Alan C. Wood & Alan Sutton, Military Aviation of the First World War (Fonthill, revised edition, 2022).
Military aviation book

Written by

Peter Jennings

This excellent study introduces the embryonic air capabilities of the major combatants in the first World War. Many will think of the war primarily as the grinding infantry and artillery campaigns of the Western Front, but air power grew rapidly. Britain counted 113 aircraft in service in 1914 but 3,300 by the end of the war in 1918. In four years of fighting 35,973 British aircraft were short down, crashed or damaged. Aircraft losses for Germany were 27,673 and for France a staggering 52,640. British Commonwealth countries, most prominently Australia, New Zealand, Canada and South Africa were quick to send pilots and ground crew. The Australian Flying Corps lost more than 60 aircraft over France.

Wood and Sutton quote an Australian observer in a reconnaissance flight over the western front in March of 1918:

“I saw fully 25,000 Germans advancing below under our very eyes, when from the direction of Chauny there flew seven French fighting squadrons, 105 machine guns glinting in the sun. They spread fanwise and dived upon the German troops, dropping 100-lb bombs and other smaller bombs. Hundreds and hundreds were killed. I saw 5,000 men flat on their faces trying to hide – it was awful.”

The book does not offer a detailed narrative of the air war. Its focus is on aircraft types, their evolving roles and the rapidly growing Air Forces and Naval Air Arms that sprang up to occupy a new domain of war. Wood and Sutton offer many pen portraits of the young air aces that mastered this new bloody profession, some of whom went on to senior command roles in the Second World War, many others sadly killed in combat before the war’s end.

The heart of the book is several hundred photographs with detailed captions showing aircraft types, the flyers and ground crews, crashes, battlefield images, assembled squadrons, air aces at rest and play and occasional glimpses of aerial combat.

Here is the blond, square jawed Captain Robert Alexander Little, generally regarded as the most successful Australian air ace, credited with 47 victories – that is: downed enemy aircraft. Chasing a German Gotha bomber in May 1918 Little “was hit by either the Gotha’s rear gunner or ground fire, by a bullet which passed through his thighs. Bleeding heavily, he crash-landed his aircraft but succumbed to his wounds.”

Here too is the young Oberleutnant Hermann Wilhelm Goring (22 victories), much photographed it seems with a cruel, steady gaze and an eye on the future. And here in multiple images is the ‘Red Baron’ Rittmeister Manfred von Richthofen (80 victories), posing with downed British aircraft, with fellow German pilots, with his dog Moritz, and meeting the Kaiser. Here too are the remains of Richthofen’s Fokker aircraft being inspected by Australian troops in April 1918. Wood and Sutton write: “It seems most likely that Australian ground fire was the cause of death. Some sources suggest that Sergeant Cedric Popkin was the person most likely to have killed Richthofen” firing on the aircraft with a machinegun as the Baron was heading straight at his position. Australian forces buried Richthofen with full military honours near Amiens on 22 April 1918.

Two photographs particularly stand out: one is of the German aircrew standing by their aircraft on which, in English, is written “Good people don’t shoot.” Perhaps they hoped the invocation would bring luck. But good people did shoot of course. The second image is of a dead German pilot in the wreckage of his aircraft. The plane is a crumpled mass of canvas, wood and metal. The pilot is young, his right arm is outstretched seemingly pointing to the ground. He is looking with blank eyes to the sky where a few moments earlier he had been flying.