Major Robert Gregory, and the Irish Air Aces of 1917-18

Published in 20th-century / Contemporary History, Features, Issue 4 (Winter 2001), Volume 9, World War I

The Channel packet, lifeline of the British Expeditionary Force (BEF), left Boulogne early on the morning of 9 January 1918. On board was a small party of Royal Flying Corps (RFC) officers. All four were hung over, battle weary, and badly in need of rest and recuperation. These were veteran fighter—or scout—pilots, blooded in the great air war being waged high above the Western Front. In ‘bloody April’ 1917 the Germans had seized the technological initiative, inflicting devastating losses on the Allied squadrons. By the following winter new machines and fresh tactics had helped the RFC redress the balance. Yet within seven months all but one of the quartet bound for Blighty would be dead. Each of the three doomed companions considered himself Irish, even though only one of them was native born. The ferry to Folkestone marked a rare meeting of Ireland’s three great air aces.

McElroy, McCudden and Mannock

Dublin born and bred, George McElroy’s score stood at forty-six victories by the time he was shot down on 31 July 1918, hence his claim to be Ireland’s most successful fighter pilot of the First World War. McElroy has been forgotten by all but the most enthusiastic student of aerial warfare. Not so James McCudden and Edward ‘Mick’ Mannock, names often mentioned in the same breath as Ball or von Richthofen. Although raised in Kent both were fiercely proud of their Irish parentage, even if in Mannock’s case his father was the black sheep of an English upper middle class family. Julia Mannock was from Ballincollig and for all intents and purposes a single parent—the children spoke with muted Cork accents, and ‘Pat’ (he only became ‘Mick’ in France) was a vocal supporter of Home Rule. For McCudden, one-time regular ranker and the son of a sergeant, politics was just a distraction from keeping his machine and its armoury in tip-top condition (the same was true of his aviator brothers, Bill and John, the latter posthumously awarded the family’s second Victoria Cross).
Major McCudden was a model of discretion, but he shared Mannock’s keen sense of national identity. The latter’s enthusiasm for an ‘Irish Ireland’ was firmly rooted in emotion rather than direct experience. He encouraged the assumption that he was Irish, and yet he never went ‘home’, even when his mother moved to west Belfast. McElroy was Mannock’s protégé in 40 Squadron, and is buried in the same cemetery at Laventie as that of ‘An Unknown British Airman’, possibly his mentor. The son of a Donnybrook schoolteacher, he was well-educated and before the war had worked as a civil servant. Unlike Mannock—an Independent Labour Party (ILP) activist, and even in uniform a fully paid up member of the awkward squad—McElroy kept his political opinions to himself. If he supported Home Rule then his upbringing and career would suggest a more measured embrace of nationalism than Mannock, whose gut sympathies were tempered only by the shock of Easter 1916.
Both Mannock and McCudden were Catholic working-class boys whose ruthlessness, professionalism, cunning, and technical expertise made them natural leaders in a wholly new kind of war. By the time of their deaths they commanded the RFC’s top scout squadrons, had gained a succession of gallantry medals (albeit a posthumous VC for Mannock), and had forged lasting reputations as tactical innovators. The now bemedalled majors had previously been subject to intense (Protestant, public school) prejudice. They silenced their critics in the most effective way possible—by shooting down Germans at a rate matched only by Albert Ball’s mid-war achievements in the skies above the Somme. Both men, especially Mannock, were an inspiration to George McElroy. By not returning to France until the autumn of 1917 (having previously served in the trenches), ‘McIrish’ avoided the petty social snobbery that had made life so miserable for his flight commander the previous spring: the RFC (from 1 April 1918, the Royal Air Force [RAF]) in the final year of the war was such a motley crew of ‘temporary gentlemen’, many of whom were drawn from the dominions, that courage and kill ratios far outweighed inadequacies of accent and etiquette. Interestingly, over half of all Irish recruits in 1918 joined the RAF, with many attracted by the opportunity of gaining a trade courtesy of the newest—and, it was popularly assumed, least hidebound—armed service.

Robert Gregory—Ireland’s most famous aviator

Ironically, once the war was over all three—Mannock, McCudden, and McElroy—were eclipsed in the national consciousness by an earlier member of 40 Squadron, Major Robert Gregory. Ireland’s most famous aviator, thanks to the much anthologised elegies of W.B. Yeats, had only known Mannock as a novice pilot eager to learn, yet equally keen to avoid being shot down before he had acquired the art of survival (the secret was to learn very fast if your life span as a scout pilot was going to last beyond the first three weeks). During the two months they flew together, all they had in common was their maturity—most RFC pilots saw anyone in their thirties as old men, and Gregory was thirty-six (admittedly seven years older than the new arrival). Mannock was ostracised in his early months with 40 Squadron, the sceptics swift to label him a social misfit and a coward. Yet his diary gives no indication of any enmity on the part of Robert Gregory, who was only too happy to pass on the finer points of dog fighting at 15,000 feet. Yet within two months Gregory was gone, soon to be posted south with his new squadron to join British reinforcements despatched to the Italian front following the Allies’ disastrous defeat at Caporetto.
Gregory had secured a commission in the 4th Connaught Rangers in September 1915, seeing his age as no obstacle to an immediate transfer in to the RFC. The move was confirmed in June 1916, by which time this physically slight yet by no means delicate figure was already a qualified flier, and eager to cross the Channel. Twelve months later, his exploits with 40 Squadron had earned him the Military Cross, in the words of the London Gazette:
for conspicuous gallantry and devotion to duty. On many occasions he has, at various altitudes, attacked and destroyed or driven down hostile machines, and has invariably displayed the highest courage and skill.
The French military authorities, especially appreciative of a true chevalier of the air and an honorary Parisian (courtesy of temporary residence in the capital as an art student), subsequently awarded him membership of the Legion d’Honneur.

Complex relationship with Yeats

Presumably, rapid advance to pilot training at such an advanced age, let alone the award of one of France’s highest honours, did not occur purely by chance. Strings could be pulled, and discreet signals sent to the right generals. Not that such a presumption should undermine Robert Gregory’s claim to have been a brave and honourable man—no pressure was placed on him to go to war, let alone assume such a hazardous occupation. Indeed, every effort was made to dissuade a married man with three young children and extensive family responsibilities from taking the King of England’s shilling. Robert was the adored offspring of Lady Augusta Gregory, and in 1902 he had inherited the Coole estate, near Gort. Coole is of course synonymous with Yeats, and for several years Robert tolerated his mother’s generous patronage, personal involvement, and professional collaboration. While living in England or France, he was happy to leave Lady Gregory to her summer soirées and her indulgence of the resurgent nation’s prize literary possession. Indeed, he even collaborated with the resident guest on stage sets for the Abbey Theatre, Yeats ignoring colleagues’ objections to young Robert’s designs. However, marriage to a fellow student at the Slade, Margaret Parry, brought renewed interest in Coole, and the arrival of children served only to confirm the park’s value as a refuge from the hurly-burly of London, Paris, and Dublin. Roy Foster has recounted Robert Gregory’s pre-war endeavours to secure full control of the estate, and in particular the house: he evicted Yeats from the master bedroom, and declared the wine cellar off limits. Thus, by the time war was declared in August 1914 there was no love lost between the two men. The complexity of Yeats’s response to war, and the conscious distancing and disengagement from England’s struggle, placed a further strain upon relations with a younger man capable of reconciling a national and an imperial obligation.
Elegising Gregory after his death, Yeats transcended any post-1916 dilemma of conflicting loyalties, confirming his dinner party sparring partner as ‘Bound neither to cause nor to state’, whose only country was ‘Kiltartan Cross’. Stung by his old patron’s intense grief, but inspired by her stoic fortitude, Yeats was moved to write four poems. The two best known are of course ‘In Memory of Major Robert Gregory’ and ‘An Irish Airman Foresees His Death’. Both poems appeared, along with the less well-known ‘Shepherd and Goatherd’, in the 1919 collection, The Wild Swans at Coole; throughout the interwar period they encouraged young writers to engage with flight and the cult of the aviator.

Died in mysterious circumstances

At the start of 1918 Major Gregory was commanding officer of 66 Squadron, stationed at Grossa in northern Italy. He died on 23 January in mysterious circumstances. The War Office telegram despatched to Galway informed Margaret Gregory that her husband had been ‘killed in action’, although his personnel file states that he was ‘accidentally killed during a practice flight’. Despite the absence of a final report, this was the cause of death given by the Air Historical Branch in reply to an inquiry by O.H. Edwards who, as early as 1934, was researching a biography of Yeats. The poet himself informed Maud Gonne that Gregory had been ‘shot down in error by an Italian pilot’, but gave no indication as to how he had acquired this information. There is no mention of death by ‘friendly fire’ in the deceased’s file, and a casualty card held by the RAF Museum details that the squadron CO was ‘last seen at 2,000 feet, before [he] went into a spin and crashed’. This would accord with Yeats’s initial belief that Gregory had passed out while returning from a reconnaissance patrol. The only certainty is that a body was retrieved, and buried with full military honours in the main cemetery in Padua.
Yeats had no illusion about Gregory’s feelings towards him, and yet he was fulsome in praise for ‘the most accomplished man I have ever known’. ‘A note of appreciation’ in the Observer (17 February 1918) proclaimed the dead artist’s hidden genius. More convincing was the suggestion—based on a recent conversation between Gregory and George Bernard Shaw—that service as a squadron commander had brought a genuine sense of fulfilment and contentment: ‘mind and hand were at one, will and desire’. The elegiac ‘In Memory of Major Robert Gregory’, completed four months later, found echoes of the great Elizabethan soldier-poet, Sir Philip Sidney, in the premature passing of a ‘Soldier, scholar, horseman, he,/And all he did done perfectly’. In highlighting the restless Robert’s great artistic promise, Yeats consciously passed over his military prowess. Nor, when famously lauding his feats in the saddle, did the poet make any connection between Gregory’s prowess as a hunter of game and his renowned marksmanship in the air. Reluctant to remind a wider audience as to why the tyro genius was struck down prematurely and in such bleak circumstances far from home, Yeats simply bypassed the war, rooting ‘my dear friend’s dear son’ firmly in ‘cold Clare rock and Galway rock and thorn’.
In ‘An Irish Airman Foresees his Death’ Kiltartan’s champion reflects upon his fate from a viewpoint ‘somewhere among the clouds above’, his outcome the consequence of no more than ‘A lonely impulse of delight’. For Gregory, a scion of the Anglo-Irish Ascendancy but also a rather Bohemian figure, as comfortable in Montparnasse as Mooneen, the war in the trenches had a resonance and a reality even the least detached Irish intellectual could scarcely comprehend.  Yeats’s insistence that, ‘Nor law, nor duty bade me fight,/Nor public men, nor cheering crowds’ demands qualification: for Gregory conscience—and indeed duty—had ultimately swept aside any lingering doubts concerning whether or not he should volunteer.
‘Shepherd and Goatherd’ has an anonymous Gregory die ‘in the great war beyond the sea’; and yet in life, albeit paradoxically not in death, he could see only too clearly that Britain and France were united in a life and death struggle, truly the first great industrial war. For Yeats, what a later generation christened ‘total war’ was scarcely comprehensible, as confirmed by his description of the Great War in ‘Explorations’ as the ‘victory of the skilful, riding their machines as did the feudal knights their armoured horses’. Clearly the grieving for Gregory had scarcely abated, and yet in the late 1920s only the most naively romantic still clung to the propagandists’ depiction of the air war as a unique meeting of chivalry and technology. Mannock’s generation had killed off the myth of mutual respect, witness his delight upon learning of von Richthofen’s death.
Robert Gregory became the embodiment of a strange and short-lived phenomenon, the noble Irish aviator (that phenomenon’s demise hastened by the presence of ‘West Briton’ pilots in RAF squadrons supporting ground operations against the IRA). Memorialised by the national poet, and yet dying for an already unfashionable and unpopular cause, Gregory’s image and status remain curiously paradoxical. A fourth poem, ‘Reprisals’, written in 1920, did not appear in The Times, as Yeats originally intended. Here the reluctant hero, who shot down ‘Some nineteen German planes, they say’, is contrasted with the ‘Half-drunk or whole-mad soldiery’ murdering his tenants at Kiltartan Cross. Yeats’s anger shines through, and yet there remains a certain ambiguity—beyond the disillusion is there an implied criticism of the absent master as he lies ‘Among the other cheated dead’, unable to heed the poet’s plea that he rise out of his ‘Italian tomb’ and sharply remind old comrades now in new uniforms of the ‘fine affair’ that only a few years earlier had led them all to Suvla Beach, or the ridges of Thiepval and Messines? Lady Gregory insisted that the memory of her son should not be tarnished by what she regarded as crude propaganda, and the poem was not published until 1948, nearly a decade after Yeats’s death. Thus, the ‘Irish Airman’ never entered the nationalist pantheon.
Yeats’s encomium in the Observer was both well-intentioned and disingenuous—Robert Gregory was never anything other than a modestly talented artist, although he was clearly a fine horseman and a first rate squadron commander. However, the poems published in The Wild Swans At Coole preserved for posterity a stark reminder that the Great War delivered a shattering blow to the Big House, all too often taking away the brightest and the best. Not that the Ascendancy class was in any way unique—to take but one example, three of the four McCudden brothers died in France.
None of the Irish air aces survived the war. One can only speculate as to how they would have come to terms with a very different world, not least a radicalised, polarised political environment in which atavistic attitudes had become even more entrenched, and previous loyalties, hopes, and assumptions increasingly redundant.

Adrian Smith is senior lecturer in historical studies at University of Southampton New College

Further reading:

A. Smith, Mick Mannock Fighter Pilot: Myth, Life and Politics (2001)

K. Jeffery, Ireland and the Great War (2000).

R. Foster, W.B. Yeats A Life 1: The Apprentice Mage (1997).

F. Brearton, The Great War in Irish Poetry (2000)

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