Love At First Sight? US Army Aviation before the First World War

Love At First Sight? US Army Aviation before the First World War

By Alexander Reineke

After the Wright Brothers made their first flight in December 1903, it took the US Army several years to start paying attention to heavier-than-air aviation.[1] While lighter-than-air platforms, in the form of observation balloons, had been in use with the US military since the US Civil War, the novelty of heavier-than-air aviation in the form of aeroplanes eventually engaged the minds of military thinkers around the United States and all three combat arms – infantry, cavalry, and the field artillery.[2] Officers from these combat arms offered similar but often diverging takes on the new invention. By examining articles published in professional journals of the period, this article considers how the US Army received and thought about the aeroplane’s application before the outbreak of the First World War.

The Infantry

For the infantry branch, the aeroplane introduced the possibility of lifting the fog of war from the battlefield in the form of easier, faster, and more reliable scouting opportunities. In 1909, Captain John R.M. Taylor, an infantry officer and prolific military theorist of the period, wrote in the Journal of the United States Infantry Association – later the Infantry Journal – that combat had changed little since the US Civil War two generations earlier. Primarily, artillery still functioned as artillery, cavalry as cavalry, and infantry as infantry. Ranges and lethality had increased, but the overall way wars were fought had, he argued, largely remained similar – American theorists at this time tended to look to the experience of the US Civil War as the first modern war, excluding European definitions, which often included the Crimean War and the Franco-Prussian War.[3] However, the aeroplane offered a third dimension to the battlefield in the way that ground-based scouts – be it a group of skirmishers or a cavalry troop – could not replicate.[4]

Taylor’s article, using a counterfactual based on Major-General George McClellan’s campaigns in 1862, suggested that the former might have won the war if he had had reconnaissance aeroplanes. Taylor believed that while the aeroplane was still in its infancy, the same had been said about the automobile a decade prior. Moreover, he envisioned the aeroplane and the airship taking their place in the order of battle as soon as the next great war alongside automobiles in the aid and support of the three combat arms as screening and attack forces.[5]

While Taylor theorised about mechanised warfare broadly, the Massachusetts National Guard experimented with its application during their manoeuvres in 1909. Importantly, as Captain John Sherburne reported in the Infantry Journal’s pages, the Massachusetts National Guard improvised the use of ‘two automobile trucks as mounts for two light guns of naval type.’[6] Moreover, these were used as part of an ‘auto truck platoon’ by one opposing force during the manoeuvres. These experiences led Sherburne to hypothesise about the possibility of guns on such vehicles as potential anti-air assets, thus showing how even in the early years of aviation, officers were already thinking through the challenge of countering the threat from the air.[7]

In 1910 and 1912, respectively, Captain G.L. Townsend, a career infantry officer, and Captain Paul W. Beck, one of the US Army’s first pilots, summed up the mood in the infantry in the pages of the Infantry Journal by arguing for a compromise between enthusiasts and critics of early aviation. They argued that while aeroplanes and airships had not yet matured as platforms, it was the job of the peacetime army to pay attention to new developments and create doctrine and institutions. This was so that aeroplanes might be used in war both through trial and error and through observations of potentially hostile nations’ use of aviation, with particular attention paid to the zeppelins of Imperial Germany even as they remained in their infancy.[8]

The Infantry Journal’s editorial board, presided over by US Civil War veteran and former US Army Chief of Staff Lieutenant General John C. Bates and made up of reform-minded career officers who wished to modernise and professionalise the Army, broadly agreed with the ideas and proposals of these Townsend and Beck. Moreover, they believed that once fully developed, the aeroplane would become a great asset to infantry soldiers as a scouting force where cavalry could not reach. Nevertheless, they tempered the mood of aviation enthusiasts by recommending that any work on aviation be postponed to a time when war would be on the horizon. Aviation, as they argued, was too costly at the time. In the end, it all came down to funding. For the price of a squadron of aeroplanes or airships, machinery operating on the bleeding edge of technological progress, the US Army could fund and outfit several regiments or even divisions of infantry:

In the time required for us to create a field army after the declaration of war, and until such an army were in readiness both aeroplanes and aeroplanists would be useless, we should have time to build more aeroplanes and train more aeroplanists than probably any nation will ever use in war. The aeroplane can do us no greater military harm than driving out of mind again that our need now is the same as always — merely men, not machines, even though they be new machines with all the fancied terrors that superstition and ignorance give to things unknown. The invention of gunpowder was once expected to end war (as were the torpedo and the submarine).[9]

Given this attitude, the infantry, always searching for more funding, applied the same logic to aeroplanes as critics of standing armies had done to the infantry: aviation units did not require costly training. They could be raised at a moment’s notice. This obfuscated the real reason: the US Army had no money to investigate the potential of aviation.[10] Despite being stretched thin in manpower and funding; numerous infantry officers had become advocates for aviation. First among them was First Lieutenant Benjamin Foulois, the US Army’s first official aviator and a lifelong air power advocate and pioneer, who wrote in 1908 that in ‘all future warfare, we can expect to see engagements in the air between hostile aerial fleets.’[11]

110303-D-LN615-005
Signal Corps No. 1 in front of its hanger at Fort Sam Houston in 1910. (Source: United States Air Force)

The Cavalry

The cavalry, by contrast, saw its role as the US Army’s eyes and ears threatened by the invention of the aeroplane. Having already acknowledged that its days of charging enemy positions and dispersing troops were long over, the American cavalry had reinvented itself first as a frontier constabulary, a scouting force, and, in its current iteration, a force of mounted infantry ready to fight as infantry, to protect the flanks of the advancing army, and to chase fleeing enemy infantry.[12] Already criticised by the infantry and artillery branches who doubted the viability of horse cavalry against modern weapon systems, the cavalry were determined to keep their role as scouting and routing forces. It was no wonder that in the Journal of the United States Cavalry Association in 1909, the well-respected horsemanship expert Edward L. Anderson dubbed the Wright Brothers’ aeroplane and automobiles as abominations.’[13]

In a 1911 article in the Journal of the United States Cavalry Association on the reorganisation of the cavalry branch, Brigadier General Walter Schuyler, a long-serving cavalry commander since the American Indian Wars, saw the aeroplane and any other form of modern technology like the radio or the automobile as auxiliary forces that would help the cavalry increase its reaction time on the battlefield.[14] However, on the other hand, others, such as retired officer E.L. Gilpin saw the cavalry as more than capable of taking on the aeroplane in single combat, believing that while the aeroplane might offer a bird’s eye view of the battlefield, the horse cavalry was the superior scout for detailed information even as they used their carbines to shoot down reconnaissance aeroplanes with superior marksmanship.[15] Even the supporters of the aeroplane among the cavalry belittled aviation enthusiasts as having a ‘child-like faith.’[16] They believed that the maturation of the technology would, eventually, lead to it becoming a great support system. Nevertheless, like its peer, the infantry, the cavalry could not – and would not – see the aeroplane as revolutionary in its current state.[17]

The Artillery

The artillery, meanwhile, precisely saw that. Colonel John P. Wisser, a coastal artillery officer and an accomplished West Point educator and military attaché, became a staunch supporter of the aeroplane, as did many other artillery officers at the time. Reviewing the events of the Russo-Japanese War, Wisser echoed many views held by the infantry’s Taylor. He also believed that the US Army’s overall make-up had not changed since the US Civil War except for longer ranges and increased firepower. By contrast, aviation was still advancing exponentially to the point that an army fighting in the 1910s would have identical infantry and cavalry assets to the previous decade. However, its aviation assets would set it apart from any army of the last 50 years.[18] By 1912, the artillery community concurred with Wisser’s original conjecture and believed they had found in aviation the best tool for mastering indirect artillery fire.

It was also an artillery officer, Isaac Lewis, whose light machine gun, the Lewis Gun, was first tested by the US Army as an aircraft-mounted weapons system. In 1912, Captain Charles Chandler and Lieutenant Roy Kirtland took a Wright Model B Flyer up in the sky. They tested the Lewis Gun as an air-to-ground weapon, scoring adequate hits against paper targets and collecting valuable data about air-to-air and air-to-ground combat.[19]

While the artillery arm welcomed the aeroplane and the airship most enthusiastically among the three combat arms, this was likely due to its position as a largely technical and engineering-driven arm that was not in direct competition with the changes military aviation later brought to the battlefield. Indeed, artillery was already seen as an auxiliary to cavalry and infantry operations and relied on accurate reconnaissance to provide just that. While the infantry could not justify the cost at the time and the cavalry felt threatened in its role as the reconnaissance arm of the US Army, the field artillery accepted the aeroplane as another tool that would help them accomplish their mission more quickly as well as more precisely.[20]

Conclusion

US Army aviation remained in its infancy after the outbreak of the First World War. While military aviation faced criticism as a novelty across the US Army, it largely enjoyed at least some measure of support across all combat arms who saw in it a valuable new tool for scouting, transportation, and even what would eventually be called close air support. The American military was quick to experiment with arming aeroplanes and creating ad-hoc anti-aircraft guns, showing they were quick to comprehend, use, and adapt to modern technology. However, fear of change and budgetary concerns remained, sabotaging efforts to experiment with aviation to its fullest extent. Additionally, the combat arms essentially saw aviation as a support arm, severely limiting the military theory that could be developed around the new invention.

Alexander Reineke is a PhD candidate in the North American History Department at Ruhr University Bochum. His thesis, provisionally entitled, ‘Prussia Envy? Alienation and War Preparedness in the Peacetime US Army, 1900-1941, focuses on the peacetime US Army before and after the First World War. He received his MA in History from Ruhr University Bochum in 2019. Since 2020, he has been a member of the editorial staff at AKM Portal für Militärgeschichte.

Header image: A Wight Model A arrives at Fort Myer, Virginia aboard a wagon for testing by the US Army, attracting the attention of children and adults, 1 September 1908. (Source: Wikimedia)

[1] On the development of US Army aviation in this period, see: Herbert A. Johnson, Wingless Eagle: US Army Aviation through World War I (Chapel Hill, NC: The University of North Carolina Press, 2001); Laurence Burke II, At the Dawn of Airpower: The U.S. Army, Navy, and Marine Corps’ Approach to the Airplane, 1907-1917 (Baltimore, MD: Naval Institute Press, 2022).

[2]  F. Stansbury Haydon, Military Ballooning during the Early Civil War (Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2000), passim. First published in 1941 as Aeronautics in the Union and Confederate Armies: With a Survey of Military Aeronautics Prior to 1861 by Johns Hopkins University Press.

[3] A.D. Harvey, ‘Was the American Civil War the First Modern War?’ History 97, no. 2 (2012), pp. 272-280.

[4] Captain John R.M. Taylor, ‘Cavalry and the Aeroplane,’ Journal of the United States Infantry Association VI, no. 1 (1909), p. 84; Lori Henning, Harnessing the Aeroplane: American and British Responses to a New Technology, 1903-1939 (Norman, OK: Oklahoma University Press, 2019), p. 35.

[5] Taylor, ‘Cavalry and the Aeroplane,’ pp. 85-7.

[6] Captain John H. Sherburne, ‘Automobile Guns in the Massachusetts Maneuvers,’ Journal of the United States Infantry Association VI, no. 3 (1909), p. 375.

[7] Sherburne, ‘Automobile Guns in the Massachusetts Maneuvers,’ pp. 380-81.

[8]  Captain G.L. Townsend, ‘The Use and Effect of Flying Machines on Military Operations,’ Infantry Journal VII, no. 2 (1910), pp. 246-55; Captain Paul W. Beck, ‘Military Aviation in America. Its Needs,’ Infantry Journal VIII, no. 6 (1912), pp. 796-817.

[9] Anonymous, ‘Concerning Aeroplanes for the Army,’ Infantry Journal VII, no. 3 (1910), p.461.

[10] First Lieutenant Benjamin D. Foulois, ‘Military Aviation and Aeronautics,’ Infantry Journal IX, no. 3 (1912), pp. 314-6; Harvey M. Spaolsky et al., U.S. Defense Politics. The Origins of Security Policy (Abingdon: Routledge, 2010), p. 116.

[11] Benjamin D. Foulois with Carroll V. Glines, From the Wright Brothers to the Astronauts. The Memoirs of Major General Benjamin D. Foulois (New York: McGraw-Hill Book Company 1968), p. 44.

[12] Louis A. DiMarco, War Horse. A History of the Military Horse and Rider (Westholme, PA: Yardley 2008), pp. 289-298.

[13]  See Anonymous, ‘Editorial,’ Infantry Journal I, no. 3 (1905), pp. 174-81 and similar analyses of the use of cavalry in the Russo-Japanese War published in the service journals between 1904 and 1906. Edward L. Anderson, ‘Horses and Riding,’ Journal of the United States Cavalry Association XIX, no. 72 (1909), p. 729.

[14] ‘Cavalry Reorganization,’ Journal of the United States Cavalry Association, Vol. XXII, No. 85, p. 23; Henning, Harnessing the Aeroplane, pp. 33-4.

[15] E.H. Gilpin, ‘Armament and Equipment of the Cavalryman,’ Journal of the United States Cavalry Association XXII, no. 85 (1911), p. 82.

[16] First Lieutenant Daniel L. Roscoe, ’The Effect of Aeroplanes Upon Cavalry Tactics,’ Journal of the United States Cavalry Association XXIV, no. 101 (1914), p. 856.

[17] Roscoe, ’The Effect of Aeroplanes Upon Cavalry Tactics,’ p. 857.

[18] Colonel John P. Wisser, ‘German Ideas on Tactics,’ Infantry Journal VII, no. 3 (1910), pp. 377-80.

[19] C.H. Powell, ‘The Lewis Automatic Gun,’ Infantry Journal IX, no. 1 (1912), p. 44.

[20] Colonel John P. Wisser, ‘The Tactical and Strategical Use of Dirigible Balloons and Aeroplanes,’ Cavalry Journal XXI, no. 81 (1910), p. 414.