Aircraft in World War 1: A New Way of War

German plane shot down by American forces in 1918
German plane shot down by American forces in 1918. U.S. Army via Wikimedia Commons

During World War 1, aircraft became entrenched as a vital piece of the modern war machine. The first aeroplane was flown in the US in 1903, and minds soon turned to using this invention for warfare. Military aviation was sponsored by powerful people in the years before World War One, and by 1909 both France and Germany had a military air branch. The focus was on reconnaissance and bombing.

The belligerents in World War One quickly took to the air to gain an advantage war.

Pilots were initially sent up for reconnaissance, with their ability to fly over enemy positions and photograph below proving extremely valuable to planners. However, the war soon went vertical, as pilots started shooting at each other using pistols to stop them observing, and soon there was a violent, and no less than brutal than the ground air war with terrible training casualties and an entire new school of tactics as belligerents tried to clear the air before their attacks. A hundred years later, and the air war has reached new, drone based levels, but it began back here.

The Invention of Aerial Combat

The leap forward came when Frenchman Roland Garros attached a machine gun to his plane, making an attempt to synchronise with the propeller and using metal bands to deflect bullets from this vital piece. After a brief period of aerial dominance Garros crashed, and the Germans were able to study his craft.

Dutchman Anthony Fokker, who was working for the Germans, then created interrupter gear to allow a machine gun to be safely shot and miss the propeller. Fierce aerial combat, with dedicated fighter planes, then followed. The cult of the air ace and their tally of kills was close behind; it was used by British, French and German media to inspire their nations.

None were more famous than Manfred von Richthofen better known as the ‘Red Baron’ because of the colour of his plane.

As developments in plane technology and pilot training occurred, so the advantage see-sawed back and forth between the two sides. The techniques of aerial combat also evolved, and formations began to appear; by 1918, there could be a hundred planes all working to the same plan. Training was just as deadly as flying: over half of the Royal Flying Corps casualties occurred in training. As aircraft developed so did bombing and other ground attack capabilities, with dedicated planes for both. The air arm had become a recognised part of the military. However, neither side ever achieved total air superiority for very long (the Germans covered their build up at Verdun in 1916 with a dominant air cover, but this was a small and brief area).

The Effects of the War

By 1918 aerial war had become so important there were thousands of planes, crewed and supported by hundreds of thousands of people, produced by a massive industry. Despite the belief – then and now – that this war was fought by individual daring, by this date the aerial war had become one of attrition, with smaller numbers but equal percentages to the infantry.

The effect of aircraft on the outcome of the war was indirect: they didn’t achieve victories, but were invaluable in supporting infantry and artillery.

Despite the evidence to the contrary, people left the war assuming that the aerial bombardment of civilians could destroy morale and end a war sooner. The German bombing of Britain – most ironically by zeppelin in 1915 – failed to have any effect, and had the war continued the British were ready to bomb Berlin, but this belief persisted into World War 2, when both sides terror bombed civilians. Indeed, as Hitler's Germany seemed to be on the verge of starting a war many people looked at the developments since World War One and assumed aerial attack would cause vast casualties, which the allies themselves would go on to perfect.