Germany took a different approach to bombing by using lighter-than-air dirigibles, or zeppelins, to drop bombs on targets as far away as London and Paris. The slow-moving zeppelins, which had a long range and could carry a relatively large cargo of explosives, reached the peak of their success early in the war, during 1915. As the war continued, the giant airships became increasingly vulnerable to the rapidly improving capabilities of fighter planes: the zeppelins were filled with hydrogen, so only a small spark was necessary to cause the entire ship to explode in flames. As a result, Germany turned more and more to using airplanes as bombers.

Myths and Realities of Air Warfare

As the war went on and airplane technology improved, large battles in the sky became an ever more common occurrence, and fantastic legends and stories grew around great air aces, such as Manfred von Richthofen (the “Red Baron”) and Eddie Rickenbacker. These men came to be seen by the public as modern-day knights, fighting a more exotic and elegant war than the grotesque nightmare happening on the ground below.

The truth was quite different. Newly recruited pilots were often sent into the skies with only a crude understanding of how to fly (typically less than five hours training). As the war progressed, it actually became unusual for a new pilot to survive the first few weeks of his duty. Due to this lack of experience, pilots not only fell victim to enemy aces but also succumbed regularly to bad weather, mechanical problems, or loss of control due to pilot error. It was also common for pilots simply to become lost and then run out of fuel over enemy lines. Most of those who were shot down lost their lives not in spectacular dogfights but after being shot from behind without ever having even been aware of their attackers. Although parachutes had been invented decades before, pilots from some countries—Britain in particular—were not allowed to carry them, because military leaders believed their use to be cowardly.

Overall Importance of the Air War

On the whole, aerial warfare cannot be said to have played a fundamental role in World War I, as it did in World War II. Bombing served more as a psychological weapon than a practical one, and the technology necessary to cause the kind of massive damage that bombing would be able to inflict in the near future had not yet been developed.

On the other hand, World War I itself encouraged the rapid improvement of the airplane, both in general and specifically as a weapon. During the four years of conflict, the overall stability and safety of flying improved tremendously, as did the power, speed, and maneuverability of the newest designs. Moreover, the war fostered the general public’s respect for aviation and spawned a new generation of pilots and aircraft designers, who would go on to take human flight to the next level after the war.

Popular pages: World War I (1914–1919)