Now all roads lead to France and heavy is the tread
Of the living; but the dead returning lightly dance.
Edward Thomas, Roads

Friday, December 21, 2018

The Importance of Aviation in Breaking the Trench Stalemate

By John Terraine

RFC BE2 Equipped with Camera

In general, 1915 was a miserable year for the BEF, with every kind of equipment in short supply. On the other hand, it was also a period of experiment and incubation of what, in some cases, turned out to be priceless new techniques. As one novelty breeds another, photo reconnaissance, having appeared, was much in demand—and so, on both sides of the line, was prevention of enemy photography, leading quite naturally to air combat, in turn calling for specialized aircraft . . . the necessity to seize and hold air supremacy was perceived [by] 1915.

1915...saw the first step taken toward the ultimate war-winner. In the artillery the words of two Royal Artillery brigadiers, who have researched firepower with such authority...the "starting point" and pivot was the Royal Flying Corps pilot. 

The artillery war was, from the first, almost entirely conducted by "indirect fire," i.e. the gunners of all armies were normally shooting at invisible targets. This made possession of an accurate map essential—accurate, that is to say, to within 15 to 20 yards. No such thing existed in 1915, so the decision was taken to have one made by the newly formed Field Survey Companies of the Royal Engineers, working closely with the RFC. From this derived many hours of tedious but highly dangerous photographic flying for the RFC, but for the artillery the opportunity came to restore surprise and precision to battle—which it duly did at Cambrai in November 1917. And this technique, in the hands of [both] the Germans and Allies in 1918, supplied the key to unlocking the trench-bound front. 

Effective Artillery Broke the Trench Stalemate in 1918

[For the British Army] this could not have been done without the RFC, and in conjunction with the rest of its day-in, day-out cooperation with the Royal Artillery. This constituted in my opinion the most important contribution of the Royal Flying Corps to winning the war.

From John Terraine's 1994 lecture to the Royal Air Force Historical Society


  1. I suppose we (or should I rather say, rather smugly, the general public) will never wholly get away from the fascination with "Aces", but such fascination has long distorted a proper appreciation of what the RFC/RAF was for, and what it achieved. Viva Observers, Viva!

    1. Reply to Brian.
      Yes, the aerial observation and artillery spotting of the RFC/RCAF/RAF was very important, but do not forget: air support of ground forces is dependent on "air superiority" and THAT is what the Aces and the Fighter Pilots provide for the Service. Without air superiority, all other military missions are conducted with severe limitations and effectiveness.
      For proof, see Oswald Boelcke: Germany's First Fighter Ace and Father of Air Combat. Best regards, rg

    2. Dear RG - Thanks for your response that, quite properly, emphasized the integrated nature of aerial operations at the strategic level. Nonetheless, until meaningful interdiction of the enemy's terrestrial activities (strafing ground forces, blocking communications, destroying supporting infrastructure) became possible, the purpose of air superiority was primarily to facilitate observation by one's own side and to block that of the enemy. A necessary condition, but not an end in itself. Or so I believe!

  2. Interesting thesis.
    Did any nation other than Britain attempt such a careful photographic cartography?

  3. I would suggest reading Wilson's book on Bill Lambert.

  4. The struggle between the Air Recon guys and the Air Power guys is chronicled nicely in Eyes All Over the Sky by James Streckfuss. With Air Power winning, the critical role of air reconnaissance in coordinating artillery was basically forgotten.