Back in 1914, the German Army had announced the arrival of aerial warfare by sending a lone aircraft to drop very small bombs on Paris (August 30, 1914: The Bomb). A little more than two years later, and a hundred years ago today, two French airmen completed a daring long-range trip to the German industrial city of Essen, where they dropped a dozen or so bombs on or around the Krupps armament works. Although part of the works was slightly disrupted for two days after the attack, and German sources claimed the a bomb had killed a child, Captain de Beauchamp and Lieutenant Daucourt didn’t achieve much more than a minor propaganda coup – but I’m bothering to commemorate their fifteen minutes of fame because it serves as a convenient and appropriate signpost for the end of aerial warfare’s first phase.
History can’t (and really shouldn’t keep trying to) put exact dates on its processes, so there was no precise moment when aircraft stopped being tactical adjuncts to more traditional methods of fighting and became the practical focus of strategic thinking, or when they moved beyond the experimental stage to become established, trusted weapons of war in their own right. Generally speaking, these things happened across the middle of 1916, and by late September the kind of demonstration missions typified by the Essen raid – essentially experiments to test the capacity and impact of warplanes – were no longer seen as the most aircraft could achieve on their own.
That tortuous set of statements calls for some context, so here’s a potted look at aerial warfare during the first two years of its existence.
Aircraft were still very new in 1914. The global impact of the Wright brothers’ first powered flight in 1903 had been delayed by wrangles over licensing agreements, and the first aircraft had finally reached military service (with the French Army) in 1911. When the War began in 1914, the French Aeronautique Militaire possessed 132 frontline machines, and as many again in reserve, while the German Army had responded to French expansion by providing its Air Service with even more aircraft, though the designs were generally inferior and trained pilots were in short supply. The British Royal Flying Corps was smaller than either, but well equipped and organised, while the Russian Army possessed a sprawling collection of aircraft that weren’t really organised at all. All four empires were also experimenting with naval aircraft by 1914, but no other state possessed more than a few imported machines.
War arrived before aircraft were ready for it, and technical limitations dictated their performance during the first months of the conflict. Fragile, skeletal and terrifyingly unreliable, they were too feeble to lift more than a token bomb load or any kind of weapon, they struggled to make any kind of forward progress against headwinds, and they could be destroyed on the ground in large numbers by a heavy storm. Ramming was the only effective combat tactic against other aircraft, and the vast majority of early operational casualties were caused by accidents. Formation flying was rightly considered dangerous and not attempted, while night flying only ever happened by accident.
Under the circumstances, it’s hardly surprising that aircraft were restricted to unarmed liaison, reconnaissance and artillery spotting duties in 1914, or that what armies were looking for in aircraft was a stable flying platform, ideally with easy packaging for transport with mobile armies. That changed when mobile warfare on the Western Front (always the place to find the majority of First World War aircraft) turned into static trench warfare, at which point aircraft became far more important to armies, needed for long-range reconnaissance behind enemy lines, short-range photo-reconnaissance, a lot more artillery spotting and, as more powerful designs became available, short-range bombing of enemy lines and installations. At the same time, all belligerents developed countermeasures against enemy aircraft, modifying guns for anti-aircraft purposes and deploying some of its own aircraft as air-to-air ‘fighters’.
During 1914 and 1915, technological development was hindered by the widespread belief that the War would be ended by the next wave of offensives. This discouraged innovation, promoting modification and adaptation of existing designs, which grew steadily more reliable and mounted more powerful engines, so that they could soon drop something heavier than a grenade and carry machine guns.
Guns were obviously key to effective development of fighters, but finding ways to fire them accurately took a while longer. The first fighters were two-seaters, carrying a rear gunner, but performance needs called for faster, more maneouvrable single-seaters. Experiments with high-mounted guns, and with steel ‘deflector’ plates on propellers to enable pilots to shoot directly forwards, had limited success, and it was not until the autumn of 1915 that the German air service introduced ‘interrupter gear’, which synchronised gun and propeller to allow forward firing. It took the British and French a few months to produce shells reliable enough to work with interrupter gear, but by the middle of 1916 everyone was using it.
With optimism about the end of the War fading fast, entirely new designs finally began reaching combat units in numbers during 1916. Along with improved machines for all the tasks already allotted to aircraft, these included a new generation of fighters, designed for and capable of the dogfights that only then became the defining motif of aerial warfare on the Western Front. Most Western Front dogfights, incidentally, took place over German positions, thanks to prevailing winds and the same Allied doctrine of ‘permanent offensive’ that got so many trench soldiers killed for nothing much.
Bigger aircraft also began to make their presence felt from 1916. Along with the relative failure of the German airship programme, a few minor successes for Russian Sikorsky and Italian Caproni multi-engine bombers during 1914 and 1915 had encouraged the belief – popular among some theorists since the initial spread of powered flight – that wars could be won by strategic bombing of enemy territory. Britain, France and Germany all introduced relatively long-range, heavy bomber aircraft during 1916, and all embarked on bombing programmes that grew more ambitious through the rest of the War. They would achieve very little in strategic terms, but would do enough to convince theorists that, given technological progress, they would one day be capable of winning wars at a stroke.
The other major tactical development made possible by improved performance criteria was the fighter-bomber, as aircraft designed for direct support of ground troops came to be known. When first used by the British in support of their new ‘tanks’ during the summer of 1916, ground support aircraft lacked specialised equipment or organised tactics, but armoured and even cannon-armed machines would appear in numbers during the next two years, and by 1918 ‘trench fighting’ would be the aircraft’s principal combat role on the Western Front.
So the autumn fighting season in 1916 marked the aircraft’s arrival as an effective weapon purpose-designed for defined tactical and strategic combat roles. It also coincided with great leaps forward in the production capacity behind the British, French and German air arms, making possible a huge proliferation in the numbers and variety of aircraft available for combat duties. Numbers were further increased by the export of aircraft technology to other belligerent countries, notably Italy, which rapidly developed an indigenous industry producing good quality original designs, and the United States, which built aircraft for the Allies under licence before it joined the war in April 1917, and had 750 combat aircraft of its own by the Armistice. In this context it’s worth remembering that First World War aircraft were relatively cheap and easy to build, as evidenced by the US Army’s post-War decision to burn its entire air fleet in a French field rather than foot the bill for transporting it home.
That was a very generalised snapshot of aerial warfare at one of its watershed moments, but it was only meant to set the table for the deadly derring-do of dogfight heroics, which really got going around a century ago, and to mark another stage in the prolonged experiment that was strategic bombing. In the first instance, I reckon you can rely on the heritage industry to provide all the detail you need, and though mass media may prove a little more reticent when it comes to the ultimately catastrophic choices made around bombing theory, you can rely on me to come back to that before too long.
One last point worth making is that, although warplanes performed in every theatre, including naval theatres, any discussion of contemporary aerial warfare’s cutting edge is obliged to focus on the Western Front, which saw almost exclusive deployment of the latest technology and was the only theatre to experience busy air traffic at all times.