The German war of the twentieth century,
like the German wars of the eighteenth and nineteenth
centuries, was carefully planned and prepared by the
military rulers of Prussia. To elucidate its origins
and causes will be the work of many long years.
Yet enough is known to make it certain that this last
and greatest war conforms to the old design. The
Prussians have always been proud of their doctrine
of war, and have explained it to the world with perfect
frankness. War has always been regarded by them
as the great engine of national progress. By war
they united the peoples of Germany; by war they hoped
to gain for the peoples of Germany an acknowledged
supremacy in the civilized world. These peoples
had received unity at the hands of Prussia, and though
they did not like Prussia, they believed enthusiastically
in Prussian strength and Prussian wisdom. If
Prussia led them to war, they were encouraged to think
that the war would be unerringly designed to increase
their power and prosperity. Yet many of them
would have shrunk from naked assault and robbery;
and Prussia, to conciliate these, invented the fable
of the war of defence. That a sudden attack on
her neighbours, delivered by Germany in time of peace,
is a strictly defensive act has often been explained
by German military and political writers, never perhaps
more clearly than in a secret official report, drawn
up at Berlin in the spring of 1913, on the strengthening
of the German army. A copy of this report fell
into the hands of the French.
‘The people,’ it says,
’must be accustomed to think that an offensive
war on our part is a necessity.... We must act
with prudence in order to arouse no suspicion.’
The fable of the war of defence was
helped out with the fable of encirclement. Germany,
being situated in the midst of Europe, had many neighbours,
most of whom had more reason to fear her than to like
her. Any exhibition of goodwill between these
neighbours was treated by German statesmen, for years
before the war, as a covert act of hostility to Germany,
amply justifying reprisals. The treaty between
France and Russia, wholly defensive in character,
the expression of goodwill between France and England,
inspired in part by fears of the restless ambitions
of Germany, though both were intended to guarantee
the existing state of things, were odious to Berlin.
The peace of Europe hung by a thread.
On Sunday, the 28th of June 1914,
the Archduke Francis Ferdinand, heir to the throne
of Austria, and his wife, the Duchess of Hohenberg,
paid a visit to Serajevo, the capital of Bosnia, and
were there murdered by Bosnian assassins. It
has not been proved that Germany had any part in the
murder, but she was quite willing to take advantage
of it. The Kiel canal, joining the Baltic with
the North Sea had just been widened to admit the largest
battleships, and the German army had just been raised
to an unexampled strength. The gun was loaded
and pointed; if it was allowed to be fired by accident
the military rulers of Germany were much to blame.
They were not in the habit of trusting any part of
their plans to accident. But the excitement caused
by the Archduke’s murder was allowed to die
away, and an uneasy calm succeeded. On the 23rd
of July the Austrian Government, alleging that the
Serajevo assassinations had been planned in Belgrade,
presented to Serbia, with the declared approval of
Germany, an ultimatum, containing demands of so extreme
a character that the acceptance of them would have
meant the abandonment by Serbia of her national independence.
Serbia appealed to Russia, and, acting on Russia’s
advice, accepted all the demands except two. These
two, which involved the appointment of Austro-Hungarian
delegates to assist in administering the internal
affairs of Serbia, were not bluntly rejected; Serbia
asked that they should be referred to the Hague Tribunal.
Austria replied by withdrawing her minister, declaring
war upon Serbia, and bombarding Belgrade. This
action was bound to involve Russia, who could not
stand by and see the Slavonic States of southern Europe
destroyed and annexed. But the Russian Government,
along with the Governments of France, Great Britain,
and Italy, did their utmost to preserve the peace.
They suggested mediation and a conference of the Powers.
Germany alone refused. Alleging that Russia had
already mobilized her army, she decreed a state of
war, and on Saturday, the 1st of August, declared
war upon Russia. France by her treaty with Russia
would shortly have become involved; but the German
Government would not wait for her. They judged
it all-important to gain a military success at the
very start of the war, and to this everything had to
give way. They declared war on France, and massed
armies along the frontier between Liege and Luxembourg,
with the intention of forcing a passage through Belgium.
England, who was one of the guarantors of the integrity
of Belgium, was thus involved. At 11.0 p.m. on
the 4th of August, Great Britain declared war on Germany,
and the World War had begun.
The events of the twelve days from
the 23rd of July to the 4th of August, when they shall
be set forth in detail, will furnish volumes of history.
Those who study them minutely are in some danger of
failing to see the wood for the trees. The attitude
of the nations was made clear enough during these
days. When Austria issued her ultimatum, many
people in England thought of it as a portent of renewed
distant trouble in the Balkans, to be quickly begun
and soon ended. It was not so regarded in Germany.
The people of Germany, though they were not in the
confidence of their Government, were sufficiently
familiar with its mode of operation to recognize the
challenge to Serbia for what it was, Germany’s
chosen occasion for her great war. The citizens
not only of Berlin, but of the Rhineland, and of little
northern towns on the Kiel canal, went mad with joy;
there was shouting and song and public festivity.
Meantime in England, as the truth dawned, there were
hushed voices and an intense solemnity. The day
had come, and no one doubted the severity of the ordeal.
Yet neither did any one, except an unhappy few who
had been nursed in folly and illusion, doubt the necessity
of taking up the challenge. The country was united.
Not only was the safety and existence of the British
Commonwealth involved, but the great principle of
civilization, difficult to name, but perhaps best called
by the appealing name of decency, which bids man remember
that he is frail and that it behoves him to be considerate
and pitiful and sincere, had been flouted by the arrogant
military rulers of Germany. Great Britain had
a navy; her army and her air force, for the purposes
of a great European war, were yet to make. The
motive that was to supply her with millions of volunteers
was not only patriotism, though patriotism was strong,
but a sense that her cause, in this war, was the cause
of humanity. There are many who will gladly fight
to raise their country and people in power and prosperity
above other countries and other peoples. There
are many also among English-speaking peoples who are
unwilling to fight for any such end. But they
are fighters, and they will fight to protect the weak
and to assert the right. They are a reserve worth
enlisting in any army; it was by their help that the
opponents of Germany attained to a conquering strength.
The systematic cruelties of Germany, inflicted by
order on the helpless populations of Serbia and Belgium
and northern France, are not matter of controversy;
they have been proved by many extant military documents
and by the testimony of many living witnesses.
They were designed to reduce whole peoples to a state
of impotent terror, beneath the level of humanity.
The apology made for them, that by shortening resistance
to the inevitable they were in effect merciful, is
a blasphemous apology, which puts Germany in the place
of the Almighty. The effect anticipated did not
follow. The system of terrorism hardened and prolonged
resistance; it launched against Germany the chivalry
of the world; it created for use against Germany the
chivalry of the air; and it left Germany unhonoured
in her ultimate downfall.
The German plan of campaign, it was
rightly believed, was a swift invasion and disablement
of France, to be followed by more prolonged operations
against Russia. By this plan the German army was
to reach Paris on the fortieth day after mobilization.
There was no promise that Great Britain would help
France, but the attitude of Germany had long been
so threatening that the General Staffs of the two countries
had taken counsel with each other concerning the best
manner of employing the British forces in the event
of common resistance to German aggression. It
had been provisionally agreed that the British army
should be concentrated on the left flank of the French
army, in the area between Avesnes and Le Cateau, but
this agreement was based on the assumption that the
two armies would be mobilized simultaneously.
When the principal British Ministers and the leading
members of the naval and military staffs assembled
at Downing street on the 5th and 6th of August, we
were already behindhand, and the whole question of
the employment and disposition of the expeditionary
force had to be reopened. It was expected by
some soldiers and some civilians that the little British
army would be landed at a point on the coast of France
or Belgium whence it could strike at the flank of
the German invaders. The strategic advantages
of that idea had to yield to the enormous importance
of giving moral and material support to our Allies
by fighting at their side; moreover, there could be
no assurance that the coast of Belgium would not fall
into the hands of the Germans at a very early stage
in the campaign. Accordingly, it was agreed to
ship our army to France, and to leave the manner of
its employment to be settled in concert with the French.
The original British Expeditionary
Force, under the command of Field-Marshal Sir John
French, began to embark on the 9th of August; by the
20th its concentration in a pear-shaped area between
Maubeuge and Le Cateau was complete. It consisted
of the First Army Corps, under Lieutenant-General
Sir Douglas Haig; the Second Army Corps, under Lieutenant-General
Sir James Grierson, who died soon after landing in
France and was succeeded by General Sir Horace Smith-Dorrien;
and the Cavalry Division, under Major-General E. H.
H. Allenby. The Germans made no attempt to interfere
with the transport of the expeditionary force from
England to France. They had many other things
to think of, and there is evidence to show that they
viewed with satisfaction the placing of that admirable
little force in a situation where they hoped that they
could cut it off and annihilate it. That they
were disappointed in this hope was due not a little
to the activity and efficiency of the newest arm,
numbering about a thousand, all told, the Royal Flying
The Royal Flying Corps took the field
under the command of Brigadier-General Sir David Henderson.
It consisted of Headquarters, Aeroplane Squadrons
Nos. 2, 3, 4, and 5, and an Aircraft Park.
Fairly complete arrangements, thought out in detail,
had been made some months earlier for its mobilization.
Each squadron was to mobilize at its peace station,
and was to be ready to move on the fourth day.
On that day the aeroplanes were to move, by air, first
to Dover, and thence, on the sixth day, to the field
base in the theatre of war. The horses, horse-vehicles,
and motor-bicycles, together with a certain amount
of baggage and supplies, were to travel by rail, and
the mechanical transport and trailers by road, to
the appointed port of embarkation, there to be shipped
for the overseas base. The Aircraft Park, numbering
twelve officers and a hundred and sixty-two other ranks,
with four motor-cycles and twenty-four aeroplanes
in cases, were to leave Farnborough for Avonmouth
on the seventh day. Instructions were issued
naming the hour and place of departure of the various
trains, with detailed orders as to machines, personnel,
transport, and petrol. On the second day of mobilization
a detachment from N Squadron was to proceed to
Dover, there to make ready a landing-ground for the
other squadrons, and to provide for replenishment
of fuel and minor repairs to aircraft. Squadron
commanders were urged to work out all necessary arrangements
for the journey. How carefully they did this is
shown by some of the entries in the squadron diaries.
In the diary of N Squadron (Major C. J. Burke’s)
a list is given of the articles that were to be carried
on each of the machines flying over to France.
Besides revolvers, glasses, a spare pair of goggles,
and a roll of tools, pilots were ordered to carry
with them a water-bottle containing boiled water,
a small stove, and, in the haversack, biscuits, cold
meat, a piece of chocolate, and a packet of soup-making
The programme for mobilization was,
in the main, successfully carried out. The headquarters
of the Royal Flying Corps left Farnborough for Southampton
on the night of the 11th of August, their motor transport
having gone before. They embarked at Southampton,
with their horses, and reached Amiens on the morning
of the 13th. The movements of the Aircraft Park,
though it was the last unit to leave England, may be
next recorded, because it was in effect the travelling
base of the squadrons. The personnel and equipment
were entrained at Farnborough during the evening of
Saturday, the 15th of August, and travelled to Avonmouth.
Of the twenty machines allotted to them only four,
all Sopwith Tabloids, were actually taken over in
cases. Of the other sixteen (nine B.’s,
one B. c, three B.’s, and three Henri
Farmans) about half were used to bring the squadrons
up to establishment; the remainder were flown over
to Amiens by the personnel of the Aircraft Park, or
by the spare pilots who accompanied the squadrons.
The Aircraft Park embarked at Avonmouth very early
on the morning of the 17th, arriving at Boulogne on
the night of the 18th. They disembarked, an unfamiliar
apparition, on the following morning. The landing
officer had no precedent to guide him in dealing with
them. Wing Commander W. D. Beatty tells how a
wire was dispatched to General Headquarters:
’An unnumbered unit without aeroplanes which
calls itself an Aircraft Park has arrived. What
are we to do with it?’ If the question was not
promptly answered at Boulogne it was answered later
on. The original Aircraft Park was the nucleus
of that vast system of supply and repair which supported
the squadrons operating on the western front and kept
them in fighting trim.
On the 21st of August the Aircraft
Park moved up to Amiens, to make an advanced base
for the squadrons, which were already at Maubeuge.
Three days were spent at Amiens in unloading, unpacking,
and setting up workshops. Then, on the 25th,
they received orders to retire to Le Havre. The
retreat from Mons had begun, and Boulogne was being
evacuated by the British troops. How far the
wave of invasion would flow could not be certainly
known; on the 30th of August, at the request of the
French admiral who commanded at Le Havre, the machines
belonging to the Aircraft Park were employed to carry
out reconnaissances along the coast roads; on
the following day German cavalry entered Amiens.
There was a real danger that stores and machines landed
in northern France for the use of the Royal Flying
Corps might fall into the hands of the Germans; accordingly
a base was established, for the reception of stores
from England, at St.-Nazaire, on the Loire. The
advanced base of the Aircraft Park moved up, by successive
stages, as the prospects of the Allies improved, first
from Le Havre to Le Mans, then, at the end of September,
to Juvisy, near Paris; lastly, in mid-October, the
port base was moved from St.-Nazaire to Rouen, and
at the end of October the advanced base left Juvisy
for St.-Omer, which became its permanent station during
the earlier part of the war.
The squadrons flew to France.
N Squadron, at Montrose, had the hardest task.
Its pilots started on their southward flight to Farnborough
as early as the 3rd of August; after some accidents
they all reached Dover. Their transport left
Montrose by rail on the morning of the 8th of August
and arrived the same evening at Prince’s Dock,
Govan, near Glasgow, where the lorries and stores
were loaded on S.S. Dogra for Boulogne.
N Squadron was at Netheravon when war broke out;
on the 12th of August the machines flew to Dover and
the transport moved off by road to Southampton, where
it was embarked for Boulogne. The squadron suffered
a loss at Netheravon. Second Lieutenant R. R.
Skene, a skilful pilot, with Air Mechanic R. K. Barlow
as passenger, crashed his machine soon after taking
off; both pilot and passenger were killed. N Squadron on the 31st of July had been sent to Eastchurch,
to assist the navy in preparations for home defence
and to be ready for mobilization. From Eastchurch
the machines flew to Dover and the transport proceeded
to Southampton. By the evening of the 12th of
August the machines of Nos. 2, 3, and 4 Squadrons
were at Dover. At midnight Lieutenant-Colonel
F. H. Sykes arrived, and orders were given for all
machines to be ready to fly over at 6.0 a.m. the following
morning, the 13th of August.
The first machine of N Squadron
to start left at 6.25 a.m., and the first to arrive
landed at Amiens at 8.20 a.m. This machine was
flown by Lieutenant H. D. Harvey-Kelly, one of the
lightest hearted and highest spirited of the young
pilots who gave their lives in the war. The machines
of N Squadron arrived safely at Amiens, with the
exception of one piloted by Second Lieutenant E. N.
Fuller, who with his mechanic did not rejoin his squadron
until five days later at Maubeuge. One flight
of N Squadron remained at Dover to carry out patrol
duties, but a wireless flight, consisting of three
officers who had made a study of wireless telegraphy,
was attached to the squadron, and was taken overseas
with it. Some of the aeroplanes of N Squadron
were damaged on the way over by following their leader,
Captain F. J. L. Cogan, who was forced by engine failure
to land in a ploughed field in France.
N Squadron moved a little later
than the other three. It was delayed by a shortage
of shipping and a series of accidents to the machines.
When the Concentration Camp broke up, this squadron
had gone to occupy its new station at Gosport.
On the 14th, when starting out for Dover, Captain
G. I. Carmichael wrecked his machine at Gosport; on
the same day Lieutenant R. O. Abercromby and Lieutenant
H. F. Glanville damaged their machines at Shoreham,
and Lieutenant H. lé M. Brock damaged his at
Salmer. The squadron flew from Dover to France
on the 15th of August; Captain Carmichael, having
obtained a new machine, flew over on that same day;
Lieutenant Brock rejoined the squadron at Maubeuge
on the 20th; Lieutenants Abercromby and Glanville
on the 22nd. Lieutenant R. M. Vaughan, who had
flown over with the squadron, also rejoined it on the
22nd; he had made a forced landing near Boulogne, had
been arrested by the French, and was imprisoned for
nearly a week.
The transport of the squadrons, which
proceeded by way of Southampton, was largely made
up from the motor-cars and commercial vans collected
at Regent’s Park in London during the first
few days of the war. The ammunition and bomb
lorry of N Squadron had belonged to the proprietors
of a famous sauce: it was a brilliant scarlet,
with the legend painted in gold letters on its side-The
World’s Appetiser. It could be seen
from some height in the air, and it helped the pilots
of the squadron, during the retreat from Mons, to
identify their own transport.
The names of the officers of the Royal
Flying Corps who went to France, the great majority
of them by air, deserve record. They were the
first organized national force to fly to a war overseas.
The following is believed to be a complete list up
to the eve of Mons, but it is not infallible.
Officers and men were changed up to the last minute,
so that the headquarters file, having been prepared
in advance, is not authoritative. The squadron
war diaries are sometimes sketchy. Even when
surviving pilots set down what they remember, the whole
war lies between them and those early days, and their
memory is often fragmentary. The following list
is compiled, as correctly as may be, from the diary
of Lieutenant B. H. Barrington-Kennett (a careful
and accurate document), the war diaries of Squadrons
Nos. 2, 3, 4, and 5, which were kept in some
detail, the headquarters’ records, and the reminiscences
of some of the officers who flew across or who travelled
with the transport.
Brigadier-General Sir David Henderson,
K.C.B., D.S.O.; Commander,
Royal Flying Corps.
Lieutenant-Colonel F. H. Sykes, 15th Hussars;
General Staff Officer,
Major H. R. M. Brooke-Popham, Oxfordshire
and Buckinghamshire Light
Infantry; Deputy Assistant
Captain W. G. H. Salmond, Royal Artillery;
General Staff Officer, 2nd
Lieutenant B. H. Barrington-Kennett, Grenadier
Assistant Adjutant and Quartermaster-General.
Captain R. H. L. Cordner, Royal Army Medical
Captain C. G. Buchanan, Indian Army.
Lieutenant the Hon. M. Baring, Intelligence
2nd Lieutenant O. G. W. G. Lywood, Norfolk
Regiment (Special Reserve);
for Wireless duties.
Major C. J. Burke, Royal Irish Regiment.
Captain G. W. P. Dawes, Royal Berkshire
Captain F. F. Waldron, 19th Hussars.
Captain G. E. Todd, Welch Regiment.
Lieutenant R. B. Martyn, Wiltshire Regiment.
Lieutenant L. Dawes, Middlesex Regiment.
Lieutenant R. M. Rodwell, West Yorkshire
Lieutenant M. W. Noel, Liverpool Regiment.
Lieutenant E. R. L. Corballis, Royal Dublin
Lieutenant H. D. Harvey-Kelly, Royal Irish
Lieutenant W. R. Freeman, Manchester Regiment.
Lieutenant W. H. C. Mansfield, Shropshire
Lieutenant C. B. Spence, Royal Artillery.
Captain A. B. Burdett, York and Lancaster
Captain A. Ross-Hume, Scottish Rifles.
Lieutenant D. S. K. Crosbie, Argyll and
Lieutenant C. A. G. L. H. Farie, Highland
Lieutenant T. L. S. Holbrow, Royal Engineers.
2nd Lieutenant G. J. Malcolm, Royal Artillery.
Major C. A. H. Longcroft, Welch Regiment;
Captain U. J. D. Bourke, Oxfordshire and
Light Infantry; Flight Commander.
Captain W. Lawrence, 7th Battalion, Essex
Force); Flight Commander.
Lieutenant K. R. Van der Spuy, South African
Major J. M. Salmond, Royal Lancaster Regiment.
Captain P. L. W. Herbert, Nottinghamshire
and Derbyshire Regiment.
Captain L. E. O. Charlton, D.S.O., Lancashire
Captain P. B. Joubert de la Ferte, Royal
2nd Lieutenant V. H. N. Wadham, Hampshire
Regiment. Lieutenant D. L. Allen, Royal Irish
Fusiliers. Lieutenant A. M. Read, Northamptonshire
Regiment. Lieutenant E. L. Conran, 2nd County
of London Yeomanry. Lieutenant A. Christie,
Royal Artillery. Lieutenant A. R. Shekleton,
Royal Munster Fusiliers. 2nd Lieutenant
E. N. Fuller, Royal Flying Corps, Special Reserve.
Lieutenant W. C. K. Birch, Yorkshire Regiment.
Lieutenant G. F. Pretyman, Somerset Light Infantry.
Lieutenant W. R. Read, 1st Dragoon Guardnd
Lieutenant A. Hartree, Royal Artillery. Lieutenant
V. S. E. Lindop, Leinster Regiment. Lieutenant
G. L. Cruikshank, Gordon Highlanders (Special Reserve).
Lieutenant W. F. MacNeece, Royal West Kent Regimennd Lieutenant L. A. Bryan, South Irish Horse.
Major L. B. Boyd-Moss, South Staffordshire Regimennd Lieutenant E. W. C. Perry, Royal Flying Corps,
Major G. H. Raleigh, Essex Regiment.
Captain G. S. Shephard, Royal Fusiliers.
Captain A. H. L. Soames, 3rd Hussars.
Captain F. J. L. Cogan, Royal Artillery.
Lieutenant P. H. L. Playfair, Royal Artillery.
Lieutenant K. P. Atkinson, Royal Artillery.
Lieutenant R. P. Mills, Royal Fusiliers (Special
Reserve). Lieutenant T. W. Mulcahy-Morgan,
Royal Irish Fusiliers. Lieutenant R. G.
D. Small, Leinster Regiment. Lieutenant W.
G. S. Mitchell, Highland Light Infantry. Lieutenant
G. W. Mapplebeck, Liverpool Regiment (Special Reserve).
Lieutenant C. G. Hosking, Royal Artillery.
Lieutenant H. J. A. Roche, Royal Munster Fusiliers.
Lieutenant I. M. Bonham-Carter, Northumberland Fusiliers.
2nd Lieutenant A. L. Russell, Royal Flying Corps,
Lieutenant D. S. Lewis, Royal Engineers.
Lieutenant B. T. James, Royal Engineers.
Lieutenant S. C. W. Smith, East Surrey
Regiment (Special Reserve).
Captain D. Le G. Pitcher, Indian Army.
Captain H. L. Reilly, Indian Army.
Major J. F. A. Higgins, D.S.O., Royal
Captain D. G. Conner, Royal Artillery.
Captain G. I. Carmichael, Royal Artillery.
Captain R. Grey, Warwickshire Royal Horse
Artillery (Territorial Force).
Lieutenant H. F. Glanville, West India
Regiment. Lieutenant F. G. Small, Connaught
Rangers. Lieutenant R. O. Abercromby, Royal
Flying Corps, Special Reservnd Lieutenant C.
W. Wilson, Royal Flying Corps, Special Reserve.
Lieutenant H. lé M. Brock, Royal Warwickshire
Regiment. Lieutenant R. M. Vaughan, Royal Inniskilling
Fusiliers. Lieutenant L. da C. Penn-Gaskell,
Norfolk Regiment (Special Reserve). Lieutenant
A. E. Borton, Royal Highlanders. Lieutenant
Lord G. Wellesley, Grenadier Guards. Lieutenant
C. G. G. Bayly, Royal Engineers. Lieutenant
C. E. C. Rabagliati, Yorkshire Light Infantrnd
Lieutenant A. A. B. Thomson, Royal Flying Corps, Special
Reservnd Lieutenant L. A. Strange, Royal Flying
Corps, Special Reservnd Lieutenant R. R. Smith-Barry,
Royal Flying Corps, Special Reservnd Lieutenant
D. C. Ware, Royal Flying Corps, Special Reservnd
Lieutenant V. Waterfall, East Yorkshire Regiment (Special
Reserve). Captain R. A. Boger, Royal Engineers.
Captain B. C. Fairfax, Reserve of Officers.
Lieutenant G. S. Creed, South African
Major A. D. Carden, Royal Engineers.
Major Hon. C. M. P. Brabazon, Irish Guards.
Captain W. D. Beatty, Royal Engineers.
Captain R. Cholmondeley, Rifle Brigade.
Lieutenant G. B. Hynes, Royal Artillery.
Lieutenant G. T. Porter, Royal Artillernd Lieutenant C. G. Bell, Royal Flying Corps, Special
Reservnd Lieutenant N. C. Spratt, Royal Flying
Corps, Special Reserve. Lieutenant R. H. Verney,
Army Service Corps.
Something must be said of the machines
which flew to France. Experience at manoeuvres
had favoured the factory B. biplane; of the other
types most in use the Henri Farman had been found fatiguing
to fly, and the Maurice Farman was too slow.
Accordingly, in the winter of 1913-14 Lieutenant-Colonel
F. H. Sykes had urged the gradual substitution of
B.E. machines for the Farmans. Major W. S. Brancker,
writing for the Director-General of Military Aeronautics,
objected to this proposal on the ground that until
a satisfactory type of fighting aeroplane should be
evolved, the Henri Farman was the only machine that
could mount weapons effectively; and further, that
a slow machine had some advantages for observation.
The first of these objections was not fully met until
firing through the airscrew was introduced; the second
was for a long time an accepted idea. The war
was to prove that a slow machine, exposed to armed
attack, cannot live in the air. The battle of
the machines ended, for the time, in compromise.
It was judged important that the Flying Corps should
have four squadrons ready for war by the spring of
1914, and large changes would have caused delay.
In the event, at the date of mobilization, N Squadron
and N Squadron were furnished throughout with
B. machines; N Squadron made use of Bleriots
and Henri Farmans, and N of Henri Farmans, Avros,
and B.’s. A single type of machine
for a single squadron is a thing to be desired; the
squadron is easier for the pilots and the mechanics
to handle; but in the early days of the war there
was no formation flying; each machine did its work
alone, so that uniformity was of less importance.
When the Flying Corps arrived in France
they were received by the French with enthusiasm,
and had their full share of the hospitality of those
days. The officers were treated as honoured guests;
the men with the transport were greeted by crowds
of villagers, who at all their stopping-places pressed
on them bottles of wine, bunches of flowers, fruit,
and eggs. At Amiens the transport and machines
were parked outside the town, without cover, and the
officers were billeted at the ‘Hotel du Rhin’
and elsewhere. The hardships of the war were yet
to come. Lieutenant B. H. Barrington-Kennett,
with his mind always set on the task before them,
remarks: ’There seemed to be a general
misunderstanding amongst the troops as to the length
of time during which rations have to last. They
were apt to eat what they wanted at one meal and then
throw the remainder away. R.F.C. peace training
does not encourage economy with food, as the men are
financially well off, and can always buy food and
drink in the villages.’
On Sunday, the 16th of August, the
headquarters of the Flying Corps, the aeroplanes of
Nos. 2, 3, and 4 Squadrons, and the transport
of Nos. 3 and 4 Squadrons moved from Amiens to
Maubeuge. Second Lieutenant E. W. C. Perry and
his mechanic, H. E. Parfitt, of N Squadron, who
were flying a B. machine (familiarly known as
a ’bloater’), crashed over the aerodrome
at Amiens; the machine caught fire, and both were killed.
There was another accident on the 18th, when the aeroplanes
and transport of N Squadron followed. Second
Lieutenant R. R. Smith-Barry and Corporal F. Geard,
also flying a B. machine, crashed at Peronne;
the officer broke several bones, and the corporal was
killed. Three of these machines in all were flown
over at the beginning; they had been allotted to the
Aircraft Park, and were taken on charge of the squadrons
in the field to fill vacancies caused by mishaps.
The third of them was the machine flown over by Captain
G. I. Carmichael.
At Maubeuge the French authorities
gave all the help they could, providing blankets and
straw for the troops. The Flying Corps were now
in the war zone, but for the first two or three days
the conditions were those of peace. They saw
nothing of the British army till one evening British
troops marched through Maubeuge on their way to Mons.
’We were rather sorry they had come,’
says Wing Commander P. B. Joubert de la Ferte, ’because
up till that moment we had only been fired on by the
French whenever we flew. Now we were fired on
by French and English.... To this day
I can remember the roar of musketry that greeted two
of our machines as they left the aerodrome and crossed
the main Maubeuge-Mons road, along which a British
column was proceeding.’ To guard against
incidents like this the Flying Corps, while stationed
at Maubeuge, turned to, and by working all night painted
a Union Jack in the form of a shield on the under-side
of the lower planes of all the machines.
While the Flying Corps remained at
Maubeuge and began to carry out reconnaissances
over Belgium, the little British army had moved up
north to Mons, where it first met the enemy.
By the 22nd of August it was in position, on a front
of some twenty-five miles, the First Army Corps holding
a line from Harmignies to Peissant on the east, the
Second Army Corps holding Mons and the canal that
runs from Mons to Conde on the west. On the right
of the British the Fifth French Army, under General
Lanrezac, was coming up to the line of the river Sambre.
The original German plan was broad
and simple. The main striking force was to march
through Belgium and Luxembourg into France. Its
advance was to be a wheel pivoting on Thionville.
Count von Schlieffen, who had vacated the appointment
of Chief of the General Staff in 1906, had prepared
this plan. He maintained that if the advance of
a strong right wing, marching on Paris through Belgium,
were firmly persisted in, it would draw the bulk of
the French forces away from their eastern fortress
positions to the neighbourhood of Paris, and that there
the decisive battle would be fought. His successor,
von Moltke, believed that the French, on the outbreak
of war, would at once deliver a strong offensive in
Lorraine and so would themselves come into the open,
away from the bastion of the eastern fortresses.
He must be prepared, he thought, to fight the decisive
battle either on his left wing in Lorraine, or on
his right wing near Paris, or, in short, at any point
that the initial operations of the French should determine.
This was not the conception of Count von Schlieffen,
who had intended to impose his will on the campaign
and to make the enemy conform to his movements.
When he was on his death-bed in 1913, his thoughts
were fixed on the war. ‘It must come to
a fight,’ were the last words he was heard to
mutter, ‘only give me a strong right wing.’
Von Moltke, though he did not absolutely weaken the
right wing, weakened it relatively, by using most
of the newly formed divisions of the German army for
strengthening the left wing.
The French, when the war came, delivered
their offensive in Alsace and Lorraine as had been
expected, but not in the strength that had been expected.
They were held up, and retired, not without loss, to
strong defensive positions covering Épinal and Nancy.
Meantime, the advance of the German armies through
Belgium was met by a French offensive in the Ardennes,
which also failed, whereupon General Joffre ordered
a retreat on the whole front, and began to move some
of his forces westward, to prepare for the battle
in front of Paris.
The successes won by the German left
wing and centre against a yielding and retreating
enemy were mistaken by the German high command for
decisive actions, which they were not. The French
armies which had been driven back on the Lorraine
front rapidly recovered, and on the 25th of August
delivered a brilliant counter-offensive, inflicting
heavy losses on the Germans, and in effect upsetting
all the German plans. The indecision which marked
the movements of the German right wing through northern
France had its origin in von Moltke’s modifications
of von Schlieffen’s plans and in the readiness
of the Germans to believe that the war was virtually
The heroic stand made by the Belgians
at Liege purchased invaluable time for the preparations
of the Allies. When, on the 17th of August, the
last fort of Liege fell, the great wheel of the German
northern armies began to revolve. Its pace was
to be regulated by the pace of the armies nearest
to its circumference; that is to say, the First Army,
under von Kluck, and the Second Army, under von Buelow.
Three divisions of cavalry were to advance against
the line Antwerp-Brussels-Charleroi, moving westward
across Belgium in order to discover whether a Belgian
army was still in being, whether the British had landed
any troops, and whether French forces were moving
up into northern Belgium. The Belgian army retired
within the defensive lines of Antwerp, and by the 20th
of August Brussels was in the hands of the enemy.
By the 22nd, von Buelow’s army had entered Charleroi
and was crossing the Sambre. The repulse of the
French centre in the Ardennes left the British army
and the French Fifth Army completely isolated on the
front Mons-Charleroi. The French Fifth Army began
to retreat. On Sunday morning, the 23rd of August,
von Kluck’s army came into action against the
British position at Mons.
The British army had taken up its
position in high hopes. It was not a British
defeat which began the retreat from Mons, and the troops
were not well pleased when they were ordered to retire.
But the retreat was inevitable, and the most that
the British could do was by rearguard actions to put
a brake upon the speed of the advancing enemy until
such time as they should be able to form up again
in the Allied line and assail him. Much depended
on their power to gain information concerning the
movements of the enemy, so that they might know their
own dangers and opportunities. Von Kluck had
at first no definite news of the whereabouts of the
British army. As late as the 20th of August the
German Supreme Command had issued a communication to
the German armies stating that ’a disembarkation
of British Forces at Boulogne and their employment
from the direction of Lille must be taken into account.
It is the opinion here, however, that a landing on
a big scale has not yet taken place.’ General
von Zwehl, Commander of the Seventh Reserve Corps,
writing in September 1919, tells how the Germans had
no reliable information concerning the British expeditionary
force. ’It was only on the 22nd of August,’
he says, ’that an English cavalry squadron was
heard of at Casteau, six miles north-east of Mons,
and an aeroplane of the English fifth flying squadron
was shot down that had gone up from Maubeuge.
The presence of the English in front was thus established,
although nothing as regards their strength.’
The first news that reached General von Kluck of the
presence of the British forces came to him from a
British, not from a German, aeroplane.
The first aerial reconnaissances
by the Royal Flying Corps were carried out on Wednesday,
the 19th of August, by Captain P. B. Joubert de la
Ferte of N Squadron, in a Bleriot, and Lieutenant
G. W. Mapplebeck of N Squadron, in a B.E.
They started at 9.30 a.m., and flew without observers.
Captain Joubert de la Ferte was to reconnoitre Nivelles-Genappe
in order to report what Belgian forces were in that
neighbourhood; Lieutenant Mapplebeck was to find out
whether enemy cavalry were still in force in the neighbourhood
of Gembloux. The machines were to fly together
as far as Nivelles, ’so that if one was obliged
to descend the other could report its whereabouts’.
The machines lost their way and lost each other.
Lieutenant Mapplebeck eventually found himself over
a large town which he failed to recognize as Brussels.
Later he picked up his position at Ottignies, and soon
found Gembloux, where he could see only a small body
of cavalry moving in a south-easterly direction.
After leaving Gembloux he was enveloped in cloud for
some miles, came down to 300 feet over Namur, followed
the Sambre, missed Maubeuge, and landed near Le Cateau,
whence he flew back to the aerodrome at Maubeuge.
He had been away from 9.30 a.m. to 12.0 midday.
Captain Joubert de la Ferte, whose machine was slower
than Lieutenant Mapplebeck’s, attempted to steer
by compass through the banks of cloud, and after two
hours of wandering landed at Tournai. He made
inquiries concerning the Belgian army, but nothing
was known of them. He left Tournai at 12.15 p.m.,
lost his way again, and at 2.0 p.m. landed at Courtrai.
Here he was told by the gendarmerie that the headquarters
of the Belgian flying corps was at Louvain. He
left Courtrai at 3.0 p.m. and passed over Ath, Hal,
Braine l’Alleud, Nivelles, returning to Maubeuge
at 5.30 p.m. He reported occasional trains in
the main stations and pickets on the roads to Brussels.
On the 20th Major C. A. H. Longcroft,
with Captain U. J. D. Bourke as observer, reconnoitred
as far as Louvain and reported a force of all arms
moving south-west through Tervueren, and another force
moving into Wavre. They also saw an aerodrome
just east of Louvain with seven machines on the ground.
Lieutenant E. R. L. Corballis, who, with Captain G.
E. Todd, flew over the area Nivelles-Hal-Enghien, reported
that there was no sign of troops and that all bridges
in the area appeared to be intact. The German
flood was spreading but was still some distance away.
On the following day (an important day of enemy movements)
the weather in the morning was too foggy for observation,
and in the afternoon was rainy and misty. Three
reconnaissances which were made in the afternoon
showed that the country immediately in front of the
British was very quiet, but in the wood one mile south
of Nivelles Lieutenant Corballis reported a large
body of cavalry with some guns and infantry (this was
later identified as the German 9th Cavalry Division),
and another body of infantry moving south on Charleroi.
At Pont-a-Celles on the Charleroi canal, south
of Nivelles, three villages were seen to be burning.
On the 22nd there were twelve reconnaissances
which revealed the presence of large bodies of troops
moving in the direction of the British front, and
did much to dissipate the fog of war. The first
machine to return came in soon after eleven. This
was piloted by Captain G. S. Shephard, with Lieutenant
I. M. Bonham-Carter as observer. They had landed
at Beaumont (about twelve miles east of Maubeuge) for
petrol. Here they were informed that French cavalry
had encountered German infantry north of the Sambre
canal on the previous afternoon, and had had to fall
back. The next machine to return came in at 11.50
a.m. with a wounded observer, Sergeant-Major D. S.
Jillings of N Squadron. He was the first
British soldier to be wounded in an aeroplane, and
this casualty seemed to bring the German armies nearer
than a dozen unmolested reconnaissances could
have done. The machine, piloted by Lieutenant
M. W. Noel, had come under heavy rifle fire first of
all at Ollignies, south-east of Lessines, and then,
after passing over a cavalry regiment just south-west
of Ghislenghien, had been met with rifle and machine-gun
fire. Frequent rifle fire was encountered all
the way back to Ath, and just south-east of Ath, over
Maffle, Sergeant-Major Jillings had been wounded in
the leg by a rifle bullet. Confirmation of the
presence of large bodies of enemy in this area came
from Captain L. E. O. Charlton flying as observer
with Second Lieutenant V. H. N. Wadham. They
started at 10.0 a.m. and passed over Charleroi, Gembloux,
and Brussels without seeing any large movements, but
reported that the northern part of Charleroi and many
other towns and villages in that area were burning.
From Brussels they went on towards Grammont, and landed
at Moerbeke, two miles south-east of Grammont, to make
inquiries. Here they received information which
hastened their departure. They learnt that a
force of 5,000 Germans was in Grammont, that cavalry
and cyclists were in Lessines, and that cavalry were
expected from Enghien to arrive in Ath that evening.
When passing over Bassilly, about half-way between
Ath and Enghien, they were fired on by enemy troops
which they estimated at the strength of an infantry
brigade, and they drew further fire from patrols in
Ath. They came in with their information at 1.10
p.m.; Lieutenant W. H. C. Mansfield just before this
had reported large bodies moving into Enghien and Soignies.
Afternoon reconnaissances added little that was
new except that there were cavalry and infantry in
the area north of the Mons-Conde canal, and cavalry
as far west as Peruwelz.
The most important reconnaissance
of the day is unfortunately not recorded in the war
diary. The value of the report when it came in
was recognized at once, and Brigadier-General Sir
David Henderson took it personally to General Headquarters.
It stated that a long column, whose strength was estimated
to be that of an army corps, was moving westward on
the Brussels-Ninove road. At Ninove the column
continued south-west towards Grammont. This was
von Kluck’s Second Corps, and the report seemed
to show an attempt at an enveloping movement.
The same report confirmed what had already been seen,
the presence of enemy troops moving along the great
Chaussee on Soignies. This column was taking
advantage of the trees on either side of the road to
shield its movements. This was the first day
on which a machine failed to return from over enemy
territory. Lieutenants V. Waterfall and C. G.
G. Bayly, of N Squadron, started on a reconnaissance
in an Avrò at 10.16 a.m. and next day were reported
missing. It was the bringing down of this machine,
no doubt, which gave the Germans their first assurance
of the presence of the British forces. The observer’s
report, so far as he had written it, was picked
up near the wreckage of the machine by some Belgian
peasants, and eventually found its way to the War Office
Sir John French on the evening of
the 22nd held a conference at Le Cateau, whereat the
position of the Germans, so far as it was then known,
was explained and discussed. At the close of the
conference Sir John stated that owing to the retreat
of the French Fifth Army, the British offensive would
not take place. A request from General Lanrezac
arrived at 11.0 p.m., asking for offensive action against
the German right flank, which was pressing him back
from the Sambre. This could not be undertaken,
but Sir John French promised to remain in his position
for twenty-four hours.
In his book, A Staff Officer’s
Scrap Book, Sir Ian Hamilton, who was attached
to the Japanese army during the Russo-Japanese War,
has the following entry: ’The Russians
are sending up balloons to our front, and in front
of the Twelfth Division. Judging by manoeuvres
and South African experiences, they should now obtain
a lot of misleading intelligence.’ Observation
from the air, when the war broke out, had still to
prove its worth. The Royal Flying Corps, though
confident of its own ability, was a new and untried
arm. In the early reports there are occasional
inaccuracies. Some of the early observers, among
those who were hastily enrolled to bring newly formed
squadrons up to strength, had not much military knowledge,
and were not practised in reading the appearances
of things seen from the air. At the time of the
battles of Ypres, 1914, observers of N Squadron,
which had prepared itself in hot haste for foreign
service, mistook long patches of tar on macadamized
roads for troops on the move, and the shadows cast
by the gravestones in a churchyard for a military
bivouac. Mistakes like these, though they were
not very many, naturally made commanding officers shy
of trusting implicitly to reports from the air.
Yet the early reports of the first four squadrons
did show without any possibility of mistake how formidable
the German movements were.
Sir John French remained at Mons and
was led into fighting a battle in a perilous position
against much superior forces. The air reports
of the 22nd had given some hints of the success of
von Buelow’s army in crossing the Sambre, had
indicated a possible enveloping movement from the
direction of Grammont, and had revealed something of
the strength of the enemy troops on the British front.
On the following day the attack began on the position
at Mons, and pilots and observers were flying over
and behind the battle-field looking for enemy movements,
and locating enemy batteries.
On the 24th the retreat was in progress.
As early as the morning of the 23rd the Royal Flying
Corps had begun to shift its quarters from Maubeuge
to Le Cateau. The transport and machines of N Squadron moved southward on that day, and on the
24th headquarters and other squadrons also moved to
Le Cateau. ‘We slept,’ says Major
Maurice Baring, ’and when I say we I mean dozens
of pilots, fully dressed in a barn, on the top of,
and underneath, an enormous load of straw....
Everybody was quite cheerful, especially the pilots.’
On the afternoon of the 25th they moved again to St.-Quentin.
The rapidity of the retreat put a heavy strain upon
the headquarters of the Royal Flying Corps, which
had to travel before the retreating army, to select
an old aerodrome or to make a new one almost every
day, and in the brief hours between arrival and departure
to carry on all the complicated and delicate business
of ministering to the needs of the squadrons.
The places occupied by headquarters during the retreat
were as follows:
Sunday, 16th August Maubeuge.
Monday, 24th August Le Cateau.
Tuesday, 25th August St.-Quentin.
Wednesday, 26th August La Fere.
Friday, 28th August Compiègne.
Sunday, 30th August Senlis.
Monday, 31st August Juilly.
Wednesday, 2nd September Serris.
Thursday, 3rd September Touquin.
Friday, 4th September Melun.
In some of these places regular aérodromes
were available, in others a landing-ground had to
be improvised. Sometimes officers of headquarters
would be sent on a long way ahead in motor-cars to
select a landing-ground, while another officer in
a motor-car was detailed to guide the transport.
This he did by taking with him a small number of men
and dropping them one by one at the partings of the
ways. When the route was very complicated, these
guides became so many that they had to be carried
in a transport lorry. The transport drivers were
not as yet skilled in the art of map-reading, and
to lose the transport would have left the Flying Corps
helpless. Sometimes the officers who selected
the landing-ground moved with the transport, and made
their choice when the transport reached its destination.
The only recognized French aérodromes which were
used by the Royal Flying Corps during the retreat
were those at Compiègne, Senlis, and Melun.
Whilst the aérodromes were changing
almost daily, the officers carried on reconnaissance,
sometimes starting out not knowing whether their aerodrome
would be in British or enemy hands by the time they
should return. On the 24th, whilst the squadrons
were moving from Maubeuge to Le Cateau, the enemy
advance as seen from the air looked menacing enough.
Captain G. S. Shephard and Lieutenant I. M. Bonham-Carter
were watching von Kluck’s right wing soon after
4.0 a.m. They returned at six o’clock with
news of extensive movement about Ath and Leuze.
They reported a broken column nearly ten miles long
with its head pointing at Peruwelz. The column
branched off the main Ath-Tournai road at Leuze.
This was part of von Kluck’s Second Corps, and
its line of march would take it to the west of the
extreme western flank of the British army. The
news was not reassuring. Captain H. C. Jackson
as observer with Lieutenant E. L. Conran went up at
8.30 a.m. and came back at 12.30 p.m. with information
of long enemy columns moving from Grammont through
Lessines into La Hamaide and further troops on the
Ath-Leuze road. They had flown as far as Ninove
and Alost, but found the country there clear.
On returning over Lessines at 11.30 a.m. they saw three
German aeroplanes on the ground; they dropped a bomb
overboard, but missed.
In the evening of the 24th, the first
day of the retreat, the position was on the whole
not unsatisfactory. The British Fifth Division
had not only defended six miles of front, but with
the aid of the cavalry and the 19th Infantry Brigade
had met and beaten off von Kluck’s enveloping
attack. But that attack was soon renewed.
On the following morning a heavy movement of German
troops southward from Marchiennes, with cavalry, guns,
and transport, was reported at six o’clock.
Marchiennes is almost midway between Valenciennes
and Douai, to the west of the British line of retreat.
This moving line of troops continued southward through
Somain for a distance of about five miles, and then
bent in a south-easterly direction, pointing straight
at Le Cateau, until it reached Bouchain, where there
were mounted and dismounted troops extending over
three miles. But Le Cateau was not the objective
of these troops. General von Kluck believed that
the next stand of the British army, after Mons, would
be made on a position running east and west through
Bavai, and resting its right on the fortress of
Maubeuge. The troops seen at Bouchain were intended
to envelop it and take it in the rear. Meantime
the British army, having escaped the lure of Maubeuge,
was continuing its painful march southward on both
sides of the Forest of Mormal; and the claw that was
extended to catch it closed upon air.
These movements of von Kluck’s
army on the 25th were influenced by his own air reports,
which appear to have misled him. The army order
issued by him from Soignies at 8.30 p.m. on the night
of the 24th assumed that the British army would accept
battle on the line Maubeuge-Bavai-Valenciennes.
Von Kluck was very hopeful. ’The outflanking
of the left of the British Army,’ he says, ’on
the assumption that it remained in position, appeared
to be guaranteed.’ An important air report
which reached him at 1.0 a.m. on the 25th led him
to suspect that the British were withdrawing on Maubeuge.
Speaking of this report, he says: ’Enemy
columns of all arms were in retreat on the roads Bellignies-Bavai,
La Flamengrie-Bavai, and Gommegnies-Bavai.
The direction in which the movement was being made
beyond Bavai had not yet been determined; nevertheless,
the army commander began to suspect that the British
were withdrawing on Maubeuge.’ He sent
out orders in great haste by motor-car for the army
to advance in a more southerly direction. At 9.0
a.m. however, a new air report came as a surprise.
Long British columns of all arms were moving from
Bavai along the Roman road to Le Cateau, and
numerous small columns, single companies, batteries,
squadrons, and cars were crossing the Selle, north
and south of Solesmes. ’The enemy was marching
in an almost opposite direction to what was supposed
earlier in the morning.’ A fresh order was
at once sent out to attack the British and bring them
to a standstill. Von Kluck does not quote these
air reports. But he says enough to show that he
was misled chiefly by his own preconceptions.
Hope told a flattering tale, and he seems to have
been possessed by the idea that the British army would
be tempted into the fortress of Maubeuge.
The whole body of information which
on any one day was obtained from the reconnaissances
of the Royal Flying Corps could be set out in detail
only by quoting all the reports in full. That
would be too cumbrous a method of writing history.
The reports contain much that is comparatively insignificant.
But the reader of this book may desire to know exactly
what an air report is like, and his curiosity shall
be gratified. Here is the report, of no special
tactical significance, but full of incident, of a
long air reconnaissance made by Lieutenant G. F. Pretyman
and Major L. B. Boyd-Moss in a machine of N Squadron,
on the day of the battle of Le Cateau:
No. of Reconnaissance: 57.
Hour Started: 11.10 a.m.
Date: 26.8.1914. Hour Ended:
Aeroplane No.: 387. Pilot:
Lieutenant G. F. Pretyman.
Major L. B. Boyd-Moss.
11.50 Honnechy. Gun-fire
and shells bursting all along
the line from Honnechy
Cambrai. Caudry partly
11.52 Le Cateau. Burning.
Howitzers open fire on us.
Artillery moving through
of Ors. Several
south through Croix.
11.55 Foret de Big column
of troops moving along
Mormal. the road running along
edge of the forest.
Head at Englefontaine-Rear
at point where the
branch road leads off
Artillery moving through
centre of forest towards
12.0 Le Quesnoy. Full
Scattered parties of troops and
wagons on all roads leading
No big columns.
12.15 Blaugies. Blocked
with transport. Dropped
bomb into transport parked
S. of village. Transport
along the road from Dour
to Houdain (not closed
12.40 Wargnies. Can
make very little progress against
12.50 Saultain. Transport
from Saultain to Preseau
12.59 Valenciennes. All
roads leading E.-N.E. and S.E.
1.5 Valenciennes. No
troops visible in town.
and two aeroplanes
close to Valenciennes-Cambrai
road 1-1/2 miles from
Aircraft gun fires on
us from landing-place.
Mechanical transport halted
on road. Squadron
of cavalry in bivouac.
1.15 In clouds-making
very little progress.
1.30 N. of Cambrai. Descend
to 3,000 out of clouds. Troops marching
S.W. down main road.
in flames and occupied by Germans.
1.40 W. of Cambrai. Under
heavy infantry fire. Engine put out of
action by bullet.
Glide two miles farther W.
clear of enemy, and land.
Burn machine and join
French Cavalry retreating
Commandeer two bicycles
and go to Gouzeaucourt
where we get car and report
Brigade near Le Catelet.
to St. Quentin about 11.30 p.m. and
report to General Smith-Dorrien.
L. B. BOYD-MOSS, Major.
The machine, it will be seen, dropped
a bomb on a park of transport vehicles, was fired
at by howitzers, and was brought down by heavy infantry
fire. A more dreaded enemy here makes an early
appearance-the prevailing westerly wind.
This wind was the heaviest trial for pilots during
years on the western front; it made it easy to get
at the enemy and difficult to get away from him; the
road to safety always, while the west wind was blowing,
On this same day-the day
of the battle of Le Cateau-the First Army
Corps under Sir Douglas Haig was delayed, and failed
to reach its appointed position in touch with the
Second Army Corps. Lieutenant A. E. Borton and
Lieutenant F. G. Small were dispatched from headquarters
in a machine of N Squadron to ‘find Sir
Douglas Haig’. With them went Lieutenant
D. S. Lewis in a B.E. machine fitted with wireless
apparatus. He was to report by wireless when
Sir Douglas Haig was found. Lieutenants Borton
and Small in their Henri Farman, being unable to find
a suitable landing-ground in the rear of the First
Army Corps, landed between the firing lines in a field
protected by a rise in the ground from the direct
fire of the enemy. With the aid of a cavalry patrol
they succeeded in delivering their message to Sir
Douglas Haig, after which they returned to their machine,
started up the engine, and flew away in the presence
of two Uhlans, who had just ridden into the field.
Meantime, Lieutenant Lewis, to whom they were unable
to signal, lost touch with them; he circled in the
air for an hour under fire, and returned with one
shell splinter and four bullet-holes in his machine,
and with one of his hands grazed by a bullet.
Captain L. E. O. Charlton was also sent at 11.30 a.m.
to report to General Smith-Dorrien at Bertry.
‘I found him’, he says, ’in considerable
anxiety as to his left about Haucourt and Selvigny.
Having been on that flank at 9.30 a.m., I was able
to reassure him as to its safety, and made another
ascent to confirm my previous reconnaissance.
During the reconnaissance I was able to report that
the enemy had made no progress, though their shell-fire
had increased. I was sent up again to examine
the right about Le Cateau, and on reporting at 2.45
p.m. the General told me that the Fifth Division had
been unable to withstand a most determined artillery
attack, and had come back. He added that he had
no doubt he would succeed in getting them back somehow,
and requested me to inform Sir Archibald Murray.
I left at 3.0 p.m. and reported to General Headquarters
General Smith-Dorrien did succeed
in getting them back. The stand made at Le Cateau
was a great fight against odds; and the part played
in the battle by the Royal Flying Corps seems a little
thing when it is compared with the gallant resistance
of the infantry. But British machines were flying
over the enemy, under fire, within full view of the
British army, and some British officers who took part
in the battle have described how the sight of our
aeroplanes above them raised the spirits of the troops
and gave them a feeling of security.
Copies of the original reports made
out by observers before and during the retreat from
Mons are preserved in the war diary of headquarters,
Royal Flying Corps. It is not possible to say
when each of these reports reached General Headquarters;
they were sent in as soon as possible after the machines
landed-some of them at once by telephone.
When the reports are systematically mapped out, day
by day, they give a fairly accurate picture of the
German advance and throw light on the German plans.
General von Kluck speaks more than once of driving
the British army before him, but the complete map
of the German movements, as they were reported day
by day from the air, shows that his predominant idea
was to envelop them. Always the crab-like claw
is seen extended to the west and beginning to close
in on the line of the British retreat; always the
British army is already at a point farther south on
the line, out of the reach of the claw. When
with swollen and blistered feet and half asleep on
the march, the patient British soldier carried on,
he was doing more to defeat the Germans than he could
have done if his dearest wish had been granted and
he had been allowed to make a desperate stand.
It is a wonderful army that can suffer the long depression
and fatigue of such a retreat and yet keep its fighting
Von Kluck’s advance after the
battle of Le Cateau was directed to the south-west.
Speaking of the situation on the 28th. of August, he
says, ’The occupation of the Somme area marked
the conclusion of the fighting with the British Army
for the time being. In spite of the great efforts
of the First Army the British had escaped the repeated
attempts to envelop them. They continued their
retreat southwards.’ On the same day the
headquarters of the German army propounded a new task.
’The left wing of the main French forces’,
they wrote, ’is retreating in a southerly and
south-westerly direction in front of the victorious
Second and Third Armies. It appears to be of
decisive importance to find the flank of this force,
whether retreating or in position, force it away from
Paris, and outflank it. Compared with this new
objective the attempt to force the British Army away
from the coast is of minor importance.’
The German Supreme Command were giving
most of their attention to the operations on their
left wing, where the Fifth and Sixth German Armies
were converging for the attack on Nancy, which town,
when it fell, was to witness the triumphal entry of
the German Emperor. Meantime, the French, trusting
to the strength of their eastern fortifications, were
rapidly taking troops away from their eastern armies
to form a new French army, the Sixth, which was to
operate to the north of Paris and was to take part
in the counter-offensive against the German First and
Second Armies. This was unknown to the German
Command, who thought that victory lay within the grasp
of their eastern armies.
On the evening of the 30th of August
General von Kluck received wireless messages from
the headquarters of the Second Army reporting a decisive
victory, and asking the First Army to wheel inwards
towards the line La Fere-Laon in order to gain the
full advantages of the victory. General von Kluck
replied that the First Army had wheeled round towards
the Oise and would advance on the 31st by Compiègne
and Noyon to exploit the success of the Second Army.
This was the much-discussed wheeling movement, or
swerve, which was discovered by the British from the
air. Von Kluck had been ordered by the German
Supreme Command on the 28th to continue his march
towards the Lower Seine. Now, in response to von
Buelow’s request, he wheeled his army south-eastwards
towards the Oise. The German Supreme Command
was informed of this, and replied, ’The movement
begun by the First Army is in accordance with the wishes
of the Supreme Command’. The Royal Flying
Corps reports of the 31st of August gave to the British
Command the first intimation of what was happening.
Here is one of them:
Pilot: Lieutenant A. E. Borton.
Captain E. W. Furse.
Hour at which reconnaissance commenced:
9.55 Villeneuve. Motor
9.58 E. Roberval. "
10.2 At Station N. of Motor
T. halted clear of road.
10.6 La Croix. Cavalry
and transport much opened
out, head La Croix.
10.13 Compiègne. Clear.
10:20 Chevincourt. Cavalry
about 1 Bde. moving towards
place. More cavalry
following across fields.
in from Marest road 10.25.
10.26 Mareuil. Cavalry
column still continues-opened
10.27 Lassigny. Artillery
just S. of town moving
south. Column ended
just S. of
Lassigny (1/2 mile).
tail Lassigny, was moving
Also mounted troops.
About one mile N. of
Lassigny mounted troops
and on road from Roye,
right up to Roye.
guns and motor transport.
Parked transport just
N. of Roye.
10.50 Roye. Three
Batteries halted in field 1-1/2 m.
S.E. of Roye. Besides
stretching south to Lassigny,
there was another column
S.E. on Noyon road.
aeroplane on ground S.
10.55 Conchy. Infantry
and guns moving due east
Orvillers. Few troops in village.
11.0 Ressons. Went
up road east of railway. This
11.3 Margny. Squadrons
11.7 Compiègne road Troop
car moving towards Compiègne.
2-1/2 miles S.E. of
at intervals down this
road from Roye.
Just S. of
Estrees a Bde. of
Cav. and one
battery halted clear
Inf. and Transport seen.
Squadron Cav. moving
N. out of
east into Bazicourt
from Rosoy. Inf.
looked in dark
and some moving south.
11.25 Sarron. 2 Regts.
Cav. moving east from
11.27 Pont-St.-Maxence. Motor
Transport. Some halted.
Some going south.
over Oise appeared to
be destroyed. Some barges might
have been sunk in stream at Compiègne.
E. W. FURSE.
It will be seen that Captain E. W.
Furse, when he picked up the enemy, first observed
Marwitz’s cavalry corps which crossed the Oise
at Thourotte on the morning of the 31st. He then
saw part of the German Third Corps, which, after spending
the night in Roye, moved on the 31st through Lassigny,
crossed the Oise at Ribecourt, and in the evening
reached Attichy on the Aisne. The remainder of
the Third Corps moved on Noyon and at night reached
Vic on the Aisne. These movements on Noyon and
Ribecourt differed in direction from the previous movements
of the German left wing.
The reports supplement and confirm
one another. Captain D. Le G. Pitcher, of N Squadron, had gone up with Captain A. H. L. Soames
soon after 7.0 a.m., and had returned at 8.40 a.m.
with the news of a column stretching from Roye to
Chevincourt. This information was at once telephoned
from the aerodrome at Senlis to General Headquarters.
The movements of some of the other formations of the
German First Army were also seen to have changed direction.
Lieutenant C. G. Hosking and Lieutenant K. P. Atkinson
on a B.E. of N Squadron flew over Roye and Lassigny,
confirming the report of movements in that area.
Then turning west they passed over various columns
moving in a southerly direction until they reached
the road that follows along the east bank of the river
Avre from Amiens through Montdidier, and here they
found part of the German Second Corps. The head
of the main body was in Montdidier at 2.0 p.m., and
its tail was in La Neuville. Flying south along
the road they found the advanced guard of the column
at Le Ployron.
All these air reports left little
doubt as to the enemy’s movements, and the operation
orders sent out by General Headquarters from Dammartin-en-Goele
at 8.50 p.m. on the 31st of August gave the information
that the enemy appeared to have completed his westerly
movement, and that large columns were advancing in
a general southerly or south-easterly direction on
Noyon-Compiègne. Sir John French directed that
the retirement should be continued on the following
day in a south-westerly direction.
Air reconnaissances of the 1st
of September, whilst confirming the news of von Kluck’s
wheel in a south-easterly direction, also reported
heavy columns as having reached Villers-Cotterets
and Crepy-en-Valois. To withdraw the British
out of reach of a night attack Sir John French decided
to continue the retreat earlier than he had intended.
The corps commanders were ordered to get clear by
a night march. We know now from von Kluck’s
own statement that, perturbed at leaving the British
army on his flank, he determined to make another effort
to catch them up. He therefore ordered his corps
to turn south to settle with the British. So
on the 1st of September he was again in pursuit of
the British, but the British were slipping from his
grasp. There was fighting on this day, which
held up the pursuit, and by the evening the German
army had made an average advance of no more than ten
Von Kluck persisted on the following
day, but in vain. The British escaped towards
the Marne. ‘A chance of dealing a decisive
blow’, he says, ’against the British Army
was now no longer to be hoped for, and it was therefore
decided to move the two Corps on the left wing, the
Third and Ninth, in the general direction of Chateau-Thierry
against the flank of the French retreating from Braisne-Fismes
on Chateau-Thierry-Dormáns in front of the Second
The air reports which came in on the
3rd of September showed much of this further change
of plan. Long columns were seen marching almost
due east towards the Ourcq and later in the day other
columns were nearing the Marne. Some had already
crossed the Marne at Chateau-Thierry, whilst others
were making for crossings west of that town. At
4.35 p.m. General Headquarters sent out the following
’Present information leads to
the belief that the enemy is moving from west to east
and that no immediate attack is intended. Unless
the situation again changes troops will remain in
their present billets. The Commander-in-Chief
is most anxious that the Army should have a complete
rest to-morrow. No digging or other operations
except those necessary for protection will be undertaken
unless special orders are issued.’
Pilots who went out soon after dawn
on the morning of the 4th found a thick mist over
the river Marne extending to the depth of a mile on
either bank, but various columns were seen stirring
out of bivouacs on the north of the river and there
were other movements well to the south of the river.
At 12.20 p.m. Lieutenant R. P. Mills saw movements
between Bellot and Rebais and artillery in action
on the high ground one mile south-east of Bellot.
In the afternoon there came fuller reports of movements
towards the Petit Morin. The situation as traced
at Royal Flying Corps headquarters on the night of
the 4th from observations made during the day is very
accurate. It shows that the German Ninth Corps,
which had secured the crossings at Chateau-Thierry
on the previous evening, had progressed to near Montmirail;
that the Third and Fourth Corps had got well clear
of the Marne and were about and across the Petit Morin;
and that the Second Corps and Marwitz’s cavalry
were held up at the Marne east of Meaux.
Von Kluck had marched into a bag between
the Fifth French Army on the Marne and the newly formed
Sixth French Army advancing to the Ourcq. Just
at this time the German Supreme Command seems to have
become aware of the danger threatening the German
armies on the right wing. On the night of the
4th of September orders had been sent out from German
First Army headquarters at La Ferte Milon, detailing
the movements to be made on the following day.
These movements had already begun when at 7.15 a.m.
on the 5th fresh instructions arrived from the Supreme
Command ordering the First and Second Armies to remain
facing the eastern front of Paris; the First Army
between the Oise and the Marne, occupying the Marne
crossings west of Chateau-Thierry, and the Second Army
between the Marne and the Seine, occupying the Seine
crossings from Nogent to Mery. This led, says
von Kluck, to ‘the difficult backwards wheel’
of the First Army, and to what he calls ’the
important events that occurred during the second week
of September’-events known to history
as the battle of the Marne. Von Kluck allowed
the original movements ordered for the 5th to be carried
out, and, he says, ’the conclusion of this advance
marked the culminating point of the operations of the
First Army’. On this same day General Joffre
told Sir John French that he intended to take the
offensive forthwith as the conditions seemed favourable,
and on the morning of the 6th this offensive opened.
The main work of the Royal Flying
Corps throughout the days of the retreat was reconnaissance,
and enough has been said of their reports to show
that Sir John French was well served by his new arm.
He had been warned before the battle of Mons, not
only of the heavy movement on his front but of the
enveloping attempt on his flank, and throughout the
retreat he was punctually informed of von Kluck’s
enveloping efforts. The change of direction made
on the 31st of August was immediately seen and reported.
Von Kluck’s renewed pursuit of the British on
the two following days did not escape observation.
Finally, the German swerve to the left on the 3rd
of September was closely followed from the air.
These are the main conclusions that come from a study
of the air reports of those days. General Headquarters
were perhaps at first a little shy of trusting the
air reports, but they realized their value during the
retreat, and paid more and more attention to them-an
attention which found practical results in the operation
orders issued. The Royal Flying Corps played
their part in helping the British army to escape.
Further, they were making themselves, and were improving
in skill every day. The lessons learned on the
retreat from Mons bore their full fruit at a later
period, when the officers of the original squadrons
held the command of those Flying Corps units which
operated in the mobile campaigns of distant theatres
of the war.
Their work during the retreat was
done under difficulties. There were alarms at
Compiègne of Uhlans seen in the vicinity of the aerodrome,
and a guard was provided from the Camerons. Major
B. H. Barrington-Kennett remarks on the difficulty
of defending a Flying Corps camp from attack by cavalry.
It would seem advisable, he says, when camped in an
open aerodrome to park the aeroplanes inside a laager
formed by lorries and cars. The head-lights of
the cars would lighten a good field of fire, and would
probably, if switched on at the approach of cavalry,
cause the horses to stampede. The Royal Flying
Corps, he adds, should be armed and practised with
machine-guns and rifles, so that they may protect
themselves without asking for an escort.
At Juilly on the 1st of September
there was another alarm. The country to the north
was thickly wooded, and German cavalry, which proved
later to be those escaped from the affair at Nery,
were reported within a few miles, with no British
troops between. General Headquarters at Dammartin-en-Goele,
some two miles away, hastily took their departure,
and the Royal Flying Corps transport was sent off at
once to Serris. But the aeroplanes could not
leave, for already it was dark. The suggestion
was made that the aeroplanes should fly off in the
dark, but fortunately, says Major C. J. Burke, this
was not attempted. The Flying Corps stood to
arms to defend itself. A sunken road running east
and west past the aerodrome was occupied, rifles and
ammunition were served out to the mechanics, and machine-guns
were set in position. After a time a troop of
North Irish Horse arrived, to aid in the defence.
All night watch was kept, but the German cavalry did
not appear. In the morning, for the first time
since the beginning of the retreat, there was no ground
mist, and the machines got away at once.
The history of the retreat is made
up of incidents like this. Some of the flying
officers have kindly communicated their memories and
impressions. ‘The extraordinary part about
the retreat’, says Wing Commander P. B. Joubert
de la Ferte, ’was the contrasts that one experienced
from day to day; one night sleeping under a hedge in
a thunder-storm; the next in a comfortable private
house; the third in the most modern type of hotel
with every luxury and convenience, the whole forming
a picture the impression of which has lasted throughout
the war.... One curious thing was, unless one
was brought down or left behind near the firing line
one never came up against the actual unpleasantnesses
of war, and it was not until the advance to the Aisne
started that those of us who had not been on ground
duty, or unlucky, saw any signs of fighting other
than from the air. What we saw during the advance
confirmed our impressions from the air as to the unspeakableness
of the Hun in his methods of dealing with the civilian
population. I saw half a dozen villages on fire
during the first day of the battle, twenty miles west
of Mons, where by no possible means could there have
been any armed resistance to the passage of the Huns.
It was simply frightfulness on the part of the Uhlans,
and what we saw later on the ground at Pezarches,
Coulommiers, and La Fere was a clear indication
of wilful and unnecessary destruction of private property.
The sight of a draper’s shop with every window
smashed, every shelf emptied, and the contents thrown
into the street was quite a common one.’
Major F. G. Small says, speaking of
the 27th of August: ’The retreat continued
to Compiègne Forest, Huns pressing our troops all the
while. On returning from late reconnaissances
in the dusk, it was most interesting to watch the
local fighting in the roads between their vanguards
and our rearguards. The spreading of fires all
over the country around Compiègne Forest was a more
curious sight than even the later trench offensive,
the fires spreading like long flaming worms along
the main road, as the Huns fired each village they
went through. The northern portion of Compiègne
Forest was blazing at this date.’
The speed of the retreat caused some
embarrassments. On the 31st of August, while
the Flying Corps occupied Senlis racecourse, two officers,
belonging to Nos. 4 and 5 Squadrons, motored to
Paris to get some aircraft spares, and returning in
the evening found the Germans in occupation.
In the dusk they were mistaken for German officers
and drove their car right up to the cottages which
a few hours earlier had been the headquarters of the
Flying Corps. Aviation teaches quick resource;
the officers managed to escape.
The pilots were not down-hearted.
At Compiègne, where they were billeted in a school,
Major Baring records that they were in tearing spirits.
Besides their main duty of observation from the air,
they rendered other occasional services. ‘The
usual orders on the retreat’, says Wing Commander
L. A. Strange, ’were dawn reconnaissances,
dropping hand-grenades and petrol bombs on the enemy,
and when it was impossible to notify pilots of the
next aerodrome, the orders were to fly approximately
twenty miles south and look out for the remainder of
the machines on the ground, if machines had left the
During the retreat the dropping of
bombs was still in an early experimental stage.
There were some mildly successful exploits. About
dusk on the 1st of September an unnamed officer of
the Flying Corps, flying over the woods north of Villers-Cotterets,
noticed two columns of the enemy’s cavalry converging
at the angle of cross-roads. He dropped two bombs,
which caused confusion and a stampede. There was
no bomb-dropping gear in use at this time, but small
hand-grenades were carried in the pockets, and larger
bombs were slung or tied about the person. The
first experience of German bombs was at Compiègne on
the 29th of August; while the Flying Corps were stationed
there a German machine flew over the aerodrome and
dropped three small bombs, which did no harm.
On our side there was no time during the retreat for
experiment with new devices; it was not until the
Germans took up fixed positions on the Aisne that
the inventive powers of the Flying Corps got to work
on the devising of bombing gear, the improving of artillery
observation, and the mounting of machine-guns.
The retreat also witnessed the beginnings
of fighting in the air. The first German machine
to be seen by the British appeared over the aerodrome
at Maubeuge on the 22nd of August. There are various
accounts of this. Major C. J. Burke in his diary
says: ’At about 2.25 p.m. an Albatross
biplane passed over the town. Major Longcroft
with Captain Dawes as passenger, Lieutenant Dawes
with Major Burke as passenger, on B.E.’s, gave
chase. The gun machine piloted by Lieutenant Strange
also went out. The machine (Albatross) had far
too long a start, and got into a rain cloud.’
Wing Commander L. A. Strange says: ’Chased
a German Albatross machine for forty-five minutes,
Lieutenant Penn-Gaskell observer, with Lewis gun.
Was unable to get higher than 3,500 feet, while the
Albatross was at about 5,000 feet. Observed no
effect from the fire. As a result of this received
orders to discard Lewis gun and mounting, and transfer
the controls from rear seat to the front seat, the
passenger to carry rifle in the back seat.’
Major J. T. B. McCudden says: ’About the
22nd August a strange aeroplane flew over us at about
4,000 feet, and the aerodrome look-out reported it
to be a German machine, the first we had seen in the
War. We all turned out armed with rifles, and
about six machines got ready to go up in pursuit....
All the machines which went up were loaded with hand-grenades,
as the intention then was to bring a hostile aeroplane
down by dropping bombs on it. The German easily
got away, although it looked at one time as if Captain
Longcroft would be able to intercept him on a B. a. About half an hour after the German had
departed a Henri Farman of N Squadron, fitted
with a machine-gun, was still climbing steadily over
the aerodrome at about 1,000 feet in a strenuous endeavour
to catch the Boche.’
N Squadron from the first had
been zealous in experimenting with machine-guns.
Experience of fighting in the air, which began with
this adventure, soon taught how enormous is the advantage,
whether for attack or escape, given by superiority
It was not, however, until the 25th
of August that an enemy machine was brought down by
a British aeroplane. Sir John French in his first
dispatch, dated the 7th of September 1914, alludes
to the earliest combats. His tribute must be
quoted in full: ’I wish particularly to
bring to your Lordships’ notice the admirable
work done by the Royal Flying Corps under Sir David
Henderson. Their skill, energy, and perseverance
have been beyond all praise. They have furnished
me with the most complete and accurate information,
which has been of incalculable value in the conduct
of operations. Fired at constantly both by friend
and foe, and not hesitating to fly in every kind of
weather, they have remained undaunted throughout.
Further, by actually fighting in the air, they have
succeeded in destroying five of the enemy’s
Unfortunately during the retreat combat
reports were not made out, so that there is no account
in the war diaries of the actual fighting. Some
of the fights are mentioned. On the 25th of August
three machines of N Squadron chased an enemy monoplane.
It was forced to land; Lieutenant H. D. Harvey-Kelly
and Lieutenant W. H. C. Mansfield landed near it and
continued the chase on foot, but the Germans escaped
into a wood. When some trophies had been taken
from the machine it was burnt. Another German
machine was forced to descend on the same day near
Le Quesnoy, where it was captured. Aeroplanes
at this time had no special armament; officers carried
revolvers and sometimes a carbine; but the confidence
and determination with which they attacked did the
work of a machine-gun, and brought the enemy down.
In one instance, a little later on, a British pilot
and observer, who were destitute of ammunition, succeeded
by manoeuvring boldly above a German machine in bringing
it to the ground and taking it captive.
On the afternoon of the 5th of September
neither the German Supreme Command (which had its
headquarters at Luxembourg) nor the staff of the German
First Army had any idea that an offensive of the whole
French army was imminent. The Supreme Command
was expecting a decisive victory in the east against
the Verdun-Nancy-St.-Die defences. They believed
that the German First and Second Armies could easily
hold the weak French forces around Paris until this
decision should be achieved, and they did not know
how great a part of the French strength had been transferred
from the east to the west. From the 5th to the
9th of September they issued no orders to their First
and Second Armies, who were left to fight out the
decisive battle of the war, without their help and
almost without their knowledge, against superior forces.
General Joffre’s ‘Instruction’
for the offensive on the 6th was brought to British
General Headquarters by a French staff officer at 3
a.m. on the morning of the 5th. Unfortunately,
orders to the British army to continue the retreat
in accordance with General Joffre’s previous
instructions had already been given to the corps commanders.
The Second Corps had moved off before midnight and
the First and Third Corps a little later. Consequently
the British army by the end of the day was some twelve
to fifteen miles farther back than the French Commander-in-Chief
expected, and although its subsequent advance across
the Marne had a decisive effect, the hard fighting
of the battle was borne by the French army on the
Ourcq. During the 5th, General Maunoury, commanding
the Sixth French Army on the British left, and later
on General Joffre himself, visited Sir John French,
and all arrangements for the morrow’s offensive
were discussed. Sir John French’s operation
orders issued at 5.15 p.m. on the 5th of September
directed the army to advance eastward with a view
to attacking. The preliminary movement of the
British army, a wheel to the east, pivoting on its
right, was to be completed by the right wing at 9
a.m. and by the left wing at 10 a.m. on the 6th.
On the early morning of the 6th Sir
John French gave verbal instructions that the Royal
Flying Corps were to send aeroplanes to report for
reconnaissance direct to the First and Second Corps.
The officer commanding N Squadron, with three
machines, was to report for tactical reconnaissance
direct to Sir Douglas Haig at Chaubuisson farm, one
and a half miles east of Fontenay; and the officer
commanding N Squadron, also with three machines,
was to report direct to Sir Horace Smith-Dorrien at
Combreux Chateau, near Tournan. With each detachment
was to go a wireless aeroplane from N Squadron
to keep Royal Flying Corps headquarters informed by
wireless. The machines were to return to headquarters
at night. This was the beginning of the decentralization
of the Royal Flying Corps, whereby certain squadrons,
which came to be called corps squadrons, were attached
to the corps commands. The German air service
from the beginning had been thus organized. With
the German First Army headquarters there was one aeroplane
section for long-distance strategic reconnaissance
and each of the corps, with the exception of the Fourth
Reserve Corps, had its own section for tactical work.
From Maubeuge to the Marne the squadrons of the Royal
Flying Corps had been kept together under the immediate
control of General Henderson. The experiment
of detaching machines to report direct to the First
and Second Corps worked well on the 6th of September,
and Sir John French gave orders that this arrangement
was to continue.
Aeroplanes which were sent out on
the morning of the 6th brought information of confused
movements of the German First Army. On the British
front a certain amount of movement northwards was seen
in the afternoon. Of the progress of the battle
on his flanks Sir John French had little knowledge.
Aeroplanes were sent up to reconnoitre the position.
One which flew over the area of the Sixth French Army
west of the Ourcq saw at about five o’clock
a good deal of movement and shells bursting in the
area Etavigny-Marcilly-May-en-Multien. Another
machine which flew along the line of the Fifth French
Army on the British right came back with the information
that at four o’clock fighting was going on south
of Esternay and north of Villiers-St.-Georges.
By seven o’clock that evening Sir John French
had no definite news of the progress of the French
armies on his wings save what was contained in these
air reports, and the orders which he issued stated
simply that all troops should be ready to move at
any time after 8.0 a.m. on the morrow.
Early on the 7th the situation became
clearer; a general retirement of the Germans on the
British front was in progress. Sir John French
had issued orders at 8.0 a.m. for the advance to be
continued in the direction of Rebais, the army to
move in echelon from the right and to attack the enemy
wherever met. Aeroplanes on morning reconnaissance
returned soon after the army began to move with information
of early activity behind the German lines and general
movement northwards. Later in the morning columns
were seen moving in a north-westerly direction towards
the Ourcq. These reconnaissances seemed
to show that von Kluck was hurriedly withdrawing two
of his corps-the Second and the Fourth-to
reinforce his right wing across the Ourcq.
Early reconnaissances on the
8th told of congested movement over the bridge at
La Ferte-sous-Jouarre, south of which masses of
troops were awaiting their turn to cross. But
the British advance was necessarily slow. The
country was well suited to rearguard actions and skilful
use was made of the ground by the German machine-gunners.
By the evening the British had forced the passage
of the Petit Morin, but they spent the night south
of the Marne. Meantime, as air reports showed,
von Kluck’s right was heavily engaged by Maunoury’s
Sixth Army to the west of the Ourcq. On the night
of the 8th General Joffre, taking advantage of the
withdrawal of the two German corps from the British
front, ordered that Maunoury’s army should hold
the enemy troops on the right bank of the Ourcq, whilst
the British on the following day should advance across
the Marne between Nogent l’Artaud and La Ferte-sous-Jouarre
against the left and rear of the enemy on the Ourcq.
The Marne with its steep wooded sides was well suited
to rearguard actions and a stubborn resistance was
expected. But air observers who came in early
on the morning of the 9th brought back the news of
enemy columns formed up facing in a northerly direction.
Some were already on the move, and it became apparent
that the enemy intended no determined, but only a
delaying stand on the Marne.
Captain D. Le G. Pitcher, piloted
by Lieutenant G. W. Mapplebeck, whilst reconnoitring
near Chateau-Thierry about 12.45 p.m. saw large bodies
of enemy troops in the neighbourhood of Chateau-Thierry
and infantry moving on Domptin. This position
was west of the British Third Infantry Brigade, and
the whole of the First Corps was ordered to halt until
the situation should be cleared up. The First
Corps did not move forward again until 3.0 p.m.
By the evening of the 9th the First and Second Corps
were across the Marne, but the Third Corps on the left
had been held up and was mostly south of the river.
General Maunoury had had a hard fight, but by the
late afternoon the Germans, pressed by the advance
of the British across the Marne, had begun to retire
in a north-easterly direction. Captain R. A.
Boger, piloted by Captain R. Grey, brought this welcome
news direct to the General Officer Commanding the
Third Corps (Lieutenant-General W. P. Pulteney) at
5.0 p.m. He had seen long columns moving north-east
from Lizy through Ocquerre on to Coulombs.
This was believed to be von Kluck’s Fifth Division.
Other observers came in with similar information.
By the evening of the 9th the retirement of the enemy
was general from the Ourcq to Verdun. The battle
of the Marne was won. The German armies retired,
with no very great disorder, to strong positions along
the heights of the northern bank of the river Aisne.
Paris was saved; for the first time for over a hundred
years an invading Prussian army had been turned and
driven back; but the war was yet to come.
During the battle the Royal Flying
Corps had been active over the enemy, and, as has
been shown, reported his movements fully day by day.
The machines which worked direct with the corps had
supplied much useful tactical information, which was
passed on direct to the corps commanders as soon as
the machines landed. The observers usually reported
by word of mouth, and so were able to convey a full
and true impression. They reported which river-bridges
were broken and which intact, and they dropped messages
on to the advanced British infantry in places, warning
them of danger ahead. They sometimes located for
corps commanders the head of the leading troops of
their corps. After a three days’ stay at
Melun, the headquarters of the Flying Corps moved on
the 7th of September to Touquin-the first
move forward since the retreat from Mons. At
Pezarches, about a mile away, a field was chosen for
an aerodrome. Fighting had taken place there,
and small one-man trenches had to be filled in before
any machine could land. On the 9th of September
headquarters moved forward again to Coulommiers,
and on the 12th to Fere-en-Tardenois, which place
became the headquarters for the battle of the Aisne.
Here the squadrons were established at Saponay, some
two miles to the north-west. For many long months
and years the Flying Corps was not again to be employed
in a war of movement against a powerful European army,
so that the work they did from the time when they
arrived at Maubeuge to the time when they settled at
Fere-en-Tardenois has a unique value. The French
Commander-in-Chief paid tribute to their skill.
His message ran: ’Please express most particularly
to Marshal French my thanks for the services rendered
to us every day by the English Flying Corps.
The precision, exactitude, and regularity of the news
brought in by them are evidence of their perfect organization
and also of the perfect training of pilots and observers.’
The weather during the early part
of the Marne battle had been excellent for flying.
The air had been still and the heat tropical.
On the 9th of September, the critical day of the battle,
the weather broke, and for the next few days there
were violent storms and heavy rains which greatly
impeded air work of any sort. The worst of these
storms occurred on the night of the 12th of September,
when the squadrons had newly arrived at Saponay.
Four machines of N Squadron were completely wrecked,
and others damaged. Lieutenant L. A. Strange saved
his Henri Farman machine, which had made a forced
landing, by pushing it up against a haystack, laying
a ladder over the front skids, and piling large paving-stones
on the ladder, using hay twisted into ropes for tying
down the machine. A diary of N Squadron records
that when the machines of that squadron arrived at
Saponay, about five hours before the transport, ’a
terrible storm was raging, and before anything could
be done to make the machines more secure the wind shifted,
and about half the total number of machines were over
on their backs. One Henri Farman went up about
thirty feet in the air and crashed on top of another
Henri Farman in a hopeless tangle. B.E.’s
of N Squadron were blowing across the aerodrome,
and when daylight arrived and the storm abated, the
aerodrome presented a pitiful sight. The Royal
Flying Corps in the field had probably not more than
ten machines serviceable that morning.... Hangars
were not yet issued.’ The protection of
machines from accidents like this became comparatively
easy when the line of battle was stabilized and fixed
aérodromes were made.
On Sunday, the 13th of September,
the Allied armies had crossed the Aisne, but were
held up by the enemy line of defence which, ran along
the heights from east of Compiègne to north of Rheims.
There was dogged fighting, with attacks and counter-attacks,
but little or no progress was made. The Germans
had regained the initiative, and the British army
was forced to dig itself in along the line of battle.
On the 18th of September General Joffre changed his
plans and began to push forces up on the Allied left
in order to envelop the German right flank. To
give this movement a chance the enemy had to be held
on the front, and the cavalry were called on to take
their turn in the trenches-a duty which
before long became very familiar to them. But
the Germans extended and reinforced their line for
a similar outflanking movement. These enveloping
attempts did not cease until the opposing armies were
ranged along a line of trenches stretching from the
Swiss frontier to the coast of Belgium.
During the battle of the Aisne, from
the 12th to the 15th of September, the British forced
the passage of the river and captured the Aisne heights
including the Chemin des Dames.
Thereafter fighting degenerated into a sullen trench
warfare, culminating on the 26th of September and
the two following days in a series of fierce attacks
by the Germans. These attacks were repulsed and
were not again renewed.
On the 12th of September Lieutenant
L. Dawes and Lieutenant W. R. Freeman, of N Squadron,
had a notable adventure. They left in the morning
to carry out an aerial reconnaissance to St.-Quentin.
A little south of Anizy-lé-Chateau, between
Soissons and Laon, their machine began to rock and
vibrate in the air, as if the tail were loose.
They planed down at once, and landed in a small field,
finishing up in a wood, where they damaged their undercarriage,
wings, and airscrew. Large German columns were
on the roads on both sides of them, within about two
hundred yards. Taking only a biscuit and some
tubes of beef extract with them, they hid in another
wood close by. Some German cavalry came up to
the machine, and then went all round the first wood,
but found nothing, and after an hour and a half went
away. The two officers lay hid until the evening,
and then started in the direction of the Aisne, some
eight miles distant. During the night they passed
several German pickets, but the war was young, the
spirit of exhilaration still prevailed in the German
army, and the pickets were making so much noise that
they passed unobserved. At 3.0 in the morning
they reached the Aisne, where they lay down and slept.
At 6.0 they were wakened by the firing of a gun close
by, and realized that they were in front of the German
position. German cavalry patrolled the road in
front of them, and they were under heavy shell-fire
from the British. They swam the Aisne, dried their
clothes in a house by the canal, and then walked to
the British guns, which were still in action.
They were given food by the Third Cavalry Brigade,
and were taken back on a supply column to rejoin their
squadron after an absence of more than two days.
It might be supposed that their troubles were now
at an end, but they had yet to face their squadron
commander, Major Burke, who sternly rebuked them for
violating the order that no two pilots should fly
together in the same machine.
The work of observation now entered
a new phase. When armies are in fixed positions
movement behind the front and along the lines of communication
does not greatly vary from day to day. The Flying
Corps were employed to map out the enemy’s chief
railheads, his aérodromes (which were surprisingly
numerous), his camps, and his dumps. They began
also to observe the positions of enemy batteries in
order to range them for our own artillery, and they
made some attempts to take photographs from the air
of the enemy trenches and lines of communication.
Maubeuge had fallen on the 7th of
September and, in addition to the Seventh Reserve
Corps and other troops, the siege artillery which had
been used to reduce Maubeuge was brought down to the
Aisne, and the British guns were outranged and outnumbered.
The spotting of hostile batteries became an operation
of the first importance, and the Flying Corps quickly
rose to its opportunities. When trench warfare
began, the aeroplanes attached to corps commands took
up artillery officers daily from each division over
the German batteries. The positions of these
batteries were noted on maps, and the maps were sent
in every day to the divisional artillery commander,
who allotted the targets to his batteries. When
any part of the British lines was shelled, information
was obtained from the air and orders were given to
those of our batteries which could best reply, to
concentrate on the enemy’s guns. The wireless
machines of N Squadron had been attached to the
army corps direct during the battle of the Marne,
but their opportunities had been few. On the
Aisne they were first used to observe for the artillery.
Two pioneers of wireless telegraphy are associated
in work and in memory with these early attempts at
wireless co-operation with the artillery-Lieutenants
Lewis and James. Donald Swain Lewis had joined
the Royal Engineers in 1904, and, after qualifying
as a pilot in May 1912, had transferred to the Royal
Flying Corps in December 1913. By example and
precept he had done all that he could before the war
to adapt wireless telegraphy to the uses of the Flying
Corps and to convince others of its necessity.
Before the battle of the Aisne ended he had won his
victory. He was in the habit of going out alone
in a B.E. machine, piloting the machine and operating
the wireless at the same time. A brother-officer
noted of him in a diary: ’Lewis, R.E., came
in from spotting with his machine shot full of holes;
I believe he likes it!’ Later on in the war,
at home and in the field, he continued his work.
In April 1915 he was appointed to command N Squadron,
in succession to Major J. M. Salmond, and did much
to maintain and advance the great reputation of that
pioneer among squadrons. After a spell at home
during the winter of 1915-16, he returned to France
in February 1916, to command the Second Wing, co-operating
with the Second Army in the Ypres salient. By
this time he held the rank of lieutenant-colonel,
but he continued to fly over the enemy lines.
On the 10th of April 1916, flying a Moräne parasol,
east of Wytschaete, with Captain A. W. Gale, an officer
of the Trench Mortars, as passenger, he was brought
down by a direct hit from the enemy’s anti-aircraft
guns. He had been showing Captain Gale some of
the objectives on which the trench mortar fire had
been directed during the week, and was killed in action
while he was carrying out the duties of that artillery
observation which he had done so much to perfect.
Baron Trevenen James had been a mathematical
scholar and head of his House at Harrow; in 1907 he
passed into Woolwich, and two years later was commissioned
in the Royal Engineers. He was early interested
in aviation; in June 1912, after only three days’
practice, he obtained the Royal Aero Club certificate
at Hendon, flying a Howard Wright biplane. In
April 1913 he joined the Military Wing of the Royal
Flying Corps, and was at once employed in carrying
out experiments with wireless. In December 1913
he was joined by Lieutenant Lewis, and the two became
famous for the theory and practice of their craft.
On the outbreak of war Lieutenant James was attached
to N Squadron for wireless duties; when in September
1914 the headquarters wireless telegraphy unit was
formed, under the command of Major H. Musgrave, at
Fere-en-Tardenois, Lieutenant James was attached to
it, and shared with Lieutenant Lewis the duty of reporting
by wireless over the fire of the enemy guns. Like
Lieutenant Lewis, he was subsequently killed in the
air. On the 13th of July 1915 his commanding
officer reports: ’He was observing from
the aeroplane alone, as he generally did. He
was ranging a battery, and was being heavily shelled.
His machine was hit by a shell, and was seen to dive
to the ground from a great height. The Germans
dropped a note from one of their machines saying that
he was dead when he fell.... He met the end I
am sure he would have wished for-if it had
to be-suddenly, alone, and doing his duty.’
These two, then, Lieutenants Lewis
and James, had been untiring in their enthusiasm and
perseverance during the years before the war.
On the Aisne their reward was granted them. ‘I
wish to express’, says General Sir Horace Smith-Dorrien
in a telegram dated the 27th of September 1914, ’my
great admiration for the splendid work the Royal Flying
Corps is doing for my Corps from day to day.
Nothing prevents them from obtaining the required
information, and they frequently return with rifle
or shrapnel bullets through their aeroplane or even
their clothing, without considering such, to them,
ordinary incidents as worth mentioning. To-day
I watched for a long time an aeroplane observing for
the six-inch howitzers for the Third Division.
It was, at times, smothered with hostile anti-aircraft
guns, but, nothing daunted, it continued for hours
through a wireless installation to observe the fire
and indeed to control the Battery with most satisfactory
results. I am not mentioning names, as to do
so, where all are daily showing such heroic and efficient
work, would be invidious.’ Lieutenants Lewis
and James are now beyond the voices of envy, and their
names may fitly be recorded in the memory of their
One of the earliest of the messages
sent down by wireless from the air is dated the 24th
of September 1914. It is worthy of full quotation:
4.2 p.m. A very little short.
4.4 p.m. Fire again. Fire again.
4.12 p.m. A little short; line O.K.
4.15 p.m. Short. Over, over and a little
4.20 p.m. You were just between two batteries.
hundred yards each side of your last
4.22 p.m. You have them.
4.26 p.m. Hit. Hit. Hit.
4.32 p.m. About 50 yards short and to the
4.37 p.m. Your last shot in the middle of
3 batteries in action;
search all round within 300 yards of
shot and you have them.
4.42 p.m. I am coming home now.
The later signals directing artillery
fire were not so full of colour as these early messages.
They consisted of code letters. The clock code
for signalling the results of artillery fire was first
used in 1915 and afterwards generally throughout the
war. The target was taken as the centre of a
clock and imaginary lines were circumscribed around
it at distances of 10, 25, 50, 100, 200, 300, 400,
and 500 yards. These lines were lettered Y, Z,
A, B, C, D, E, F, respectively. Twelve o’clock
was always taken as true north from the target and
the remaining hours accordingly. An observer
noted the fall of the rounds with reference to the
imaginary circles and clock-hours and signalled the
result, for instance, as Y 4, or C 6. A direct
hit was O.K, and there were other signals. Messages
from the battery or any other ground station were
signalled to the observer in the aeroplane by means
of white strips which were laid out on the ground
to form the letters of a code.
During the battle of the Aisne, the
wireless machines were few in number and other methods
of signalling were mostly in use. On the 15th
of September Captain L. E. O. Charlton fired Very
lights over enemy guns previously observed. On
the 24th of September ’Lieutenant Allen and two
others with aeroplanes indicated targets and observed
fire, communication being by flash signals’.
Sometimes the pilots returned and landed to report
on gun positions. But when once the gunners had
profited by the superior accuracy and speed of report
by wireless, they were hungry for more machines.
On the 23rd of September the commander of the Second
Corps telegraphed to General Headquarters: ’I
hope that you will be able to spare the wireless aeroplane
and receiving set to Third Division again to-morrow.
The results were so good yesterday that it seems a
pity not to keep it with the Division, which has got
accustomed to its uses and is in a position to benefit
even more largely by the experience gained.’
The answer was that the machine had been damaged by
anti-aircraft fire, but would be ready again shortly.
A wireless aeroplane was as popular as an opera-singer,
and the headquarters wireless section soon developed
into N Squadron of the Royal Flying Corps.
The attitude of the gunners may be well seen in an
entry made in the war diary of N Siege Battery,
dated the 23rd of January 1915-’Airman’
(Captain Cherry) ’reported for co-operation (lamp
The photography was a mere beginning.
On the 15th of September Lieutenant G. F. Pretyman
took five photographs of the enemy positions; these
were developed later on the ground, and were the forerunners
of that immense photographic map of the western front
in thousands of sections, constantly renewed and corrected,
which played so great a part in the later stages of
the war. Some other experiments had no later
history. Steel darts called ‘fléchettes’,
about five inches long and three-eighths of an inch
in diameter, were dropped over enemy horse-lines and
troops by N Squadron. A canister holding about
250 of these darts was fixed under the fuselage; by
the pulling of a wire the bottom of the tin was opened
and the darts were released. To do any harm these
darts had to score a direct hit on some living object,
so that a whole canister of them was probably a less
formidable weapon than a bomb. Even on a battle-field
life is sparsely distributed on the ground.
There was hardly any fighting in the
air during the battle of the Aisne, and reconnaissance
machines were not attacked by other aeroplanes.
They were fired at from the ground by anti-aircraft
artillery. The anti-aircraft guns got their name
of ‘Archies’ from a light-hearted British
pilot, who when he was fired at in the air quoted a
popular music-hall refrain-’Archibald,
certainly not!’ The Germans used kite balloons
for observation. In the attempt to drop a bomb
on one of these Lieutenant G. W. Mapplebeck was attacked,
on the 22nd of September, by a German Albatross, and
was wounded in the leg. He was the first of our
pilots to be wounded in the air from an enemy aeroplane-a
long list it was to be.
The Royal Flying Corps were few indeed
in comparison with the air forces opposed to them,
but they were full of zeal and initiative. On
the 19th of September they received a valued compliment
from the French General Staff, who asked the British
Commander-in-Chief to permit them to carry out reconnaissances
along the front of the Fifth French Army. This
was already being done, but Sir David Henderson promised
to take measures to make the reconnaissance more complete.
In the battle of the Aisne the British
forces were co-operating with General Maunoury’s
Sixth French Army on their left. The so-called
race for the sea was, in fact, a race for the flank
of the opposing army. On the 20th of September
De Castelnau’s army formed up on the left of
Maunoury and at first made some progress, but was pushed
back by the reinforced army of General von Buelow,
and was held on a line extending from Ribecourt on
the Oise to Albert. On the 30th of September General
Maud’huy’s army came into position on the
left of De Castelnau, along a line extending from
Albert to Lens, while at the same time cavalry and
territorials occupied Lille and Douai on the German
right. This army in its turn was opposed by the
German Sixth Army sent up from Metz, which pushed
the French behind Arras, occupied Lens and Douai, and
began to shell Lille. General Maud’huy
could do no more than fight to hold his ground till
another army should come to his relief on his left.
For this purpose the British army was shifted from
the Aisne to its natural position in defence of the
Channel ports, and came into action along a line extending
northwards from La Bassee. The actual line was
fixed by a series of fierce engagements culminating
in the battles of Ypres, 1914.
The Allied plan was to hold the French
and Belgian coast and to take the offensive in the
north. With this purpose in view the Seventh Division
of the British army and the Third Cavalry Division,
both of which came under the command of Sir Henry
Rawlinson, were disembarked, from the 6th of October
onward, at Zeebrugge and Ostend. But Antwerp was
taken by the Germans on the 9th of October, and the
first business of this famous force was to cover the
Belgian retreat along the coast. The German Fourth
Army was being rapidly pushed forward into Belgium;
Lille capitulated on the 13th of October; Zeebrugge
and Ostend were occupied by the Germans on the 15th.
Still the idea of a counter-offensive was not abandoned,
and the works and defences of Zeebrugge were left intact
in the hope of its speedy recapture. On the night
of the 1st of October the British army had begun to
move northwards from the Aisne. By the 9th of
October the British Second Corps had detrained at Abbeville
and received orders to march on Bethune; on the 12th
the Third Corps began detraining and concentrating
at St.-Omer and Hazebrouck, and subsequently moved
up to Bailleul and Armentieres. A week later,
on the 19th, the First Corps under Sir Douglas Haig
detrained at Hazebrouck and moved on Ypres. General
Headquarters left Fere-en-Tardenois on the 8th of
October and after a five-days’ stay at Abbeville
established themselves at St.-Omer.
The Royal Flying Corps had moved north
with the British Expeditionary Force, from Fere-en-Tardenois
by way of Abbeville, to St.-Omer, where they were
established by the 12th of October. N Squadron
remained behind for a few days, to carry on with Sir
Douglas Haig’s corps on the Aisne, but joined
up at St.-Omer on the 17th of October. In addition
to the four original squadrons, N Squadron, newly
arrived from England under Major J. H. W. Becke, came
under Brigadier-General Henderson’s orders on
the 16th of October. This squadron had been stationed
at South Farnborough as a reserve for the squadrons
in the field. When General Rawlinson’s
force was sent to Ostend, to attempt the relief of
Antwerp, Lord Kitchener said, ‘I want a squadron
to go with it’. He ordered that N Squadron
should be ready in forty-eight hours. The squadron
was hastily completed; some pilots and machines were
obtained from the Central Flying School; some machines
were bought from private firms; equipment, tools,
and the like were collected at night; and on the 7th
of October the squadron flew to Bruges and began at
once to carry out reconnaissances. On the
following day they flew to Ostend, and, their transport
having arrived, were concentrated on the racecourse.
Five days later they retired to Dunkirk, and by the
16th of October were established at Poperinghe, where
they came under the orders of headquarters at St.-Omer.
A good deal of reconnaissance was
carried on by the squadrons during the northward move
of the army. On the 29th of September unusual
and heavy movement in a northerly and north-westerly
direction had been observed behind the enemy lines
on the Aisne. On the 1st of October air reconnaissances
showed that the trenches in front of the British First
Army Corps were unoccupied or very lightly held, and
during the next few days there were many indications
that one or two German army corps were being withdrawn
to the north. Meantime the enemy took more trouble
than usual to interfere with our aircraft, and employed
an increased number of anti-aircraft guns. In
the north our strategic reconnaissances were
not so successful, and the formidable enemy movement
against the Ypres line developed undetected.
Not many aeroplanes were available at this time for
the wider sort of strategic reconnaissance. Nos.
2, 3, and 5 Squadrons had been attached, by an order
issued on the 1st of October, to the First, Second,
and Third Army Corps respectively, while N Squadron
was detailed for strategical reconnaissance. The
General Officers Commanding army corps had learned
the value of aeroplanes and demanded their assistance.
Much of the country over which they were operating
in Northern France and Flanders was flat and enclosed,
unsuitable either way for cavalry reconnaissance.
Long-distance work was done chiefly
from headquarters. On the 3rd of October, when
the situation at Antwerp had become critical, Lieutenant-Colonel
F. H. Sykes flew direct to Bruges from Fere-en-Tardenois,
with a message from Sir John French to the Belgian
Chief of Staff at Antwerp. On the following day
he returned and reported that the Germans had broken
through the south-eastern sector of the outer defences
of Antwerp, that the Belgians were awaiting help, and
that they might possibly hold out for two or three
weeks. In forwarding the report to Lord Kitchener
Sir John French adds, ’The relief of Antwerp
I regard as my first objective’. This mission
was followed by others, and a few days later Sir John
French speaks of reports which he is receiving daily
by air from General Rawlinson.
Meantime a squadron of the Royal Naval
Air Service, as shall be told in the next chapter,
had been operating for some weeks from Ostend and
Dunkirk with French territorial forces. The French
territorials were hastily embodied troops taken
from civilian life and were not of much use for a
fight against odds. When the Seventh Division
was landed at Ostend and Zeebrugge during the first
week of October, and the improvised British Naval
Division arrived at Antwerp, the situation was already
out of hand. The British army was small; it had
helped to save Paris, and now paid the price in the
loss of the Belgian coast. The Seventh Division
occupied Ghent, and after covering the retreat of the
Belgian army, which halted along the line of the Yser,
from Dixmude to Nieuport, fell back by way of Roulers
to a position east of Ypres. When the whole British
force came into line, it held a front of some thirty-five
miles, with Maud’huy’s Tenth French Army
on its right across the Bethune-Lille road. On
its left the line was held, from a point north of
Ypres to the sea, by the Belgian army, assisted by
four French cavalry divisions under General De Mitry.
The German army had failed to take
Paris; all its efforts were now concentrated on the
seizure of the Channel ports, and its pressure on
the defending line was like the pressure of a great
rising head of waters against the gates of a lock.
The glory of the defence belongs to the infantry.
The men who flew above them could only watch them and
help them with eyes. The infantry were often
unconscious of this help; they disliked seeing hostile
observers above them and often fired on aeroplanes
with very little distinction made between friends and
foes. On the 26th of October Major G. H. Raleigh,
of N Squadron, reports an artillery reconnaissance
as follows: ’Hosking and Crean did a tactical
reconnaissance early, but were unable to locate batteries
owing to clouds. They went up later and did it.
The clouds were low, so it was arranged that they
should fly over one of our batteries to observe for
ranging. The machine came down in flames and was
completely demolished. Pilot and passenger had
both been wounded by our own infantry fire when at
a height of about a thousand feet with the large Union
Jack plainly visible.’
Wing Commander W. D. Beatty tells
how, before this time, the disadvantage of the Union
Jack marking on the planes was becoming evident.
The officer in command of an aviation camp at Paris
had pointed out to him that, at a height, only the
red cross of the Union Jack was clearly visible, and
that it was mistaken by the French for the German
marking. A suggestion was made that the British
should adopt the French circular marking. The
mishap of the 26th of October hastened the adoption
of this suggestion, and thereafter the French target
was painted on British aeroplanes, with the alteration
only of blue for red and red for blue, to preserve
Commanding officers sometimes complained
that our machines were little in evidence. The
aeroplane observers, operating over enemy territory,
reported to their own command, and their reports, forwarded
to the proper quarters, took effect in the orders
issued by Headquarters, so that crucial improvements
were sometimes made in our dispositions, by information
obtained from the air, though the infantry had seen
no machine in the air above them. The use of
machines for more local needs, such as artillery ranging,
hastened the recognition of the services rendered
by the Flying Corps, and brought it into closer touch
with the other arms. Photographic cameras and
fittings were still very imperfect, and photography
from the air was not much practised, but sketch-maps
of enemy trenches and gun-pits, as located by air
reconnaissances, were issued by Headquarters
during the battle of Ypres. Good work was done
in directing the fire of the artillery, and the few
wireless machines were much in demand. A telegram
sent on the 28th of October from Sir Horace Smith-Dorrien
to the Royal Flying Corps headquarters runs: ’Can
you send us a second machine, with wireless installation,
for use to-morrow? The aeroplane now working
without wireless with Fifth Division has more to do
than it can accomplish owing to observation being required
for French artillery as well as our own.’
But the wireless machine was required by the First
Corps, at the northern end of the line, and a machine
without wireless was sent instead.
The deadly and effective method of
directing artillery fire on hostile batteries by means
of wireless telegraphy played a great part in winning
the war, but for the first battle of Ypres the wireless
machines were not ready in quantity. The penalty
which had to be paid for this unreadiness was heavy.
Precious shells, which were all too few, had to be
expended for ranging purposes. On the 4th of November
Lord Kitchener wired to Sir John French: ’I
have been talking to David Henderson about giving
more observation to artillery by aeroplanes. As
this saves the ranging ammunition, which is worth
anything to us, please insist upon it.’
Failing wireless, other methods of ranging had to be
employed. These methods had been set forth in
an official paper issued on the 28th of October.
The aeroplane flies at any convenient height and when
it is exactly above the target it fires a Very light.
The battery range-finders, who have been following
its course, then take its range and another observer
with the battery takes its angle of elevation.
These two observations are sufficient to determine
the horizontal distance between the battery and the
target. It was sometimes found difficult to take
the range of an aeroplane, at a given moment, with
an ordinary range-finder, and an alternative method
of ranging is suggested. By this method the aeroplane
flies at a prearranged height, and, as before, fires
a light exactly over the target. But this method
also is liable to error, for an aeroplane determines
its height by the use of a barometer, and barometers
are only approximately accurate for this purpose.
So it was suggested that the two methods should be
combined: the aeroplane should endeavour to fly
at a fixed height, and the range-finders should, if
possible, also make their calculations. These
methods cannot attain to the accuracy of wireless,
but they were found in practice to give fairly good
results. They were not quickly or generally adopted;
many battery commanders continued to prefer the reports
of their trained ground observers to the indications
given from the air. When wireless machines were
increased in number, artillery observation from the
air came into its own. In a report dated the 5th
of February 1915, Brigadier-General Stokes, commander
of the 27th Divisional Artillery, lays stress on the
enormous advantages of wireless. He says that
the 116th Heavy Battery of the Royal Garrison Artillery,
which had at its disposal an aeroplane equipped with
a lamp, had succeeded in registering only three targets
in fifteen days, whereas the 130th Howitzer Battery,
which had a share in the services of a wireless aeroplane,
had registered eight targets in seven days. The
disadvantages of the older and cruder method are many;
a thin mist which does not prevent the aeroplane from
observing the target is enough to prevent signalling
to the battery; the lamp is difficult to use on a
rough day, and difficult to read against the sun; the
aeroplane has to be kept under continual observation
by the battery. To get better value out of our
artillery, the general concludes, the wireless service
must be largely increased.
Reconnaissance from the air was much
impeded, during the second half of October, by low
clouds and bad weather, but enough was observed to
give some forecast of the tremendous attack that was
impending. The Germans outnumbered the British
three or four times, and threw their whole weight,
now against one part, and now against another, of the
thin line of infantry fighting in mud and water.
Those who would judge the battle will find no escape
from the dilemma; either the British defence, maintained
for thirty-four days, from the 19th of October to the
21st of November, against an army which esteemed itself
the best army in the world, must be given a high and
honourable place among the great military achievements
of history, or the German army was disgraced by its
defeat. But the German army was a good army, and
was not disgraced. The Germans themselves respected
their enemy, on the ground and in the air. On
the 21st of November, at the close of the battle of
Ypres, two German second lieutenants of the air corps,
called Fribenius and Hahn, were taken prisoner near
Neuve-Chapelle, and were examined. They
said that the performances of British aeroplanes had
caused instructions to be issued that a British aeroplane
was to be attacked whenever encountered. British
aeroplanes, they said, were easily distinguishable
from others, for they always showed fight at once.
What prisoners say under examination is not evidence,
but this early tribute to the fighting quality of
the Royal Flying Corps is repeated in many later testimonies.
The crisis of the battle of Ypres
came on the 31st of October, when the line of the
First Division was broken and the left flank of the
Seventh Division exposed, at Gheluvelt, some six miles
east of Ypres. The counter-attack by the First
Guards Brigade and the famous bayonet charge of the
Second Worcestershire Regiment retook Gheluvelt, and
re-established the line. The last act of the long
agony came on the 11th of November, when a great attack
was delivered all along the line. The place of
honour on the Ypres-Menin road was given to two brigades
of the Prussian Guard Corps, who had been brought
up from Arras for the purpose. The First Division
of the British army met this attack at its heaviest
point of impact, and by the close of the day the Prussians
had gained five hundred yards of ground at the cost
of enormous losses. The story of the battle belongs
to military history; the loss and profit account can
be summarized in two facts. The First Brigade,
which met the Prussian spearhead, was taken back into
reserve on the following day. It had gone into
the battle four thousand five hundred strong; on the
12th of November there remained, of the First Scots
Guards, one officer and sixty-nine men; of the Black
Watch, one officer and a hundred and nine men; of
the Cameron Highlanders, three officers and a hundred
and forty men; of the First Coldstream Guards, no
officers and a hundred and fifty men. This is
not a list of the surrendered remnant of an army:
it is a list of some of the victors of Ypres.
The other fact is no less significant; after a week
of fighting the German attack fainted and died, and
when the next great assault upon the Ypres salient
was delivered, in April 1915, it was led not by the
Prussian Guard but by clouds of poison-gas.
No extraordinary or signal services
were rendered by the Flying Corps during the crises
of the battle. The weather was bad, and on some
days flying was impossible. Yet by every flight
knowledge was increased. When the British troops
arrived in Flanders and were sent at once into the
battle, the country in front of them was unknown.
The dispositions of the enemy forces were not even
guessed at. Then by the aid of the Flying Corps
the enemy’s batteries were mapped out, his trench
lines observed and noted, his railheads and his roads
watched for signs of movement. The reports received
just before the battle do not, it is true, indicate
the whole volume of movement that was coming towards
the Ypres area. The newly raised reserve corps
which formed part of the German Fourth Army, the transport
of which to the western front began on the 10th of
October, were not definitely seen from the air until
just before the battle. But observers’
reports did indicate that many troops were moving
on the Ypres front, and once battle was joined enemy
movements were fully reported on.
When at the end of October the Belgian
army mortgaged great tracts of their ground for many
years by opening the canal sluices and letting in
the sea, the Germans were enabled to divert the Third
Reserve Corps southwards. The movements of troops
from this area were observed by the Royal Flying Corps,
and General Headquarters on the 1st of November issued
this summary: ’The coast road from Ostend
to Nieuport was reported clear this morning, and there
are indications generally of a transference of troops
from the north of Dixmude southwards.’ Again,
when the attack on Ypres had failed and died away,
the Germans transferred many troops from the western
to the eastern front; these movements also were seen
by the Royal Flying Corps, who reported on the 20th
of November an abnormal amount of rolling stock at
various stations behind the German front. ’The
rolling stock formerly parked on the Ostend-Thourout
and Ostend-Roulers lines has evidently been broken
up’, says General Headquarters Intelligence
Summary for the 20th of November, ’and distributed
to a number of stations along the Lys and in the
area immediately north of it, which would be suitable
points of entrainment for the forces in that district....
This redistribution of the rolling stock, together
with the apparent reduction in motor transport, would
seem to point to some important movement away from
this immediate theatre being in contemplation.’
Air reports for the following day proved that much
movement eastwards had already taken place.
Throughout the battle tactical reconnaissances
had been maintained to a depth of from fifteen to
twenty miles behind the German lines. There were
some few fights in the air, and a little bombing, but
observation was still the principal duty of the Royal
Flying Corps. They were greatly privileged; at
a time when our people at home knew nothing of what
the army was doing, they, and they alone, witnessed
the battle of Ypres.
They would gladly have done more.
Many of them had been infantry officers, and were
eager to lend a hand to the infantry in that heroic
struggle, but they lacked the means. Not until
the summer of 1916 were they able, by organized attacks
from the air, to help to determine the fortunes of
With the close of the battle there
came a lull in the fighting. This lull continued
throughout the dark and damp of the first winter, and
the interest of the war in the air shifts to the preparations
which were being pressed forward at home for renewing
the war during 1915 on a larger scale and with better
One incident which occurred just after
the battle of Ypres shall here be narrated; it serves
to illustrate how the air work of the Germans may
sometimes have been impeded by a certain defect of
sympathy in the German officer class. German
two-seater machines were commonly piloted by non-commissioned
officers, who took their orders from the officer in
the observer’s seat. On the 22nd of
November Lieutenants L. A. Strange and F. G. Small,
of N Squadron, were returning from a reconnaissance,
flying at a height of about seven thousand feet.
Their machine, an Avrò, with an 80 horse-power
Gnome engine, carried a Lewis gun, which had been
mounted by them, against orders, on rope tackle of
their own devising, just above the observer’s
seat. In the air they met a new German Albatross
with a 100 horse-power Mercedes engine. They
showed fight at once. Diving from a height of
five hundred feet above the German machine, and at
right angles to its line of flight, they turned underneath
it and flew along with it, a little in front and less
than a hundred feet below. From this position,
which they maintained while both machines made two
complete turns in the air, they were able to empty
two drums of ammunition into the German machine.
After the second drum the German pilot lost his nerve,
and the machine side-slipped away and down, landing
behind our lines, close to Neuve-Église.
There were twenty bullet-holes in the German machine,
but the pilot and observer were both uninjured.
The British officers landed close by, to claim their
prisoners. The German observer, a commissioned
officer, took little notice of them; as soon as his
machine landed he jumped out of it, and dragging the
partner of his dangers and triumphs out of the pilot’s
seat, knocked him down, and began to kick him heavily
about the body. If ever a collection of incidents
shall be made, under the title ‘How the War
was Lost and Won’, to illustrate the causes of
things, this little drama will deserve a place in it.