is the largest online archive of world war 1 photographs and texts.
the Archive of World War 1 Photographs and Texts
History of World War 1 The Western Front The Russian Front Italian Front The Middle East Air Warfare War at Sea

The Air War

When the First World War started, the airplane had only been invented by the Wright Brothers 11 years earlier. (Some sources maintain that manned flight was developed earlier: has information about these primitive attempts at flying.

RAF Bomber on the Western Front
An R.A.F. Bomber Being Towed Into Position by a Tractor. This plane could fly at a top speed of 97 miles per hour. And it took one hour to reach its maximum altitude of 14,000 feet.

Though rapid advances had been made in the field of aircraft design since the Wright Brothers, the airplanes available to both sides at the start of World War 1 were still very primitive. The Germans and the Allies relied mainly on dirigibles such as the Zeppellin for bombing and air reconnaisance. Military tactics had not yet evolved to incorporate the use of air power in land and sea operations, or for strategic bombing.

Initially airplanes were used in primarily aerial reconnaisance roles and many were unarmed. Dogfighting between airplanes did not become commonplace until the technology developed to allow the fire of machine guns to be synchronized with the rotations of the propellars to that the pilot could fire in front of him without chewing up his own propellar.

However airplanes and air tactics evolved quickly as both sides discovered the usefulness of airplanes as spotters and as ground attack bombers. Both sides also developed medium and heavy bombers, and fighters to control the airspace above the battlefield, and massed battles between German and Allied fighters took place over France. German airships even bombed England.

Phorograph of a metal dart dropped by French planes on German soldiers during World War 1. Source: Europe's Greatest War, published 1915
Airwarfare was initially very primitive. The picture above illustrates an early French attempt to use airplanes to attack enemy ground forces: it shows a metal dart which would be dropped from a height of 3000 feet or more. Gravity would cause the dart to accelerate to such speeds that it would go straight through an en enemy soldier. However because such weapons did not explode or fragment, they were of very limited use, especially against entrenched positions.

As the airwar progressed, however, both sides made considerable improvements to their airplanes and in tactics.

a zeppellin bomber
A Zeppellin Bomber. In the background is a WW1 Bi-Plane

A small WW1 plane strafes enemy trenches
WW1 airplane strafes enemy trenches

Next: the Airwar IntensifiesNext Page

More Resources

  • Airplanes of World War 1 - This book traces the development of the airplane as a weapon of war, including the use of fighters and bombers to control the sky and attack ground troops.

  • Flying for France - The story of American pilots who volunteered to fight for France.