Sagittarius Rising

The events Sagittarius Rising describes happened around one hundred years ago. It’s hard to believe because the book is so vivid. It’s the autobiography of Cecil Lewis, a man who lied about his age to join the Royal Flying Corps in 1915. He ended up flying artillery reconnaissance missions over the Somme in 1916 just as the great offensive began. He witnessed the first tanks deployed that year. He flew with Albert Ball against the Flying Circuses and was there the day Ball died. He may have been the last man to see him alive.

Sagitarius Rising

The book is an astonishing evocation of a time, a place and an attitude, written in that understated, stiff upper lip style that the iconoclasts of the 1960s found so easy to parody. And yet you come away from it understanding why that emotional restraint was necessary. It’s about men sent into aerial combat after thirteen hours of flight training. To call the pilots men is slightly misleading. For the truth is that many were schoolboys, aged 17, 18 or a little over.

The book catches it all; the excitement, the fear, the beauty of the landscape seen from high in the air. This was a time when to fly at 10,000 feet at 75 mph was to be at the cutting-edge of human experience. You get a sense of that as well as a sense of the colossal scale and waste of the war. Looking down from the cold heights, the pilots could see exactly how little ground was gained at the cost of exactly how many hundreds of thousands of lives.

All of which makes Sagittarius Rising sound a lot grimmer than it is. Lewis has a gift for describing the quiet moments of comradeship as well as the terror and excitement of flight. He can conjure up a mess party drinking session or an evening with a young prostitute in a burned-out village and evoke just as much emotion as he can with the description of a dogfight over the trenches. He brings to life the characters. You get a sense of the eccentricity as well as the valour of the combatants. There is a bloke who rigs an improvised grenade dropping machine beneath the fuselage of his scout plane. The only damage he inflicts is to an observer who ends up with bits of the radio embedded in his posterior.

This is a great book and not just about war. One of the things that makes it so is that it was written 20 years after the events. Lewis will write down excerpts from his flight log that cover momentous events in a few terse sentences and then politely admit that he remembers nothing about the events themselves. Then he will evoke an image of flying in a cloudless sky or seeing grey uniformed Germans huddled in a crater that is precise, crisp and absolutely perfect.

He describes the transition from a summer to a winter and suddenly realises that the whole cavalcade of events that he’s been talking about have taken place in the same year. It seems as if it’s a lifetime’s worth of experience but in fact, it’s only a couple of seasons. Yes, you think, as you read it, this is how memory works. You get a sense of the troubled middle-aged man wrestling with the apocalyptic events of his youth. There is sorrow about the passages as he remembers dead comrades that tells you that he was affected deeply by his experience. He had the gift to be able to communicate it all.

Great book. Go read it.

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  1. Nicolas Muller says:

    You’ve just convinced me, William. Thank you 🙂

  2. Michael Mooney says:


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