription, the inevitable result of the casualties the volunteer army was sustaining, went into effect in 1916. He was assigned to an ambulatory force which drilled in England for months on end without ever getting sent to the front. This situation rankled Mannock deeply, as did the very notion of serving in a noncombatant role. In November of 1915, now fully recovered physically from his ordeal in Turkey, he applied for a transfer and an officer’s commission with the Royal Engineers; he thought, rightly, that they would be pleased to have a man of his practical experience with rigging and wiring. He told Eyles that his ultimate goal was to join the so-called “tunneling” forces. One of the dirtiest and deadliest jobs on the front, tunneling meant literally digging tunnels from friendly trenches under those of the enemy and planting explosives there. It seldom worked out all that well; in keeping with so many aspects of trench warfare, the whole enterprise tended to take on a farcical, blackly comic tone, with the tunnelers often winding up in the completely wrong place and blowing up nothing more than a few trees, or blowing themselves up with the touchy explosives of the era long before they made it to enemy lines. Nevertheless, the notion struck a chord with Mannock’s sheer bloody-mindedness. “Blow the bastards up!” he told Eyles. “The higher they go and the more pieces they come down [in], the better.”

Transferred to a newly established Royal Engineers unit in Bedfordshire in early 1916 and commissioned as an officer, Mannock, who for some reason was now going by the nickname of “Jerry,” found himself in a social environment very different from that he had known as a Territorial. Here, in this unit that had accepted him at all only due to his practical experience as a telephone rigger, he was surrounded by much younger men — Mannock was now pushing thirty — from the upper classes. They didn’t take any better to his gruff working-class manners than they did to his forthrightly radical politics; ditto his Irish brogue, especially when the Easter Rising began that April. They didn’t know whether he committed so many social faux pas because be didn’t know any better, because he didn’t care, or because he was actively tweaking them — but, increasingly, they began to suspect the last. And for good reason: Mannock judged most of his comrades to be the worst sort of drones of the English class system, shirkers who had used their family connections to win a posting to the Royal Engineers in the hope that the long period of training that must precede transfer to the front would let the war get finished before they had to take part in it. Having joined the unit for precisely the opposite reason, he was a man apart in the officers’ mess in this as in so many other ways.

When he learned upon completing several months of basic training that he might have to spend another full year training to become a tunneler — news that must have struck his comrades as wonderful — Mannock applied yet again for a transfer, this time to the air corps; absurdly counter-intuitive as it strikes us today, it actually took far less time to learn how to fly an airplane in those days than it did to learn how to dig tunnels and blow stuff up. His unit’s commander, perhaps weary of this capable but confrontational socialist firebrand who was constantly disrupting life in his officers’ mess, pushed this latest transfer request through. After passing the various medical and psychological exams, Mannock began aviator ground school in Reading in August of 1916.

Ground school filled about two months, during which Mannock and his fellow trainees were expected the learn the details of eight different types of aircraft engines. Other subjects included “General Flying,” “Aircraft Rigging,” “Theory of Flight,” “Bombs,” “Instruments,” “Morse Signalling,” and “Artillery Cooperation.” As the last two subjects attest, the real value of the airplanes of the time — the only roles in which they would make a really significant contribution during the war — was as the ultimate reconnaissance platform, taking photographs of the enemy lines and rear areas and guiding artillery barrages in real time. All of the exploits of the renowned “knights of the air,” the great fighter aces who were followed so eagerly by press and public, surrounded and perhaps too often obscured this real purpose. Aerial observation was therefore considered a skill that one and all needed to learn. Ground school included a rather fascinating early interactive simulator to help them do just that, as described by one Second Lieutenant Frederick Ortweiler:

In a large room, laid out on the floor was a model of the Ypres Salient and re-entrant by Messines, made exactly as it would be seen from an aeroplane 8000 to 10,000 feet up. With a squared map it was possible to pick out all the various roads, etc., and we were given practice in picking out points on the map. Then, by a system of little lights in the model, we were made to imagine that a battery was firing on a target and we were correcting. We would first be shown the target by having it lit up; then a flash would appear as the battery fired and another where the shot fell. Then we would have to send corrections over the buzzer till an “OK” was registered and the shoot finished.

Wars, if they go on long enough, produce a social leveling effect. The Royal Flying Corps, strictly the domain of “gentlemen” early on, was broadening by necessity to admit men like Mannock, who made up for in practical skills what they lacked in breeding. The class blending produced inevitable conflicts of the sort with which Mannock was all too familiar by now. A simpering gentleman named Dudley McKergow sniffed:

There are some perfectly appalling people here now. Their intonation is terrible and you can pick out hairdressers, Jews who would sell tobacco, the typical shop attendant, the comic-turn man at the very provincial show, and the greasy mechanic type. These are the class of fellows from cadet school — hardly one of them has any pretence of being a gentleman. There are still a very good crowd of observers and we keep to ourselves.

Mannock, of course, did nothing to make himself more palatable to the Dudley McKergows around him; he was as unashamed of his accent as he was of his political opinions. On the front, at least, the snobbery would fade somewhat in the face of the more elemental realities of life and death.

A Maurice Farman biplane

A Maurice Farman biplane

After ground school, it was off to Hendon Airfield in North London for flight school. It’s difficult to fully convey today how new and wondrous the very idea of powered flight was in those days, quite apart from any applicability as a tool of war. It had, after all, been barely a decade since the Wright brothers first flew at Kitty Hawk, North Carolina. A body of best practices for the teaching of new pilots was still all but nonexistent. The standard training aircraft were Maurice Farman biplanes, ungainly contraptions dating from before the war that looked hardly more airworthy than the original Wright brothers glider. They flew about the same as they looked, slewing sluggishly through the sky. Still, they responded so slowly to the controls that it was difficult to get into irreversible trouble with them, and they proved surprisingly durable when the trainees bounced them down hard on runways or taxied them into trees. The Farmans were equipped with dual controls for the trainee and his instructor, but the engine sitting directly behind them both was so loud that spoken communication was impossible. If an instructor felt he absolutely had to say something to his pupil, his only way of doing so was to turn the engine off for a moment — a risky procedure, as an engine once switched off wasn’t always guaranteed to start back up again.

What with the short and sketchy ground-school curriculum that preceded each trainee’s first flight, the job of the instructors could sometimes be almost as perilous as that of the front-line pilots. Indeed, some took to calling their trainees “Huns” (the universal British appellation for the Germans) because they considered the scariest of them every bit as dangerous as any German ace. Many of the very worst of the trainees — the ones who most needed instruction — were pushed through having barely taken the controls at all, simply because the harried instructors lacked the time or patience to correct their failings. Plenty of these hapless fledglings wound up killing themselves in routine exercises before they ever made it to the front. Those who did survive that long could look forward to a life expectancy even shorter than that of the average greenhorn on the front.

What Mannock made of the whole confused process has not been recorded. However, given the yeoman work he would later do in systematizing the art of air combat into something approaching a science, he must have been fairly appalled at the chaos. Regardless, he was certainly among the better fledglings of his class, proving himself an able pilot if not quite a superb one, his native mechanical aptitude serving him well yet again. He was good enough that upon earning his “ticket” — his pilot’s license — and beginning to fly solo, he was earmarked for posting to a “scout,” or fighter, squadron rather than being relegated to a slower, heavier observation plane along with the less promising pilots. Problem was, actual scout aircraft were in short supply. He therefore spent some months after his training was supposedly finished being moved rather aimlessly around England, making occasional flights in obsolete De Havilland DH.2s. He seethed at each new domestic posting and dreamed of the day when he would finally get to go to the front. In the meantime this man of many names at last acquired the sobriquet by which he would go down in history: he became known as “Mick” or sometimes “Mickey” among his jittery fellow fledglings, yet one more tribute to his Irishness.

De Havilland DH.2

De Havilland DH.2

In March of 1917, at the end of this period of impatient waiting, the veteran ace James McCudden, who would come to be credited with 57 victories, second most of any British pilot of the war, spent some time giving Mannock and his fellow inexperienced pilots some final instruction before the long-awaited posting to the front came. This encounter between Britain’s eventual ace of aces and the runner-up led to one of the most famous stories about Mannock — famous despite or perhaps because the incident is so atypical of him. One day, McCudden told his charges that it was impossible to pull an airplane out of a spin that began below 2000 feet in time to avoid hitting the ground. The next day, Mannock threw his DH.2 into a spin at just 1500 feet. If he had hoped to prove McCudden wrong, he didn’t quite succeed: he managed to regain just enough control to plunk his plane roughly down on its wheels directly in front of the Vickers Ammunition Factory, yards away from rows and rows of sheds stuffed full of high explosives. Mannock insisted to his livid superiors that the whole thing had been an accident, which may very well have been true; unlike so many of his fellow aces, he would never acquire a reputation for heedless daredevilry. McCudden, however, was convinced that the “impetuous young Irishman” — McCudden was about to turn 22, while Mannock was almost 30, making the description rather rich — had done it deliberately to show him up.

Although the two men would never fly into battle together, they would cross paths regularly over the fifteen months or so each had left to live. During this time they would build a friendship but also a marked rivalry, only to die within three weeks of one another. For now, though, for the older but much, much greener of the pair, training days were finally over. On April 1, 1917 — two years to the day after he had been released from a Turkish prison — Second Lieutenant Edward “Eddie/Paddy/Pat/Jerry/Murphy/Mickey/Mick” Carringham Mannock arrived at St. Omer, France, for final posting to an active-duty squadron on the front lines. At long last, he was going to war.

(Sources for this article and those that follow in this series: Mick Mannock, Fighter Pilot by Adrian Smith; The Personal Diary of ‘Mick’ Mannock, introduced and annotated by Frederick Oughton; The Knighted Skies by Edward Jablonski; The American Heritage History of World War I by S.L.A. Marshall; Aces Falling by Peter Hart; Bloody April by Peter Hart; King of Airfighters by Ira Jones; Mount of Aces by Paul R. Hare; Winged Victory by V.M. Yeates; The First World War by John Keegan; A Short History of World War I by James L. Stokesbury.)

  1. Generations of hagiographers would later claim that the infection left Mannock’s vision out of his left eye permanently impaired if not destroyed entirely, thus giving rise to the legend of “the ace with one eye,” a story worthy of a Biggles novel. Manly lad that he was, the accounts claim, he never revealed his handicap to any but those who were closest to him out of a horror of being pitied. Instead he worked for hours on end to find ways to compensate when, for instance, playing cricket (a sport at which he was actually quite accomplished). Thus did the hagiographers neatly sidestep the fact that the vast majority of those who remembered Mannock remembered absolutely nothing of note about his vision, other than perhaps an unusually intense stare when he talked with them.

    Similarly, the hagiographers claimed that he managed to pass at least three eye exams with ease prior to becoming a pilot by using a photographic memory that is in evidence nowhere else in his life’s story to memorize the optical chart. As it happens, one Lieutenant Gilbert Preston, who had lost his left eye as a ground soldier at Gallipoli before deciding to sign on with the Royal Flying Corps, tried to fool the doctor in exactly the same way Mannock is claimed to have done. It didn’t work out terribly well for him:

    I thought that I had fooled the doctor, because after I had read the reading board with my right eye, he turned me to the window and said, “Tell me what you see out of the window.” I knew that I would have to come back to reading the eye chart, so I memorised all of the lines on the board. When I finished describing what I had seen out the window, he swung me around, and covered my right eye and said, “Will you continue reading the eye chart?” I knew what was coming, so I started to “read” the board. Suddenly he said, “You’re blind in that eye, aren’t you?” I said, “Oh no, not quite.” He told me, “Uncover your right eye and look again at the chart.” While I had been looking out the window, and unknown to me, he had turned the chart over and the only single letter on that chart was the letter “E.” I was heartsick as I thought my own chances were non-existent. He then announced, “Don’t take it too much to heart, because I have orders to send you to the Flying Corps – whether you can see or not!” To my disappointment he informed me that I could not qualify as a pilot and that I would go to France as an observer.

    So, the stories of Edward Mannock as “the ace with one eye” are all, needless to say, almost certainly complete bunk. Nor are they necessary for casting him in the role of hero; his story is plenty heroic without them. 


Posted by on November 18, 2016 in Digital Antiquaria, Interactive Fiction


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25 Responses to A Working-Class Hero, Part 1: Proletariat, Prisoner, and Pilot

  1. Andrew Plotkin

    November 18, 2016 at 5:27 pm

    “Historians of later times would be able to identity all sorts of plausible reasons to call the Europe of 1914 a “powder keg”: an entangling system of ill-considered alliances all but guaranteed to turn local conflicts into continent-spanning ones; the rising tide of nationalism and its less pleasant little brother militarism; the decrepit dysfunction of the Ottoman Empire, the Austro-Hungarian Empire, and Czarist Russia…”

    Thanks, this really helps take my mind off our current news woes. :/


  2. Brian Bagnall

    November 18, 2016 at 5:29 pm

    Sometimes you have to move your chess pieces into place first when telling a story, but I’m a little skeptical this much of a tangent is required reading to understand Wings. We have no option but to trust this will lead to a big payoff when you start writing about the game.

    • Lisa H.

      November 18, 2016 at 7:44 pm

      We did go on quite a side journey into the history of the atomic bomb around Trinity… although I do hope this won’t be quite that long!

      • Jimmy Maher

        November 18, 2016 at 9:33 pm

        Not that long this time, no. (It’s Civilization you all should be really nervous about. That one could stop us in our tracks for a year or two if I’m not careful…)

  3. Ian Silvester

    November 18, 2016 at 7:19 pm

    Fascinating stuff! Honestly I am more than happy to read such accounts even if you never do tie them into the blog’s overall subject ;o)

    • Jeremy Gans

      November 18, 2016 at 11:03 pm

      Ditto! And it’s not just the history I enjoy, but also your excellent writing.

  4. Lisa H.

    November 18, 2016 at 7:45 pm

    This post on Tumblr may amuse in this context: If World War One Was a Bar Fight

  5. Rob

    November 18, 2016 at 8:23 pm

    “He was out in a duck”. The correct phrase is “He was out for a duck”. And he would have been batting, not bowling.

    • Jimmy Maher

      November 18, 2016 at 9:23 pm

      Man, and I was pretty proud of myself, thinking I had the lingo down and all. Teach an American not to pretend he understands cricket. Anyway, thanks!

  6. Jaakko Markus Seppälä

    November 18, 2016 at 8:26 pm

    I don’t mind this different subject matter at all. The way Jimmy writes these biographies, I’d be happy to read even about, say, Mick Mannock’s dog :)

    There is, I think, also some validity for choosing such a long-winded style for introducing Wings (It’s got to be Wings, right?). After all, it is a game of stories, exposition and biographies, abundantly so.

    Even so, some of the famous aces are featured prominently in the in-game story (Richthofen), but others are barely mentioned outside the top pilots’ “kill list”.

    What would be a better way to pay homage to the rich narrative of Wings than to fill in those gaps – to showcase some of the less-known (in-game, that is) aces of the skies?

  7. TsuDhoNimh

    November 18, 2016 at 8:29 pm

    I don’t know if I’ll end up playing the game after reading the stories, but, like the Trinity series of articles, knowing the backstory in great detail can make playing the game a lot more fun.

    It’s too bad Pirates! didn’t get this same treatment. On the other hand, you can get a pretty good idea of the historical context by reading the manual of the original game, which unfortunately was not included in the modern version of the game in the early 2000’s.

  8. Eric Lundquist

    November 18, 2016 at 8:43 pm

    I’m content reading anything Jimmy chooses to write about.

    • whomever

      November 18, 2016 at 10:22 pm

      +1. I think Jimmy has well and truly earned our trust at this point. I’ll happily follow wherever the arc of his narrative takes us.

  9. Sir Harrok

    November 18, 2016 at 10:26 pm

    I don’t care if this is a tangent; it’s great.

    • Matt Weiner

      November 19, 2016 at 5:46 pm


  10. Bernie

    November 19, 2016 at 2:11 am

    C’mon People , Give the man a break !!

    He hasn’t let us down yet, has he ?

    Jimmy : Side-story or not, this article is one of your strong ones. Educating yet entertaining, something that can’t be said about most of the content written or filmed about WW-I. Looking at pre-war and war periods through this man’s eyes is a stroke of genius on your part.

    People: Wings wasn’t the only “simulation with a narrative” during the period of gaming history we’re entering now. There were plenty of games and media that dealt both with the great war and inter-war period. So if Jimmy felt like using one or two posts to “set the stage”, just go along. Did he dissapoint after introducing 1970’s role-playing game culture ? Do you deem the Lovecraft / M.I.T. posts before Lurking Horror unnecessary ? Do you feel sorry that you had to “endure” his post on Dennis Wheatley’s Crime Dossiers ? What about the Golden Hare ? … quite pointless but you loved it, huh ?

    This is trademark Jimmy and everyone here should admit it’s quality work !

    If you want something more “concrete” and “concise” go read the CRPG Addict’s latest (he’s great too, mind you) or get some back issues of Retro-Gamer (great magazine) and read a few of their “Making of …” articles (they cover many of the games that Jimmy writes about here).

    Oh, yes, I almost forgot : Y’all liked that stuff about Vannevar Bush, right ? … well, stop whining then.

    • Brian Bagnall

      November 20, 2016 at 10:35 pm

      I absolutely adored the MIT overview prior to Lurking Horror and the Golden Hare preamble because the subject has not been covered extensively or thoroughly. As far as I’m concerned he could have written double what he did with those. Writing about WWI or Trinity, not so much because it’s kind of been played out dozens of times and no longer holds much interest for me personally. The beauty of the Digital Antiquarian IMHO is that it covers those niche topics that everyone else ignored yet so richly deserve to be covered.

      • ZUrlocker

        November 21, 2016 at 7:13 pm

        I agree. I love Jimmy’s writing, but I love it more when it’s directly related to games development and evolution. Neither the Trinity background posts nor the WWI history was my cup of tea.

  11. Michael Davis

    November 19, 2016 at 6:15 pm

    I would have never guessed that a blog dedicated to the history of a specific subset of computer games would teach me so much about so many things. I am so grateful for your efforts Jimmy; every time I see a new article is available it’s like a tiny present.

  12. Dan Art

    November 22, 2016 at 7:01 pm

    Another fine article!

  13. Leo Vellès

    January 23, 2020 at 5:06 pm

    Too late to the discussion, but i gotta say that every little side trip to a theme that is not directly linked to the world of computers or games that you write is truly interesting and enlightning. I learn so much about various topics (like the one on this article, the origin of the atomic bomb, the live of H.P. Lovecraft…) and you make it always a very entertaining read. This shows your absolutely great chops as a historian and as a writer as well. My first encounter with this blog was through a link from the adventure gamer blog to an article you wrote about Douglas Adams, a man up to that point that i knew nothing about (here in Argentina i don´t believe his work is very popular) and i enjoyed it so much that from that day on, almost half a year by now, i began reading every single post and comment in chronollogical order. So, like most of the commenters above, i encourage you to keep on doing this contextual and lateral aproach to games, because it´s a hell of a fine job that you do and i´m a very glad that still i got a lot of catch up to do.
    Thanks you so much Jimmy

  14. Jack Brounstein

    March 30, 2020 at 3:57 pm

    I too am years late, but I love these detours; not being British, this is the first I’ve seen the name Mick Mannock, and I’m hooked.

    A small typo: Near the end you refer to the “eventual aces of aces”–I assume that should be “ace of aces”, no?

    • Jimmy Maher

      March 30, 2020 at 4:09 pm

      Yes. Thanks!

  15. Niall Murphy

    April 26, 2020 at 9:50 pm

    I think these background pieces are brilliant and you should keep doing them.


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