It has been a while since I have written anything for my blog so I thought before I go off for paternity leave then I would post some pictures of the new ‘First World War in the Air’ exhibition that has just opened at the RAF Museum. I have now been at the museum for 13 months and this exhibition has been our major project this year. Indeed, the planning and design started long before I ever arrived and there have been colleagues who were far more involved in than I. It has been a major effort and the final result is quite stunning. Ok, I admit I am biased but the new exhibition represents an important step in the museum’s evolution and all I can say is that if this is an example of what we can do then the next few years will be very exciting as we continue to develop. Indeed, in some respects it is a return to a philosophy of integrating our aircraft with other objects such as documents, uniforms, medals etc. Something that many people tend to forget is that while the aircraft are an important element of our collection they are, despite their size, actually a small part of it. We have much else besides, and you see some of these being used more fruitfully in the new exhibition. These smaller items, often linked to personal stories, helps us to interpret and tell the story of the RAF and its antecedents, the Royal Flying Corps and Royal Naval Air Service. Indeed, as some of the pictures show, the museum holds some fascinating items other than aircraft; a shocking comment I know!
The overarching narrative for the exhibition is, ‘He who controls the air, controls the battlefield’, which is largely the case by 1918. Indeed, by 1918, with all arms and services co-operating together, the British military had achieved what has ostensible been referred to as the ‘cybernetic solution’ to the challenges that battlefield conditions of the First World War had presented once deadlock emerged in 1915. Rather than a learning curve, it was a complex learning process that emerged that was neither smooth nor consistent as the First World War progressed. This was largely because of contingent factors that pulled developments in other ways. Indeed, by 1916, the British air services had largely experienced what the modern RAF sees as its four key roles; control of the air, attack, situational awareness and air mobility. Of course, these were never described as such at the time nor we codified in a manner that the modern military would identify though the RFC Training Manual did include information that would be recognised today. For example, No. 30 Squadron performed the one of the earliest successful air resupply mission during the Siege of Kut in 1916. While the RFC entered the war with at least a tangential recognition that its main role was reconnaissance (situational awareness), it also recognised that it would have to seek to control aerospace to allow this key role to be undertaken. Indeed, here we clearly see the cybernetic solution at work because if artillery was the main killer on the First World War battlefield, then it was artillery patrols and reconnaissance, using innovations such as the clock code, that enabled this. This mission, certainly from 1915 onwards, would only have been successful if the RFC was able to achieve and maintain control of the air. This lead to Major-General Hugh Trenchard’s view of incessant offensive. On the emergence of control of the air, I can recommend my good friend James Pugh’s recent thesis on the subject. However, while lessons were learnt they were often difficult, for example, one only has to look at the RFC’s experience over the Battle of Arras in 1917 when average life expectancy for a new pilot stood between 10 and 20 days. This only improved was major changes to training occurred back in the UK and this is an area that needs some good research undertaken on it. However, these challenges need to be placed into the context of expansion. Britain’s air services expanded by an 24,500% during the course of the First World War. Dealing with this expansion was a major challenge in many areas beyond the battlefield. The expansion of Britain’s aviation industry in this period (in conjunction with other areas) laid the foundation of the birth of the military-industrial complex, or as David Edgerton calls it, the Warfare State and is an area crying our for some research do be done on this important subject. Behind the battlefield, Britain’s air services were logistically intensive and it is worth remembering that less than 10% of RAF’s strength at the end of the war were pilots of aircrew. Many were administrators and logisticians who made it all work. This, as Peter Dye has recently shown, is important from a purely logistical sense with regards to how that system emerged and was managed, however, it was also significant in terms of how we understand the experience of air warfare in the First World War. Some writers tend to get fixated on pilots and forget the ground crew. Again, this is an area to be explored.
Perhaps the best way to think about the complex character of the air power in the First World War comes from the title of my undergraduate essay that Professor John Buckley of the University of Wolverhampton set. It was, ‘The First World War did more for air power than air power did for the First World War’ Discuss. I think this nicely sums up the conundrum as the First World War allowed air power to emerge and set the pattern for its future employment but it also played, as a sum part of the whole, a vital role in victory on the battlefield. What happened next is a different story but nonetheless there is still lots to be researched on the subject of air power both during and before the First World War especially beyond the British experience. A recent example of what can be achieved is Gregory Vitarbo’s Army of the Sky: Russian Military Aviation before the Great War, 1904-1914, which from the quick read I have been able to have (it is on my wish list for a fuller read) seems like a very good consideration of Russia’s early experience with air power.
One aspect of the exhibition that is my responsibility is the First World War in the Air Lunchtime Lectures that from February will take place at the Hendon site. This form part of the museum’s Research Programme for 2015 that I have put together. You can download details here. The first lunchtime lecture will be given by Dr James Pugh and will be on the subject of ‘The Royal Flying Corps and the Western Front in 1915: Myths and Realities’. This lecture will be on 13 February and you can find out more here including how to book a ticket for this free lecture.