This summer we are passing the centenary of the outbreak of World War 1 in Europe. After the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand and his wife on 28 June 1914, events conspired to light the fuse of war. By the early days of August the war began spilling out of the Balkan states and into western Europe with Germany’s invasion of Belgium and the subsequent declaration of war by England on Germany on 4 August 2014. (a full timeline of WW1 can be found on Wikipedia)
This anniversary passed with little fanfare in the United States, This is not surprising, as the US did not enter the war until 1917. However, the Centenary is being remembered in England with more fervor than I think will be mustered by the United States in 3 years time. The UK’s Department for Culture, Media, and Sport has put together several tributes to this occasion, but the most poignant that I have found is an art installation at the Tower or London. This installation is a waterfall of poppies that flow out of the tower to commemorate the lives lost in the war. I wish that poppies were a more recognized symbol in in the US, because this (and the display’s at the British tomb of the Unknown Warrior in Westminster Abbey, and others) is truly a moving tribute.
World War 1 is not often thought of by the general public as a significant air war. In the US, the history education that most people receive emphasizes the ground stalemate on the western front and the horrible nature and conditions that developed with trench warfare. Most people give the aviators of World War 1 little thought. Other than the Red Baron (and many of these people only know the name from his likeness’s interactions with Snoopy in the Peanuts cartoons and probably couldn’t give his proper name), most Americans wouldn’t be able to name another of these aviation pioneers, many of whom gave their lives during their military service during World War 1.
Aviation in World War 1 was an extremely dangerous proposition, the life expectancy of a pilot flying on the Western front was measured in days. These men pioneered a completely new form of warfare and at the same time brought the airplane from a gangly and sometimes awkward adolescence into multi-use and deadly adulthood, all less than 20 years since the first flight by Orville and Wilbur.
In just a few years of war, aviation went from being a curiosity of the army to an integrated part of a combined arms strategy. The first use for aircraft, reconnaissance continued to play a major role. However, by the end of the conflict, there were purpose built aircraft for training, reconnaissance, air superiority, bombardment, and close air support. All of these roles are still vital to this day, and aircraft continue to be designed with one (or more) of these roles in mind.
In addition to the aircraft themselves, the men who flew them pioneered the basics of air combat that are still relevant and taught to pilots fighting on the battlefields of the 21st century. You would be hard pressed to find a combat pilot from any time period who is not familiar with the Dicta Boelcke ,the 8 basic rules of aerial combat pioneered by Oswald Bolcke. Oswald Boelcke was one of the first German ace of the war, a hero in Germany, and a mentor to the Baron Manfred von Richthofen (the Red Baron). Boelcke died in combat over the Western Front.
Men such as Boelcke and Richthofen, as well as their British, French, Italian, and American counterparts created, from scratch, a new type of warfare that wouldn’t reach it’s full potential until 20 years after the end of World War 1 with the aerial combat of World War 2. The hard learned lessons of aerial combat and the capability of air power were impressed on the psyche of future world leaders (ex. Hermann Goering, Reichsminister of Aviation (and other things) for Nazi Germany, was a fighter pilot in World War 1) and aviation pioneers (ex. Billy Mitchell, pioneer of air power tactics and one of the early and most outspoken champions of military air power in the United States). These lessons played a large part in the development of aircraft and tactics through the interwar period, through World War 2, and beyond.
The personalities (both hero and “villain”) that were so larger than life during their short careers (and in many cases short lives) inspired their contemporaries in aviation as well as continue to inspire future generations of aviators even today. This legacy can clearly be seen in the Early Years gallery at the National Museum of the United States Air Force. Young people from all over the world are able to see the machines and read about the men who flew them. Including the stories of all 4 men who were awarded Medals of Honor by the United States for aviation in World War 1 (Eddie Rickenbacker, Harold Goettler, Erwin Bleckley, and Frank Luke).
Aviation in the civilian world also was advanced by the war. The public was enamored with the glamour of flight. After the war there was a large surplus of aircraft that the government sold on the cheap. This brought rise to the barnstormers that spread aviation to every corner of the nation. The surplus of aircraft and pilots also helped give rise to the airmail system as well as other early commercial aviation ventures, including some of the airlines that are still in existence to this day. This drastic increase in commercial aviation also prompted advancements in navigation and instrumentation, many of which are still used regularly in aviation today (NDB and VOR navigation, instrument landing systems, autopilots, etc.)
The advancement of aviation during World War 1 is an under-estimated time period in the history of aviation. But without the advancements made during the war, the “Golden Age” of aviation would have been a little less bright.
There are still places around the US where you can still see aircraft from World War 1 flown. The Old Rhinebeck Aerodrome is a fantastic example of an institution that is dedicated to preserving this era of aviation history. This year, there will also be a World War 1 fly in at the National Museum of the U.S. Air Force at the end of September as a commemoration of the centenary of World War 1.
Until Next Time
Clear Skies and Tailwinds