Why WWI?

One day not too long ago, while I was out peddling my first novel, Endure the Dawn, a docent at a local air museum, one that focuses on World War Two warbirds, asked me, “Why did you write a book about World War One? It seems so long ago. Why would that interest you?”

I was taken aback by the question. I suppose some might think it was rude of him to ask me that, but it didn’t bother me. I realize each of us has our own perspectives on things. However, I had to think a bit before answering because I simply had never had a reason to ask myself that question. I stumbled in my answer, but came up with something like, “Because it all started there.” I still think that is a good answer. In my opinion, Sir Isaac Newton’s quote applies,

 “If I have seen further it is by standing on the shoulders of giants.”

For all the magnificent warbirds of WWII, none of them would have achieved their glory if not for the intrepid lads who took to the skies in the rickety planes of WWI. If we can fly faster, higher, and farther, it is by learning from those who came before us.

Not wanting to leave it at that, however, I wondered what other folks would have to say. I asked the members of one of my favorite tribal Facebook groups, Airplanes and Aces of World War I, “Why are you so interested in WWI aviation?” Here is a list of mashups of the more notable responses. See if you agree!

  • WWI ushered in the birth of the vertical battlefield. Warfare would no longer be in front, behind, or at the flank. It would now be overhead and changed the entire dimension of waging war, an absolute epoch-shattering innovation.
  • This was the genesis of aviation. It was the most significant change in weapons and tactics since the knights and cavalry, hundreds of years before. It was a pioneering age, where it all began, a time when aviation was first given practical application.
  • Everything was brand new. Innovations were inventions, not just extrapolations of existing technologies or doctrines.
  • It was the end of an era, the last time of chivalry and gallantry in action as we know it, the knights of the sky. For some, it was still a sort of sporting affair. The Poor Bloody Infantry would cheer their pilots on with, “That’s our boy!” as a plane flew overhead locked in mortal combat with the enemy.
  • It was the end of an era, and the beginning of an era. The end of the chivalrous knights, the beginning of modern air warfare. The pilots and aircraft designers and builders blazed the path for all of us that fly today. What a time to be alive!
  • I have been fascinated with the crude simplicity of the engineering of early flight. The airplanes were beautiful in their fragile, open cockpit designs. The designs to 'one up' the enemy to secure a strategic advantage fascinated me, no matter how far-fetched some of them were. Unbridled innovation.
  • On a personal level as a craftsman the hand-built machinery touches me. The aircraft were works of art.
  • Air war so intimate, visceral – staggering brutality with a tempo entirely unique. Ghastly, grand and evocative. Air combat at its purest form. The skill of taking these birds and inventing what air combat would become.
  • It's where the rules of air combat were formed, those rules still apply today. Many of the fighter tactics we still use today were developed in WWI by people like Boelke, Immelmann, and McCudden. Boelke’s Dicta remain the foundation of air combat to this day.
  • I've always been taken with the bravery of the pilots that flew these motorized kites. The aviators and innovators in WW1 blazed the path where no man or machine had gone before. Flying a plane made of wood, wire, and canvas without a parachute. I thought these guys were crazy and I needed to know more. Daredevils in kites.
  • The aces were national heroes, iron men with wooden wings, purebred warriors like Oswald Boelke, Baron Manfred von Richthofen, Albert Ball, Georges Guynemer, and Eddie Rickenbacker.
  • It is now long enough ago that there is a lovely patina of romance and glamor about them. They have taken on the mythic proportions of Wellington’s chargers. Those early airmen used their skills to the utmost, man to man, without all the technology we have today.
  • We're in the middle of the centenary at the moment!

And finally, the following quote from one of the best WWI memoirs out there:

“The way the earth looked, falling; swallowing to stop deafness at altitude; the scream of wires; stars between wings; grass blown down when engines were run up; the smell – of dope, and castor oil, and varnish in new cockpits; moonlight shining on struts; the gasps before the dive; machine guns.” – Cecil Lewis, Sagittarius Rising.

I would have to say that writing this was perhaps more for me than anyone else. I needed to better understand the allure of WWI aviation. Many thanks to my fellow enthusiasts. I am happy to know that I am not alone!