College of Arts and Sciences


Master of Arts in History - Thesis (MA)


Christopher Smith


World War I, Aviation, Medievalism, Literature, Memorials, English culture




Aviators of World War I were trailblazers of the sky. That much is certain. However, there has been a historical debate about their reputation as “knights of the air.” During the war and for many years afterward, World War I aviators were compared to medieval knights battling in honorable duels amongst the clouds. This was an idea popularized by the pilots themselves. David Lloyd George, British Prime Minister during World War I, described pilots, “‘They are the knighthood of this war… they recall the legendary days of chivalry not merely by the daring of their exploits but by the nobility of their sprit.’” However, during the century following the end of the war, this narrative has come under scrutiny. How should chivalry and honor be properly understood in the context of World War I aviators? The idea of knights was deeply intertwined with the story of World War I pilots, with good reason. Before historians begin throwing away such ideas of honor and chivalry, it would be wise to take into consideration why such ideas exist in the first place. The question of chivalry’s role amongst World War I aviators, whether reality or myth, must be considered within the context of the unique role of the pilots in the evolution of warfare from the era of knights to World War I, with the proper understanding of medievalism and the concepts of honor and chivalry in the British culture of the period, as seen in their literature and memorials both before and after the war, and with the realization of warfare’s impact on the human psyche, particularly that of a wartime pilot.

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