A Morane-Saulnier Type N flown by Sergeant Bayetto fights it out with two German monoplanes on 2nd March 1916.
By spring 1916 a combination of better aircraft and poor German tactics gave the French important advantages in the artillery battle. Moreover, the French now possessed rockets which enabled them to devastate German artillery balloons; on one day French pilots shot down five German balloons. By June the French had fought off the assault on Verdun, and while their ground forces had suffered fearfully, the Germans had lost almost as heavily – a casualty bill they could not afford, given the fact that they were fighting an international coalition.
Things went no better for the Germans elsewhere on the Western Front in 1916. After a heavy preparatory bombardment, British infantry went over the top at the Somme on 1 July 1916. The first day’s attack was a disaster for the attacking forces, which suffered nearly 50 percent casualties (over 57,000 men). The scale of that disaster, however, has obscured the heavy pressure British forces placed on German defenders for the remainder of the Somme battles, which finally burned out in late October. Falkenhayn demanded that German troops hold every square yard of their trenches and that, when a portion of the trench system was lost, German forces recover it immediately, regardless of its importance. Consequently, even more than elsewhere, the Germans packed their infantry into front-line trenches where the sheer weight of British artillery bombardments took a heavy toll on the defenders.
Two other factors exacerbated the German situation. First, the mobilization of the British economy now provided the British Expeditionary Force (BEF) with a mountain of shells to blast away at German defensive positions. An inelegant way to attack, certainly, but effective, particularly given the enemy’s penchant for packing his front line trenches with infantry; all within easy range of British artillery. What the Germans termed ‘the battle of materiel’ had begun with a vengeance, a battle in the long run overwhelming to German tactical and operational excellence.
The second factor working against the Germans had to do with the air war over the Somme. That battle had turned as much against them as it had for them at Verdun. By early July 1916, the Royal Flying Corps (RFC), with help from the French in Nieuport 11s, had redressed its inferiority vis-a.-vis the Fokkers. With superior numbers, the British dominated the skies over the Somme – a crucial advantage in the artillery battle below. British reconnaissance and spotting aircraft flew mainly unimpeded by the Germans, while British fighters largely closed down German reconnaissance.
Yet the cost was high. In the first days of the Somme, the British lost 20 percent of their flying strength. Cecil Lewis, who flew during this period and afterwards wrote one of the great works of literature about the war (Sagittarius Rising) indicates that pilots lasted barely three weeks during the heavy fighting. Hugh Dowding almost ended his career by requesting his squadron be relieved after having suffered 50 percent casualties; he was sent home to command a training squadron and never brought back to the Western Front. Losses remained high throughout the battle, and Britain was still sending out pitifully trained replacements. The sacrifices that Trenchard imposed on his air units were undoubtedly called for because of the importance of the Royal Flying Corps to the ground battle; yet Trenchard made little contribution to improving the haphazard training program at home – and this contributed directly to his high losses in France. By mid-November the RFC had lost 308 pilots killed, wounded or missing, while a further 268 had been sent home – a total of 576 from a force that had begun the battle with 426 pilots.
Much of the blame had to do with the casual British approach towards training. In October 1916 the director of the RFC in Britain reported that ‘short training was a consequence of the number of casualties and not the casualties of the shortness of training’. Such muddled thinking only hastened the enemy’s recovery as a new generation of German aircraft came into service in late 1916. A year later this mindset led authorities in Britain to reject a proposal for aircrew parachutes not only because they were too heavy and difficult to operate, but also because they might diminish the fighting edge of those who flew. Unlike the air services of the other powers, the Royal Flying Corps refused to train noncommissioned officers to fly. When the supply of public schoolboys began to run out in 1917, the British turned to the Empire, especially Canada and Australia. There was, moreover, a desperate amateurism to the British effort that contrasted with the harsh professionalism of the Germans. Boelcke, a true romantic hero who had risked his life to save a young French boy from drowning, was already laying down a set of guidelines for air-to-air combat that are almost as relevant today as they were then. Fighter pilots, according to Boelcke, needed to gain the advantage before they engaged the enemy; height and having the sun behind one’s back and in the enemy’s eyes were crucial advantages. In air-to-air combat one needed to fire short bursts at close range, not splatter shots all over the sky If attacked, a fighter pilot should turn into his attacker and attack head on. Finally, fighter aircraft should work together as a team.
There was in these years a wide dichotomy between the romantic reports in newspapers and the realities of air-to-air combat. Given how little fire-power fighter aircraft possessed, combat took place at very close range. The historian John Morrow, Jr., tells how one French pilot, Albert Deullin, avenged the death of a close friend by blowing a Fokker out of the sky at a range of ten meters: ‘The fellow was so riddled that vaporized blood sprayed on my hood, windshield, cap, and goggles. Naturally, the descent from 2,600 meters was delicious to contemplate.
‘ Since few fliers carried parachutes until late in the war, many jumped to their deaths rather than burn up as their shot-up machine spiralled towards the earth. Whatever happened to those unlucky enough to be shot down or crash, the results were gruesome enough. As the British doggerel put it:
The young aviator lay dying.
As in the hangar he lay, he lay,
To the mechanics who round him were standing
These last parting words he did say:
Take the cylinders out of my kidneys
The connecting rod out of my brain,
From the small of my back take the camshaft,
And assemble the engine again.