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A First World War Soldier

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Air Fleets

Less than three years ago the momentous and spectacular race among the Powers of Europe for the supremacy of the air began. At first the struggle was confined to two rivals--France and Germany--but as time progressed and the importance of aerial fleets was recognised, other nations, notably Great Britain, entered the field.

Germany obtained an advantage. Experiment and research were taken up at a point which had been reached by French effort; further experiments and researches were carried out in German circles with secret and feverish haste, with the result that within a short time a pronounced degree of efficiency according to German ideals had been attained. The degree of perfection achieved was not regarded with mere academic interest; it marked the parting of the ways: the point where scientific endeavour com manded practical appreciation by turning the success of the laboratory and aerodrome into the channel of commercial manufacture. In other words, systematic and wholesale production was undertaken upon an extensive scale. The component parts were standardised and arrangements were completed with various establishments possessed of the most suitable machinery to perfect a programme for turning out aeronautical requirements in a steady, continuous stream from the moment the crisis developed.

The wisdom of completing these arrangements in anticipation is now apparent. Upon the outbreak of hostilities many German establishments devoted to the production of articles required in the infinite ramifications of commerce found themselves deprived of their markets, but there was no risk that their large plants would be brought to a standstill: the Government ordered the manufacture of aeroplane parts and motors upon an extensive scale. In this manner not only were the industrial establishments kept going, but their production of aeronautical requirements relieved those organisations devoted to the manufacture of armaments, so that the whole resources and facilities of these could be concentrated upon the supply of munitions of war.

In France the air-fleet, although extensive upon the outbreak of war, was somewhat heterogeneous. Experiment was still being pursued: no type had met with definite official recognition, the result being that no arrangements had been completed for the production of one or more standard types upon an elaborate scale comparable with that maintained by Germany. In fact some six months after the outbreak of war there was an appreciable lack of precision on this point in French military. Many of the types which had established their success were forbidden by military decree as mentioned in a previous chapter, while manufacturing arrangements were still somewhat chaotic.

Great Britain was still more backward in the new movement. But this state of affairs was in a measure due to the division of the Fourth Arm among the two services. A well-organised Government manufactory for the production of aeroplanes and other aircraft necessities had been established, while the private manufacturers had completed preparations for wholesale production. But it was not until the Admiralty accepted responsibility for the aerial service that work was essayed in grim earnest.

The allocation of the aerial responsibilities of Great Britain to the Admiralty was a wise move. Experience has revealed the advantages accruing from the perfection of homogeneous squadrons upon the water, that is to say groups of ships which are virtually sister-craft of identical speed, armament, and so on, thus enabling the whole to act together as a complete effective unit. As this plan had proved so successful upon the water, the Admiralty decided to apply it to the fleet designed for service in the air above.

At the time this plan of campaign was definitely settled Great Britain as an aerial power was a long way behind her most fomidable rival, but strenuous efforts were made to reduce the handicap, and within a short while the greater part of this leeway had been made up. Upon the outbreak of war Great Britain undoubtedly was inferior to Germany in point of numbers of aircraft, but the latter Power was completely outclassed in efficiency, and from the point of view of PERSONNEL. The British had developed the waterplane as an essential auxiliary to naval operations, and here was in advance of her rival, who had practically neglected this line of eeperiment and evolution, resting secure in the assurance of her advisers that the huge dirigibles would be adequate for all exigencies on the water.

Indeed, when war was declared, all the Powers were found more or less wanting so far as their aerial fleets were concerned. If Germany's huge aerial navy had been in readiness for instant service when she invaded Belgium, she would have overcome that little country's resistance in a far shorter time and with much less waste of life. It was the Belgians who first brought home to the belligerents the prominent part that aircraft were destined to play in war, and the military possibilities of the aeroplane. True, the Belgians had a very small aerial navy, but it was put to work without delay and accomplished magnificent results, ascertaining the German positions and dispositions with unerring accuracy and incredible ease, and thus enabling the commander of the Belgian Army to dispose his relatively tiny force to the best advantage, and to offer the most effective resistance.

Great Britain's aerial navy, while likewise some what small, was also ready for instant service. The British Expeditionary force was supported by a very efficient aerial fleet, the majority of the vessels forming which flew across the Channel at high speed to the British headquarters in France so as to be available directly military preparations were begun, and the value of this support proved to be inestimable, since it speedily demoralised the numerically superior enemy.

France, like Germany, was somewhat dilatory, but this was attributable rather to the time occupied in the mobilisation of the Fourth Arm than to lack of energy. There were a round 1,500 aeroplanes ostensibly ready for service, in addition to some 26 dirigibles. But the fleet was somewhat scattered, while many of the craft were not immediately available, being in the shops or in dock for repairs and overhaul. During the period of mobilisation the so-called standing military force was augmented by about 500 machines which were acquired from private owners. The aeroplane factories were also, overhauled and re-organised so as to be in a position to remedy the inevitable wastage, but these organisation efforts were somewhat handicapped by the shortage of labour arising from the call to arms. France, moreover, imperilled her aerial strength by forbidding the use of 558 machines which were ready for service.

Germany's aerial fleet was of similar proportions to that of her Gallic neighbour, but curiously enough, and in strange contrast, there appeared to be a lack of readiness in this ramification of the Teuton war machine. The military establishment possessed about 1,000 machines--active and reserve--of which it is estimated 700 were available for instant service. During the period of mobilisation a further 450 machines were added to the fleet, drawn for the most part from private owners. So far as the dirigibles were concerned 14 Zeppelins were ready for duty, while others were under construction or undergoing overhaul and repair. A few other types were also in commission or acquired during mobilisation, bringing the dirigible force to 40 machines all told.

But the greatest surprise was probably offered by Russia. Very little was known concerning Russian activities in this particular field, although it was stated that large orders for machines had been placed with various foreign manufactories. Certain factories also had been established within the Empire, although the character of their work and its results and achievements were concealed from prying eyes. In Russia, however, an appreciable number of private aeroplanes were in operation, and these, of course, were placed at the disposal of the authorities the moment the crisis developed.

The British and French aeroplane manufacturers had been busy upon Russian orders for many months previous to the outbreak of hostilities, while heavy shipments of component parts had been made, the assembling and completion of the machines being carried out in the country. It is generally believed that upon the outbreak of war Russia had a fleet of 800 aeroplanes in hand, of which total 150 were contributed from private sources. Even the dirigible had not been overlooked, there being nearly 20 of these craft attached to the Russian Army, although for the most part they are small vessels.

In comparison with the foregoing large aerial navies, that of Great Britain appeared to be puny. At the moment Great Britain possesses about 500 machines, of which about 200 are waterplanes. In addition, according to the Secretary of the Admiralty, 15 dirigibles should be in service. Private enterprise is supported by the Government, which maintains a factory for the manufacture of these craft.

During the two years preceding the outbreak of war the various Powers grew remarkably reticent concerning the composition and enlargement of their respective aerial fleets. No official figures were published. But at the same time it is a well-known fact that during the year 1913 France augmented her flying force by no fewer than 544 aeroplanes. Germany was no less energetic, the military acquisition in this branch, and during the self-same year, approaching 700 machines according to the semi-official reports published in that country.

The arrangements concluded for the manufacture of additional craft during the war are equally remarkable. The principal factory in Germany, (now devoting its energies to the production of these craft, although in happier days its normal complement of 4,000 men were responsible for the production of another commercial article) possesses facilities for turning out 30 complete aeroplanes per week, according to the statement of its managing director. But it is averred that this statement is purposely misleading, inasmuch as during the first fortnight of the campaign it was producing over 50 aeroplanes per week. It must be remembered that Germany is responsible for the supply of the majority of such craft for the Austnan armies, that country purchasing these vessels in large numbers, because in the early days of the conflict it was notoriously weak in this arm. Since the declaration of war strenuous efforts have been made to remedy this state of affairs, particularly upon the unexpected revelation of Russia's aerial strength.

It is computed that upon the outbreak of war the various Powers were in the position to show an aggregate of 4,980 aircraft of all descriptions, both for active service and reserve. This is a colossal fleet, but it serves to convey in a graphic manner the importance attached to the adrial vessel by the respective belligerents. So far as Germany is concerned she is sorely in need of additional machines. Her fleet of the air has lost its formidable character, owing to the fact that it has to be divided between two frontiers, while she has been further weakened by the enormous lengths of the two battle-fronts.

Russia has been able to concentrate her aerial force, which has proved of incalculable value to the Grand Duke Nicholas, who has expressed his appreciation of the services rendered by his fliers. The French likewise have been favoured by Fortune in this respect. Their aerial navy is likewise concentrated upon a single frontier, although a pronounced proportion has been reserved for service upon the Mediterranean sea-board for co-operation with the fleet. France suffers, however, to a certain degree from the length of her battle-line, which is over 200 miles in length. The French aerial fleet has been particularly active in the Vosges and the Argonne, where the difficult, mountainous, and densely wooded country has rendered other systems of observation of the enemy's movements a matter of extreme difficulty. The Germans have laboured under a similar handicap in this territory, and have likewise been compelled to centre a considerable proportion of their aerial fleet upon this corner of the extended battlefield.

It is in this region that the greatest wastage has been manifest. I have been informed by one correspondent who is fighting in this sternly contested area, that at one time a daily loss of ten German machines was a fair average, while highwater mark was reached, so far as his own observations and ability to glean information were concerned by the loss of 19 machines during a single day. The French wastage, while not so heavy upon the average, has been considerable at times.

The term wastage is somewhat misleading, if not erroneous. It does not necessarily imply the total loss of a machine, such as its descent upon hostile territory, but includes damage to machines, no matter how slight, landing within their own lines. In the difficult country of the Vosges many aeroplanes have come to earth somewhat heavily, and have suffered such damage as to render them inoperative, compelling their removal from the effective list until they have undergone complete overhaul or reconstruction. Upon occasions this wastage has been so pronounced that the French aviators, including some of the foremost fliers serving with the forces, have been without a machine and have been compelled to wait their turn.

I am informed that one day four machines, returning from a reconnaissance in force, crashed successively to the ground, and each had to be hauled away to the repair sheds, necessitating withdrawal from service for several days. Unfortunately the French, owing to their decision to rule out certain machines as unsuited to military service, have not yet perfected their organisation for making good this wastage, although latterly it has been apprecably reduced by greater care among the aviators in handling their vessels.

The fast vessels of the French aerial fleet have proved exceptionally valuable. With these craft speeds of 95 and 100 miles or more per hour have been attained under favourable conditions, and pace has proved distinctly advantageous, inasmuch as it gives the French aviators a superiority of about 40 per cent over the average German machine. It was the activity and daring of the French fliers upon these high speed machines which induced the German airmen to change their tactics. Individual effort and isolated raiding operations were abandoned in favour of what might be described as combined or squadron attack. Six or eight machines advancing together towards the French lines somewhat nonplussed these fleet French mosquito craft, and to a certain degree nullified their superiority in pace. Speed was discounted, for the simple reason that the enemy when so massed evinced a disposition to fight and to follow harassing tactics when one of the slowest French machines ventured into the air.

It is interesting to observe that aerial operations, now that they are being conducted upon what may be termed methodical lines as distinct from corsair movements, are following the broad fundamental principles of naval tactics. Homogeneous squadrons, that is, squadrons composed of vessels of similar type and armament, put out and follow roughly the "single line ahead" formation. Upon sighting the enemy there is the manoeuvring for position advantage which must accrue to the speedier protagonist. One then, witnesses what might almost be described as an application of the process of capping the line or "crossing the 'T.'" This tends to throw the slower squadron into confusion by bending it back upon itself, meanwhile exposing it to a demoralizing fire.

The analogy is not precisely correct but sufficiently so to indicate that aerial battles will be fought much upon the same lines, as engagements between vessels upon the water. If the manoeuvres accomplish nothing beyond breaking up and scattering the foe, the result is satisfactory in as much as in this event it is possible to exert a driving tendency and to force him back upon the lines of the superior force, when the scattered vessels may be brought within the zone of spirited fire from the ground.

Attacks in force are more likely to prove successful than individual raiding tactics, as recent events upon the battlefield of Europe have demonstrated more or less convincingly. An attack in force is likely to cause the defenders upon the ground beneath to lose their heads and to fire wildly and at random, with the result that the airmen may achieve their object with but little damage to themselves. This method of attacking in force was essayed for the first time by the British aerial fleet, which perhaps is not surprising, seeing that the machines are manned and the operations supervised by officers who have excelled in naval training, and who are skilled in such movements.

No doubt this practice, combined with the daring of the British aviators, contributed very materially to the utter demoralisation of the German aerial forces, and was responsible for that hesitancy to attack a position in the vicinity of the British craft which became so manifest in the course of a few weeks after the outbreak of hostilities.

One of the foremost military experts of the United States, who passed some time in the fighting zone, expressed his opinion that the British aerial force is the most efficient among the belligerents when considered as a unit, the French flier being described by the same authority as most effective when acting individually, owing to personal intrepidity. As a scout the French aviator is probably unequalled, because he is quick to perceive and to collect the data required, and when provided with a fast machine is remarkably nimble and venturesome in the air. The British aviators, however, work as a whole, and in the particular phases where such tactics are profitable have established incontestable superiority. At first the German aerial force appeared to possess no settled system of operation. Individual effort was pronounced, but it lacked method. The Germans have, however, profited from the lessons taught by their antagonists, and now are emulating their tactics, but owing to their imperfect training and knowledge the results they achieve appear to be negligible.

The dirigible still remains an unknown quantity in these activities, although strange to relate, in the early days of the war, the work accomplished by the British craft, despite their comparatively low speed and small dimensions, excelled in value that achieved by the warplanes. This was particularly noticeable in matters pertaining to reconnaissance, more especially at night, when the British vessels often remained for hours together in the air, manoeuvring over the hostile lines, and gathering invaluable information as to the disposition and movements of the opposing forces.

But it is probably in connection with naval operations that the British aerial fleet excels. The waterplanes have established their supremacy over the naval dirigible in a striking manner. British endeavour fostered the waterplane movement and has carried it to a high degree of perfection. The waterplane is not primarily designed to perform long flights, although such may be carried out if the exigencies demand. The practice of deputing certain vessels to art as "parent ships" to a covey of waterplanes has proved as successful in practice, as in theory. Again, the arrangements for conveying these machines by such means to a rendezvous, and there putting them into the water to complete a certain duty, have been triumphantly vindicated. At the time this idea was embraced it met with a certain degree of hostile criticism: it was argued that the association of the two fighting, machines would tend towards confusion, and impair the efficiency of both.

Practice has refuted this theory. The British aerial raids upon Cuxhaven and other places would have been impossible, and probably valueless as an effective move, but for the fact that it was possible to release the machines from a certain point upon the open sea, within easy reach of the cooperating naval squadron. True, the latter was exposed to hostile attack from submarines, but as results proved this was easy to repel. The aircraft were enabled to return to their base, as represented by the rendezvous, to be picked up, and to communicate the intelligence gained from their flight to the authorities in a shorter period of time than would have been possible under any other circumstances, while the risk to the airmen was proportionately reduced.

The fact that the belligerents have built up such huge aerial navies conclusively proves that the military value of the Fourth Arm has been fully appreciated. From the results so far achieved there is every indication that activity in this direction will be increased rather than diminished.

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