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THE INTRODUCTION OF AIRCRAFT INTO MILITARY OPERATIONS
It is a curious circumstance that an invention, which is hailed as being one of the greatest achievements ever recorded in the march of civilisation, should be devoted essentially to the maiming of humanity and the destruction of property. In no other trend of human endeavour is this factor so potently demonstrated as in connection with Man's Conquest of the Air.
The dogged struggle against the blind forces of Nature was waged tenaciously and perseveringly for centuries. But the measure of success recorded from time to time was so disappointing as to convey the impression, except in a limited circle, that the problem was impossible of solution. In the meantime wondrous changes had taken place in the methods of transportation by land and sea. The steam and electric railway, steam propulsion of vessels, and mechanical movement along the highroads had been evolved and advanced to a high standard of perfection, to the untold advantage of the community. Consequently it was argued, if only a system of travel along the aerial highways could be established, then all other methods of mechanical transportation would be rendered, if not entirely obsolete, at least antiquated.
At last man triumphed over Nature--at least to such a degree as to inspire the confidence of the world at large, and to bring aerial travel and transportation within range of realisation. But what has been the result? The discovery is not devoted to the interests of peace and economic development, but to extermination and destruction.
At the same time this development may be explained. The airship and aeroplane in the present stage of evolution possess no economic value. True, cross-country cruises by airship have been inaugurated, and, up to a point, have proved popularly, if not commercially, successful, while tentative efforts have been made to utilise the aeroplane as a mail-carrier. Still, from the view-point of the community at large aerial travel is as remote as it was centuries ago.
It is somewhat interesting to observe how history is repeating itself. When the Montgolfiers succeeded in lifting themselves into the air by means of a vessel inflated with hot air, the new vehicle was hailed not so much as one possessed of commercial possibilities, but as an engine of war! When the indomitable courage and perseverance of Count von Zeppelin in the face of discouraging disasters and flagrant failures, at last commanded the attention of the German Emperor, the latter regarded the Zeppelin craft, not from the interests of peace, but as a military weapon, and the whole of the subsequent efforts of the Imperial admirer were devoted to the perfection of the airship in this one direction.
Other nations, when they embarked on an identical line of development, considered the airship from a similar point of view. In fact, outside Germany, there was very little private initiative in this field. Experiments and developments were undertaken by the military or naval, and in some instances by both branches, of the respective Powers. Consequently the aerial craft, whether it be a dirigible airship, or an aeroplane, can only be regarded from the military point of view.
Despite the achievements which have been recorded by human endeavour in the field of aerial travel, the balloon per se has by no means been superseded. It still remains an invaluable adjunct to the fighting machine. In Great Britain its value in this direction has never been ignored: of late, indeed, it has rather been developed. The captive balloon is regarded as an indispensable unit to both field and sea operations. This fact was emphasised very strongly in connection with the British naval attacks upon the German forces in Flanders, and it contributed to the discomfiture of the German hordes in a very emphatic manner.
The captive balloon may be operated from any spot where facilities exist for anchoring the paying out cable together with winding facilities for the latter. Consequently, if exigencies demand, it maybe operated from the deck of a warship so long as the latter is stationary, or even from an automobile. It is of small cubic capacity, inasmuch as it is only necessary for the bag to contain sufficient gas to lift one or two men to a height of about 500 or 600 feet.
When used in the field the balloon is generally inflated at the base, to be towed or carried forward by a squad of men while floating in the air, perhaps at a height of 10 feet. A dozen men will suffice for this duty as a rule, and in calm weather little difficulty is encountered in moving from point to point. This method possesses many advantages. The balloon can be inflated with greater ease at the base, where it is immune from interference by hostile fire. Moreover, the facilities for obtaining the requisite inflating agent--hydrogen or coal gas-- are more convenient at such a point. If the base be far removed from the spot at which it is desired to operate the balloon, the latter is inflated at a convenient point nearer the requisite position, advantage being taken of the protective covering offered by a copse or other natural obstacle.
As is well known, balloons played an important part during the siege of Paris in 1870-1, not only in connection with daring attempts to communicate with the outer world, but in reconnoitring the German positions around the beleaguered city. But this was not the first military application of the aerial vessel; it was used by the French against the Austrians in the battle of Fleurus, and also during the American Civil War. These operations, however, were of a sporadic character; they were not part and parcel of an organised military section.
It is not generally known that the British War office virtually pioneered the military use of balloons, and subsequently the methods perfected in Britain became recognised as a kind of "standard" and were adopted generally by the Powers with such modifications as local exigencies seemed to demand.
The British military balloon department was inaugurated at Chatham under Captain Templer in 1879. It was devoted essentially to the employ ment of captive balloons in war, and in 1880 a company of the Royal Engineers was detailed to the care of this work in the field. Six years previously the French military department had adopted the captive balloon under Colonel Laussedat, who was assisted among others by the well-known Captain Renard. Germany was somewhat later in the field; the military value of captive balloons was not appreciated and taken into serious consideration here until 1884. But although British efforts were preceded by the French the latter did not develop the idea upon accepted military lines.
The British authorities were confronted with many searching problems. One of the earliest and greatest difficulties encountered was in connection with the gas for inflation. Coal gas was not always readily available, so that hydrogen had to be depended upon for the most part. But then another difficulty arose. This was the manufacture of the requisite gas. Various methods were tested, such as the electrolytic decomposition of water, the decomposition of sulphuric acid by means of iron, the reaction between slaked lime and zinc, and so forth.
But the drawbacks to every process, especially upon the field of battle, when operations have to be conducted under extreme difficulties and at high pressure, were speedily recognised. While other nations concentrated their energies upon the simplification of hydrogen-manufacturing apparatus for use upon the battle-field, Great Britain abandoned all such processes in toto. Our military organisation preferred to carry out the production of the necessary gas at a convenient manufacturing centre and to transport it, stored in steel cylinders under pressure, to the actual scene of operations. The method proved a great success, and in this way it was found possible to inflate a military balloon in the short space of 20 minutes, whereas, under the conditions of making gas upon the spot, a period of four hours or more was necessary, owing to the fact that the manufacturing process is relatively slow and intricate. The practicability of the British idea and its perfection served to establish the captive balloon as a military unit.
The British military ballooning department has always ranked as the foremost of its type among the Powers, although its work has been carried out so unostentatiously that the outside world has gleaned very little information concerning its operations. Captain Templer was an indefatigable worker and he brought the ballooning section to a high degree of efficiency from the military point of view.
But the British Government was peculiarly favoured, if such a term may be used. Our little wars in various parts of the world contributed valuable information and experience which was fully turned to account. Captive balloons for reconnoitring purposes were used by the British army for the first time at Suakim in 1885, and the section established its value very convincingly. The French military balloon department gained its first experience in this field in the previous year, a balloon detachment having been dispatched to Tonkin in 1884. In both the Tonkin and Soudan campaigns, invaluable work was accomplished by the balloon sections, with the result that this aerial vehicle has come to be regarded as an indispensable military adjunct. Indeed the activity of the German military ballooning section was directly attributable to the Anglo-French achievements therewith.
In this work, however, the British force speedily displayed its superiority and initiative. The use of compressed hydrogen was adopted, and within the course of a few years the other Powers, realising the advantages which the British department had thus obtained, decided to follow its example. The gas is stored in cylinders under a pressure varying from six to ten or more atmospheres; in other words from about 80 to 140 or more pounds per square inch. Special military wagons have been designed for the transport of these cylinders, and they are attached to the balloon train.
The balloon itself is light, and made of such materials as to reduce the weight thereof to the minimum. The British balloons are probably the smallest used by any of the Powers, but at the same time they are the most expensive. They are made of goldbeater's skin, and range in capacity from 7,000 to 10,000 cubic feet, the majority being of the former capacity. The French balloon on the other hand has a capacity exceeding 18,000 cubic feet, although a smaller vessel of 9,000 cubic feet capacity, known as an auxiliary, and carrying a single observer, is used.
The Germans, on the other hand, with their Teutonic love of the immense, favour far larger vessels. At the same time the military balloon section of the German Army eclipses that of any other nations is attached to the Intelligence Department, and is under the direct control of the General Staff. Balloon stations are dotted all over thecountry, including Heligoland and Kiel, while regular sections are attached to the Navy for operating captive balloons from warships. Although the Zeppelin and aeroplane forces have come to the front in Germany, and have relegated the captive balloon somewhat to the limbo of things that were, the latter section has never been disbanded; in fact, during the present campaign it has undergone a somewhat spirited revival.
The South African campaign emphasised the value of the British balloon section of the Army, and revealed services to which it was specially adapted, but which had previously more or less been ignored. The British Army possessed indifferent maps of the Orange Free State and the Transvaal. This lamentable deficiency was remedied in great measure by recourse to topographical photographs taken from the captive balloons. The guides thus obtained were found to be of extreme value.
During the early stages of the war the hydrogen was shipped in cylinders from the homeland, but subsequently a manufacturing plant of such capacity as to meet all requirements was established in South Africa. The cylinders were charged at this point and dispatched to the scene of action, so that it became unnecessary to transport the commodity from Britain. The captive balloon revealed the impregnability of Spion Kop, enabled Lord Roberts to ascertain the position of the Boer guns at the Battle of Paardeburg, and proved of invaluable assistance to the forces of General White during the siege of Ladysmith.