‘Those that I fight I do not hate’ – An Irishman’s Diary on Robert Gregory
Maj Robert Gregory: Yeats’s ‘Airman’ was one of the most famous Irish casualties of the first World War
The poet WB Yeats managed to distil the dilemma of Irish nationalist servicemen in the British forces into just two lines in his great poem An Irish Airman Foresees His Death: “Those that I fight I do not hate/those that I guard I do not love”.
It was the fate of the Irishmen in British uniforms to find themselves, particularly in the closing stages of the war, fighting for a country that many held as the author of all of Ireland’s misfortunes against an enemy with which the Irish never had any quarrel.
This was certainly true in the case of Maj Robert Gregory, who is the airman of the poem, although his name is never mentioned.
In early 1918 Gregory found himself posted as a squadron leader to the Italian front opposing the mélange of Austrians, Magyars, Croats, Slavs, Ruthenians, Romanians, Czechs, Slovaks and Slovenes who made up the Austro-Hungarian Empire.
Gregory is the personification of the Irishman caught in a no man’s land of competing allegiances. It is not patriotic duty that compels the Irish airman to risk his life “somewhere among the clouds above” but a “lonely impulse of delight”.
The apolitical airman whose only country is “Kiltartan Cross” and his countrymen “Kiltartan’s poor” (Kiltartan being a crossroads near Gregory’s home in Co Galway) adds a note of elegy to Yeats’s poem.
It is a plaintive notion, but it is unlikely to be true. Gregory was not apolitical nor a nationalist in our modern understanding of the word. He was 33 when war broke out. He had everything to live for, not least his wife Margaret and their three children.
He was not driven by economic necessity to take the king’s shilling.
When he joined the Connaught Rangers in September 1915, transferring to the Royal Flying Corps in June 1916 (it became the RAF in late 1918), he did so out of conviction.
According to Yeats’s biographer, Roy Foster, Gregory’s views had “long been anti-Sinn Féin and he seems to have fully supported the war effort”.
Foster went further. Yeats had attributed to Gregory, an “alienation from empire for which there is little evidence”.
In short, Yeats projected his own alienation from empire after the Easter Rising on to Gregory.
Further proof that Gregory was no indifferent combatant was provided by George Bernard Shaw. He wrote a consoling letter to Gregory’s mother Lady Gregory, Yeats’s great patron, recounting his meeting with her son on the Western Front.
Gregory’s face had been scarred from frostbite as a result of flying into freezing air, Shaw recounted, “but he told me that the six months he has been there had been the happiest of his life. War must have intensified his life as nothing else could; he got a grip of it that he could not get through art or love”.
Yeats wrote four poems about Gregory along with a well-received appreciation in the Observer newspaper. Few individuals were the subject of Yeats’s poetic sensibility as much as he was.
Yet in life, Robert Gregory and Yeats had a testy relationship.
Robert Gregory resented Yeats’s long sojourns at Coole during the summer and ejected him from the master bedroom. He also chaffed at Yeats taking liberties with his late father’s wine cellar.
Gregory was much more than a fighter pilot who died in the first World War. He already had half a lifetime of accomplishments behind him.
He was a talented landscape painter and designed sets for the Abbey Theatre, including one for Yeats’s play Deirdre of the Sorrows.
He was also a horseman of some note, a benign landlord and classical scholar. Yeats liberally used the word “genius” to describe this fallen airman.
Gregory was old by the standards of the time when he enlisted and did so well into the war.
He was an outstanding pilot winning the Military Medal and Légion d’honneur in short order while serving with 40 Squadron on the Western Front.
He might have expected a less eventful sojourn in Italy.
The circumstances of his death remain a mystery. The dreaded telegram dispatched to Coole stated that he was killed in action. He was certainly not killed by enemy aircraft. Then it was claimed that he was killed by friendly fire. His casualty card states that his Sopwith F.1 Camel was last seen at 2,000 feet when it went into a spin and crashed. The cause of the crash, the Royal Flying Corps decided, was “unknown”.
One hundred years on, his relative Geoffrey O’Byrne White has posited an interesting theory as to how Gregory died. He suggests that Gregory died after receiving an inoculation on the morning he died and it may have been the vaccination against the Spanish flu which ravaged the world in 1918.
It cannot have been the Spanish flu vaccine as the disease did not manifest itself until later in the year and the first inoculation did not occur until October 1918.
It might, instead, have been the anti-typhoid inoculation. If so, it would have been the one developed by doctors in Trinity College Dublin and which saved thousands of lives in the first World War.
Just 8,000 cases of this potentially deadly disease manifested itself in British soldiers in the first World War compared to 10 times that number in the Boer War, which had only a fraction of the combatants.
The vaccine had considerable side-effects, a certain light-headedness and dizziness among them. For those reasons pilots were advised not to fly for a couple of days after receiving it.
For reasons unknown, Gregory defied the advice of doctors. It would be a cruel irony if a vaccine which saved so many lives would take the life of one of the most famous Irish casualties of the first World War.