ON AUGUST 25, 1914, staff at a Bavarian corps headquarters near Nancy in northeast France saw an airplane that circled overhead and dropped a brilliant light. While contemplating this seemingly harmless firework, the Bavarians found themselves under French shellfire—the light had been a flare dropped from the plane to mark their position.
A little more than a decade after the Wright brothers ended mankind’s terrestrial bondage, the battle for military supremacy in the air had begun. A modern writer, Christian Kehrt, suggests that the newfound vulnerability of the sky to invasion roused in many men the same lust for dominance they felt toward the African wilderness. During the previous century, soldiers’ ventures into the skies had been limited to observation balloons tethered to cables. These still had value, but they afforded a restricted view and could be hoisted only behind one’s own front.
The planes of the Great War terrified soldiers and civilians on the ground and changed combat forever
Powered flight represented a stunning advance. In the few short years between the Wright brothers’ triumph and the start of World War I, aircraft capabilities had advanced at astounding speed. German test pilot Ernst Canter noted in his logbook that while he flew at a height of 80 feet in 1910, two years later he was ascending to almost 5,000. In 1908 one pilot in five died—a corpse for every 1,000 miles flown. By 1912, the fatality rate had fallen to one for every 51 pilots, one death every 103,000 miles.
In 1913, General Joseph Manoury, who would command France’s Sixth Army at the Battle of the Marne, took to the air during maneuvers and was profoundly impressed to see what flight could do to warfare. After the German army’s 1912 exercises, Erich von Falkenhayn, soon to be Prussian minister of war, reflected upon a range of technological innovations, of which aircraft were among the foremost: “When these inventions of the devil work, then what they achieve is more than amazing; when they do not work, then they achieve less than nothing.” Kaiser Wilhelm II formally accorded Germany’s air corps parity with its other military services in March 1914, when he ordered Protestant churches to include pilots in their regular prayer for the armed forces.
The British were slow starters: In 1909 the War Office temporarily closed army flying experiments, objecting to the £2,500 cost (this when the Germans had already spent the equivalent of £400,000 and the French little less than that). The Royal Flying Corps (RFC) was formed in 1912, and veteran soldiers soon realized big changes were afoot. At maneuvers the following year, Lieutenant General Sir James Grierson told King George V: “I think, sir, that these aeroplanes are going to spoil war. When they come over I can only tell my men to cover their heads with hay and make a noise like a mushroom!”
AT FIRST, INNOCENTS ON THE GROUND merely marveled when planes appeared in the sky. A British nun in Belgium thought German Taubes looked like “beautiful little birds.” But soon soldiers and civilians alike realized that flying machines posed a threat. On the afternoon of August 6, 1914, the citizens of Freiburg, Germany, were shocked to see two French aircraft above their city, having sailed serenely over the frontier and the kaiser’s armies. Some affronted citizens fired sporting guns into the sky; those soldiers on guard duty who had been issued ammunition followed suit. Frankfurt’s militia likewise opened a brisk fusillade at clouds in which, so they were told, French aircraft were hiding.
Richard Stenitzer, an Austrian army doctor trapped in the Russian siege of Przemysl in Poland, took exception to the intrusions of the enemy in the air: “It is a strange unpleasant feeling if the aeroplane appears above oneself high in the skies. You get the impression it tracks you personally although it is not able to distinguish individuals because of its height of 2,000 metres.”
Though planes soon bore symbols to identify their nationality—a German cross, a tricolor cockade, and such—these were usually indecipherable or invisible from the ground. French soldier François Mayer wrote, “When any aircraft passes overhead, we bury our heads like ostriches.”
On October 27, 1914, at Ypres, every rifleman in Scotland’s Black Watch battalion emptied his magazine at an aircraft, then cheered wildly when it burst into flames and tumbled to earth; witnesses found this “a dreadful sight, as we…realized it was British.” Austrian lieutenant Constantin Schneider described the sensation created by the first aircraft spotted over his division: There was a barrage of musketry that officers could not suppress, even when the men saw that it was one of their own.
The new art of aerial warfare fascinated the public. British prime minister Herbert Asquith, displaying the wonder of a Victorian, referred to the revolutionary machines as hyphenated—“aero-planes.” Pilots, initially armed only with revolvers or rifles, became national heroes: They rose above the squalor of the battlefield figuratively as well as literally, and resurrected in some minds the glories of personal endeavor in a repugnant new era of industrialized slaughter.
Twenty-seven-year-old Pyotr Nesterov, a famous Russian aviator and the first man to loop the loop, was flying a Morane-Saulnier G monoplane over Poland on August 25, 1914, when he encountered an Austrian Albatros B.II biplane. Having emptied his revolver without effect, Nesterov resorted to ramming the enemy plane, which brought it down. Unfortunately his own Morane was severely damaged and followed the Austrian machine to the ground; the next day Nesterov died of his injuries. His funeral, in a Kiev cathedral, was a major public occasion: The coffin was adorned with his leather helmet, and the catafalque was almost submerged in flowers, some brought from the field where his plane had crashed. Nesterov’s conduct reflected the suicidally undisciplined ethos of the Russian air service, which insisted on sending up pilots almost untrained and had by far the worst accident rate of any combatant.
The war’s early campaigns forced every nation’s commanders to recognize the importance and potential of air arms. Chief of the French General Staff Joseph Joffre, impressed by the contribution of aerial reconnaissance to his victory on the Marne, demanded an expansion of the Aéronautique Militaire to 65 squadrons. By October the French had placed orders for 2,300 aircraft and 3,400 engines. Other nations were thinking equally ambitiously. Lord Horatio Kitchener, Britain’s secretary of state for war early in the conflict, was told of a plan to give 30 squadrons to the RFC and growled, “Make it 60!”
Soldiers, increasingly conscious of their profoundly unlovely ground environment, cheered the exploits of their comrades in the sky. Everything to do with aircraft seemed worthy of awe. On September 17, 1914, Belgian Charles Stein’s battalion was given the afternoon off, in the manner of a victorious school football team, for shooting down a German plane. Captain Robert Harker of the British Expeditionary Force wrote with wonder: “I have had some talks with men and officers in the Flying Corps here and it is most interesting. One of them told me that he had been fired on for half an hour at a time and felt like a driven pheasant—he says that [guns aimed at] aeroplanes can shoot up very high and accurately. He says one minute you may be watching a great battle and within an hour be having a good meal in some peaceful place right away as aeroplanes can move about so quickly.”
Carroll Dana Winslow, an American volunteer who trained at a French flight school, identified three categories of airmen: gentlemen; prewar aviators and mechanics with specialist qualifications; and civilian chauffeurs and mechanics admitted to the aristocracy of the air because they were thought to have relevant expertise. Almost all the best pilots were between 20 and 30 years old; those younger were dangerously immature, while most older men proved too cautious, their reflexes too slow. Every nation found itself struggling to train riggers, fitters, and mechanics to service and repair machines constructed of canvas, wire, and plywood.
All fliers were volunteers, and a growing number of army officers offered their services. Some wanted to escape the trenches; others had suffered wounds that made them of little use on the ground. Some were cavalrymen who had found that modern war offered them little to do. All soon learned that flying was no less perilous than soldiering: Far more airmen perished in accidents than from enemy action. Twelve-year-old Elfriede Kühr, who regularly witnessed crashes at her local training airfield at Schneidemühl in Prussia, wrote fatalistically in her diary about the pilots: “When they make their first solo flight they are often nervous, and then an accident happens.”
Fliers had a one-in-four chance of surviving a crash. None was equipped with a parachute. Everything had to be learned by experience: the perils posed at low altitude by telegraph wires and the cables of observation balloons; the merits of unbuckling seat straps before a crash (with hope of getting thrown clear of the wreck before being crushed by the engine); the menace of clouds, which could hide hostile aircraft.
ONE MORNING IN HAMBURG, four-year-old Ingeborg Treplin announced, “When I grow up I’ll march far away to war!” Her mother asked, “Well, what would you do there?”
“Shoot sailors and Zeppelins.”
Frau Treplin pleaded in favor of sparing Zeppelins. “Yes, not our Zeppelins,” said the child, who had seen one over Hamburg a few days earlier, “but if it comes from France then it will drop bombs on my head.”
Little Ingeborg didn’t know it, but energetic efforts were already under way to advance the primitive art of aerial bombardment, which would threaten targets in enemy country far beyond any battlefield. There had been several prewar experiments, including a bombing competition held by France’s Michelin Aero Club. Rudolf Martin, an early German evangelist for bombing from the air, argued in 1908 that Zeppelins and aircraft could destroy Britain’s security and “soften it up” for an invasion. Eighty Zeppelins, he pointed out, could be built for the same cost as a single dreadnought. Martin believed that a great German air fleet could become a decisive deterrent to enemies. Like many prophets, he correctly grasped the importance of the new technology, but underestimated—by almost two generations—the time it would take to attain the maturity and destructive power to fulfill his prediction.
Germany started aerial bombing trials in 1910, though two years later a report described results as “very bad,” even when planes flew as low as 30 feet. In 1914 the Germans created a secret bomber squadron under the cover name of Brieftauben Abteilung Ostende—the Ostend carrier-pigeon unit. The group was disbanded when it proved unable to hit anything, but the experience of war dramatically accelerated the development of aircraft and bombing techniques. On September 18, the RFC conducted the first British experiment dropping a bomb from an aircraft. “It exploded,” noted an observer laconically, “but not exactly where nor how it was expected to.” Three weeks later a German plane dropped the first bomb to hit an RFC field—without effect. In December the Russians formed a squadron of Sikorsky Ilya Muromets, the world’s first four-engine aircraft. It regularly if ineffectually attacked German and Austrian positions.
By the winter of 1914, all the belligerents save the British had conducted at least modest raids on enemy cities; the use of aircraft to spot targets for artillery was also being urgently explored. During the next four years, aerial direction of gunnery—later controlled using radio—would become one of the most important tactical revolutions of the conflict.
The Germans helped their enemies celebrate Christmas Eve by mounting the first air attack on British soil—a biplane dropped a small bomb on Dover. This did no harm, but the auguries were plain: A new kind of campaign against civilians was possible, and no moral scruples would impede its prosecution.
The next day—Christmas—the Royal Naval Air Service launched a seaplane raid against reported Zeppelin sheds near Cuxhaven, on the German coast. The raid was wholly abortive, and three aircraft had to be abandoned at sea on their return to the fleet. But Erskine Childers, who flew as an observer in one machine, wrote exultantly: “We are fortunate to have witnessed this remarkable event which is but a foretaste of a complete revolution in warfare.” A little more than a decade after the world’s first manned flight, the blitz era was already at hand. MHQ
Sir Max Hastings is an author, journalist, and broadcaster who last year won the Pritzker Military Library’s Literature Award for Lifetime Achievement in Military Writing. This article is adapted from his forthcoming Catastrophe 1914. Copyright © 2013 by Max Hastings. Published by arrangement with Alfred A. Knopf, an imprint of The Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group, a division of Random House, Inc.