Last Updated 11 Mar 2020

The Impact of Aerial Forces in the First World War

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The Italo-Turkish war, which lasted from 1911-12 and was predominantly fought in Libya, was the first recorded event of a bomb dropped from an aeroplane onto the enemy. The 1912-13 Balkans also witnessed elementary aerial bombing executed against the opponent from aeroplanes and airships. However, World War One was the first major conflict to implement forces on a large scale that would literally elevate the battlefield. The aeroplanes and zeppelins of the Great War opened the door to an entirely new way to wage battle, which has unquestionably altered the nature of war forever.

Nevertheless, despite being the war that ornamented the importance of military aviation, it is unclear whether or not this monumental achievement in military technology actually affected the course of WWI. Did the vividly coloured bi-planes and cumbersome airships flying over the muddy, blood-soaked trenches actually alter the course of the war, or were they just prototypes seen to have a great deal of potential? The key objective of this essay is to examine the impact that aerial forces had on the war; to determine if and how they shaped the outcome.

Therefore, it is not the purpose of this essay to prove the monumental significance of military aviation in the First World War, but rather to investigate the importance of the role that it played. For the purposes of precision and brevity, we will focus mainly on the British –and to an extent, German- involvement in aviation during the First World War. Although other nations that were involved, such as France, USA and Austria-Hungary, contributed significant achievements to the field of military aviation in WWI, analyzing the impacts made by the air forces of these countries would make an essay –meant to be concise- far too complex.

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However, it is difficult to understand the impact of Britain’s Royal Flying Corps (RFC) and Royal Naval Air Service (RNAS) on the war without comparing them to the opponent. Therefore, we will also occasionally examine the Imperial German Army Air Service (Luftstreitkrafte) and its role in the skies above Europe during the Great War. We will first ascertain an understanding of the magnitude of aerial contributions to the war by comparing the number of those enlisted in the aerial services to those enlisted in the other military branches.

We will then examine the various duties of the air services in the war and analyze the impact that these roles had on the war. Finally, we will discuss the psychological attitudes held towards the aircraft and pilots during the war, and whether or not these shaped the course of WWI in any way. By looking at these various components of military aviation during this period, we will be able to determine the impact it made on its debut large-scale conflict. For the purpose of clarity, it is important to define a few terms that will be used frequently throughout the course of this essay.

For example, when attempting to determine the impact that military aviation made on WWI, we are trying to determine how large a role it played throughout the war and whether or not the war was drastically altered due to the inclusion of air services on a large scale. Moreover, an obvious –but also crucial- clarification to make is that aircraft and aviation are not terms strictly limited to areoplanes, but to all vessels capable of flight. Consequently, zeppelins and balloons are also encapsulated by the term aircraft in this essay.

Keeping in mind these clarities will certainly enhance the focus when reading this report. Throughout the course of the war, British planes were operated either by the Royal Flying Corps (RFC) or the Royal Naval Air Service (RNAS). In 1918, the two services amalgamated to form the Royal Air Force (RAF) and the war-time statistics of both services were also conjoined. Throughout the course of the war, roughly 30,000 officers and 300,000 enlisted men served in either the RFC or RNAS.

This figure of men who served in the aerial branches of the British military made up only 6% of the 5,397,000 British soldiers mobilized in the Great War. Of the men who served in the RFC and RNAS, 6,166 were killed; 7,245 were wounded; 3,128 became missing or POWs; and 84 were interned. Therefore, the total number of casualties sustained by the RFC and RNAS was 16,623, which was only 5% of the total number who served in air services. Of the 2,367,000 British military casualties in the war, less than 1% of that figure was comprised of RFC or RNAS casualties.

Similarly, of the 5,952,000 German war casualties, only 16,000 of those were members of the Luftstreitkrafte. We can gather from this statistical analysis that the British and German (similar trends for the air forces of other nations) air forces did not have a great quantitative presence in the war in comparison to the other military branches of WWI. Furthermore, because WWI was a war in which success and victory relied heavily upon the number of troops deployed, the combat contributions made by aerial forces cannot measure up to the combat contributions made by the armies and navies of WWI.

Military aviation was still in its prototypical stage, which prevented it from making a serious impact on the actual fighting of the war. However, as we will discuss later on, aviation played a crucial role in observation and reconnaissance, which was a hugely significant strategic impact. The impact that aviation had on the bombing campaigns of the Great War was rather miniscule. For example, C. G. Grey, an aviation historian, wrote: “During 1914-18 the damage done in England by [aerial] bombing was practically negligible. A few houses were damaged in a few English towns.

About 1,500 people altogether were killed. No armament factory of any importance was destroyed. ” Germany –considering her geographic location was closer to the war epicenter- was slightly more prone to bombings than Great Britain was but it was still a minute threat when factored into the whole grand scheme of war-induced devastation. Nevertheless, aerial forces did play an ample role as support units during land and sea battles. For example, during the Battle of the Somme in 1916, the RFC played a substantial part in providing support for the British and French troops on the ground.

The Luftstreitkrafte was also present at the battle, but the British, with the assistance of the French Armee de l'Air (Army of the air), had the strength in numbers. Tactics would comprise of bombing and gunning the enemy trenches as a means of cover for advancing infantry and patrolling the skies for enemy aircraft. However, reconnaissance and observation was undoubtedly the most useful role conducted by the aerial forces of WWI and probably the way in which it made the greatest strategic impact. Artillery was arguably the deadliest risk to the soldiers on the battlefield, as one shell explosion could jeopardize a multiplicity of soldiers.

Airships, balloons and aeroplanes all assumed the task of scouting out artillery positions and relaying the information to the ground forces. Moreover, aerial photography was becoming more popular with the military, which allowed suspected locations of enemy activity to be confirmed with photographic evidence. In this sense, aviation affected the Great War to a considerable extent, as it allowed both sides to see the enemy prior to combat engagement. Furthermore, at the battle of Jutland in 1916, the largest naval battle of the war, aeroplanes were used by the British to observe the activities of the German fleet.

The HMS Engadine was able hold up to four seaplanes -in a hanger on her deck- that could be lowered into the water to take off. Short Type 184 seaplanes took off from beside the Engadine in the first recorded instance of aerial reconnaissance of an active enemy fleet. Although these Short Type 184s were capable of carrying torpedoes and bombs, they were only used for reconnaissance during the battle of Jutland. The HMS Engadine and other ships of her class were the initial models for the modern day aircraft carriers, the flag ships of contemporary navies for their ability to dispatch aerial units.

Although the HMS Engadine and her four Short Type 184 seaplanes did not seriously affect the course of the battle (Britain maintained naval supremacy in the North Sea but suffered greater losses than Germany), it did demonstrate the potential of naval aviation to determine the movements and position of an enemy fleet before it comes into contact with the home fleet. Two years before Jutland, Winston Churchill, when he was Lord of the Admiralty, described the importance of using seaplanes in the military: “Seaplanes, which when they carry torpedoes, may prove capable of playing a decisive part in operations against capital ships.

The facilities of reconnaissance at sea, where hostile vessels can be sighted at enormous distances while the seaplane remains out of possible range, offer a far wider prospect even in the domain of information to seaplanes than to land aeroplanes, which would be continually brought under rifle and artillery fire from concealed positions on the ground, among trees, behind hedges, etc.

This clearly shows the potential that seaplanes were believed to posses, and despite the rather limited role they played in fighting the war, they certainly captured the attention of some notable figures in the hierarchy of the British military, like Churchill. We can conclude that the strategic value of aviation in the First World War was not as precious as the other components of the military (infantry, artillery, navy, etc), simply because aviation was still in its elementary phases and was not yet implemented on as large a scale as the other components.

However, the psychological impact aviation had on the war was undoubtedly staggering. The idea of man flying through the air in a winged contraption was essentially unimaginable twenty years prior to the war, but the aeroplane, which only took off for the first time in 1903, was now being implemented against the enemy in armed conflict. The pilots who flew these aeroplanes were encapsulated by the imagery of pioneers exploring the vast unknown, and those who excelled in the cock pit, the flying “aces”, became national heroes.

For example, Manfred von Richtofen, popularly known as ‘The Red Baron’, became such an icon for the German people in WWI for his number of “kills” (Richtofen shot down 80 enemy planes) that the Luftstreitkrafte was hesitant to continue sending him on missions. This was because it was feared his death would affect the morale of the entire nation, which could potentially alter the course of the war.

This fear was partially due to the fact that the German government propagandized the image of Richtofen to build up morale in the first place. It seemed obvious to choose a man who excelled in flying, the exciting new novelty, to be a national hero. His face could be seen on postcards throughout Germany and his tales of impressive bravery were embellished by the government to create a hero that the German people could love and support throughout the war.

In Britain, the government took precaution to avoid the risk of losing national morale, which meant the government would not publish the names of the ‘Aces’ until they either died or exited the service (the government did, however, embellish stories of the British ‘Aces’ a few years after the war to create a sense of national pride). The aviation historian J. M. Spaight wrote: “Her pilots were magnificent, though it was not the practice in the British service, as it was in all other services, to publish regularly the names of the ‘Aces,’ i. . of those pilots who had brought down five enemy machines or more. ” Britain (including the Commonwealth countries) was the country with the most ‘Aces’, although only a few had their identities published during the war, because it was a concern that these pilots would become idealized as national war heroes, lifting morale with every enemy kill and diminishing it their own fatalities. This precaution certainly makes clear the impact that aviation had on the wartime morale.

A brave pilot who would shoot down the opponent in a thrilling dogfight in the clouds certainly caught the attention of the masses, and because of this, it shaped a significant mentality of WWI. The zeppelins of WWI also contributed to the psychological impact. Even though the balloon had been used since the days of the Franco-Prussian War, WWI was the first war that witnessed the military zeppelins capable of traveling long distances (German zeppelins were able to travel impressive distances across the English Channel to conduct bombing raids on Britain) to inflict damage on the enemy.

The zeppelins, which were predominantly used by the Luftstreitkrafte, also conducted important observation and decoy missions. The way the zeppelins created a psychological impact, however, had to do with their bombing abilities, as they were able to transcend the battlefield and bomb areas not directly affected by combat. Even though the damage caused by zeppelin raids in Britain was minimal, as we discussed earlier, it did eliminate the feelings of safety and isolation that were once a great reassurance to the British population when their country was at war.

C. G. Grey wrote: “The psychological moment of the populace of any country is likely to be much more affected by air [zeppelin] bombing than by any artillery bombardment. ” The British government capitalized upon this by publishing posters saying: “It is far better to face the bullets than to be killed at home by a bomb: join the army at once and help to stop and air raid. ”The fact that the British government was able to capitalize on the fear of aerial raids certainly suggests a deep impact caused by the potential of these zeppelins.

Therefore, it would be acting outside the realms of validity to say that the zeppelins in WWI delivered no impact. However, Winston Churchill believed the zeppelins to be a minimal threat once the aeroplane started to achieve greater potential: “I believed that this enormous blabber of combustible and explosive gas would prove to be easily destructible. I was sure the fighting aeroplane, rising lightly laden from its own base, armed with incendiary bullets, would harry, rout and burn these gaseous monsters.

This theory – the aeroplane being able to easily destroy the zeppelin- which Churchill called the ‘Hornet Theory’, proved to be true throughout the war. Therefore, even though the zeppelins did impact the psychological moment of the British populace to an extent through the use of bombing campaigns, aeroplanes were the predominant victors in the skies over WWI. It goes without saying that there was not one universal opinion on military aviation within the highest ranks of the British military and government.

It is important to consider the attitudes of powerful figures in the government and military, as they wer e the ones who could control the degree of impact aviation had on the war. There were some stout advocates who stressed the importance of deploying aircraft into military affairs, like Winston Churchill, who was mentioned earlier, and Hugh Trenchard, the “father” of the RAF. Churchill considered aviation (aeroplanes and airships) to be the most efficient approach in conducting reconnaissance missions.

However, there were feelings of the contrary held by Field Marshall Sir Douglas Haig, who a starch opponent of the implementation of areoplanes into the army for reconnaissance purposes (arguably the most important function of the aeroplane at that time) and was caught saying in 1914: “I hope none of you gentlemen is so foolish as to think that aeroplanes will be able to be usefully employed for reconnaissance purposes in war. There is only one way for a commander to get information by reconnaissance, and that is by the use of cavalry. Haig commanded the British Expeditionary Force from 1915 until the end of the war, leading the British armies in some of the greatest battles of the war. It is a valid conclusion to say that British military aviation would have taken off to a greater extent had the commander of British forces in Europe been a greater advocate for flight. However, despite being an old-fashioned soldier who preferred the use of infantry and mobilized ground units, Haig saw that the nature of war was changing.

It was no longer practical to send cavalry units across the field charging the enemy now that artillery and rifles were more advanced and powerful. Furthermore, Haig knew that a hussar could not stand up to the newly implemented battle tanks rolling across the fields. Therefore, the use of aviation may not have been preferable to Haig’s military taste, but it was not dismissed by him, as the changing nature of war meant it had to be recognized.

Hugh Trenchard, who would become the first Marshall of the RAF in 1918, said to the Haig in 1916: “As far as at present can be foreseen, there is absolutely no limit to the scale of its future independent war use. And the day may not be far off when aerial operations with their devastation of enemy lands and destruction of industrial and populous centres on a vast scale may become the principal operations of war, to which the older forms of military and naval operations may be secondary and subordinate. ” Trenchard, among other politicians and high-ranking officials in the RFC and RNAS (Frederick Sykes being another igure who emphasized the importance of military aviation) , may have convinced Haig that aviation was a serious thing, but there is no record of Haig ever embracing military aviation as a monumental achievement in military technology. To specify, it is not being stated that Haig was not in awe of the technical capabilities of aviation, but he did not consider it the most valuable tool on the battlefield. By analyzing the various components of WWI aviation, we can agree that our findings were rather varied.

For example, by comparing the quantitative presence –as well as casualty figures- of air force servicemen to the enlisted men of the other branches of the military, we reached the conclusion that there were far less men and resources invested into the aerial theatre of the war than the amount invested in the other theatres of the war. Furthermore, we examined the extent of damage caused by aerial bombing raids during the First World War, and concluded that the impact was not nearly as intense as the other factors of war-induced devastation.

However, we did explore the ways in which aviation benefitted the process of observation and reconnaissance. In this sense, aviation in WWI displayed a hugely significant strategic value that undoubtedly helped save the lives of soldiers on the ground. Moreover, the aeroplanes used in the naval campaigns of the war demonstrated the potential value of observing an enemy fleet before an actual engagement. Therefore, the strategic impact aviation made on the war was mainly due to reconnaissance.

Although the bombing and support roles of aircraft did make a humble impact on the war, getting ‘a bird’s eye view’ of enemy activities proved more valuable than imprecisely dropping a bomb on an enemy target. However, the realization of its potential and the psychological attitudes associated with it are arguably the greatest impacts that military aviation had on WWI. The pilot ‘Aces’ became national heroes that their countries could idolize as symbols for great military achievement in the war. With their successes came high morale, and with their deaths came iconic losses.

Moreover, aviation introduced the idea of the battle transcending the battlefield to the factories and farms at home that aided the war effort. Consequently, psychological attitudes of those on the home front were seriously affected. When we determine the impact that aviation had on the First World War we must ask one question: would the war have had a different outcome had aerial forces been exempt from the equation? The answer is probably not. Nevertheless, it did open the doors to an entirely new way to conduct warfare, which has changed the nature of war forever.

This essay was written by a fellow student. You can use it as an example when writing your own essay or use it as a source, but you need cite it.

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