The Peripatetic Reviewer
BY EDWARD WEEKS
LIKE Admiral William S. Sims in the Navy, BRIGADIER GENERAL WILLIAM MITCHELL was an outspoken firebrand and a constant source of irritation to the old guard in the Army Signal Corps. Billy Mitchell at the age of eighteen enlisted as a private and served throughout the Spanish-American War. In 1901, now a first lieutenant in the Signal Corps, he was sent to Alaska, where he set up a primitive telegraph system. In 1909, while on leave, he made an extensive tour of the Far East, and on his return at the age of thirty-two he was appointed to the General Staff. As a General Staff officer he submitted a report in 1914 that if the Allies were allowed to float loans in this country, it would assuredly involve us in the war. He had known the Wright brothers, and in 1916 he learned to fly at his own expense; six months later he was ordered to France as a military observer for aviation, and so became the first American officer to serve with the Allies under German fire.
It was Billy Mitchell’s wish to be commander of the Air Services in the newly formed A.E.F., and for a time he held this command. His plans and his predictions for the squadrons then forming at home were right-minded and prophetic. He urged that we assist the production of French planes instead of wasting time trying to devise our own American models; he made note of the fighting tactics of the French pursuit pilots, whom he greatly admired; he realized how much the French pilots were dependent upon their devoted, welltrained mechanics; he saw how the Germans scored with their weight of numbers; and, finally, he recommended that all Allied aviation should be placed under a single command instead of being trammeled by conflicting instructions from the ground forces. These ideas are some of the spear points in his posthumous volume, MEMOIRS OF WORLD WAR I (Random House, $4.95).
It is grim to have to add that, in almost every instance, General Mitchell’s recommendations were blocked by the high brass in France and in Washington. Instead of speeding up the production of Spads in the French factories, it was decided, thanks to British propaganda, that we should use the De Havilland airplane with the as yet undeveloped Liberty engine being substituted for their Rolls-Royce. The result of this blunder was that no plane of American origin ever fought in combat, and our pilots were, many of them, compelled to take to the air in French retreads, planes which in anything but an emergency would have been condemned as unfit.
General Mitchell himself was at the front constantly throughout 1917. He saw the disastrous bogging down of General Nivelle’s offensive (300,000 casualties in three weeks); he participated in the strafing of German balloons; he saw aerial combats at close range and was one of the first to inspect the great Zeppelins which were brought down intact after the ill-fated raid over Britain. He spoke French and had established a confidential relationship with the commanding officers of the French Aviation when he learned to his chagrin that he was being relieved by Brigadier General Foulois, who had just arrived in France “with a shipload of aviation officers, almost none of whom had ever seen an airplane.” He himself was to be given command of the air force of the 1st Army Corps, as soon as that unit could be formed. Meantime, he was to assist in teaching “the staff officers what the Air Service was all about and how it could be used,” and if he sometimes seemed brusque and tactless, one can hardly wonder.
Mitchell was too good a fighter to sulk, and his resourcefulness as a leader was called on more and more as the American forces were built up for their vital campaigns in the summer and autumn of 1918. He never lost his capacity to look ahead or his infuriating habit of making suggestions upsetting to the old guard. “If we had been called on to light alone,” he writes, “I doubt if we could have put up as much resistance with our regular army, steeped as it was in the conservatism of peace-time methods, as with the New York City police force.” “There must have been a lot of inside work somewhere by the English manufacturers to put this thing over on the Americans,” he wrote when he heard that the Liberty—De Havilland deal had finally been accepted.
On his days off he went to shoot the wild boar in the forests of the Marne, and on his days on he watched Frank Luke, the Arizona cowboy, shoot down the German saucisses with flaming bullets and helped to build up the esprit and the training of his favorite bombardment squadrons — the 94th was one of them against that great moment on the morning of September 12, 1918, when he directed the British, French, Italian, and American pilots in their victory at Saint-Mihiel.
THE SLEEPING TIGER
LUDWIG BEMELMANS, who paints almost as well as he writes, has the happy art of embellishing the past. Whether he is writing about Elsie de Wolfe or the Hotel Splcndide, Paris in the spring or a Latin American general of fabulous taste and wealth, his colors are true and his manner of telling delectable. His new novel, ARE YOU HUNGRY ARE YOU COLD (World, 553.95), begins enticingly in the cantonment of French cavalry at Beaufort. We see the colonel, a fastidious man of raging discipline, and his cold, wealthy Spanish wife; we see Hercule, who plays the kettledrums astride Grand Romulus, the gray Perchcron; Sophie anci Caroline, who take care of the colonel’s children; and the children themselves, Hugo and his older sister, already a beauty in her adolescence, who are neglected by their parents and who, hungry for love, find what compensation they can in the scullery and barracks, where they acquire, among other things, a very choice military vocabulary. The story is told by the colonel’s daughter, and it gets its impetus from these words: “My brother and I were like birds that flew against walls and windows when we tried to get someone to love us.”
When, after some trivial discrepancy, the colonel decides to take the children in hand, his swagger stick is used for the beating, and this arouses in the daughter the virago who has always been there. She fights him at every whipping, she breaks his stick, she tips over the flowerpot from the roof when he is tormenting Hugo in the riding ring — and it barely misses — she fights the governess he brings in to temper her, and she mischievously disorganizes the convents to which she is consigned.
This feud between father and daughter is interrupted by the German invasion of 1940, but it is resumed at the war’s end when Papa is sent in to command the occupation forces in the French zone. The family take up their residence in a vast German castle, where they are served luscious German dishes, where Father plays war games with a former German general, and where the daughter, now grown to be most desirable, is tended by an improbable Nazi governess. The element of fantasy which is always close to the surface in Bemelmans’ books gets a little headstrong at times, and this is the doing of the heroine, whose unpredictable revenges — the painting of Gladys, the entrapment of Père Framboise, and the firing of the convent — are ingenious, to say the least. I relish Bemelmans for the way he writes about foods and functions, for his ingenious little portraits, as of Père Sylvan and Frau Lamp, the cook, and always for the gaiety and luster of his narrative.
THE FISHING JUDGE
As a native son of the Upper Peninsula of Michigan, then as a hard-driven district attorney, and finally as a justice of the Michigan Supreme Court, John D. Voelker has found serenity of mind and that annual renewal of one’s youth which comes from fishing for brook trout. Under the pen name of ROBERT TRAVER, he has written five books, the best known being his novel Anatomy of a Murder. Now, in his new volume of hearty and indigenous essays, TROUT MADNESS (St. Martin’s Press, $4.95), he tells of his adventures as he wades the brooks or hefts his way with his collapsible rubber boat through the rough brush to find that hidden beaver dam where the big ones are rising.
The judge is a fly fisherman, wet or dry, and as he says, “the best time to go trout fishing is when you can get away”; he supplies no maps and no rules of thumb; he takes his beer and his pipe with him; and while he likes to fish alone (as all lovers of the fly rod do), he enjoys company at the campfire at the day’s end. His essays arc studies in enjoyment, humility, and the occasional moments of triumph; and after a rather forced note of jocoseness in the first two essays, where he is telling about his escapades on the first day and in his fish car, he gets down to business in a charming way. I like best his story of the lost Atlantis, his account of the trial when the Paulsons ganged up on him, and the oddities of animal life, which he recounts in a chapter entitled “These Tired Old Eyes. . . .” I have seen his country, but only in the winter, when the streams were frozen. I saw enough to whet the imagination, and now that the judge is retired I’d like him to show me these haunts which he has so temptingly described.