The best books about the Battle of Arras, the Royal Flying Corps and the aftermath of WW1 for women

The Books I Picked & Why

Bloody April: Slaughter in the Skies Over Arras

By Peter Hart

Book cover of Bloody April: Slaughter in the Skies Over Arras

Why this book?

Bloody April was a month well-named. The Royal Flying Corp lost one in three of its pilots, with the average life expectancy of a newly arrived airman dropping to less than two weeks. Pushed by the commanders and planners at HQ, they continued to rise against these horrible odds in flimsy biplanes without parachutes. Their young lives were gambled away for the prize of the reconnaissance photographs that the survivors might bring back, grainy images upon which the planning for the ground battle so depended. Hart mixes the hard facts and figures with the personal recollections of those that fought this desperate battle and those that watched and waited on the ground. This book is a sharp and inciteful history that takes you on an emotional journey.


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Cheerful Sacrifice: The Battle of Arras, 1917

By Jonathan Nicholls

Book cover of Cheerful Sacrifice: The Battle of Arras, 1917

Why this book?

By the measure of its daily casualty rate, The Battle of Arras was the costliest British offensive of the First World War, far higher than either the Somme or Passchendaele. One survivor described it as 'the most savage infantry battle of the war.' The strength of this history derives from the fact that Nicholls interviewed so many (now deceased) veterans of both sides and uses their words to inject a visceral dynamism into his text. He takes us from early breakthroughs by the British forces to the, perhaps inevitable, final stalemate. Cuttingly, Nicholls lifts his title directly from a comment made by an officer who rationalised the enormous slaughter as a ‘cheerful sacrifice’ on the part of the soldiers who served and died at his behest.


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Goshawk Squadron

By Derek Robinson

Book cover of Goshawk Squadron

Why this book?

Robinson’s tale of Goshawk Squadron battling the odds in the last year of the Great War cuts through the Biggles-style myths and legends that had dominated the public perception for many years. He shines a light on the bleak and terrifying business of aerial warfare and unflinchingly portrays the horror and helplessness of becoming the loser in a dogfight to the death. Yet from this foreboding vista he prises shining nuggets of laugh-out-loud humour, albeit of the gallows variety. Robinson’s spot-on characterisations and skilfully written battle narratives will place you in the rattling cockpit of a biplane in the hostile hunting grounds over France. This 50th-anniversary reissue is a well-deserved accolade.  


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Fighter Heroes of WWI: The Extraordinary Story of the Pioneering Airmen of the Great War

By Joshua Levine

Book cover of Fighter Heroes of WWI: The Extraordinary Story of the Pioneering Airmen of the Great War

Why this book?

Barely a decade after The Wright brothers’ first tentative take-off, flying machines were thrown into the scorching crucible of war in Europe. The men who flew them were pioneers, members of what many saw as a military flying club. But the flying club soon developed into a bear-pit of mortal combat, fought behind synchronised machine guns without the solace of a parachute. Levine paints his pictures with the personal accounts and anecdotes of the pilots that fought these battles, seeking to understand the feelings and motivations of the young men who volunteered to risk all in the frightening new theatre of aerial warfare. These truths, are in many instances, stranger than fiction, forged, as they were, on the cutting edge of the new aviation technology.


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Singled Out: How Two Million British Women Survived Without Men After the First World War

By Virginia Nicholson

Book cover of Singled Out: How Two Million British Women Survived Without Men After the First World War

Why this book?

The First World War stripped Britain of hundreds of thousands of its young men. In an age where women’s lives were funnelled towards the certainty of marriage, this left a big shortfall on the balance sheet of matrimony, creating what became known as the Surplus Women. Now they had to find their own sources of income and become responsible for their own future happiness.

Nicholson curates many memoirs and diaries of such women from all tiers of society. Adding material from interviews she conducted herself, she tells the stories of lost potential and loneliness, together with inspirational tales of liberation, fresh-forged independence, and the unprecedented freedom that self-reliance brought for those who rose to the challenge.


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