On December 17th 1903, the Wright brothers accomplished the world’s first heavier-than-air flight, and set global militaries on a new path. Great Britain, throughout its history, had famously relied on its natural moat and superior naval forces to defend its people from invasion, but this was soon to change. The First World War heralded a new era of military innovation as aircraft, ranging from the original Blériot XI monoplane that successfully crossed the English Channel in 1909 to the Fokker Dreidecker (tri-plane) flown by the infamous Red Baron, Manfred Van Richthofen, were successfully employed to change the pattern of war. In four years of war, aircraft commissioned for military use would move from being little more than wooden frames wrapped in taut fabric to mass produced robust vehicles of war.
From the war’s outbreak, French General Foch famously said ‘aviation is good sport, but for the army it is useless’, but even he couldn’t deny its impact on several of the key opening battles. Previously, aerial reconnaissance took the form of air balloons but aircraft, could fly further. With their newfound perspective of the battlefield, aircraft were able to spot enemy positions and effectively coordinate with artillery to strike targets.
At the battle of Tannenberg in 1914, German forces were consistent in maintaining the provision of air reconnaissance through the engagement, whilst the Russian forces instead chose to utilise traditional cavalry patrols. This proved their undoing when a split between the Russian First and Second armies was detected by aerial reconnaissance, and quickly utilised, resulting in the Second Army’s annihilation and General Samsonov’s suicide.
In similar fashion, General Charles Lanzerac was able to exploit news given by aerial reconnaissance to successfully attack the German Second Army’s exposed flank at Guise. This forced the German First Army, under General Von Kluck, to shift its line of march to pass Paris to the east and set up the conditions for “the Miracle of the Marne”. As a result, Von Kluck retreated, and the Schlieffen plan failed, setting in motion the ‘Race to Sea’ which stagnated into trench warfare.
As the war progressed, two new classes of aeroplanes developed: bombers and fighters. Out of the two, fighters evolved more rapidly. Initially, air-to-air combat consisted of an exchange of handheld gunfire and, in extreme cases, grappling hooks in an attempt to bring one another down. The first break in air combat came in 1915 when Dutch engineer Andrew Fokker developed the German Fokker Eindecker, which utilised a synchronised, forward-firing machine gun and so began the Fokker Scourge. So prolific were these planes and their pilots, the Royal Flying Corps (RFC) ordered that ‘reconnaissance [aircraft] must be escorted by at least three other fight machines’.
Bombing at the war’s outbreak, was also extremely crude – the pilot, or co-pilot, would simply drop a handheld bomb out of the plane, and accuracy was more luck than science. However, by the end of the war, each nation’s air forces had developed specialised long-range bombers, less manoeuvrable than fighters, but able to carry larger explosive loads. The German Gotha G.V bomber, which appeared in 1917, could carry almost 2,000kg, as opposed to the 300kg capability of the Albatros B.II used at the beginning of the war.
It should be noted that throughout the war air warfare also included the mighty dirigibles of German empire. The Zeppelins, famously championed by their namesake, Ferdinand Von Zeppelin, were the envy of Germany’s European counterparts. These leviathans were able to cross the channel and repeatedly harassed London – over the course of the war, they would drop 5,806 bombs (196 tons), kill or injure nearly 2,000 Britons and cause £1.5 million pounds of damage ($88 million in 2014). However, September 3rd 1916 would spell the end of the Zeppelin military career as incendiary and explosive munitions used by British Air Defence would prove effective at handling the Zeppelin threat, whilst the later Hindenberg disaster would end its civilian career as well.
As Major General Heinz Guderian remarked in 1939 about the First World War, “aircraft became an offensive weapon of the first order, distinguished by their great speed, range and effect on target. If their initial development experienced a check when hostilities came to an end in 1918, they had already shown their potential clearly enough to those on the receiving end. We don’t have to be out-and-out disciples of Douhet to be persuaded of the great significance of air forces for a future war”.