Billy Bishop’s perspective on war

Jordan Bosch
Special to the Times-Herald

Anyone who saw last month’s great production of Billy Bishop Goes to War, and those of us who’ve been familiar with it for some time, know it’s one of the best Canadian plays.
Written by John MacLachlan Gray and Saskatchewan’s own Eric Peterson back in 1978, it’s an exploration of the aeronautical career of Billy Bishop, Canada’s most famous aviator in the First World War. The play does a very good job of honouring its hero while lamenting the war he fought in.
Due to how wars are fought in this day and age, it’s hard to believe there was a time when going to war was romanticized. People leapt at the opportunity to fight for their country or their own sense of pride, not understanding the realities or consequences. The war Bishop fought was perhaps history’s most striking example of this. Thousands enlisted, believing they were going off to action and glory. But with this being the first major war between European powers in over half a century, with a long build-up where everyone was looking for an excuse to start one, no one was really ready for how the landscape had changed. The invention of machine guns meant a lot more people could die more easily and quickly. What was going to be some brief conflict lasted years and would quickly be referred to as the Great War or the War to End All Wars.
Billy Bishop understands this. The show’s main song, “We Were Off to Fight the Hun” explicitly addresses it. Likewise, Bishop gradually comes to realize the reality of war over the course of the play. While he understands the death toll from early on, he’s far enough away from the front that he’s still able to be relatively gung-ho, until the point his plane lands on the line and he’s forced to spend a night in the trenches.
One of the play’s most moving moments is when he sees No Mans’ Land for the first time and the fallen soldiers scattered around it. Similarly, the scene later on where he realizes the scope of what he’s doing, when he sees a man fall to his death from the plane he just shot down, is illustrated as the a perfect reminder that everyone fighting the war for each side, was human. For the record, Moose Jaw’s own Daniel Falk was amazing in the role in the RuBarb Productions presentation last month, the best I’ve seen apart from Peterson himself.
Bishop’s accomplishments are highlighted through him telling us about them, but the play maintains an eager pace, as even when not acting the parts of other characters in Bishop’s life, he’s still very energetic and illustrates his storytelling through amusing touches and non sequiturs. This personality both humanizes Bishop as a character and creates a wartime context.
The irrational hatred for the Germans and Bishop’s over-the-top impersonations of British officials alike speak to pervasive attitudes of the period. There was no shortage of British commanders worth mocking, if not for their snobbery, then for their disastrous strategic blunders, like Gallipoli and the Siege of Kut. Sir Douglas Haig was notorious for campaigns that achieved little advancement at the cost of thousands of lives, like Passchendaele and Festubert.
Billy Bishop Goes to War is a wonderful show not for its story or songs or production or humour or even necessarily its writing, but also for its resolute frankness about war while still honouring a figure who made his name fighting one, doing so skillfully at that. And while it certainly paints Bishop as unambiguously heroic in a war with few heroes or villains, it does tap into a significant understanding of what the First World War really was. And that cannot be forgotten.