To mark the outbreak of World War I, the National Aerospace Library has been peering into its excellent collection of historical journals from Britain, the United States, Germany, Austria and France to see how they thought aviation would shape the Great War.
The two British general aeronautical magazines of the decade, Flight and The Aeroplane, took different stances in their editorials. Flight sat on the fence. It saw reconnaissance as the "first and principle" task of aircraft. The big question: what would happen after aircraft received "interruption from hostile air fleets"? Sadly, it did not give a firm opinion on the topic. However, it did say that it was a "comforting knowledge that the British were prepared at all points".
Sitting on the fence was never something that the editor of The Aeroplane, C. G. Grey, could be accused of. He used his editorial to describe the national characteristics of each of the major powers, before joining Flight in praising the "Military wing of the Royal Flying Corps, which, considering its small size, is probably the most efficient force of its kind in the world". Grey goes on to discuss the air forces of both the Army and the Navy. More of Grey's firm beliefs can be found in his personal papers which are housed at the National Aerospace Library.
Grey firmly stated that British airships were "quite without value in this war", but it was the German airships that concerned the editor of Aeronautics. They reported that the British press were publishing scare stories about the damage that could be caused by Zeppelin raids. The Germans had hurled six bombs from a Zeppelin onto Antwerp on 24 August 1914 and had "killed some half-a-dozen inoffensive citizens". Aeronautics went on to say "the Germans will no doubt sooner or later make a similar raid upon London .... a few persons might be killed, a building or two damaged, and that is all. But the moral effect would undoubtedly be tremendous - and that is the chief German aim. Therefore, let us be prepared to face it beforehand.... and, when it should come, face the matter philosophically.'
The Aeronautical Journal sadly reported the deaths of the first two members on active service: Lieutenant Richard T Gates while landing after a reconnaissance flight and Lieutenant-Commander Thomas Fleming Besant whilst commanding the Australian submarine A.E.1.
The Aeronautical Journal was not the only publication to report the death of airman. The Austrian publication, Osterreichische Flug-Zeitschrift reported the death of Fliegerkommandant Hauptmann Miller. Though Miller died in a car accident, he was the longest serving flight officer and had gone through training when the military significance of aviation was still unknown. He was very experienced and took part in aerial sport competitions with many first prizes. What difference Miller would have made to the Austrian Air Force can only be guessed.
The German and French journals in the NAL collection struck a more patriotic tone. L'Aerophile reports the supreme sacrifice of the people to defend their country and in particular the soldiers of the air, "whose bravery does not have to be proven", given that they are used to looking at death in the face. It mentions the inventors, scholars and men of action involved in modern aerial transport whose genius is now being used in the most deadly battles we have yet seen. Aviation coming to the rescue, would guide the army from the air and that their readership could be inspired by their glorious example. They also reported a temporary suspension of publication to avoid passing information to the enemy, but before they did they published a rather nice L'Aerophile map showing the location of enemy airfields and command bases.
Flugsport reports how the Germans were putting their air industry onto a war footing. The German War Ministry was appealing for the right kind of people to enlist as air troops, calling for those which have the relevant intelligence and competence, as well as previous knowledge of operating and maintaining aircraft engines. The publication noted that such characters were notably to be found amongst the students of aeronautical subjects at technical colleges and other such educational establishments. Experienced mechanics and technicians were also sought.
The Ministry was also alive to possible problems with aircraft production. They stated that the "development of our national air presence must not be allowed to grind to a halt during the war" . The resupply of aircraft to the army and navy started to take shape through special measures, by using civilians to serve in the army and navy.
Perhaps a more independent view can be shown by the American publication Aero and Hydro. They give a nice description of the relative air strength of each country. They predict that air power will be able to "swing victory into defeat or defeat into victory", but luckily for Great Britain, who is far down the table, Aero and Hydro believed that the "real value of aero equipment of the most complete and efficient kind available remains to be learned by actual service. Which nation's aerial force will prove the strongest can only be guessed'.
The NAL's First World War and other journals can be viewed at their Farnborough Reading Rooms, or, for a small fee, copies can be sent across the world. Contact the NAL for more information via firstname.lastname@example.org or 01252 701038. You can also search and order material via our online catalogue.