The Wright Brothers made heavier-than-air aviation possible in December 1903. It was barely one decade later that the First World War broke out in August 1914, and it was in that war that aviation became important in warfare. In the years between the Wright Brothers’ first flight and the outbreak of war, aviation was the province of either the eccentric engineer or the rich sportsman. It was not seen as an important weapon of war in the minds of the military. Both the British Army and the Royal Navy held trials with man-lifting kites but were reluctant to embrace the new technology completely.
Seeing over the hill
Aeroplanes were still very limited in their capability and very fragile. However, there had been nearly a century of experimentation with lighter-than-air balloons inflated with hydrogen gas. The British Army saw these as a possible way of “seeing over the hill” and spying on enemy positions on a battlefield, and the Royal Engineers formed a balloon company called The Air Battalion Royal Engineers (ABRE) to develop their use further. Balloons were used in campaigns in Africa in the late 19th Century. This would lead to the creation of the Royal Aircraft Factory at Farnborough, the official aircraft designer for what would become the Royal Flying Corps. (See Paul Hare’s article on the Balloon Factory and the Royal Aircraft Factory here ..URL..)
The formation of the RFC
In Germany, Count Ferdinand von Zeppelin was building massive aluminium-framed powered airships. It was clear that these helium-filled airships presented the German military with a ready-made vehicle to deliver long-range bombing attacks. The German Army had also embraced the potential of aviation more than Britain had. By 1912, it was almost a national scandal in Britain that military aviation was way behind that of France and Germany. The Committee of Imperial Defence reviewed the situation, and a special investigation by General Jan Smuts recommended the formation of a Royal Flying Corps with a Military Wing, a Naval Wing, and a Central Flying School. This was established in April 1912. Initially, the Military Wing and the Naval Wing worked closely together, but the Army’s needs and ideas were very different from those of the Royal Navy, and the Naval Wing declared independence as the Royal Naval Air Service in early 1914.
It must be remembered that the Britain of 1912 had a much longer record of fighting against France than it had of fighting against Germany. The Royal Families of Britain and Germany were blood relatives, and there was less concern about war with Germany because King George V and Kaiser Wilhelm II were cousins. Unfortunately, the Kaiser had ambitions to control Russia and had long planned to invade France to remove its military threat. With France under German occupation, the Kaiser could attack Russia without fear of being threatened by France at his rear.
Germany’s attack on France was based on the Schlieffen Plan, which involved invading France by passing through Belgium. There were secret treaties between Britain and Belgium, and so Germany’s invasion of Belgium en route to France in early August 1914 brought Britain into the European war against Germany. Britain declared war against Germany on August 4 1914, and within a few weeks, a small British Army was in France supported by a few aircraft of the Royal Flying Corps and the Royal Naval Air Service. It was a British aeroplane that spotted the German Army’s unexpected swing to the south before it reached Paris. It led to a successful counterattack by the Allied armies and the beginning of trench warfare in November 1914.
The majority of air warfare developed over the “Western Front”, where French, British and Belgian aircraft sought to support their ground troops against German aircraft. This was where the “dogfight’ between fighter aircraft of both sides would become a regular occurrence and produce the “fighter aces” such as Boelcke, Richthofen and Ball, who would be celebrated by their news media as the “clean” heroes above the mud and filth of the trenches. But fighters were initially created to protect the reconnaissance aircraft, which sought to gain intelligence for the armies below. This airborne intelligence gathering led many brave young men to their deaths in slow and ponderous aeroplanes of all sides.
Germany also declared war on Russia, whose aviation was generally further behind where Britain had been, although the name of Igor Sikorsky would become internationally known after the war. There was air warfare over this “Eastern Front” between Russian and German aviators.
Allied to Germany were two old-established but fading Empires, the Austro-Hungarian and the Ottoman (centred on Turkey). Austro-Hungary battled against Italy, and there was a substantial amount of air fighting, often over jagged mountain ranges where a crash landing was extremely dangerous. The “Prancing Horse” of Ferrari was originally the emblem of Count Francesco Baracca, who was an Italian fighter ace of this period. The Ottoman Empire was very dependent upon German support in much of its military activities, and that included aviation. Most of the confrontations were in the Aegean Sea during and after the Gallipoli Campaign mounted unsuccessfully by the Allies in 1915. Royal Naval Air Service units continued to aid the naval blockade of Turkey until the end of the First World War.
The new aviation technology entered the First World War almost as an adjunct, a minor player who might help a little in some circumstances. After four years of rapid development and improvement, the armed forces of all significant countries would never be without aircraft again. The Great War Aviation Society exists to tell the stories of the men in the machines and their achievements and their sacrifices in all of the fighting nations between 1914 and 1918.