Tuesday, November 15, 2011
An Airman's Wife - Aimée McHardy
Aimée & Bill lived quite a bohemian life in Paris before the war & Amy McHardy began spelling her name in the French manner. Both writers & journalists, they shared a love of adventure & a disregard for convention. Bill enlisted in the Army at the beginning of the war & served at Gallipoli & Ypres where he won the Military Cross. He decided that he needed a new challenge & transferred to the Royal Flying Corps in 1916. After training in England, he & Aimée were married & he was posted to Treziennes, near St Omer. The book begins here, with his departure for the Front & contrasts Aimée's life at home & his letters from France. They wrote to each other every day, sometimes several times a day & counted the days until they could expect a letter if one of them was travelling. The book was published in 1918 & subject to censorship so all the names were changed. Barry Marsden has been able to recover the names of most of the RFC personnel from the squadron's Operations Book.
The RFC worked behind & over the trenches on the Western Front. The war in the air hasn't been written about as much as the war in the trenches but the raids undertaken by the pilots were vital to the safety of the men below. Bill's squadron was responsible for escorting planes sent over the German lines to take photographs of manoeuvres & materiel as well as pursuing enemy aircraft & engaging in dogfights. The planes were primitive, the pilots inexperienced & life expectancy was short. Everyone was so young, not just the pilots but their commanding officers,
The General commanding our Brigade and a Colonel from the Brigade were dining with us. Combine the ages of our C.O. (a major) and that of our two guests and the average is about 26 years.... I looked on as an impartial spectator. The picture was one of youth not sobered, but stimulated, by responsibility: graced, not by a heroic air, but by one of serenity; endowed by unfailing optimism and avowing but one object of hate - not the Hun but the perpetrator, whoever he may happen to be, of 'hot air'. Nearly thirty people under twenty-five years old doing a vital part of the work on which a whole army may depend!
Bill describes raids & everyday life at the base. A 'dud' day is one where the weather is unsuitable for flying. Sometimes a dud day is welcome when they've been flying up to three operations a day but in general they're all keen to be flying & anxious to get on with the job. Aimée, on the other hand, is living in a cottage in the country with friends or in London with her family & waiting for Bill to come on leave. She writes stories & tries to have them published, looks after her two younger sisters when they visit, & learns to cook.
Betty & I are cooks! I used to think those who could turn raw flour and other raw things into something one liked to eat must have a special gift. Now I no longer am surprised, except that anyone should go on doing it day after day. We enjoyed ourselves because it was adventure, but I shouldn't care to be obliged to spend my time in a kitchen - even such a darling of a kitchen as this - whether I felt inclined or otherwise. Our cakes are perfect and the cornflour jelly stuff slips down like a dream. That's because it was flavoured with chocolate and had the beaten white of eggs stirred in at the last minute.
Bill's letters are full of longing for Aimée. He writes quite straightforwardly of his work but ends every letter by telling her how much he misses her & how he spends hours thinking of her. His letters begin, "My own wife," "Aimée, dearest one," "Ma bien Aimée," & end with "Do you know that I love you? Darling Aimée, I want you and soon...", "All my love, my sweet wife," "I love you, dearest woman."
As the months pass, the main topic of Aimée's thoughts is Bill's leave. She's afraid to think about it in case something should happen to him before he gets it.
I want to know and I'm frightened to know. I want to be able to count the days, and yet I think I shall be worn to a shadow if I do - and what joy would a shadow be to Bill? We want each other to kiss and love, and we want to see each other. It's very difficult to explain why spiritual union is not enough, any more than mere bodily union would be enough. I suppose it's because - on this earth anyway - we are human; and because there must be something beyond - above! When Bill comes back to me I think I will weep. Tears come to my eyes even at the thought.
Bill's leave did come through & they spent a blissful 10 days together. However, the news Aimée had always dreaded came at last. Bill was reported missing in July 1917. Aimée went to Bill's family & stayed with them while they waited for more news. Her emotions are very much on the surface, trying to stay calm for Bill's mother & father's sake, hoping that he had been taken prisoner after he was shot down but always fearing to have her worst thoughts confirmed. Aimée keeps writing her daily letter until the news comes that there's no hope of Bill having survived the crash. I couldn't help thinking about the many women & families who never got that certainty. Aimée describes so well the limbo of hoping for the best yet fearing the worst until the confirmation of Bill's death comes.
The book ends with Aimée accepting Bill's death yet feeling that he's watching over her as she tries to imagine a future without her. Unfortunately, nothing is known of Aimée's story after the war. I wonder if she was able to make a living as a writer & if she was able to return to Paris after the war. An Airman's Wife is a touching story, told with humour & passion. I'm glad that it was rediscovered & that I had a chance to read it.