The Belgian Air Service in the First World War
by Walter Pieters, Aeronaut Books, Indio, Calif., 2010, $99.95
Of all the air arms involved in World War I, Belgium’s presents some interesting paradoxes. The smallest to see combat on the Western Front, it served a small army in exile, striving to take its homeland back from its German occupiers, yet it fought on two continents and produced five aces, including the most successful balloon buster in history. The competence of the Belgian commanding officers was sometimes brought into question—most bitterly in the memoirs of its ace of aces, Willy Coppens—but Belgium’s king, Albert I, was thoroughly sold on air power. In fact he was the only national head of state to fly over the front lines in the observer’s cockpit of a warplane during the conflict.
Given its length (722 pages), it is tempting to dismiss The Belgian Air Service in the First World War as an epic narrative of a pint-sized air force, but Belgian author Walter Pieters gives the reader his money’s worth in information, photos and 81 stunning color profiles. He provides a meticulously researched day-by-day chronicle of Belgium’s army air service, its naval air arm and its balloon section. Also included is an account of the four Short 827 floatplanes that constituted the Belgian Congo’s naval squadron, whose bombing campaign played a significant but overlooked role in the Belgians’ seizure of Kingani and 200,000 square kilometers of territory from German East Africa in 1916. A chapter is devoted to Escadrille C.74, a Franco-Belgian squadron whose mixed bag of airmen also included a Czech volunteer, Jan Stork, as well as an American Lafayette Flying Corps member, Kenneth Littauer.
Aside from text that occasionally betrays the need for more careful editing, The Belgian Air Service in the First World War is likely the last word on the subject. It tells a fascinating story, replete with many little-known anecdotes and valorous deeds, at the same time serving as an invaluable research resource for anyone hoping to place the Belgians’ flying experience in perspective alongside those of their British and French cobelligerents, and their German adversaries.
Originally published in the March 2012 issue of Aviation History. To subscribe, click here.