The Impact of Aerial Forces in the First World War

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To what extent did the aerial forces of the First World War impact the course of the war and its outcome?

“The day has passed when armies on the ground or navies on the sea can be the arbiter of a nation's destiny in war. The main power of defense and the power of initiative against an enemy has passed to the air.” -Brigadier General Billy Mitchell. November, 1918.

The Italo-Turkish war, which lasted from 1911-12 and was predominantly fought in Libya, was the first recorded event of a bomb dropped from an aeroplane onto the enemy. The 1912-13 Balkans also witnessed elementary aerial bombing executed against the opponent from aeroplanes and airships. However, World War One was the first major conflict to implement forces on a large scale that would literally elevate the battlefield. The aeroplanes and zeppelins of the Great War opened the door to an entirely new way to wage battle, which has unquestionably altered the nature of war forever. Nevertheless, despite being the war that ornamented the importance of military aviation, it is unclear whether or not this monumental achievement in military technology actually affected the course of WWI. Did the vividly coloured bi-planes and cumbersome airships flying over the muddy, blood-soaked trenches actually alter the course of the war, or were they just prototypes seen to have a great deal of potential? The key objective of this essay is to examine the impact that aerial forces had on the war; to determine if and how they shaped the outcome. Therefore, it is not the purpose of this essay to prove the monumental significance of military aviation in the First World War, but rather to investigate the importance of the role that it played. For the purposes of precision and brevity, we will focus mainly on the British –and to an extent, German- involvement in aviation during the First World War. Although other nations that were involved, such as France, USA and Austria-Hungary, contributed significant achievements to the field of military aviation in WWI, analyzing the impacts made by the air forces of these countries would make an essay –meant to be concise- far too complex. However, it is difficult to understand the impact of Britain’s Royal Flying Corps (RFC) and Royal Naval Air Service (RNAS) on the war without comparing them to the opponent. Therefore, we will also occasionally examine the Imperial German Army Air Service (Luftstreitkräfte) and its role in the skies above Europe during the Great War. We will first ascertain an understanding of the magnitude of aerial contributions to the war by comparing the number of those enlisted in the aerial services to those enlisted in the other military branches. We will then examine the various duties of the air services in the war and analyze the impact that these roles had on the war. Finally, we will discuss the psychological attitudes held towards the aircraft and pilots during the war, and whether or not these shaped the course of WWI in any way. By looking at these various components of military aviation during this period, we will be able to determine the impact it made on its debut large-scale conflict. For the purpose of clarity, it is important to define a few terms that will be used frequently throughout the course of this essay. For example, when attempting to determine the impact that military aviation made on WWI, we are trying to determine how large a role it played throughout the war and whether or not the war was drastically altered due to the inclusion of air services on a large scale. Moreover, an obvious –but also crucial- clarification to make is that aircraft and aviation are not terms strictly limited to areoplanes, but to all vessels capable of flight. Consequently, zeppelins and balloons are also encapsulated by the term aircraft in this essay. Keeping in mind these clarities will certainly enhance the focus when reading this report. Throughout the course of the war, British planes were operated either by...
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