Classic History Books

William J. Claxton - The Mastery of the Air

So great was Captain Ball's skill as a fighter in the air that for a time he was sent back to England to train
new pilots in the schools. But the need for his services at the front was even greater, and it jumped with

his desires, for the whole tone of his letters breathes the joy he found in the excitements of flying and

fighting. He declares he is having a "topping time", and exults in boyish fashion at a coming presentation

to Sir Douglas Haig. It is not too much to say that the whole empire mourned when Captain Ball finally

met his death in the air near La Bassee in May, 1917.


CHAPTER XXXIX. Aeroplanes in the Great War

"Aeroplanes and airships would have given us an enormous advantage against the Boers. The difficulty
of laying ambushes and traps for isolated columns - a practice at which the enemy were peculiarly adept -

would have been very much greater. Some at least of the regrettable reverses which marked the early

stages of the campaign could in all probability have been avoided."

So wrote Lord Roberts, our veteran field-marshal, in describing the progress of the Army during recent
years. The great soldier was a man who always looked ahead. After his great and strenuous career,

instead of taking the rest which he had so thoroughly earned, he spent laborious days travelling up and

down the country, warning the people of danger ahead; exhorting them to learn to drill and to shoot; thus

attempting to lay the foundation of a great civic army. But his words, alas! fell upon deaf ears - with

results so tragic as hardly to bear dwelling upon.

But even "Bobs", seer and true prophet as he was, could hardly have foreseen the swift and dramatic
development of war in the air. He had not long been laid to rest when aeroplanes began to be talked

about, and, what is more important, to be built, not in hundreds but in thousands. At the time of writing,

when we are well into the fourth year of the war, it seems almost impossible for the mind to go back to

the old standards, and to take in the statement that the number of machines which accompanied the

original Expeditionary Force to France was eighty! Even if one were not entirely ignorant of the number

and disposition of the aerial fighting forces over the world-wide battle-ground, the Defence of the Realm

Act would prevent us from making public the information. But when, more than a year ago, America

entered the war, and talked of building 10,000 aeroplanes, no one gasped. For even in those days one

thought of aeroplanes not in hundreds but in tens of thousands.

Before proceeding to give a few details of the most recent work of the Royal Flying Corps and Royal
Naval Air Service, mention must be made of the armament of the aeroplane. In the first place, it should

be stated that the war has gradually evolved three distinct types of flying machine: (1) the

"general-purposes" aeroplane; (2) the giant bomb dropper; (3) the small single-seater "fighter".

As the description implies, the first machine fills a variety of roles, and the duties of its pilots grow more
manifold as the war progresses. "Spotting" for the artillery far behind the enemy's lines; "searching" for

ammunition dumps, for new dispositions by the enemy of men, material, and guns; attacking a convoy or

bodies of troops on the march; sprinkling new trenches with machine-gun fire, or having a go at an

aerodrome - any wild form of aerial adventure might be included in the diary of the pilot of a

"general-purposes" machine.

It was in order to clear the air for these activities that the "fighter" came into being, and received its
baptism of fire at the Battle of the Somme. At first the idea of a machine for fighting only, was ridiculed.

Even the Germans, who, in a military sense, were awake and plotting when other nations were dozing in

the sunshine of peace, did not think ahead and imagine the aerial duel between groups of aeroplanes

armed with machine-guns. But soon the mastery of the air became of paramount importance, and so the


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