On 25 April, 2018, I walked across an unremarkable piece of Belgian countryside, attempting to commune with a dead man. I was writing a book about Maurice Wilson, who in 1933 had embarked on the maddest of quests: to fly a biplane 5,000 miles to Mount Everest, then to climb to its summit, on foot, alone. Eighty-five years after Wilson clambered into the cockpit of his Gipsy Moth at Stag Lane Aerodrome in north London, bound for the highest mountain on Earth, I drove from Paris to Flanders, parked near a town called Wijtschaete, then wandered through a field, watched by some stupid cows.
My obsession with Maurice Wilson began in 2011, when I read a short passage about him in a mountaineering book. I became deranged by curiosity. In the years that followed, the question I sought to answer was not so much what happened to Wilson — which was a series of more or less knowable facts — but why his life had unfolded the way it did. What would have driven a man with no climbing experience and meagre flying skills to do what he did? By the time I reached Belgium, I had scoured archives on three continents, read Wilson’s diary, found shipping manifests bearing his name, and read dozens of books.
In 2015, I visited a German writer who kept a box of Wilson’s letters in his basement, and who let me take the letters away as long as I bought him lunch. So much interesting material was unearthed in this way, and at times I felt I could hear Wilson’s voice. But there were also times when Wilson seemed distant and ancient — where I tracked him by his passport stamps. By the time I arrived in Belgium, I had written most of a first draft of what would become The Moth and the Mountain. The story almost worked, but not quite.
I wanted to know Wilson as a friend, rather than as a figure from history. One day in Wilson’s life seemed crucial: the day he won his Military Cross for bravery in WWI. The first serious attempt to narrate Wilson’s story, I’ll Climb Mount Everest Alone, which was written in 1957 by an English journalist named Dennis Roberts, brushes over this part of Wilson’s life. Roberts wrote that Second Lieutenant Wilson won his MC while defending the town of Méteren alongside an Australian battalion in 1918. He also surmised that the experience had not marked Wilson uniquely. Roberts wrote: “The horror of trench warfare affected Wilson in the same way that it affected thousands of other brave and sensitive young men — no more and no less.”
No more and no less. I knew Roberts was wrong. Sixteen years after Wilson fought, he was at the foot of Everest, still reckoning with his experiences in Flanders. The last poem he sent to his lover speculates about “war that is past, and again in the making”. The gold crucifix he wore around his neck on his way to Everest, which was rescued from the body of a soldier who had died on the front line and given to Wilson by the man’s mother, was inscribed with the phrase Amor Vincit Omnia: Love Conquers All. I had no doubt that the war changed everything for Wilson.
What was more, the basic facts of Roberts’ account of Wilson’s wartime experiences were wrong. Wilson’s battalion, the 1/5 West Yorkshire Regiment — known as the First Fifth — was nowhere near Méteren. A commanding officer’s diary shows exactly where the First Fifth were: on the outskirts of a town then called Wytschaete, which the British soldiers called “White Sheet”. In April 1918, the Germans were attempting to break through the British lines before the Americans joined the Allied side and settled the conflict decisively.
Wilson had just turned 20. In the early hours of 25 April, the Germans had hammered the British lines with artillery fire and poison gas. “It seemed incredible that any human being could survive,” wrote one senior officer. Yet many did, if only for a few hours, as the German infantry attacked, blasting through much of the front line. More than 400 of Wilson’s battalion were killed and around 120 taken prisoner. There were many episodes of extraordinary bravery recorded on that day. Men are described as having fought in small pockets, with dwindling ammunition, for many hours, before being overwhelmed.
Wilson somehow survived. The citation for his Military Cross describes how “he held a post in advance of the line under very heavy shell and machine gun fire on both flanks after the machine guns covering his flanks had been withdrawn. It was largely owing to his pluck and determination in holding the post that the enemy attack was held up.”
I arrived in White Sheet 100 years to the day after Wilson fought there. I walked around a clump of trees known by local farmers as The Big Wood. From reading the wartime diaries, I knew how much blood had been spilled underneath my feet. I entered immaculately maintained cemeteries, filled with English names — Belcher, Healey, Greaves — and noted how many times “25 April, 1918” was written on the stones.
I walked to the spot on the northeast side of The Big Wood, where Wilson stayed at his post, firing his weapon on the enemy for at least three hours, with no cover, before fighting a hazardous retreat to safety. Seized by the need to somehow mark my presence on that patch of land, I pressed my hand into the dewy grass, as if to make a handprint. The grass simply sprang up again.
There was no Pauline epiphany at White Sheet; Maurice Wilson did not speak to me. But the trip prompted small and useful revelations. I thought about Wilson, on the morning after the battle, as his battalion’s roll was called, and he stood to attention with a rag-tag gang of muddied and bloodied soldiers. He was one of only 12 officers and 78 men who had survived. So many of his friends had disappeared in a single day. Wilson had been courageous, but — as he must have known — profoundly lucky. I could imagine his guilt and gratitude colliding. I could imagine a corresponding feeling of numbness. I could imagine him, many years later, undaunted by Everest.
When I wrote the final draft of my book, the wartime episodes were much easier to de-scribe. I had walked the fields. The diaries and histories corresponded to real places. But there was also another scene, later in the story, that now carried greater meaning. Wilson was just beginning his flight to Everest. He had flown his Moth across the Channel, and soon he was above northern France, heading towards the aerodrome at Freiburg, in Germany’s Black Forest. He flew low enough that he could see the world in detail. At some point on that day, he crossed the old front line, where millions of men just like him died too young, and he was spared.
Perhaps, when he looked down, it provoked complicated emotions. But I would love to think he felt pure joy. He was 2,000ft above the giant cemetery, with the wind in his goggled face, in the grip of a beautiful and audacious adventure, hurting nobody, entirely free.
The Moth and the Mountain: A True Story of Love, War and Everest is published on 12 November by Viking. Available to buy here.
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