#BookReview – The Royal Flying Corps, the Western Front and the Control of the Air, 1914-1918

#BookReview – The Royal Flying Corps, the Western Front and the Control of the Air, 1914-1918

James Pugh, The Royal Flying Corps, the Western Front and the Control of the Air, 1914-1918. Abingdon: Routledge, 2017. Figures. Charts. Bibliography. Index. Hbk. xviii + 190 pp.

Reviewed by Dr Heather Venable

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The so-called Father of the Royal Air Force Lord Hugh Trenchard looms large in the historiography of air power, perhaps most infamously for his assertion – seemingly wrought out of thin air – that the moral effect of air power outweighed the material by a factor of twenty to one. To many students of air power, this statement epitomises how much the interwar pursuit of strategic bombardment rested on flights of fancy more than carefully reasoned analysis of the lessons of the First World War because airmen like Trenchard intended to have a moral effect on civilian populations in future wars.

By contrast, James Pugh’s The Royal Flying Corps, the Western Front and the Control of the Air, 1914-1918 pushes back at a significant portion of the historiography of First World War air power concerning the Royal Flying Corps (RFC). Unlike many other scholars, Pugh insists that before the First World War, British airmen anticipated how to use air power effectively and demonstrated creativity and flexibility in applying it during the war. Pugh’s revisionist approach depends on the compelling claim that historians have teleologically read aspects of the interwar period into the First World War experience. Pugh thus wants to rescue some airmen from unfair and overwrought reputations for dogmatism (p. 52). Perhaps most importantly, Pugh seeks to validate the RFC’s overwhelmingly offensive approach as fundamentally sound while showing change over time during the war concerning offensive air strategy. Pugh argues that the offensive approach taken by airmen primarily echoed that of the ground war. Moreover, airmen shifted from seeking decisiveness to pursuing attrition and pursued more sophisticated approaches to achieving control of the air during the First World War.

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Prime Minister Herbert Asquith watches a squadron of aeroplanes returning to RFC Headquarters at Frevillers. With him is Major-General Hugh Trenchard, commander of the Royal Flying Corps. (Source: © IWM Q 4192)

Pugh’s first chapter establishes convincingly that airmen properly appreciated the importance of air superiority before the First World War. He also shows how vital missions, such as fostering battlefield communication and observing artillery fire, were anticipated before the First World War. However, limited technology and other factors impeded greater experimentation with these roles before the war (p. 33). These roles, moreover, reflected how aviators considered themselves to be part of the British Army. Their embrace of offensive thinking particularly reflected the powerful influence of British Army culture on the RFC. Pugh offers this helpful corrective in response to his belief that historians have traced the origins of airmen’s offensive proclivities too unilaterally to Trenchard (p. 14). Indeed, Pugh generally stresses the extent to which other airmen deserve more credit for developing air power thinking, continually deemphasising Trenchard (p. 51). In a similar vein, Pugh not only challenges widely held views on Trenchard’s emphasis on morale but also offers competing explanations for why the RFC stressed it so much. According to the author, the emphasis on diminishing an opponent’s morale owes much to the ‘fragility of aircraft’ (p. 24, 52). This point is not entirely convincing.

Still, Pugh argues that the RFC did not acquire ‘effective’ fighters until 1916, which were increasingly sent to the Western Front organised in squadrons responsible for different roles (p. 49). While awaiting improved aircraft, the RFC revised doctrine and improved organisational practices. When updated in 1915, RFC doctrine denoted reconnaissance as air power’s primary purpose, although it also increasingly recognised the requirement for ‘fight[ing]’ to obtain that information (p. 46), thereby placing more emphasis on controlling the air. Still, the RFC Training Manual diminished its emphasis on reconnaissance from 75 to 36% of the manual while increasing its coverage of artillery support most dramatically (p. 47).

‘Rules of the air – meeting another machine’. An air technical diagram of a Sopwith Dolphin and two Sopwith Camel biplanes meeting in the air and turn to the right. (Source: © IWM Q 67829)

The RFC’s views on how to control the air grew increasingly expansive, especially after learning valuable lessons about airpower employment at Verdun. Thus, the British now stressed seeking control of the air ‘far away’ from those aircraft providing direct support to the battlefield (p. 52) as well as reaffirming the importance of ‘maintaining an offensive posture’ (p. 56), which resulted in a theatre-wide emphasis as airmen sought to control the air in ‘breadth and depth’ (p. 81).

Pugh’s revisionist account largely depends on assuming the best about many of the airmen he describes, resulting in a somewhat Whiggish and rosy account of the RFC’s achievements in the First World War. Pugh valuably attempts to explode accepted thought in multiple areas. This approach is the work’s greatest benefit and failing. Regarding the extent to which airmen embraced an attrition-based strategy over the course of the war, for example, Pugh never fully makes an argument. Describing the phrase ‘relentless and incessant offensive’ as the ‘most profound evidence’ of this strategic shift ultimately falls short of proving one of the work’s key themes (p. 62). In a related vein, Pugh’s argument depends on separating out the rhetoric of airmen like Trenchard, who he claims made much of offensive air power for political reasons, meanwhile arguing that in actuality, airmen pursued an ‘increasingly nuanced and sophisticated approach to controlling the air’ (p. 71), such as using ‘concentrated and coordinated’ groups of fighters (p. 82). These contrasting interpretations cause the reader to wonder how Pugh determines when to accept evidence as rhetoric and when to accept it as representing airmen’s authentic thinking. These potential problems epitomise how Pugh is trying to do too much, such as when he mentions studies of First World War land power being importantly focused more systematically on ‘learning, transformation, or adaption’ yet preserves that approach for future airpower researchers (p. 91, 71). Using the methodology from some studies more systematically to explore British thinking about air control could offer more value.

Despite these critiques, all students of air power should read Pugh’s work for its argument-driven and revisionist analysis of the Royal Flying Corps. While adding significant complexity to widely accepted views of First World War airpower, Pugh ultimately concludes that the RFC’s offensive mindset represented the ‘most sensible course of action’ to pursue (p. 163). Even for those not necessarily interested in the RFC, his discussion of how to best employ air power will provide much of value to ponder for readers interested in any era of air power.

Dr Heather Venable is an Associate Professor in the Department of Airpower at the United States Air Force’s Air Command and Staff College. She received her PhD in Military History from Duke University. Venable’s first book, How the Few Became the Proud: Crafting the Marine Corps Mystique, 1874-1918, was published by Naval Institute Press in 2019.

Header image: A group of pilots of No. 32 Squadron RFC at Beauval in 1916. Behind them is an Airco DH.2 biplane. (Source: Wikimedia)

#AirWarBooks – Dr Michael Molkentin

#AirWarBooks – Dr Michael Molkentin

By Dr Michael Molkentin

Editorial Note: In the third instalment of ‘Air War Books,’ Dr Michael Molkentin discusses the ten books that have influenced and shaped his writing as an air power historian. If you are interested in contributing to this series or From Balloons to Drones more generally, find out how here.

After I wrote to Dr Ross Mahoney enthusiastically agreeing with several of his choices (always a bad idea!) and suggesting a few others, he promptly invited me to contribute my own ‘Top 10’. I had been saying I would write something for Balloons to Drones for a while and so now he had me cornered. What follows is a list of titles that have had a significant impact on the way I research and write aviation and air power history. As these titles clearly indicate, my area of interest primarily concerns the pre-Second World War period (military and civil) and the people and ideas, rather than the technology, of aviation. 

Denis Winter, The First of the Few: Fighter Pilots of the First World War (London: Allen Lane, 1982). Denis, unfortunately, went on to write a scandalously bad book on Haig that damaged his reputation as a historian. But before that, he produced a couple of genuinely very good ‘face of battle’ type histories of British servicemen in the Great War (the other being Death’s Men). I found The First of the Few in my high school library and later used it as a model for writing my honours thesis on Australian airmen in the Great War. It is a bit dated, relies almost entirely on published accounts and some of Winter’s statistics do not stand up to scrutiny. But it is what got me interested in the subject and stands as the best personal experience study of British airmen in the Great War. I had the pleasure of meeting Denis in Canberra in 2004. He was a kind and gracious man and, when I showed him my work, he encouraged me to keep writing.

Richard P. Hallion, Taking Flight: Inventing the Aerial Age, from Antiquity Through the First World War (New York: Oxford University Press, 2003). I might have included any of Richard’s numerous books on air power (Strike from the Sky, his history of ground attack is a close second) but this has probably been most useful and influential in my work. It is a model of highly readable, yet meticulously researched history. It is international in scope and provides some valuable analysis of the complex ways in which aviation emerged as a practical reality, in various parts of the world, before 1914.

S.F. Wise, The Official History of the Royal Canadian Air Force, Volume 1: Canadian Airmen and the First World War (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1980). Wise’s first volume of the Royal Canadian Air Force’s official history is, in my view, the best single volume history of British air power in the Great War. The ubiquity of Canadians in the British flying services (over 20,000 served) means that Wise needed to cover all aspects of air power in the conflict – maritime aviation, strategic bombing and home defence, army cooperation and even some brief surveys of the RFC/RAF in secondary theatres. While some of his conclusions about the conduct of the war on the Western Front have dated, in the main his conclusions stand and are thoroughly grounded in archival sources. My PhD thesis and the book that followed it used Wise’s book as a model to examine Australia’s part in the air war from political, strategic, operational and tactical perspectives.

E.R. Hooton, War over the Trenches: Air Power and the Western Front Campaigns 1916-1918 (Hersham: Midland Publishing, 2010). I have mixed feelings about his book. On the one hand, it makes a significant contribution to our understanding of air power on the Western Front by conducting a multi-force (French, German and British) analysis at the operational level- something nobody had previously attempted. Whereas previous studies of the subject have focused on the tactical level, Hooton uses a mass of statistical data (sorties flown, ordnance expended, losses, serviceability, etc.) to provide a much broader picture of how air power influenced the conflict and how its use evolved between 1916 and 1918. Unfortunately, the book is poorly written and (in the first edition at least) so badly type set that some of the data tables are almost unreadable. It is such an important contribution to the field: I only hope the publisher has the good sense to reissue a revised edition or that an aspiring PhD candidate will take his approach further.

John Buckley, Air Power in the Age of Total War (London: UCL Press, 1999). I am going to go with Ross here and say that, among the many air power surveys out there, this one is the best. It is clear, concise and, essentially for a book like this, gets the balance right between ideas and details. Giving his narrative cohesion is a compelling, convincing and delightfully ironic thesis: that total war first enabled air power but then, following the onset of the nuclear age, limited its functions.

Philip S. Meilinger, The Paths of Heaven: The Evolution of Airpower Theory (Maxwell AFB, AL: Air University Press, 1977). Besides Buckley, the other book I recommend students starting out in the field is Meilinger’s survey of air power thinking. It is a straightforward, textbook approach devoting a chapter to each of the twentieth century’s most influential air power theorists. It is not exactly a page turner but is absolutely essential reading for students of air power and a useful reference work to have within arm’s reach when writing.

Malcolm Cooper, The Birth of Independent Air Power: British Air Policy in the First World War (London: Allen and Unwin, 1986). Malcolm was one of the first scholars to use the Air Ministry’s declassified files after their transfer to the British National Archives (then the PRO) during his PhD candidature during the 1970s. Whereas accounts of British air power’s early days had, until then, been overwhelmingly focused at the tactical level (individual pilots, squadrons, Biggles, etc.), The Birth of Independent Air Power focuses on the topic at the political and policy-making levels. I do not agree with Malcolm’s conclusion that the Army’s use of air power was wasteful and unimaginative (neither does James Pugh in his excellent new book which provides a good update on aspects of Cooper) but much of what he says was vital in adding political context to the operational history of British air power from 1914 to 1918.

Alfred Gollin, The Impact of Air Power on the British People and their Government (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 1989). I would give this to students not even interested in air power as a somewhat rare example of an academic historian writing in a clear, engaging style. Honestly, it reads like a novel but still manages to seamlessly incorporate excellent analysis. Gollin was an enormously talented historian and a shining example to those of us who actually want our work to have a readership beyond the academy and services.

John A. Lynn, Battle: A History of Combat and Culture (Boulder, CO: Westview Press, 2003). Lynn does not really deal with aviation or air power explicitly, but his approach to explaining warfare through the prism of culture is both novel and enlightening. In case study chapters ranging from Ancient Greek warfare to modern Islamic terrorism, Lynn demonstrates convincingly that we cannot properly understand military operations without considering the cultures that conceive and wage them.

Ian Mackersey, Smithy: The Life of Sir Charles Kingsford Smith (London: Little Brown, 1998). This is not only the best of the many biographies of Kingsford Smith; it is the best example of historical biography I have come across. Through impressively dogged detective work, Mackersey managed to track down a number of people who had known Kingsford Smith before his death six decades earlier. From them, he got oral history and private papers that shed light on hitherto unknown or mythologised aspects of his subject’s life. Ian wrote a page turner too: it is engaging, absorbing history. Ian, who sadly died a couple of years ago, was also a gentleman. When I was writing my book on the 1928 trans-Pacific flight, he generously shared manuscript material he had gathered from private collections in the US when researching his book.

Dr Michael Molkentin is an adjunct lecturer at the University of New South Wales and a teacher at Shellharbour Anglican College. He has a first-class Honours degree from the University of Wollongong and a PhD in History from the University of New South Wales. In 2014, the Australian War Memorial awarded Michael’s doctoral research the Bryan Gandevia Prize for Australian Military History. He specialises in the history of armed conflict with an emphasis on warfare in the British world and the development of air power. Michael has written three books, the most recent being Australia and the War in the Air (OUP, 2014).

Header Image: An RE8 of No 69 (later No 3) Squadron, Australian Flying Corps preparing to set out on a night bombing operation from Savy near Arras, 22 October 1917. (Source: © IWM (E(AUS) 1178))

#BookReview – Air and Sea Power in World War I: Combat and Experience in the Royal Flying Corps and the Royal Navy

#BookReview – Air and Sea Power in World War I: Combat and Experience in the Royal Flying Corps and the Royal Navy

By Dr Ross Mahoney

Maryam Philpott, Air and Sea Power in World War I: Combat and Experience in the Royal Flying Corps and the Royal Navy. London: I.B. Tauris, 2013. Notes. Bibliography. Index. Hbk. 258 pp.

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This book is something of a curate’s egg. Overlooked in favour of the experience of the British Army, Philpott suggested that the contributions of the Royal Navy and Royal Flying Corps (RFC) ‘have never been explored.’ (p. 1) However, while containing a grain of truth, this hyperbolic overstatement illustrates the first of several issues extent in this work. Primarily, these problems are its methodology and historiographical underpinnings. Furthermore, split into chapters examining training, motivation, technology, the home front, and representations of war, this book attempts too much in the space provided.

First, the comparative approach utilised has led to a light touch on both organisations considered and this choice is questionable itself. Philpott compared one service, the Royal Navy, to a branch of another, the RFC of the British Army. Technology is utilised to justify their selection; however, this alone does not provide an adequate framework for understanding experience within these organisations. While technology certainly provided an important context for their operations, they were not the sole basis of their respective cultures and any acceptance of this represents a deterministic understanding of history. Further exacerbated by the fact that Philpott attempted to compare two different organisations, the key problem here is one of cultural understanding. Philpott never really understood the cultures underpinning the organisations she is examined. The Royal Navy had a distinct culture with norms quite separate from that of the British Army. Conversely, though Philpott dismissed the importance of this (p. 2), the RFC was, to borrow a phrase from cultural analysis, a sub-culture of its larger parent organisation, the British Army. A reading of David French’s excellent study, Military Identities (2005) would have enlightened Philpott as to the British Army’s cultural idiosyncrasies. While there certainly was an attempt by RFC officers to create an organisational identity, it still owed much to its parent organisation, as does the Royal Air Force, which was a complex cultural amalgam of both the British Army and Royal Navy.

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Officers and S.E.5a Scouts of No. 1 Squadron, RAF at Clairmarais aerodrome near Ypres. (Source: © IWM (Q 12063))

Second, at a historiographical level, Philpott did not adequately recognise the differences generated by the above distortion and made mistakes that illustrate a lack of understanding of the literature surrounding the Royal Navy and RFC. For example, Philpott described Arthur Marder as the Royal Navy’s official historian (p. 48). While the later Royal Navy may have liked to have Marder as their official historian – though he is not active until at least a decade after the production of the official history – the authors of the Service’s official history of the First World War were Sir Julian Corbett and Sir Henry Newbolt. Similarly, Philpott described the RAF’s official history as written by ‘veteran pilots’ (p. 14). While H.A. Jones served during the war and received the Military Cross, this oversimplification ignored the complicated selection process involved in choosing an official historian. Never a pilot, Sir Walter Raleigh, the RAF’s first official historian, was selected based on his literary ability and after his death, there was a long drawn out selection process to find his replacement, Jones. Philpott also ignored much of the literature concerning the Royal Navy and RFC. For example, the chapter on training as it pertains to the RFC (pp. 27-40) would have benefitted from a reading of David Jordan’s 1997 University of Birmingham PhD thesis that contained a useful section on this very subject. This spills over into the archival evidence deployed to support Philpott’s analysis. While drawing on some useful contemporary material, Philpott ignored an often overlooked source, reflective essay’s written by former RFC officers who attended the RAF Staff College at Andover during the inter-war period. These are an underused source written by the professional officers who stayed in the post-war RAF, served during the First World War, and were an attempt to by the service to develop a body of reflective knowledge concerning relevant personal experiences in numerous areas. Utilising this source would have enriched this work.

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The Royal Navy battleship HMS Queen Elizabeth of the 5th Battle Squadron of the Grand Fleet. (Source: © IWM (Q 68600))

These are just some of the challenges that distort what should have been a useful addition to the growing historiography of both the Royal Navy and RFC in the First World War. Grounded in a socio-cultural framework inspired by Joanna Bourke’s An Intimate History of Killing (1999), who supervised the thesis that this book is based on, Philpott did at times offers some interesting insights. For example, the chapter on the home front (pp. 134-162) illustrated the shared experience of service personnel and civilians. However, again, in this chapter, Philpott introduced the Royal Naval Air Service (RNAS) to the story that adds a further complication regarding the comparative approach utilised. Perhaps, the comparison utilised should have been one between the RFC and the RNAS. Alternatively, while elements of the discussion provided may be useful to readers, this work might have benefitted from focussing on just one of the services considered. Moreover, if Philpott’s assertion quoted at the start of this review is correct, then it begs the question of why this was not undertaken. A gap remains for a study of either the Royal Navy or RFC from the perspective of experience and motivation that would add much to our understanding of the First World War. Once these are undertaken, a more thorough comparative approach can then be considered. This gap remains to be filled.

Dr Ross Mahoney is an independent historian and defence specialist based in Australia. Between 2013 and 2017, he was the resident Historian at the Royal Air Force Museum, and he is a graduate of the University of Birmingham (MPhil and PhD) and the University of Wolverhampton (PGCE and BA). His research interests include the history of war in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries, air power and the history of air warfare, and the social and cultural history of armed forces. To date, he has published several chapters and articles, edited two books, and delivered papers on three continents. He is a member of the Royal Historical Society and is an Assistant Director of the Second World War Research Group. He is a member of the Royal Historical Society and an Assistant Director of the Second World War Research Group. He blogs at Thoughts on Military History, and can be found on Twitter at @airpowerhistory.

Headers Image: Group of pilots of No. 32 Squadron RFC, Beauval, 1916 (Fourth Army aircraft park). Behind them is an Airco DH.2 (De Havilland Scout) biplane with Monosoupape Rotary Engine. (Source: © IWM (Q 11874))