The First World War was an unprecedented catastrophe that killed millions and set the continent of Europe on the path to further calamity two decades later. But it didn’t come out of nowhere.
With the centennial of the outbreak of hostilities coming up in 2014, Erik Sass will be looking back at the lead-up to the war, when seemingly minor moments of friction accumulated until the situation was ready to explode. He'll be covering those events 100 years after they occurred. This is the 11th installment in the series. (See all entries here.)
April 13, 1912: Britain Forms the Royal Flying Corps
In the years leading up the First World War, weapons technology advanced with such breathtaking speed that it became impossible to imagine what combat in the next war would actually look like.
The first dreadnought battleship was built by Britain in 1908, with oil-powered dreadnoughts soon to follow; Britain developed the Vickers machine gun in 1912; and artillery achieved unprecedented size with the Big Bertha guns developed by Krupp for the Germans in 1912-1913. But possibly the biggest leap forward resulted from an American invention, the airplane, developed by Orville and Wilbur Wright from 1899-1903.
As with the other leaps in weapons technology, the newness of airplanes made it difficult to predict what early aerial warfare would look like. Although the Italians pioneered aerial bombardment (from airships) in Libya in 1912, most planes were still too small to carry substantial bomb payloads, and targeting was too primitive too allow real coordination with ground forces. But aviation still conferred undeniable advantages, especially by allowing observers to soar above the confusing “fog of war.”
Hot air balloons had been used as observation platforms in various wars of the nineteenth century; in land battles, planes could conduct reconnaissance of enemy lines and serve as artillery spotters, directing the fire of ground batteries on targets miles away; and at sea, airplanes and airships could assist fleets by scouring the sea for enemy naval units – a responsibility previously delegated to swarms of small vessels with less speed and visibility than aircraft.
Reach for the Sky
With all these potential applications, military aviation was clearly too important to be left to amateur enthusiasts like the Royal Aero Club and private industry (although these would still play an important role). To bring some order to its nascent air service, on April 13, 1912, the British government decided to establish a new branch that would be responsible for designing and building planes, training pilots, and planning and carrying out missions. The Royal Flying Corps, brought into existence by a royal warrant signed by George V, absorbed the Royal Navy’s handful of planes and the “Air Battalion” of the Royal Engineers. It initially consisted of a military (over land) division, a naval (over water) division, a flight school, established June 19, 1912, and a dedicated aircraft factory.
To illustrate how small the early air forces really were, when it was created the RFC consisted of 133 pilots manning 12 balloons and 36 airplanes – making it much smaller than the French air force, with 390 planes and 234 officers, and Germany’s, with 100 planes and 90 pilots. France, then the world’s leading aircraft manufacturer, also led the way in building new planes: in 1913, the last year before war broke out, Britain spent around $3 million on its air force, compared to $7.4 million for France, $5 million each for Germany and Russia, and a pathetic $125,000 for the United States.
With war looming, spending increased – triggering inevitable bureaucratic battles for control of the air force. In 1914 the Royal Navy – long the dominant military branch in pre-war Britain – demanded that the RFC’s naval wing be formally separated and established as its own Royal Naval Air Service; the division took place July 1, 1914. When war broke out shortly afterwards, the RNAS still dominated, with 93 planes and 727 personnel, versus 63 planes and 900 personnel for the remaining RFC.
Of course the bureaucratic ballet was far from over. Ironically the RNAS and RFC would be re-merged towards the end of the war, on April 1, 1918, to form the Royal Air Force. By that point their combined aviation assets had grown to a remarkable 22,000 aircraft and 290,000 personnel.