Book Review: The First Eagles

The First Eagles: The Fearless American Aces Who Flew with the RAF in World War I
Minneapolis, MN: Zenith Press
240 pp. $30.00/Hardcover
ISBN: 978-0-7603-4639-6

the first eaglesIn a 2008 Common Core survey, 60 percent of U.S. students did not know the years in which World War I took place. When polled in 2012, two-thirds of British students did not know that the war ended in 1918. It was dubbed “The Great War” for a reason. Never before had so many nations, around the globe, picked up weapons and fought. Trench warfare and the use of chemical weapons left physical and psychological scars on those ‘lucky’ enough to survive.

By the time the war ended, four empires collapsed while large parts of France, Belgium and Russia became battlefield road maps filled with crater holes and desolate cities. However, one of the biggest impacts of World War I was the technological advances and battlefield tactics that forever changed the face of modern warfare – especially aerial warfare.

When thinking of airplanes and World War I, one automatically thinks of dogfights, aces (usually those who have downed five or more enemy planes), the Red Baron and Eddie Rickenbacker. Some, thanks to Hollywood, are even familiar with the Lafayette Escadrille, the French squadron comprised of mostly American volunteer pilots. On the other hand, the over 240 who volunteered for the Royal Air Force are often overlooked. The First Eagles: The Fearless American Aces Who Flew with the RAF in World War I tells their stories.

The First Eagles

Author Gavin Mortimer dissects the role of American airmen who volunteered to fight the Central Powers with the RAF in The First Eagles. Around the start of the war, the United States government and military were extremely skeptical of airplanes. They believed it was both unreliable and overly dangerous. Using airplanes in war would not, in their opinion, be a feasible option. The Aviation Section of the Signal Corps was created, albeit under pressure, in July 1914. For the majority of the war, military aviation was an unstructured mess and had many issues. Because of that, pilots went through Canada to volunteer for service in the RAF. Mortimer retraces their career steps from volunteering to engaging in aerial warfare.

Just how dangerous was being an airman during this time? In April 1917 – also dubbed “Bloody April” – Mortimer states that “in the space of thirty days Britain’s air service had lost 151 aircraft and 316 crew.” (p. 43) Their fellow British counterparts were shocked and grateful for these eager recruits though they thought these Americans had some sort of death wish. Even knowing the risks involved,  American airmen voluntarily signed up for the RAF. In doing so, they helped change aerial warfare and aviation history.

Book Structure & Content

Broken down into twenty chapters, The First Eagles is a relatively easy and short read at 240 total pages. Once you become acquainted with the laundry list of people (there are many) and airplanes (again, there are many), the book progresses in an orderly, concise fashion. Before the introduction, Mortimer included a list of the flyers, their date and place of birth, training location and shipping date, and assigned squadron.

There are two appendices. Appendix I is titled “The Fate of the Few” which details the lives of the airmen postwar. The second appendix focuses on the German and Allied aircraft. This is very helpful as multiple airplanes are mentioned throughout the book. Readers can cross reference with Appendix II to learn more about the planes.

Mortimer placed photos within each chapter. Since I’m someone who loves a good photo, I always think inserting images adds to the understanding of any subject. Additionally, by putting a name to a face, it helps to personalize the story. I really appreciate the photographs of the various airplanes. Having little background knowledge of World War I aviation, I only knew what a couple of them looked like before reading The First Eagles. The shear number of different makes and models shocked me.

With that said, I wished that photographs were included in the description of the planes in Appendix II. It would be easier to cross reference planes in one place instead of having to flip through the previous pages to find the image. There are also a lot of people talked about in the book. I would recommend either reading the book in one or two sittings or brushing up on the flyers list in the beginning of the book before picking up where you left off. While I do not think either of these two issues take away from the book as a whole, it is something to be aware of when starting.

Overall Impression

The First Eagles: The Fearless American Aces Who Flew with the RAF in World War I was a fascinating read. My previous knowledge of World War I aviation was close to non-existent. It is an area that is far more complex than I realized. For example, I did not know that there were such a thing as aerial observers. A crucial role for certain planes, an aerial observer acted as a spotter and manned the gun for the pilot. There were no harnesses or parachutes, so if a pilot took an unexpected turn or dip, the aerial observer could literally fall out of the aircraft. The First Eagles stays true to its purpose – telling the tale of those Americans who volunteered knowing the risks of early aerial warfare. I highly recommend the book to anyone interested in World War I, aviation history or general United States history.

Where to find The First Eagles: The Fearless American Aces Who Flew with the RAF in World War I

Quarto Publishing Group
Barnes & Noble

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  • Excellent review Jess!

    • Zim

      Thank you Scott! I’m also doing a giveaway with Zenith Press for 2 copies of the book. More details can be found here.