CHAPTER XXXIX. Aeroplanes in the Great War
"Aeroplanes and airships would have given us an enormous advantage against the Boers. The difficulty of laying ambushes and traps for isolated columns - a practice at which the enemy were peculiarly adept - would have been very much greater. Some at least of the regrettable reverses which marked the early stages of the campaign could in all probability have been avoided."
So wrote Lord Roberts, our veteran field-marshal, in describing the progress of the Army during recent years. The great soldier was a man who always looked ahead. After his great and strenuous career, instead of taking the rest which he had so thoroughly earned, he spent laborious days travelling up and down the country, warning the people of danger ahead; exhorting them to learn to drill and to shoot; thus attempting to lay the foundation of a great civic army. But his words, alas! fell upon deaf ears - with results so tragic as hardly to bear dwelling upon.
But even "Bobs", seer and true prophet as he was, could hardly have foreseen the swift and dramatic development of war in the air. He had not long been laid to rest when aeroplanes began to be talked about, and, what is more important, to be built, not in hundreds but in thousands. At the time of writing, when we are well into the fourth year of the war, it seems almost impossible for the mind to go back to the old standards, and to take in the statement that the number of machines which accompanied the original Expeditionary Force to France was eighty! Even if one were not entirely ignorant of the number and disposition of the aerial fighting forces over the world-wide battle-ground, the Defence of the Realm Act would prevent us from making public the information. But when, more than a year ago, America entered the war, and talked of building 10,000 aeroplanes, no one gasped. For even in those days one thought of aeroplanes not in hundreds but in tens of thousands.
Before proceeding to give a few details of the most recent work of the Royal Flying Corps and Royal Naval Air Service, mention must be made of the armament of the aeroplane. In the first place, it should be stated that the war has gradually evolved three distinct types of flying machine: (1) the "general-purposes" aeroplane; (2) the giant bomb dropper; (3) the small single-seater "fighter".
As the description implies, the first machine fills a variety of roles, and the duties of its pilots grow more manifold as the war progresses. "Spotting" for the artillery far behind the enemy's lines; "searching" for ammunition dumps, for new dispositions by the enemy of men, material, and guns; attacking a convoy or bodies of troops on the march; sprinkling new trenches with machine-gun fire, or having a go at an aerodrome - any wild form of aerial adventure might be included in the diary of the pilot of a "general-purposes" machine.
It was in order to clear the air for these activities that the "fighter" came into being, and received its baptism of fire at the Battle of the Somme. At first the idea of a machine for fighting only, was ridiculed. Even the Germans, who, in a military sense, were awake and plotting when other nations were dozing in the sunshine of peace, did not think ahead and imagine the aerial duel between groups of aeroplanes armed with machine-guns. But soon the mastery of the air became of paramount importance, and so the fighter was evolved. Nobly, too, did the men of all nations rise to these heroic and dangerous opportunities. The Germans were the first to boast of the exploits of their fighting airmen, and to us in Britain the names of Immelmann and Bolcke were known long before those of any of our own fighters. The former claimed not far short of a hundred victims before he was at last brought low in June, 1916. His letters to his family were published soon after his death, and do not err on the side of modesty.
On 11th August, 1915, he writes: "There is not much doing here. Ten minutes after Bolcke and I go up, there is not an enemy airman to be seen. The English seem to have lost all pleasure in flying. They come over very, very seldom."
When allowance has been made for German brag, these statements throw some light upon the standard of British flying at a comparatively early date in the war. Certainly no German airman could have made any such complaint a year later. In 1917 the German airmen were given all the fighting they required and a bit over.
Certainly a very different picture is presented by the dismal letters which Fritz sent home during the great Ypres offensive of August, 1917. In these letters he bewails the fact that one after another of his batteries is put out of action owing to the perfect "spotting" of the British airmen, and arrives at the sad conclusion that Germany has lost her superiority in the air.
An account has already been given of the skill and prowess of Captain Ball. On his own count - and he was not the type of man to exaggerate his prowess - he found he had destroyed fifty machines, although actually he got the credit for forty-one. This slight discrepancy may be explained by the scrupulous care which is taken to check the official returns. The air fighter, though morally certain of the destruction of a certain enemy aeroplane, has to bring independent witnesses to substantiate his claim, and when out "on his own" this is no easy matter. Without this check, though occasionally it acts harshly towards the pilot, there might be a tendency to exaggerate enemy losses, owing to the difficulty of distinguishing between an aeroplane put out of action and one the pilot of which takes a sensational "nose dive" to get out of danger.