03 min 55 s
Canadian War Records Office, Ministry of Information
This footage shows a ground crew preparing for the ascent of an observation ballon and the observer crew preparing to board the gondola.
Images of the ascending balloon are followed by a series of aerial shots of the surrounding area, including some lower level aerial shots of a town with railway lines. The clip concludes with images of a parachute, possibly carrying an object or message, falling onto treetops, and a shot of the balloon being winched back to ground.
Balloons were used in warfare as early as 1794, when French revolutionary armies employed them for artillery observation. They were used in various 19th century conflicts, including the American Civil War: in addition to being a cavalry officer, Lt George Armstrong Custer was also a balloon observer. In 1911 the Italians used both balloons and aircraft in their invasion of Libya.
Observation balloons — oblong gas bags slung with an underhanging gondola — were used extensively throughout the First World War, when massed artillery, barbed wire and trenches resulted in extended stalemates on the ground. In these conditions, aerial observers would emerge as the most important airmen in the war effort.
Manning a balloon was a dangerous job. The crews would be suspended under giant containers of flammable hydrogen, which were highly vulnerable to enemy fire. They at least had parachutes — which was generally not case for the men who flew and crewed other types of aircraft. Balloons would always be tethered, and were not necessarily manned by trained balloonists but rather by artillery specialists.
Early descriptions of this footage identified the town seen from the air as Mons, in Belgium. However, this is unlikely, given that Mons was well behind German lines for most of the war. It was captured by the Germans in mid-August, 1914, and was not retaken by British and Canadian forces until November, 1918. During this long period, Mons might have been reconnoitered by aircraft but would not have been under balloon observation.
Pieces of History
The First Air War
Hugh A. Halliday
Historian and author
During the Russo-Japanese War (1904-1905) experts noted that smokeless powder, rifled artillery, machine guns and barbed wire had turned battlefields into vast wastelands where armies hid from their opponent’s shells. Cavalry—the traditional form of reconnaissance—could not manoeuvre . Ten years later, aircraft made stalemate even more certain. In August 1914 aerial reconnaissance enabled the Allies to counter-attack against German armies invading France. Thereafter, with few exceptions, aerial observers forecast an enemy’s offensive and thus assured its failure (or success, at appalling cost).
The power of aerial observation went further. With armies driven into complex trench systems, artillery came to the fore as the deadliest weapon of the war. The great guns of the Western Front were the primary killing machines of what had become industrialized warfare—65 percent of all deaths and wounds were attributable to artillery fire, which delivered awesome weights of shell and shrapnel.
Days before his death by artillery fire, an American soldier wrote, “This is a cowering war—pygmy man huddles in little holes and caves, praying to escape the blows of the blind giant who pounds the ground with blind hammers.” But the hammers were not blind. Their targets were mapped by men in aircraft and balloons, their fire was directed from aircraft and balloons. The aerial observer was the most important airman of the war; his role today has been assumed by others, including the aerial spy satellite.
The courage of these men defies imagination. Balloon observers ascended under gas bags filled with flammable hydrogen, vulnerable to fighter aircraft determined to shoot them down. The men in the balloons at least had parachutes, if time permitted them to escape. For most of the war, pilots and airplane crews had no such equipment; fire in the air was the most dreaded fate of all, and many men carried pistols to shoot themselves rather than suffer agonizing deaths. In June 1918 German aircrews were issued parachutes; even these failed to deploy about 25 percent of the time.
Given the importance of aerial reconnaissance and artillery direction, it is puzzling to find so much attention being devoted to fighter pilots, these “knights of the air.” Fighter pilots and tactics evolved from 1915 onwards, but their task was always secondary to that of the observation crews. It was a fighter pilot’s job to shoot down enemy observation aircraft and protect his own observation aircraft. Nevertheless, propagandists trying to divert attention from the awful slaughter on the ground fastened upon the fighter pilots as men engaged in single combat, man-to-man, with the high-scoring “ace” as the centrepiece of the narrative. Never mind that the fighter pilot’s objective was (preferably) to surprise an opponent and shoot him in the back. Chivalry there might be—a decent burial for a fallen enemy, a toast with a captured foe—but in the heat of battle there could be only one rule: kill or be killed. At the heart of everything else, that was a fighter pilot’s job description. It is a measure of the propagandist’s success that, 90 years later, the public knows more about the First World War fighter pilots than the men they were actually protecting.
Airplanes were used for many other tasks—anti-submarine patrols, trench strafing, communications and bombing. Indeed, aircraft performed almost every task in the First World War that they would later execute in the Second World War. The one exception was the aerial delivery of soldiers. Even so, aircraft were used to place spies behind enemy lines and drop supplies to isolated troops. Nevertheless, in most roles the airplanes of 1914-1918 only hinted at what was to come. Only one submarine was sunk by aircraft during the First World War; at least 400 submarines on all sides were destroyed by aircraft during the Second World War. Aerial bombing between 1914 and 1918 inflicted only modest devastation (although its psychological impact was very great at the outset); the bombing campaigns of the Second World War were horrific both in physical impact and subsequent moral outrage.
Aircraft affected the conduct of the war, and war influenced the technological development of aircraft. For example, engines increased from an average of 80 horsepower (1914) to 350 horsepower (1918), while speeds of 110 km/h had risen to about 200 km/h. Yet if the war had not taken place, it is conceivable that commercial incentives might have produced similar results. The first four-engine airliner had flown in Russia in 1913. Might not development have taken place along civilian lines ? Five years later, France and Britain initiated civilian air transport services using modified bombers that carried fewer passengers than their Russian predecessors of 1913.
Whether or not it was due to war, a radical transformation occurred between 1914 and 1918 that involved the attitudes of aviators themselves. Even among the select circle of 1914 pilots, flying was considered hazardous,, and training methods reflected this. At the time, no aircraft had been designed specifically for training; throughout the war most training aircraft were machines like the RE.7 and Farman Shorthorn, which had been retired from front-line duties to rear echelon tasks. The Curtiss JN-4 broke this pattern.
The most radical change, however, involved the training syllabus itself. Early flying instruction covered the basics of flying but emphasized dangers to be avoided, particularly stalls and spins. By 1916, however, the dynamics of flight controls were more fully understood, and recovery from spins could be practised. New systems of instruction emphasized the theory of flight and explained exactly how manoeuvres could be executed, thus encouraging intelligent aerobatics. Instead of being regarded as a threatening mount, the airplane came to be seen as an even-tempered, reasonable machine. Previously, students had been taught what to avoid; the new methods instilled confidence. By the end of the war, pilots had become enthusiastic about the potential uses of aircraft and convinced of the fundamental safety of their machines. Confident prophets inspire confident converts.
Canada’s role in these developments was insignificant in some ways, crucial in others. Before the war the government studiously ignored aviation, and only in 1918 did it take steps to form distinct Canadian air force units. On the other hand, it assisted the British flying services, which recruited in Canada and trained personnel in this country. Thousands of Canadians enlisted in the British flying services, either directly or by transferring from the Canadian Expeditionary Force. No one really knows just how many joined; the lowest estimate (13,160) seems too modest, but the highest guess (22,812) cannot be documented. It is generally believed that, as of 1918, about one-quarter of all members of the Royal Air Force were Canadians. The most famous were aces such as Raymond Collishaw and William Barker, but they included many other fascinating individuals. In 1915, Redford Mulock had been a trooper transferring from the cavalry to the Royal Naval Air Service. As of November 1918, he was a decorated colonel commanding heavy bombers that would have raided Berlin if the war had lasted only two weeks longer.
Chajkowsky, William E. Royal Flying Corps; Borden to Texas to Beamsville. Cheltenham, ON: Boston Mills Press, 1979.
Costello, W. Brian. A Nursery of the Air Force. Carleton Place, ON: Forest Beauty Products, 1979.
Dodds, Ronald. The Brave Young Wings. Stittsville, ON: Canada's Wings, 1980.
Drew, George. Canada's Fighting Airmen. Toronto: Maclean Publishing, 1931.
Ellis, Frank H. Canada's Flying Heritage. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1954.
Fuller, G.A., J.A. Griffin and K.A. Molson. 125 Years of Canadian Aeronautics: A Chronology,1840-1965. Toronto: Canadian Aviation Historical Society, 1983.
Goodspeed, D. J. The Armed Forces of Canada,1867-1967. Ottawa: Canadian Forces Headquarters, 1967.
Greenhous, Brereton. The Making of Billy Bishop. Toronto: Dundern Group, 2002.
Greenhous, Brereton and Hugh A. Halliday. Canada’s Air Forces,1914-1999. Montreal: Art Global, 1999.
Halliday , Hugh A. Not in the Face of the Enemy: Canadians Awarded the Air Force Cross and Air Force Medal,1918-1966. Toronto: Robin Brass Studio, 2000.
Jones, Neville. The Origins of Strategic Bombing. London: William Kimber, 1973.
Milberry, Larry. Aviation in Canada. Toronto: Canav Books, 1979.
---. Canada’s Air Force at War and Peace. 3 vol. Toronto: Canav Books, 1999 to 2001.
Rimell, Raymond Laurence. Zeppelin! A Battle for Air Supremacy in World War I. Stittsville, ON: Canada's Wings, 1984.
Shores, Christopher, Norman Franks and Russell Guest. Above the Trenches: A Complete Record of the Fighter Aces and Units of the British Empire Air Forces, 1915-1920. Stoney Creek, ON: Fortress Publications, 1990.
Sullivan, Alan. Aviation in Canada,1917-1918. Toronto: Rous and Rous, 1919.
Wise, S.F. Canadian Airmen and the First World War. Ottawa: Department of National Defence, 1982.
The following Web site has a section "Honours and Awards" and a subsection dealing with Canadians in the British Flying Services during the First World War: http://www.airforce.ca/.
Historian, Department of National Defence
Battlefield communications were a mix of old and new. The Western Front benefited from the most technologically advanced artillery, where the guns could call on wireless-equipped aircraft to correct fall of shot. The communications technology available to the infantry was far less advanced, however; in late 1914 and early 1915, the Canadians in England who would be responsible for sending and receiving messages from the front were trained on flag drill and lamps.
The telephone, the most convenient means of communication then available, was the responsibility of brigade and division signallers, who, although farther back from the front line, faced an almost impossible task. When laid on the ground, wire was easily destroyed by shelling, and the Germans did not lack for artillery. Stringing it up on poles increased its endurance only slightly, so the only recourse left to signallers was to bury it. Finding labour for such a task when infantry units, who normally provided work parties, were busy digging their own trenches and dugouts was not easy, and a wire shortage made matters worse.
By July 1916, cable laying was somewhat faster, but only because an entire battalion worked on the project at any given time, and soldiers digging trenches for telephone lines were subjected to shelling and machine gun fire as they worked through the night. Wireless telegraphy, which as its name implies did away with wire, was in the early years of the war available only in small numbers, reflecting limited manufacturing resources. Heavy reliance on the telephone, then, could not be avoided, though something had to be done about wires and cables that were continually being cut by artillery and the movements of one’s own vehicles. A possible solution was soon forthcoming—laddering—a technique of laying parallel cables about 60 yards apart connected by lateral lines. To shut down communications, artillery would have to cut both main cables between cross-pieces.
Reliance on runners
Still, keeping in touch with the troops who were fighting their way into enemy trenches was an almost insoluble problem. After an attack on November 17, 1916, the 5th Brigade reported that its battalions had kept in touch with the front line with visual signals, but such ease of communication was uncommon, and even the formation in question mentioned that it also relied on runners. Forward of battalion headquarters the most common means of sending information was to have men hand-carry messages through shelling and, occasionally, machine gun fire. After two months of fighting on the Somme in the fall of 1916, commanders simply assumed that runners would be the only way to get messages across no man's land and planned accordingly.
An added possibility was contact patrols—aircraft that were supposed to advise commanders of what they could see by dropping messages or using wireless telegraphy, but the system was still experimental in 1916. The 78th Battalion suggested that, for troops in an advance, “Communication to contact airplanes is best maintained by flares,” but such techniques required perfect timing to ensure the signals were lit while the aircraft was in position to see them. Such synchronization was difficult to achieve when men were fighting for their lives.
Rather than solve the problem of communications on the battlefield, each new development was simply added to existing methods. At Vimy Ridge in April 1917, the Canadian Corps sought to maintain communications by exploiting every means available: runners, flags, pigeons and telephones. A little later, on August 15, the Canadian Corps assaulted and captured Hill 70, and here wireless played an important role, as the Canadians relied on their gunners to break up the inevitable German counterattacks. Signallers could send back quick corrections to an artillery exchange, which then passed on the information to the guns by telephone.
Until the end of the war, forward of brigade headquarters (which kept in touch with its flanks and higher formations with telephone or wireless), the most common and effective means of communication remained the runner, who carried written messages through enemy and friendly fire to keep commanders appraised of the situation so they could allocate reserves or artillery support accordingly.
Near the end of the war
In 1918, the war entered a more mobile phase. Headquarters had to move often in spite of their heavy reliance on the telephone, pushing signallers almost to the breaking point to keep messages moving. The tendency to multiply methods of communication, as at Vimy Ridge, continued. Telephones, visual signalling, pigeons, message-carrying rockets, wireless, runners and contact patrols were all available in the final battles of the war.
In the Canadian Corps' last set-piece attack at Valenciennes on November 1 and 2, there was no time to lay cable, and all messages from brigade to higher headquarters were sent through wireless stations. Communications between aircraft and troops on the ground, however, had not improved. Infantry devised a new system for signalling contact patrols: troops waved a white cloth with a metal disk sewn on the inside flap of the gas mask when they were called; and though the Royal Air Force found the devices very useful in determining the infantry's position, air-ground communications in the last Hundred Days were essentially the same as those of 1917, and remained so until the Armistice was declared on November11.
The First World War did see the development of aircraft, submarines and tanks as weapons of warfare, tactics underwent drastic changes as fire and movement replaced wave attacks, and scientific gunnery proved ever more capable of supporting infantry battalions as they struggled to survive in one of the most hostile environments our species has yet devised. However, in the realm of communications, the revolutionary developments of previous decades—especially the telephone and wireless telegraph—were only partially applied to the information problems of the modern battlefield. In fact, the runner remained an important link between the front line and headquarters until the very last days of the conflict.
Moir, John S., ed. History of the Royal Canadian Corps of Signals, 1903-1961. Ottawa: Royal Canadian Corps of Signals, Corps Committee, 1962.
Rawling, Bill. Surviving Trench Warfare : Technology and the Canadian Corps, 1914-1918. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1992.
Films : Observation Balloons, Fighter Planes, Airplane Casualties
Background Notes for the Teacher
At the beginning of World War I, the airplane was used for reconnaissance. It had a top speed of about 120 km/h and was not equipped with ammunition. By the end of the war, bombers could reach speeds over 275 km/h and carried up to 3 tons of explosives.
A pilot needed to be able to do more than fly an airplane and fire artillery. He was required to read maps, take aerial photographs, make meteorological observations, assess enemy capabilities and communicate using a wireless telegraph system. Pilots faced many hardships in their open cockpits. Rain and cold made flying at high altitudes very uncomfortable. Sunlight could be blinding and it was difficult to distinguish between Allied and enemy planes even in the best of conditions.
Two of Canada’s most decorated fighter pilots were Billy Bishop and Billy Barker. Bishop was credited with 72 confirmed victories while Barker destroyed 50 enemy planes. A pilot was classified as an “ace” if he shot down five enemy aircraft.
From the 1870s until the 1940s, tobacco companies issued trading cards to help sell their product. Baseball players, airplanes and war heroes were some of the trading card subjects. This marked the beginning of the trading card industry.
Introducing the Subject
Discuss how the military uses planes today (reconnaissance, bombing, troop and equipment deployment).
Study a picture of an airplane from World War I.
Would this aircraft have been capable of transporting troops and supplies?
Teaching and Learning
View film footage and have students identify some of the ways that planes were used by Allied forces.
Together, list other functions not shown in the footage.
Discuss the challenges of flying in an open cockpit.
Applying the Knowledge
Students can research a famous Canadian World War I pilot (e.g. Billy Bishop, Billy Barker, Raymond Collishaw, D.R. MacLaren) or one of the planes used by the CEF.
Provide students with some background information on the history of the tobacco card. Ask them to design their own trading card highlighting what they have learned about their topic.
Were students able to trace the evolution of the airplane during World War I?
Did they recognize the courage required to be an aviator?