Virtual Lecture -The First World War Aviator: Conscience and Suffering

Mark C. is online via Crowdcast.

Image of RFC pilot during the First World War staring into the sky, standing in-front of a biplane.

Talk Outline

The young men who flew and fought during the First World War had no idea what was awaiting them. The rise of science and nationalism during the late 19th and early 20th centuries came to a head in 1914. The “technology shock” that coalesced at the Western Front was not envisaged by any of the leadership. These men did the best they could and gave their full measure but it wasn’t enough. Each suffered from their experiences, some better than others. Each knew it was a defining moment in their lives never to be repeated. And many felt that the dynamic context of aerial combat was something that, after the war, they still longed for, despite the attendant horrors.

The medical and psychiatric profession evolved symbiotically with the war. Like the patients they were charged with treating, doctors were unprepared for what awaited them. Doctors argued over best practice for treatment. Of course, the military wanted these men to return to duty as quickly as possible; with mounting casualties, each country needed every man. Aviation psychiatry arose as a new subset of the field, attempting to treat psychological symptoms previously unseen in combatants. The unique conditions of combat flying produced a whole new type of neurosis.

Terms such as Aero-neurosis were coined to provide the necessary label yet, like shell shock, they were inadequate when it came to describing the full and complete shock to the psyche. We are fortunate that many of these fliers chose to write. They kept diaries and letters about their experiences after the war and they are, of course, an invaluable record. But perhaps more importantly, they were also a means for many of them to heal.

The lecture will draw on Mark Wilkins’ published work which includes medical testimony and excerpts to explore the legacies of aerial combat, illustrating the ways in which pilots had to amalgamate their suffering and experiences into their post-war lives.

To access the lecture you may need to check your internet browser is compatible. It is currently reported that Google Chrome provides the best experience for using Crowdcast.

About Mark C. Wilkins

Mark Wilkins is an historian, writer, and museum professional. He is the current Curator of Maritime History at the Calvert Marine Museum. He has been director & curator of both the Cape Cod Maritime Museum and The Atwood House Museum (Chatham Historical Society), and has worked for the Smithsonian & Mystic Seaport. Mr. Wilkins is a published author of books and articles relating to maritime and aviation history.

Mark has a master’s degree in history from Harvard University, and has written several books relating to First World War aviation—including Spad FightersFokker Dr.1: Germany’s Famed Triplane in World War I, Aero-neurosisGerman Fighter Aircraft of WWI, Design, Construction, and Innovation, British Fighter Aircraft of WWI, Design, Construction, and Innovation, and is currently working on a third volume in this series on French aircraft.

He is adjunct faculty, history department, at St. Mary’s College of Maryland. Mark served as historical consultant and as producer of aerial effects for the Lafayette Escadrille Documentary Film. He serves on the Board of the Patuxent River Naval Aviation Museum.

About the RAF Museum Research Programme

The RAF Museum’s 2022 programme includes Lunchtime Lectures at the RAF Museum, Cosford; Air Power Lectures, co-organised with the Centre for War and Diplomacy at Lancaster University; Air Power Seminars, co-organised with the University of Wolverhampton; and the Trenchard Lecture series, hosted at the Royal Aeronautical Society. You can attend these lectures in person or join us online as we live-stream from the venue.

The RAF Museum will also be hosting virtual only lectures throughout 2022. You can find more information on our virtual lectures, and our Crowdcast Channel, by visiting