Voices of the First World War: War in the Air

The First World War saw the use of air power in conflict on a large scale for the first time. Military aviation was still relatively new in 1914. Its uses were not yet clear, and the Royal Flying Corps – the air arm of the British Army – was very small in size. Despite this, once the war was underway, serving in the Royal Flying Corps – or RFC – was an attractive prospect for those living in the trenches on the Western Front, such as Donald Clappen of the London Regiment.

I used to look up and see these machines flying all over the place. We moved further down south, beyond Béthune, and took over some French trenches. But we found them absolutely filthy and we spent most of our time cleaning them out. For the first time in my life I found I was covered with lice. It was then that really made me think that trench warfare was not for me. I used to look up with great envy at these aircraft flying round about, so I immediately put in an application to join the Royal Flying Corps.

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Many were eager to join this exciting new service. But not all were immediately successful, such as Arthur Harris – who went on to command the British strategic bombing offensive in the Second World War.

I knew it was no good trying to get onto a horse because horses were out. Then I thought I might try to be a gunner and get a seat on a limber or a horse that way but they seemed to be full up. I went round to the War Office, where I was interviewed by a rather supercilious young man. When I said I would like to fly – which I realised was something else I could do sitting down, not walking – he said, ‘So would 6,000 other people; would you like to be 6,001 on the waiting list?’

New recruits to the Royal Flying Corps first had to be trained. Learning to fly was a tricky prospect for some. Frank Burslem trained at Waddington in Lincolnshire.

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I was a very slow pupil. I suppose I was a little bit dense or something like that. Because I took eight hours to go solo, whereas the average was about three hours. I knew of one person who took only twenty minutes to go solo.

Reginald Fulljames had less trouble during his training in 1916.

I certainly took to flying as a duck takes to water. I had no difficulty – or very little difficulty – in landing which is three-quarters of the problem. I took to flying quite quickly as I must have done so because my log book shows that I had a total of 55 minutes dual control only before being allowed to go solo.

A key part of a pilot’s flying instruction was when he was first deemed ready to ‘go solo’. Alan Jackson, who learnt at the Central Flying School at Upavon, described how he felt about this.

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Well after a number of hours of dual control and when the instructor trusted you to fly the machine on your own with him sitting beside you, then was the time when he had to decide whether to let you go solo. And one began to realise that the time was coming. And when it actually arrived of course one felt nervous and rather strained with butterflies in the tummy to a certain extent. At the same time, I felt perfectly confident that I could do it. Otherwise, if I hadn’t felt like that, he’d never have let you go up. I remember well that, when I took off the ground and got into the air, I heaved a sigh of relief to think, ‘Well I’ve done it and it’s not so bad after all!’

The main role of military aircraft throughout the war was to undertake aerial reconnaissance in support of ground forces. Information about the enemy was invaluable. Harold Taylor, an observer with 25 Squadron, explained what he would be looking for.

When you went on reconnaissance you had to watch for new trenches, new trains or trains going in any direction, movement of artillery or movement of troops. And if you got back, when we went into the reports room when we got back the joke was that we’d exchange what we’d seen. For instance if I’d seen three trains and my friend had only got one train I used to hand him two trains as well. And of course that meant that everybody had a decent report.