In the introduction to his excellent book on the battle, my colleague Nick Lloyd observed that the battle of Loos remained forgotten, ‘lost in the myths of rumour, hearsay and myth’, even though it was the largest land battle that Britain had fought up until that point, and was marked by a number of innovations. He thus places the battle within the context of the debates upon the ‘learning curve’ of the British Expeditionary Force (BEF), and wider contentions regarding conceptualisation of revolutions in military affairs. What is also overlooked in much of the historiography is that Loos was the biggest air battle fought to that date, and represented the point at which the Royal Flying Corps (RFC) might be said to have moved from making a small but useful contribution to operations on the Western Front to becoming an integral part of the BEF’s activities.
This owed much to minor but significant changes in the RFC between the battle of Neuve Chapelle in March 1915 and the opening of the Loos offensive later in September. These encompassed developments within organisation of the service, its command and control, and the technology available to fulfil the key role of observation, as well as the evolution of new roles in the form of a more formalised approach to bombing and air fighting.
In terms of organisation, it is important to recall that the RFC in 1915 was still a small organisation. At the start of the year, there were just seven squadrons spread between three wings (one per Army) and the wireless flight of 9 Squadron based at RFC Headquarters at St Omer from where the aircraft would be despatched to provide additional artillery observation support as required. The squadrons had a mixed bag of aircraft – 16 Squadron was in perhaps the worst position, as it possessed a total of just eight aircraft of four different types. The lack of standardisation across the force meant that pilots had to adjust to the foibles of the different designs, while the logistics chain was made more complicated.
Despite the rather ad hoc air to the RFC’s structure and its limited size, it managed to provide useful air support from the outset. At the battle of Neuve Chapelle, the RFC photographed the German lines extensively, allowing the creation of trench maps. The importance of artillery spotting was recognised in Douglas Haig’s admonishment of some of his senior gunners in First Army for failing to ensure that their gun batteries followed the fire corrections which the RFC provided, although this high-handed attitude to the information provided from the air was unusual. A greater problem lay in the lack of a standardised approach to liaison between the air and ground elements of the BEF.
Over the course of the first six months or so of the war, RFC squadrons had developed methods of cooperation with the formations that they were supporting – only to discover when they were reassigned to work with other units that their new partners had developed similar but different methods of cooperation with ‘their’ squadron, leading to considerable confusion as the airmen attempted to cooperate with the infantry and artillery units they now supported.
While it was clear even before the war started that artillery spotting was best conducted using wireless (one-way transmission from the aircraft to the artillery), a lack of funding and – more importantly – a lack of suitable wireless equipment delayed progress. Wireless sets were heavy and it was beyond the capability of the RFC’s aircraft to carry both a wireless set and an observer to operate it. While it was possible for pilots to both fly and observe for the fall of shot, this was not ideal. The arrival of the Sterling Spark wireless in 1915 solved the problem of weight, but availability was a different matter; it took quite some time for the new wireless set to be installed across the RFC.
To add to the challenges faced by the airmen, much of their reconnaissance information was collected using a mixture of the human eye – often deceived by a combination of altitude and visibility, particularly in sunlight, haze or the smoky conditions of a battlefield – and rudimentary cameras which had a tendency to freeze at altitude. Add to this a lack of training in the interpretation of photographs and insufficient personnel to attempt to work out what the images captured by the pilots showed, and it is something of a testament to the RFC that so much of the information they brought back was regarded as being of great utility. Here again, though, 1915 marked the point at which the question of photography began to be addressed properly, with the development of a camera designed for aerial use (the uninspiringly-named ‘Type A’ ) and training in the art of photographic interpretation.
It is easy to criticise the RFC for a lack of training in this regard, but it must be remembered that those involved were working from first principles, deriving their knowledge of what certain objects looked like from above by flying over their own lines, taking photographs of known installations and the objects therein before developing their photographic plates and seeing what the objects photographed looked like when seen from the air.
There was little that the RFC could do to address these technical issues, but by September 1915, the bid to standardise on a single aircraft type had moved on, particularly as more squadrons arrived in France. In First Wing, three of the four squadrons were equipped with either the BE2 or Morane Parasol. These were capable machines which could be used for bombing as well as their main role of observation. Second Wing was not in such a happy position, but Third Wing’s three squadrons had standardised. Two used the BE2 (plus one single-seat ‘scout’ on charge), while the third unit – 11 Squadron – was the first RAF fighter squadron, employing the Vickers FB5 ‘Gunbus’.
The importance of gaining control of the air to enable operations was recognised long before the war, but sporadic efforts at air fighting finally blossomed into significant combat during the summer and autumn of 1915. The use of a fixed forward firing gun with interrupter gear pioneered by the Fokker Eindekker gave the Germans the upper hand, causing the RFC considerable angst as reconnaissance and artillery observation sorties were attacked on a regular basis, and losses increased. Again, there was little that the RFC could do but wait for the arrival of more fighter squadrons.
In addition to the growing air combat role, the use of aircraft for the purpose of bombardment had been adopted. Accurate bombing was exceptionally difficult, requiring pilots to fly low – and in the teeth of ground fire – if they were to stand any chance of getting their bombs near to the target. Yet even though such attacks were largely ineffective, they had at least a nuisance value, and sometimes – through a combination of pilot skill and luck – fairly significant damage was caused to German targets, particularly rail links.
The growth of air fighting and bombing gathered pace throughout the summer of 1915, but mainly served as an illustration of what would come, particularly as the RFC’s new commander in France, Brigadier-General Hugh Trenchard held an aggressive view as to the ways in which aircraft should be employed to support the BEF.
Thus, by early September 1915, the RFC was still developing into an effective force. There were deficiencies in equipment and training; the flying corps was still relatively small and faced a serious challenge from German fighters. Conversely, there was a growing awareness throughout the BEF – with Haig at the forefront – of how aircraft could make a meaningful contribution to operations through reconnaissance, artillery spotting, and bombing. The battle of Loos was to provide the first test, as will be discussed in a subsequent post.
Image: A Royal Aircraft Factory B.E.2, which had been captured by the German army in 1915, via Wikimedia Commons.