A blogpost by Gateways' Dr Emma Hanna reflecting on the history of air power during the First World War. April 2018 sees the centenary of the foundation of the RAF.
‘Captain Darling? Last person I called darling was pregnant 20 seconds later.’
So said Squadron Leader Lord Flashheart in Blackadder Goes Forth (1989). Apart from the Hollywood film Wings (1927) and W.E.John’s Biggles (published 1932-68), it is highly likely that most contemporary Britons’ knowledge of the war in the air 1914-18 was informed by Rik Mayall’s portrayal of a highly sexed, upper class and slightly deranged flyer. I am acutely aware that it is entirely disingenuous to refer, yet again, to a character in Blackadder Goes Forth, but it must be said that Lord Flasheart did get all the best lines, as well as all the girls.
Nevertheless, the history of air power in the First World War has been poorly served by wider popular histories of the war. Histories of the RFC/RAF can be put into two categories: veterans’ account and historical narratives written by enthusiasts. The majority of these focus on technological details such as aeroplane specifications, weaponry and tactics. The voices of the pilots is largely absent, and our appreciation of wartime life in the RFC/RAF lags some way behind that of the Army. The first history of war in the air was The Great War in the Air (1920) written by RNAS pilot Edgar Middleton. Between 1922 and 1937, Walter Raleigh and H.A.Jones produced their seven volume work The War in the Air: Being the Story of the Part Played in the Great War by the Royal Air Force, the official history which focused on the tactical value of aerial combat, and the technological advances made by the RFC and RNAS. In the 1960s, during the 50th anniversaries of the conflict, the history of aerial combat was still relatively unexplored territory. Geoffrey Norris’ The Royal Flying Corps: A History was the first history to consider the experiences of the individual airman. For television, the dearth of decent archive footage in the air from 1914-18 prevented Tony Essex, the producer of the BBC’s The Great War (1964), from giving aerial warfare adequate attention in the well-known 26 episode series. Very few documentaries have sought to tackle the aerial war 1914-18, the best being WW1 – Falling Aces (BBC, 2009) which was based on Professor Adrian Smith’s biography of the British fighter pilot ‘Mick’ Mannock.
As the RAF commemorates the centenary of its foundation, on 1st April, a number of initiatives have sought to put right the lack of accessible histories about the early history of Britain’s air force. The very first thing to establish is that Britain’s first military air service, the Royal Flying Corps, was created from the Air Battalion of the Royal Engineers by the Aerial Navigation Act on 1st April 1912, under the dual command of the War Office and the Admiralty. The RFC comprised of two wings, naval and military, and their duty was to support the Army and the Navy as required. The two sides of the RFC worked independently and, by 1914, the Admiralty had asserted full control over all naval flying and established the Royal Naval Air Service. The military wing, meanwhile, retained the use of the title RFC. When war was declared in August 1914 a central contingent of the RFC went with the British Expeditionary Force to France: four squadrons with a total of 109 officers and 66 aeroplanes. Over the course of the war the RFC expanded its role from intelligence-gathering to include aerial combat, short and long-range bombardment, home defence, agent dropping and artillery support.
The hierarchy of the RFC was organized by a ranking system similar to the Army, with Second Lieutenant as the lowest commissioned rank rising to Field Marshal at the head. Indeed, many RFC airmen transferred from the Army, and the majority were from the officer class. A precondition of entry to the RFC was the acquisition of a Royal Aeroclub Certificate, which cost £75 – the equivalent of approximately £4000 in today’s money. This goes some way to explain why the majority of men entering the RFC were from wealthy families with the means to support flying which had been seen as an elitist hobby. Indeed, the Subcommittee’s report on aerial navigation in 1912 stated that recruits to the RFC should be encouraged to bring their own aeroplanes into the service, at least during their training period. Despite the cost the RFC was a popular choice and recruits wanted to be part of this fledgling group. Many men transferred from the Army, both from Britain, America and the Commonwealth, and new recruits believed they could get to France more quickly in the RFC.
On 1st April 1918, approximately 400,000 personnel serving in the RFC and 55,000 from the RNAS were reconfigured into the Royal Air Force. It was not an easy merger. A considerable issue was that the RNAS used a lot of nautical/naval jargon which completely stumped many RFC commanders who had little idea what their new colleagues were talking about. This is just one facet of the developments in aerial warfare in four intense years. As the official history, Sir Walter Raleigh’s War in the Air, underlined in 1922, ‘[o]fficial records do not in themselves make history. They are colourless and bare.’ This lack of colour was still felt in 1963, when veteran RFC flyer Sholto Douglas complained that modern books written about the war were ‘lacking in a feeling for the temper of that time’ which have ‘reduce[d] even that most intense of experiences to the dull level of clinical research’. This was why Douglas published Years of Combat in 1963 and Arthur Gould Lee released No Parachute five years after that. Veteran flyer Cecil Lewis, had already published Sagittarius Rising towards the end of the ‘war books boom’ in 1936, and appeared as a talking head in The Great War (BBC, 1964), bringing out a new edition of his memoirs shortly afterwards. For all its wonderful detail, however, Sagittarius Rising is to the RFC/RAF what Goodbye to All That is for the Army; it’s a fascinating insight into one man’s wartime experiences, particularly seen from the interwar period, but it was never intended to be representative of every airman who served.
After the ‘success’ of The Donkeys (1961) Alan Clark published Aces High (1973). Like much of Clark’s writing on 1914-18 it may be colourful but it is often wrong. Clark overstated the role of alcohol in the RFC/RAF, maintaining that a typical RFC binge would last from dusk until dawn ‘until all were insensible’, but that does not tally with the flyers’ schedules as detailed in their log books and squadron war diaries. It should also be pointed out that many of the men who became renowned flying ‘aces’ such as Albert Ball and James McCudden generally abstained from drink. You couldn’t keep a pack of Fokkers off your tail with a raging hangover, as any of the pilots who fought against the Richtoffen ‘Circus’ during the ‘Fokker scourge’ of 1917 would testify. The RFC/RAF did know how to throw a party, however, and Cecil Lewis’s description of an evening hosted by 56 Squadron in a field near Canterbury in July 1917 outlines that they knew how to have a good time. It cannot be denied that the flyers of the RFC/RAF are a glamourous collection of strong personalities. If there was a group of people you’d want to have a drink with, I would recommend the men of the RFC, but I would hasten to make an exit before they started to smash things, which did happen to quite a few messes and cafés on the Western Front. Particularly the Australian pilots whose favourite mess game - after a few drinks - involved standing one man against a dartboard and seeing who could get the most darts around the unfortunate person’s head. Pilots of several squadrons would return from dinner and proceed to go ‘stunting’ in their machines. There are many more terrifying stories about the extra-curricular activities of the RFC we will never know.
Where Clark is completely wrong is his assertion that the RFC/RAF were a Godless bunch who did not have any chaplains. They certainly did, such as the indomitable Reverend Pat Leonard (DSO) who in November 1917 was sent from his infantry battalion and attached as chaplain to the RFC on the Western Front. His ‘parish’ consisted of four squadrons near Poperinghe, and more were added until the end of the war. Leonard’s letters, which are in the archives of the Imperial War Museum, provide fascinating insights into the everyday lives of the RFC/RAF on the Western Front. He wrote that he held a few services which were very poorly attended, and that the RFC ‘are not big on Communions’. Despite his evident popularity with the men as an expert manager of canteens and entertainments, not to mention his prowess as a boxer and rugby player – although he once described an RFC boxing match as ‘two spiritless young men mimicking a girls’ dancing class’ – Leonard generally failed to get the flyers to worship. His most effective technique of getting a congregation together was ‘to go round the huts and wake up all those who signified their intention of coming. […] This I generally achieve by lighting a lamp or switching on their torchlight so that it shines in their eyes […]’. Nevertheless, Leonard found that ‘This is sans doute a gentleman’s life, and an ideal way of seeing the war. I’m beginning to think that the front seats are much overrated!’
That many aerodromes on the Western Front had the atmosphere of a ‘gentleman’s tennis club’ are not that wide of the mark. However, as the official history pointed out, ‘those who meet the members of a squadron in their hours of ease, among gramophones and pictorial works suggestive of luxury, forget that an actor in a tragedy, though he play his part nobly on the stage, is not commonly tragic in the green-room.’ Fear was ever present, and the subject of airmen’s mental health is now a growth area of research. More widely, recent publication on the RFC/RAF by James Pugh, Edward Bujak, Maryam Philpott, Adrian Smith and Alex Revell have done much to examine Britain’s early air warfare, but a history of the RFC/RAF which seeks to increase the breadth and depth of our knowledge of airmen’s wartime cultures is much-needed.
It is in the spirit of widening the field of research into aerial warfare during 1914-18 that the British Journal of Military History has published a special edition. Coming out on 9th February 2018, the edition Cavalry of the Clouds focuses solely on the war in the air and features articles based on new research by Ross Mahoney, Michael Molkentin, David Jordan, Alexander Howlett, Mike Bechtold, Lynsey Shaw Cobden and myself. See the BJMH’s website to access the articles: http://bjmh.org.uk/index.php/bjmh.
In May 2018 there is a one-day conference at the National Archives – There Will Be Wings: The Origins of the RAF – which is being organised in conjunction with the National Army Museum, the RAF Museum, and the National Museum of the Royal Navy, the keynote will be delivered by Professor Richard Overy of the University of Exeter. The full programme can be seen at: https://www.eventbrite.co.uk/e/there-will-be-wings-the-first-world-war-origins-of-the-raf-tickets-39324353199
IWM Q 12109: A chaplain conducting church service from the nacelle of a Royal Aircraft Factory F.E.2b night bomber at No. 2 Aeroplane Supply Depot, 1 September 1918. Note a military band on left in RFC uniforms playing.