CHAPTER XLIX. The Future in the Air

Three years before the outbreak of the Great War, the Master-General of Ordnance, who was in charge of Aeronautics at the War Office, declared: "We are not yet convinced that either aeroplanes or air-ships will be of any utility in war".

After four years of war, with its ceaseless struggle between the Allies and the Central Powers for supremacy in the air, such a statement makes us rub our eyes as though we had been dreaming.

Seven years - and in its passage the air encircling the globe has become one gigantic battle area, the British Isles have lost the age-long security which the seas gave them, and to regain the old proud unassailable position must build a gigantic aerial fleet - as greatly superior to that of their neighbours as was, and is, the British Navy.

Seven years - and the monoplane is on the scrap-heap; the Zeppelin has come as a giant destroyer - and gone, flying rather ridiculously before the onslaughts of its tiny foes. In a recent article the editor of The Aeroplane referred to the erstwhile terror of the air as follows: "The best of air-ships is at the mercy of a second-rate aeroplane". Enough to make Count Zeppelin turn in his grave!

To-day in aerial warfare the air-ship is relegated to the task of observer. As the "Blimp", the kite-balloon, the coast patrol, it scouts and takes copious notes; but it leaves the fighting to a tiny, heavier-than-air machine armed with a Lewis gun, and destructive attacks to those big bomb-droppers, the British Handley Page, the German Gotha, the Italian Morane tri-plane.

The war in the air has been fought with varying fortunes. But, looking back upon four years of war, we may say that, in spite of a slow start, we have managed to catch up our adversaries, and of late we have certainly dealt as hard knocks as we have received. A great spurt of aerial activity marked the opening of the year 1918. From all quarters of the globe came reports, moderate and almost bald in style, but between the lines of which the average man could read word-pictures of the skill, prowess, and ceaseless bravery of the men of the Royal Flying Corps and Royal Naval Air Service. Recently there have appeared two official publications [1], profusely illustrated with photographs, which give an excellent idea of the work and training of members of the two corps. Forewords have been contributed respectively by Lord Hugh Cecil and Sir Eric Geddes, First Lord of the Admiralty. These publications lift a curtain upon not only the activities of the two Corps, but the tremendous organization now demanded by war in the air.

[1] The Work and Training of the Royal Flying Corps and The Work and Training of the Royal Naval Air Service.

All this to-day. To-morrow the Handley Page and Gotha may be occupying their respective niches in the museum of aerial antiquities, and we may be all agog over the aerial passenger service to the United States of America.

For truly, in the science of aviation a day is a generation, and three months an eon. When the coming of peace turns men's thoughts to the development of aeroplanes for commerce and pleasure voyages, no one can foretell what the future may bring forth.

At the time of writing, air attacks are still being directed upon London. But the enemy find it more and more difficult to penetrate the barrage. Sometimes a solitary machine gets through. Frequently the whole squadron of raiding aeroplanes is turned back at the coast.

As for the military advantage the Germans have derived, after nearly four years of attacks by air, it may be set down as practically nil. In raid after raid they missed their so-called objectives and succeeded only in killing noncombatants. Far different were the aim and scope of the British air offensives into Germany and into country occupied by German troops. Railway junctions, ammunition dumps, enemy billets, submarine bases, aerodromes - these were the targets for our airmen, who scored hits by the simple but dangerous plan of flying so low that misses were almost out of the question.

"Make sure of your objective, even if you have to sit upon it." Thus is summed up, in popular parlance, the policy of the Royal Flying Corps and Royal Naval Air Service. And if justification were heeded of this strict limitation of aim, it will be found in the substantial military losses inflicted upon the enemy results which would never have been attained had our airmen dissipated their energies on non-military objectives for the purpose of inspiring terror in the civil population.