Flight: Art journey remembers World War One's 'Suicide Club'

By Chris Long
Arts and entertainment reporter

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image copyrightSheila Burnett
image captionThe 'performance journey' sees local actors play the roles of the airmen and their loved ones

In commemorating the battles of the Somme and Jutland in recent months, Britain has remembered the soldiers and sailors of World War One - and a performance in Cumbria, north west England, is looking to do the same for the pilots of the Royal Flying Corps, or the "Suicide Club", as it was grimly known.

Geraldine Pilgrim's Flight sets the lives of those men in the context of aviation history, using as a backdrop, the rich heritage of the area where it is being staged.

Cumbria's links to aviation are strong - it was the birthplace of Britain's first seaplane, Waterbird, and one of the first British military airships, and its involvement with both made it a hotbed for would-be pilots in the pre-war years.

Pilgrim says she found their stories and the way their simple desire to fly led to their involvement in the war "completely extraordinary and tragic".

The men were based at Hill of Oaks on the banks of Windermere, from where Waterbird took its first flight in 1911 and which became a Royal Naval Air Service base during the war.

image copyrightRAF Museum
image captionMoe than half of the 14,000 Allied pilots killed in WW1 died during training

"Not many people know about its importance," says Pilgrim.

"The Hill of Oaks became a pilot training school and these young men that just wanted to fly actually got caught up in World War One.

"They became known as the 'Suicide Club' because they were only in the air for a maximum of 11 days before they were shot down."

She says what that name made her realise was "the enormity of the loss to the people that were left behind", a feeling which she hopes to convey in her "site-specific performance journey".

"One of the images I'm thinking of is the women waiting for their boys - whether they were sons, fathers, brothers, husbands, boyfriends - to come home.

"I imagined the women looking up at the sky over the Lake District, waiting for them to come back, a bit like migrating birds coming home.

"The poignancy is that so many of them waited and waited but their boys never came back."

She says, that while that is undoubtedly a sad image, "I want people to be moved but I don't want them to feel unhappy".

"It's not melancholy - we live in troubled enough times at the moment. I want it to be poignant," she says.

Flying in World War One

image copyrightAlamy
  • The mortality rate for pilots in World War One was desperately high as they struggled with technology that was still in its infancy - the first powered flight had come only 11 years before the start of the conflict
  • Dodge Bailey, a retired RAF pilot with more than 20 years' experience of flying WW1 aircraft, says the level of training was an issue, as it was "like taking someone up to their fourth driving lesson and putting them into a Formula One car"
  • Some 14,000 Allied pilots were killed during the war and more than half of those fatalities occurred in training
  • While pilots were lauded for their bravery and derring-do attitude, many struggled with the dangers they faced on a daily basis - WW1 aviation expert Derek Robinson says nightmares "were not uncommon... usually about burning aircraft, the worst way to die for a pilot"

Source: BBC iWonder

The show is being put on at Brockhole, a "wonderful arts and craft designed building" beside Windermere which Pilgrim says lost many of its period features after being sold to Liverpool Health Authority in 1945.

"It was neutralised and made into one of those bland office spaces. It broke my heart when I saw it.

"Part of what we're doing is transforming the top floor and repapering the hallway with period wallpaper.

"We're giving back Brockhole some of the care and attention that it deserves."

She says it is an important part of the process that is driving the performance - that the project "is for and about Cumbria".

"This was once a much loved family home and we want to make sure it still feels like it's loved and cared for.

"It is [loved] by many people in the area and they felt like it needed a bit of tender care."

image copyrightSheila Burnett
image captionThe artwork dwells on the women who were left behind, waiting for the men to return from war

Those people are also involved in the piece, as volunteers from Westmoreland Croquet Club, Burneside Brass Band, Ashton Family Theatre, Ambleside Theatre, the University of Cumbria and Kendal College are taking roles, along with several local families.

Sue Larkin got involved after her daughter encouraged her to go to a meeting with the artist about the project.

She says being made "to stop and consider the reality for the people portrayed is very sobering".

"I think that we can all appreciate how people's feelings about the war changed.

"Everyone was so proud and excited at the start but the reality, for so many, was devastating.

"I had never appreciated how many women never married because so many young men went to war and never come home.

"And as I watch the teenagers I am acting with in my scene, keeping in constant touch with their mates via social media throughout the evening, it is also hard to imagine what it was really like to have to wait so long for any news of your loved ones.

"It must have been almost unbearable."

image copyrightLakes Flying Company
image captionWaterbird made its first flight over Windermere in November 1911

Larkin says that even though she has lived in the area for 20 years, she was "not aware of any of the stories about the families or the airmen and women" before being told about them by Pilgrim.

The artist says she is not alone in that as, for many volunteers, it is all "genuinely new" - and for herself, raising awareness was one of the main aims of her project.

"What I want to do is help people learn more about their own history.

"Not in a patronising way, because I'm not from here, but I've had a chance to particularly research the area.

"I'm hoping that this will make people inspired to find out more."

image copyrightSheila Burnett
image captionArtist Geraldine Pilgrim hopes the work will 'help people learn more about their own history'

Larkin says she has certainly found the project educational as being involved has seen both her daughters "ask some really interesting questions".

"It has been particularly enriching to work on this piece with our teenagers," she says.

"It has really helped them to get a bit more of an understanding of some of the realities of this conflict."

Flight is at Brockhole on Windermere until 10 July. A free installation continues there until 17 July.

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