‘Airpower comes of age’

4 mins read

How a ‘military revolution’ changed the course of World War I

American pilot Captain Eddie Rickenbacker in a Spad VIII plane having downed two German LVG biplanes, c. 1915.

In the last year of the First World War, airpower became a major factor – so much so that the British turned their air contingents, previously treated as adjuncts of the Army (the Royal Flying Corps) or the Navy (the Royal Naval Air Service) into a unified Royal Air Force.

The effect, however, was to institutionalise the concept of strategic bombing. A separate aviation arm was only necessary if airpower was expected to play an independent role. That it should do so was controversial during the First World War and has remained so ever since.

Air-war propaganda. One consequence of strategic bombing was to intensify popular hatred of the enemy.
Air-war propaganda. One consequence of strategic bombing was to intensify popular hatred of the enemy.

What is beyond question is that a military revolution occurred between 1914 and 1918. It began with infantry equipped with rifles trained to fight in line, supported by a few machine-guns and rather more ample field artillery, and with large contingents of cavalry available for reconnaissance and pursuit.

It ended with combined-arms warfare based on small infantry squads equipped with machineguns, mortars, grenades, and rifles, backed by concentrated heavy artillery and hundreds of tanks and aircraft.

The Germans were the first to develop new ‘shock-troop’ and ‘infiltration’ tactics – precursors of what would later be called Blitzkrieg – but it was the Allies on the Western Front (British, French, and American) who brought the new way of war to its highest level during the Hundred Days Offensive at the end of the war. They had the industrial resources to provide the machines necessary to break the deadlock and restore movement to the battlefield.

Airpower evolved in this context from a questionable reconnaissance role in 1914 (when many generals still insisted that cavalry were more useful) to multiple roles in 1918, including, in addition to fast reconnaissance, strafing and bombing in support of ground operations, attacks on rear areas, pursuit, and air-supply.

Testament to a new kind of war: a British air-raid warning notice of the First World War
Testament to a new kind of war: a British air-raid warning notice of the First World War

At the same time, however, the Germans mounted a strategic bombing campaign over Britain, first using Zeppelin airships, then, with greater effect, a new generation of aeroplane bombers, the Gothas and Giants.

The British responded in kind, especially after the creation of the RAF and the appointment of Hugh Trenchard to command it. Was the diversion of resources worth it? Or would it have been better to have invested more heavily in the development of airpower in a tactical role?

Neil Faulkner takes up these and other questions in our special this time. He looks first at tactical operations, then at strategic bombing, in this second part of our occasional series on the development of airpower in war.

This is an extract from a 15-paged special on the rise of airpower during the First World War, from the latest issue of Military History Matters. To find out more about the magazine and how to subscribe, click here.


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