Robert Gregory joined 4th Bn Connaught Rangers as a second lieutenant in September 1915. Shortly after he transferred to the Royal Flying Corps for which his small stature was suited.
In the first of this series I wrote about his exceptional ability as a fighter pilot, at a time when RFC losses were 12 aircraft and 20 crew every day. Robert, then aged 34 (the average age of pilots was in their twenties ), initially flew coastal patrols over Dover. He entered active service on the German front in summer 1916. He was quickly promoted to captain, then flight commander, and finally became squadron commander in June 1917.
He flew an RE 8 colloquially known as ‘Harry Tate’ after a popular music hall comedian. It was a one or two-seater biplane designed as a reconnaissance aircraft, good for spotting enemy artillery and positions, but was notoriously difficult to fly. One pilot described it ‘more like flying a steamroller than an aeroplane’.
Armed with machine gun (which had to be fired away from the controls ), and a pistol, the RE 8 rapidly gained a reputation as a death trap, as an ‘incinerator of pilots’. Good for observation but a handicap when trying to evade German fighters. However, through rigorous training, and if a pilot managed to stay alive during his first three weeks in the air, determined crews defended themselves vigorously when under attack.*
James Pethica, author of Yeats’s Perfect Man (The Dublin Review 26/06/2015 ), states that ‘to chart Gregory’s flying career through the combat records and flight logs that survive, is to recognise how little detail of his bravery has been described in the published record, or even in the laconic, self-effacing content of his own combat reports.
Yet is it almost certain that in March 1917 Gregory engaged in one-to-one combat with Manfred von Richthofen, the so called Red Baron, Germany’s greatest air ace of the war, and actually succeeded in bringing his plane down, the only occasion this happened in von Richthofen’s career before he was killed by ground fire in 1918. Major Gregory is accredited with 19 enemy victories, winning the Military Cross for ‘conspicuous gallantry and devotion to duty’, and was awarded the Légion d’Honneur by the French government.
James Pethica tells us that despite the trauma of 1915, Robert’s wife Margaret still hoped for a reconciliation. Over the next two and a half years the marriage was sustained publicly and with some interludes of what seems to have been mutual happiness. Margaret’s diary, however, soon shows that after periods of loving attention from Robert, once he returned to duty he only wrote her an occasional letter. On September 8 1917 she records that Robert ‘seemed depressed, all rather sad and dull…I can’t fight his moods, no power.’
She became pregnant around this time, a development that left her ‘dreadfully depressed’. It was emphatically unwanted. Then Robert was transferred to command Squadron 66 in Italy. After farewell dinners with friends, he departed for his new post October 24 1917. Margaret’s diary: ‘To Charing Cross to see him off. Perfectly miserable. ….wept all the way down the Strand.’
In early December, after several weeks of increasingly severe haemorrhaging, she suffered a miscarriage. The event was a relief. ‘How thankful Robert will be if he even bothers to be thankful.’
‘Happiest of his life’
Robert Graves, in his still compelling Goodbye To All That (published 1929 ), describes the relief he felt returning to the front where he served for much of the war. He found home leave irksome. The whingeing of his family, the negative complaints about the effects of the war, and the dull complications of civilian life, prompted him to see that life in the trenches came down to one simple fact: You live or you die.**
George Bernard Shaw, a dear friend of Robert’s mother Lady Gregory, wrote to her after Robert’s death, intending to bring some consolation. In February 1917 he met Robert on the Western Front. Robert told him that the six months he had been there had been the happiest of his life. Shaw wrote: ‘An amazing thing to say considering his exceptionally fortunate and happy circumstances at home, but he evidently meant it. To a man with his power of standing up to danger - which must mean enjoying it - war must have intensified his life as nothing else could; he got a grip of it that he could not through art or love. I suppose that is what makes the soldier.’
It appears that Robert after the spring and summer of explosive passion, his obsessive love for Nora Summers, and its messy break-up, and deeply wounding his wife Margaret, found something that Robert Graves had discovered. Home leave became difficult. Robert had found peace, and purpose ‘in the clouds above’.
Next Week: Life at Coole Park, and Robert’s fatalistic dream
NOTES: *Later Maj Gregory flew the famous Sopwith Camel, a single-seater bi-plane, with its twin synchronised machine guns. A deadly weapon, the Sopwith Camel is credited with shooting down 1,294 enemy aircraft more than any other fighter of the conflict.
** Graves served as a lieutenant then captain in the Royal Welch Fusiliers with the poet Siegfried Sassoon. Goodbye To All That provides a detailed description of trench warfare including the tragic incompetences of the Battle of Loos. He was severely wounded, traumatised, and once it was erroneously reported to his family that he had been killed. The book, however, caused a major falling out with Sassoon and Robert’s father (Alfred Percival Graves ). They contradicted some of his facts.