History / Maryam Philpott

Air Power in World War I

Our understanding of the First World War tends to focus on trench warfare, but by looking at the perspectives of British pilots the limitations of an army-centric approach is revealed.

Air and Sea Power in WWI

The First World War began almost a hundred years ago and since then countless books have been published on almost every aspect of that conflict. We know what soldiers felt, thought, experienced, wrote, wore, sang and ate. Their part in the war has been publicly analysed and commemorated, whilst historians have argued over whether these men were passive victims of conscription, or active participants who enjoyed the opportunity to embody contemporary manly ideals. Yet, this focus on the trenches has meant that other vital forms of warfare have been overlooked and all but erased from our understanding of this conflict. Flying above the trenches almost every possible day between 1914 and 1918 were the pilots of the Royal Flying Corps whose role in gathering aerial intelligence and protecting the soldiers below made a substantial contribution to Britain’s eventual victory and to the maintenance of morale throughout those four years of war.

The Royal Flying Corps was established in 1912, not from any particular enthusiasm for the new science of flight, but largely due to arms race fears that other nations were pulling ahead technologically. So in 1914 when war broke out, the fledgling RFC was not expected to contribute much to what would be a relatively short conflict, with only 66 aeroplanes and little over a hundred men going to France with the British Expeditionary Force.  ‘Everyone was very keen to get out there, and impatient too’, pre-war recruit James McCudden wrote, ‘as most of us were afraid there would be no Germans left.’

The primary duty of pilots throughout the war was to observe and photograph enemy positions in order to relay information to the army for ranging of artillery and planning offensives.  As W.T. Blake explained in order to fulfil his duty the observer would be ‘an expert at photography under difficulties… and understands thoroughly the intricacies of machine-guns… The majority of observers actually train as pilots, and they are, naturally, with their double training, amongst the best men in the Corps.’ Their technical skills and unique position meant they played a role in enhancing the technology they needed to perform. For example, photography units were introduced in each corps to process the thousands of prints pilots produced, so invaluable data was made available to the army more efficiently.

This focus on gathering aerial intelligence meant that rival airmen often came into contact with each other, but in the early days of war there was little either could do to deter the other. In 1915, the ‘chances of actually sighting an enemy were still fairly remote,’ Herbert Ward wrote. The German planes ‘rarely venture over our lines and even when on their own side, they showed little inclination to become involved in a fight. They had their work to do and we had ours.’ Before long, however, the pilot was charged with protecting the airspace above his own trench systems and preventing enemy access. Throughout the war, airmen were closely involved in the evolution of the aeroplane so it is unsurprising that a French pilot, Roland Garros, was the first to invent an efficient machine gun which could be fired from the cockpit through the propeller. From this point, the air war became far more dangerous and skirmishes were a regular sight above the trenches. ‘All the faculties must be concentrated on opening the attack, since an air duel is often decided in the first few seconds at close quarters,’ Alan Bott wrote. For many it was an enjoyable experience, as William Bishop explained – ‘The excitement of the chase had a tight hold on my heartstrings, and I felt the only thing I wanted was to stay right at it and fight and fight and fight in the air. I don’t think I was happier in my life. It seemed that I had found the one thing I loved above all other.’

As well as protecting the army from enemy observation and supplying intelligence, the Royal Flying Corps also made a strategic contribution to the war effort by bombing targets in Germany from 1916. As well as undertaking a round-trip of up to three hundred miles, for the British airmen these were potentially fatal missions as C.P.O. Bartlett recorded in his diary in November 1916 – ‘Loosened off my bombs over the objective… Immediately picked up by searchlights and,… dive, dodge and turn as I would, could not throw them off. Several guns were quickly on to me and for some two or three minutes I had an extremely lively time.’ At this point in the war, men were throwing bombs over the side of the craft, but by 1917-1918 pilots had helped to develop a carriage beneath the plane to hold the bombs which could be operated from the cockpit.  This was a vital efficiency in enabling plans for long-range bombardment of German factories and railway lines which occurred later in the war.

Although the soldier has dominated Great War historiography and culture, the impact of the pilot should not have been overlooked. Without the men of the Royal Flying Corps, this conflict, and the experience of soldiers, would have been very different. Their role in the development of technology responded to growing expectation, and in competition with the German airforce, British pilots were fundamentally involved in  refining observational technologies such as the camera, compass and defining air routes that would ultimately result in civilian flight paths. Through an on-going process of trial and error pilots improved their aeroplanes making them faster, more efficient and able to fly at higher altitudes whilst deterring their enemy with more effective guns and bombs. Since 1918 there have been few new uses for aeroplanes, the First World War pilots explored almost to the limits of possibility and laid the groundwork for the development of aviation in the last hundred years. The supply of intelligence and defence of the air above the trenches, makes them a vital element in Britain’s war system and worthy of inclusion alongside soldiers in the story of the First World War. ■

Air and Sea PowerMaryam Philpott is the author of Air and Sea Power in World War I, and she currently works at the Innovation and Entrepreneurship Group, Imperial College London. 

Top image shows aircrew of 27 squadron examine a 230lb bomb while an Air Mechanic checks the bomb carrier under the wing (© RAF Museum 2008)


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