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A short essay, by Trevor Henshaw
The Great War of 1914-1918 is remembered for the comradeship it fostered, for the sacrifice of millions, for the sheer world-wide vastness of its scale, and for the giant technical developments it awakened.  In an interesting way, the study of the very thing it actually created – the first Air War – takes one to the heart of all these key aspects of that great conflict. Cross and Cockade International has been there for almost 50 years in order to share and explore and make sense of these fascinating topics for its members, and to anyone else who feels an interest in these great issues.

The airman, in his leather flying gear, boots and goggles, fought literally in the face of his enemy every day he patrolled. He was called into the air as a servant and key component of a vast land army below him, because from up where his amazing new technology placed him, he could reconnoitre and make sense of battles with a clarity that could not have been dreamt of even four or five years earlier.  It was their very effectiveness at intelligence gathering that led to what we know as air fighting and combat, as each side sought to stop the other in this essential work. And each had their methods and changing tactics, which included the emergence of air fighters whose very names the world would come to know – Manfred von Richthofen, Mick Mannock and James McCudden are just a few.

Elsewhere in the sky, the airman soon found he could bomb the enemy night and day, disrupting his fighting and war-making potential perhaps as deeply as 100 miles behind the Lines, whilst other comrades closer down, at the face of great battles, strafed and bombed the enemy lines along dozens of miles of smoking, bloody battlefront. In less than ten years, the aeroplane had come from being barely more than a visionary conceit to being forged into an essential, vital battlefield weapon, capable of crushing deployment across a great range of tasks, both on land and at sea.

In exploring all these areas, those of us interested in the tactics and strategies and the shifting fortunes of the air war find an enormous canvas to study. And you soon link up with others who are on the same journey. How all the different squadrons were developed, how training grew in complexity and understanding, how command intelligence refined, and how a vast logistic machine ensured everything from men and hangars’ full of aircraft and spare parts were there, right down to cans of fuel and paper for typewriters! All this was the air weapon. Air power was discovered and defined by these men and their times, and the Society explores every aspect it can of the developing role of air power, across all the different fronts, from the North Sea to the Med, from Belgium and France to India.

Others take inspiration from these events and explore and unravel the rich technical side of what was a phenomenal moment for science and technology - the creation and evolution of controlled manned flight. There are those of us who see in all this the love of a really good engine that turned the Sopwith Camel into one of the War’s best fighters, or a superbly developed wing that gave its machine that slightly better climb, and ensured its period of ascendancy. The same aircraft attract others for their graceful lines and spectacular markings and paint schemes. All get discussed and drawn and examined in our Journal and across our website. Our detailed on-line catalogue, covering articles already published in almost two hundred of our Journals, is a fantastic place to start any research.

For many members of the Society, there remains another, and totally enduring fascination with this period, borne of something only just touched on earlier. It is why I have made a study of the air war: there were men in these machines. A fighter pilot faced his day’s operations with only a few certainties.  He could be well trained and skilled, but my God it was a dangerous and lonely place out there, high in the blue, fighting for his life most days. And they were all so young. The two-seater crews had the solace of a companion, but each also shared the knowledge that as you left the ground you placed your life in your crew-mate’s hands, as much as in your own. It’s hard to find a greater reason for comradeship than to reflect on the war the airmen fought. And their trust reached out and met the smiles and the devotion of the men on the ground who kept their machines safe and in the air as well.

The airman was one of the highest trained individuals anywhere on the Front Line. As such, though always small in numbers, it not only made them targets, but also made these essential men incredibly hard to replace.  They linked arms and sang in their huts and tents far behind the Lines, but the loss of even a single squadron member so often brought a heavy cost. They were a small, but essential band of comrades, who faced their enemy face to face every day. All this makes for a fascinating and endless study for those in the Society – not just of military history, but also for those insights into what it is to be human. Wars do that. Anyone with a Family History interest will find the Society fertile ground for help and information.  

So, we welcome anyone to get involved, and to share your thoughts and ideas. That’s what our Society is here for.

Trevor Henshaw
www.theskytheirbattlefield2.com

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Article posted: 24/10/2016

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