The Knights of the Sky


Suddenly the guns fell silent. In the trenches, a thousand faces turned hypnotized towards the sky. Two planes, one French and the other German, were clashing in a ferocious aerial duel. Absorbed by the battle in the air, the fighters on the ground seem to have forgotten their role. The French Chaudron rose above the German Rumpler, opposing each of its manoeuvres, turn to turn, plunge to plunge. The German machine-gunner had even stopped firing: was his weapon jammed? For at least twenty minutes, in rotating spirals, the combatants descended to the ground. Finally the German plane landed on a grassy field. Immediately the gunfire started up as fiercely as before.

René Fonck, who related this scene of one of his victories in his memoir of the war, was the son of an ancient Alsatian family, fiercely anti-German. Having opted for French nationality, they had to leave their homeland annexed after the Franco-Prussian war. René’s father died when he was four years old, and as a young man he learned the trade of mechanic before becoming the ‘ace of aces’ of French aviation in the First World War, with seventy-five confirmed victories. In the following years, the aviator’s autobiography became a unique literary genre, and Georges Guynemer, Manfred von Richthofen, Francesco Baracca, and William Bishop would contribute to forging the perception that we have of air operations in the Great War. This established the imagery of the ‘knights of the air’, heroic figures who killed only while braving death themselves, and were imbued with deep respect for their adversaries. This war, in short, was a ‘duel’, a place par excellence for honour and symmetrical battle.

These texts, however, whether autobiographies or hagiographies, were actually governed by a quite different metaphor from that of the duel, in fact that of hunting. The airmen, who very often established a connection between their pre-war practice as horsemen and their aeronautical practice of war, constructed for themselves a character endowed with a sang-froid ready for any test, a predator’s instinct, and the patience to await the right moment to attack. The hunting metaphor is clearly distinct from the imagery of knighthood, inasmuch as it implies an enemy both inferior and dehumanized. Fonck, for example, wrote,

One day we had the good fortune to surprise a reconnaissance plane. It was above the Somme. The river sparkled in the sun, and clouds formed a screen that hid us from the target. Captain Bosc had compared himself a few minutes before to a fisherman waiting to strike. The Boche was unable to fire a single shot, and was killed like many have been since, without having the time to know what was happening. He fell in a tailspin and was lost among the reeds of a marsh.

Far from being honoured as justus hostis, a legitimate adversary, the enemy was simply game to be killed. Oswald Boelcke, a German ace in the First World War, spoke of the ‘game of cat and mouse’, emphasizing the macabre pleasure involved in killing at a distance. In their autobiographies, the figure of the enemy never acquires an individual character, it is determined simply by belonging to the other side, the enemy nation. The airmen of every nation at war describe air warfare as a hunting party, thus a fundamentally asymmetrical relationship, which of course does not exclude the roles of predator and prey being reversed.

How and why, then, did air war come to be represented as a chivalrous duel? At the start of the First World War, the high commands of the warring powers were very reticent at according airmen any particular recognition. Aviation, seen as a sporting practice, aroused above all the suspicion of an army whose pillars were discipline, camaraderie, and esprit de corps. War was not a game, and aerial combat was simply one form of combat among others. But as the Great War was par excellence a confrontation between nations, it was also urgent to offer the population images with whom they could identify, heroic figures who could embody the spirit of the national struggle. This led General Foch, in a communiqué of 4 April 1915, to salute in the aviator Roland Garros ‘a pilot both modest and brilliant, [who] never ceased giving an example of the finest courage’.

This led to the forging of the mythical figure of the airman in books and newspapers: ‘mythical’, as a ‘fable’, plot, or story could be organized around an individual hero, but also emblematic of the nation to which he belonged, for which he fought and sacrificed himself. This figure contrasted all along the line with the ‘tommy’ with his steel helmet and hardened muscles, trudging through the mud with very little heroism to escape the industrialized butchery. The airman, for his part, was young, calm, and self-assured, facing with cool irony the mortal dangers to which he was exposed. The myth of the airman thus made it possible to render a new experience intelligible, that of a dehumanized field of battle completely governed by technology, by associating it with an older imagery.

The images of which these aviators’ autobiographies are so full, however, stand in flagrant contradiction with the reality of the Great War, in which individual aerial combat was in fact only a very brief episode. When the war broke out, aviation was a new weapon, and no doctrine for its use had yet been laid down. Nonetheless, it played a remarkable role already in 1914. In September of that year, the crucial point in the war, French reconnaissance aircraft confirmed that German troops had been diverted from their advance towards Paris to engage in the valley of the Ourcq. Thanks to this information, the French high command was able to launch the manoeuvre that would lead to the Battle of the Marne and thus the arrest of the German advance, then to the stabilization of the front and finally, after four years, the exhaustion of the Central Powers’ resources. Once the front was stabilized, the belligerents used reconnaissance planes, tactically in this case, to photograph the terrain and map out the front lines, forts, trenches, and barbed wire, and to fine-tune artillery fire.

Given the importance that aerial observation had acquired, the adversary necessarily sought to prevent this. Reconnaissance planes confronted one another with the aid of rifles, pistols, and still more old-fashioned weapons, before a regular system was developed that enabled a machine gun to be placed at the front of the plane, synchronized with the propeller in such a way that bullets passed through the blades without damaging the machine. This was the birth of aerial combat: from the need to prevent the enemy conducting information missions. Starting in 1915, the warring armies established aeronautical services, within which they formed chasseur units to combat enemy aviation, though these units still lacked a coherent doctrine. According to Manfred von Richthofen, the words of Oswald Boelcke were ‘gospel’ for the German aviators – which amounts to saying that their tactics remained largely improvised.

This experience led to a number of conclusions that were gradually applied in the course of the conflict. It appeared that air operations had acquired such importance that no large-scale operation on the ground could now be envisaged without freedom of movement in the air. The sky was a contested space, and so tacticians began to emphasize the concepts of air ‘supremacy’, even ‘domination’, after the ‘command of the seas’ so dear to naval strategy. To render the enemy unable to fly in certain zones, even unable to fly at all, thus became a military objective in itself. As a result, individual air combat was gradually abandoned in favour of manoeuvres in large formations, which made it possible to command the sky above the battlefield. The ‘knight of the sky’ once again became a soldier like any other. Discipline and esprit de corps, the characteristic qualities of the soldier, took the upper hand over the honour and individuality of the ‘knight’. Paradoxically, it was for this very reason that a mythical figure was needed. The aviator was a possible embodiment of this need for chivalry.

At the same time, the war on the ground had run into the sand, the front had stabilized, and there would be only insignificant advances and retreats until the armistice. As Jean de Bloch had already foreseen before the war, the tremendous firepower of modern artillery favoured the defensive, and soldiers began to shelter in fortresses and trenches and behind barbed wire. The military doctrines of all the warring powers, however, continued to promote the tactical offensive as the only way to victory on the battlefield: ‘to win is to advance’, in the words of the Italian tactical manual of 1915. The other high commands followed more or less the same line. The essential challenge now was to ‘motivate’ soldiers to emerge regularly from their trenches, simply to get killed by the tens of thousands by machine guns and artillery fire. Heroically braving death now meant consenting to being butchered like a sheep.

The myth of aerial combat emerged at a time when the absence of any tactic of air warfare was combined with military despair: on the one hand, aerial reconnaissance gave rise to combats which were initially duels between two aircraft that encountered one another more or less by chance; on the other hand, all attempts by ground troops to break the front failed in the face of deadly fire. In these conditions, salvation could only be hoped for with a later development, the ability to overfly the no man’s land between the trenches and in this way break the paralysis that had seized the battlefield. The infantryman had no better friend than the earth to protect them from a danger that might arrive from anywhere at any time: he pressed against it, it welcomed him, and for a few seconds gave him the sentiment of being protected from mortar shells, a situation well described by Erich Maria Remarque in All Quiet on the Western Front:

The earth is more important to the soldier than to anybody else. When he presses himself to the earth, long and violently, when he urges himself deep into it with his face and with his limbs, under fire and with the fear of death upon him, then the earth is his only friend, his brother, his mother, he groans out his terror and screams into its silence and safety, the earth absorbs it all and gives him another ten seconds of life, ten seconds to run, then takes hold of him again – sometimes for ever.

Aviation thus crystallized a series of dichotomies: between earth and sky, man and machine, above and below, movement and paralysis, boldness and fear, power and impotence. The experience of trench warfare was more than men were capable of enduring. They began to fantasize the arrival of a saviour to redeem the earthly creature clinging to the soil, revenge him, and raise him to the stars; the aviator fitted this role.

The airman, for his part, can know, the airman is capable of so many things. He is superior to the enemy, or rather, he is a being of superior order, a further step in the slow evolution of that vertebrate we call man. And while he is there, rooted in the earth – for where to take refuge from the bullets that he only hears whistle? – while his ankles are stuck in the ground, while water fills his boots, while he is there stretched like a marten ready to leap, an idea takes hold of him: ‘No, it is not the sky that is the obstacle, it is the earth, this dunghill on which we are born, on which we are condemned to crawl until we die and fall back into it.’

In another great novel of the First World War, Outside Verdun, Arnold Zweig sums up his Lieutenant Eberhard Kroysing’s delirium of aerial omnipotence:

And in that moment he reached a firm decision: he’d become an airman. Just wait until this mess was over and everything was cleared up, until an iron fist had knocked the French flat for daring to stick their nose into German territory, and a certain someone would throw in this sapper business and join the air force. Crawling around in the dirt was good enough for the likes of Süssmann and Bertin, men with no fighting instinct, no fire in their punches, old men, He, however, would metamorphose into a stone dragon with claws, a tail and fiery breath, which smoked little critters out of their hideaways – all the Niggls and other such creatures. He’d have a fragile box beneath him, two broad wings and a whirling propeller, and hey ho, up above the clouds he’d soar like a Sunday lark – admittedly not to sing songs but to drop bombs on the people crawling around below, to splatter them with gas and bullets as part of a duel from which only one person returns.

Better than any other sources, literature makes visible the dichotomies that structured not only perception but also, to a large degree, strategic and doctrinal thinking. It also shows us another use of aviation of which the hagiographic sources only rarely speak, being in flagrant contradiction with the chivalrous image of the duel: bombing. There are exceptions, however, such as the ‘Red Baron’, Manfred von Richthofen, who describes the pleasure he felt in dropping bombs and machine-gunning humans on the ground. It is clear that Richthofen, at least, saw himself not as a knight but rather as a soldier practising his trade of killing without reservation.

Given the rather unsuccessful results of the first bombs dropped before 1914, one may naturally wonder why the idea of aerial bombing was not dismissed right from the start. The answer is a double one, relating to two types of bombing, ‘tactical’ and ‘strategic’. Tactical bombing was first practised empirically, with bombs dropped more or less randomly. It soon appeared that planes could be used as an extension of artillery, to strike targets situated far behind the front, inaccessible to the largest of guns. Since military success on the front depended largely on rail communication and the ability to rapidly bring up men and materiel, the idea of attacking the logistic infrastructure behind the front – storage facilities, railway stations, encampments – was a logical conclusion. Nonetheless, the difficulties in striking precisely were underestimated. To take just one example, between 1 March and 20 June 1915, the Allies tried 141 times to bomb German railway stations, but only hit their target three times. Other attempts were abandoned on account of anti-aircraft fire, were blocked by enemy fighter planes; or failed due to technical problems, or indeed, more commonly, because the airmen simply missed their target. The bombs then landed in the countryside, leaving craters in the Flanders mud.

This tactical use of aviation, known as ‘interdiction’, was supplemented, particularly from 1917 on, by another use that was also tactical: ‘close support’, in other words simultaneous attacks by ground troops and aircraft. These operations were both hard to coordinate and dangerous, since the planes had to fly at low altitudes, and the targets, i.e., enemy troops, were in a position to respond. It was the German army that counted particularly on this tactic, which would become the basis of the blitzkrieg strategy after the First World War; the British air force, however, generally rejected subordination to the needs of land troops.

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