CHAPTER I. THE INTRODUCTION OF AIRCRAFT INTO MILITARY OPERATIONS
It is a curious circumstance that an invention, which is hailed as being one of the greatest achievements ever recorded in the march of civilisation, should be devoted essentially to the maiming of humanity and the destruction of property. In no other trend of human endeavour is this factor so potently demonstrated as in connection with Man's Conquest of the Air.
The dogged struggle against the blind forces of Nature was waged tenaciously and perseveringly for centuries. But the measure of success recorded from time to time was so disappointing as to convey the impression, except in a limited circle, that the problem was impossible of solution. In the meantime wondrous changes had taken place in the methods of transportation by land and sea. The steam and electric railway, steam propulsion of vessels, and mechanical movement along the highroads had been evolved and advanced to a high standard of perfection, to the untold advantage of the community. Consequently it was argued, if only a system of travel along the aerial highways could be established, then all other methods of mechanical transportation would be rendered, if not entirely obsolete, at least antiquated.
At last man triumphed over Nature - at least to such a degree as to inspire the confidence of the world at large, and to bring aerial travel and transportation within range of realisation. But what has been the result? The discovery is not devoted to the interests of peace and economic development, but to extermination and destruction.
At the same time this development may be explained. The airship and aeroplane in the present stage of evolution possess no economic value. True, cross-country cruises by airship have been inaugurated, and, up to a point, have proved popularly, if not commercially, successful, while tentative efforts have been made to utilise the aeroplane as a mail-carrier. Still, from the view-point of the community at large aerial travel is as remote as it was centuries ago.
It is somewhat interesting to observe how history is repeating itself. When the Montgolfiers succeeded in lifting themselves into the air by means of a vessel inflated with hot air, the new vehicle was hailed not so much as one possessed of commercial possibilities, but as an engine of war! When the indomitable courage and perseverance of Count von Zeppelin in the face of discouraging disasters and flagrant failures, at last commanded the attention of the German Emperor, the latter regarded the Zeppelin craft, not from the interests of peace, but as a military weapon, and the whole of the subsequent efforts of the Imperial admirer were devoted to the perfection of the airship in this one direction.
Other nations, when they embarked on an identical line of development, considered the airship from a similar point of view. In fact, outside Germany, there was very little private initiative in this field. Experiments and developments were undertaken by the military or naval, and in some instances by both branches, of the respective Powers. Consequently the aerial craft, whether it be a dirigible airship, or an aeroplane, can only be regarded from the military point of view.
Despite the achievements which have been recorded by human endeavour in the field of aerial travel, the balloon per se has by no means been superseded. It still remains an invaluable adjunct to the fighting machine. In Great Britain its value in this direction has never been ignored: of late, indeed, it has rather been developed. The captive balloon is regarded as an indispensable unit to both field and sea operations. This fact was emphasised very strongly in connection with the British naval attacks upon the German forces in Flanders, and it contributed to the discomfiture of the German hordes in a very emphatic manner.
The captive balloon may be operated from any spot where facilities exist for anchoring the paying out cable together with winding facilities for the latter. Consequently, if exigencies demand, it maybe operated from the deck of a warship so long as the latter is stationary, or even from an automobile. It is of small cubic capacity, inasmuch as it is only necessary for the bag to contain sufficient gas to lift one or two men to a height of about 500 or 600 feet.
When used in the field the balloon is generally inflated at the base, to be towed or carried forward by a squad of men while floating in the air, perhaps at a height of 10 feet. A dozen men will suffice for this duty as a rule, and in calm weather little difficulty is encountered in moving from point to point. This method possesses many advantages. The balloon can be inflated with greater ease at the base, where it is immune from interference by hostile fire. Moreover, the facilities for obtaining the requisite inflating agent - hydrogen or coal gas - are more convenient at such a point. If the base be far removed from the spot at which it is desired to operate the balloon, the latter is inflated at a convenient point nearer the requisite position, advantage being taken of the protective covering offered by a copse or other natural obstacle.
As is well known, balloons played an important part during the siege of Paris in 1870-1, not only in connection with daring attempts to communicate with the outer world, but in reconnoitring the German positions around the beleaguered city. But this was not the first military application of the aerial vessel; it was used by the French against the Austrians in the battle of Fleurus, and also during the American Civil War. These operations, however, were of a sporadic character; they were not part and parcel of an organised military section.