Conference Program

85th Annual Meeting of the Society for Military History

 Landscapes of War and Peace

April 5 - 8, 2018, Louisville, Kentucky

Title: Air Power and the Great War: Birth and Re-Birth
Abstract: Air power did not exist as an independent service at the start of the Great War yet over four long years of war it became an indispensable component of the conflict. The birth of air power was not easy or smooth and faced terrible growing pains - of technology, of tactics, and of identity. Yet by 1918 the newly created Royal Air Force contributed significantly to Allied victory. Wartime success, however, did not guarantee the peacetime existence of the air force.

The first two papers in this panel will explore the birth of air power over the Western Front. Major Bill March, RCAF Historian at the Canadian Forces Aerospace Warfare Centre, will examine how the air force and the army worked together on the battlefield to coordinate reconnaissance and artillery. Dr. Mike Bechthold, Wilfrid Laurier University, will consider air power at the operational level and show how the fledgling air campaign at the Somme in 1916 developed into a thoroughly modern air campaign at the Battle of Amiens in 1918.

The final two papers will consider the re-birth of air power as questions regarding the identity, professionalism, and permanency of the air force were challenged in the transition from war to peace. Dr. Rachel Lea Heide, Strategic Analyst, DND, Canada, will recount the journey of Canada's airmen from colonials subsumed under the British to Canadian nationalists vocally advocating for a separate air force. Dr. Richard Mayne, Director RCAF History and Heritage, DND, Canada, will continue the investigation of the postwar Canadian air force and show that Canadian "airmindedness" cloaked in the familiar identity of the British Royal Air Force was part of a deliberate strategy to help the young air force counter a domestic situation where Canadians and their elected officials had not yet recognized the need for military aviation.
Mike Bechthold, Wilfrid Laurier University
Participant's Paper Title: The Somme 1916 to Amiens 1918: The Royal Flying Corps and the Evolution of the Air Campaign
Participant's Paper Abstract: For the first time in the history of warfare the British air campaign at the Somme in 1916 was planned and executed to support a major army operation. The Royal Flying Corps (RFC) drew on lessons learned by the French at Verdun. Although the RFC suffered high losses because it rigidly adhered to an offensive strategy throughout the air campaign, when the battle ended, the RFC controlled the skies above the Somme. This experience informed the RFC at Arras in 1917. "Bloody April" was the costliest month of the war for the RFC but it marked a turning point for air operations. Aerial reconnaissance provided crucial information for planning the battle, bombing raids interdicted the battlefield, and attempts were made to blind the Germans by destroying their kite balloons. During the battle, contact flights ranged over the battlefield to provide communications from the front, continuous artillery patrols were flown which helped to direct artillery fire, and bombing missions were conducted against German targets in the communications zone. This was in addition to the fight for air superiority over the battlefield. The RFC made a significant contribution to the outcome of the Battle of Arras though ultimately, there were major problems with this nascent air campaign. The RFC was learning how to wage war in the air, but even more importantly, it was mastering how to effectively fight an air campaign. The many disparate functions of air warfare - tactical and operational reconnaissance, artillery spotting, interdiction, air superiority, and trench strafing - were orchestrated to great effect. The RFC began to integrate these missions so the sum was greater than the parts. The Battle of Amiens in August 1918 marked the culmination of this process and would set the standard for future air campaigns in the First and Second World Wars.
Bill March, Canadian Aerospace Warfare Centre
Participant's Paper Title: The Skies Above: Vimy Ridge and the Battle of Arras, 1917
Participant's Paper Abstract: The Battle of Vimy Ridge (9-12 April 1917) was seen throughout the world as a great Allied victory. It was the first time that the four divisions of the Canadian Corps of the Canadian Expeditionary Force fought together as a single formation achieving a victory that had alluded allied armies up to that point. Less well known is the massive air campaign that accompanied the successful assault on the ridge. By that period of the war, aviation had become a vital component of combat and value of the air arm in supporting the Canadian attack cannot be overstated. This paper will examine the various roles undertaken by Allied airmen and the air-ground linkage that had reached a high level of sophistication by this period of the war.
Rachel Heide, Department of National Defence, Canada
Participant's Paper Title: Nationalism Takes Wings: Canadian Airmen and the Sense of Identity in the Great War, 1916-1918
Participant's Paper Abstract: When Great Britain went to war in 1914, Canada followed as a loyal colony. Hence, it was not out of the ordinary for Canadians' wanting to serve in the air war over Europe to join the British air services (Royal Flying Corps, Royal Naval Air Service, and Royal Air Force). As the war progressed, some Canadian airmen developed a sense of national identity and began calling for a separate Canadian Air Force so that their accomplishments were better recognized for Canada and so that their expertise could be preserved for a peacetime air service. Even Canadian government officials found the idea appealing and lobbied British officials.

This paper will describe how the first expressions of nationalism among Canadian airmen in 1916 turned into a lengthy lobbying campaign in 1917. Lobbyists included the Commander of the Overseas Military Forces, the Minister of Militia and Defence, and even Canada's Prime Minister. Not surprisingly, British military officials opposed the idea, for fear of disrupting the war effort and creating competition for recruits and equipment. Canadian advocates continued their campaign, and eventually, the British allowed the formation of two Canadian squadrons in 1918. Although too late for the units to garner any combat experience, the service's advocates had demonstrated both Canadian nationalism and the genesis of air force identity.

This will paper recount the journey of Canada's airmen from colonials subsumed under the British to Canadian nationalists vocally advocating for a separate air force. Through their experiences flying above the battlefield and interacting with their British colleagues and superiors, Canadian airmen formed a feeling of Canadian identity and otherness that led them to pursue, until victorious, a separate Canadian air force. These First World War advocates of a separate Canadian air force should be remembered as Fathers of the Royal Canadian Air Force.
Richard Mayne, Department of National Defence, Canada
Participant's Paper Title: The Influence of Empire: A national organization and the birth of the Royal Canadian Air Force, 1918 - 1924
Participant's Paper Abstract: Riding the updraft of its impressive First World War experience - where it contributed 15,000 men to the British air services and produced some of the Empire's top aces such as Billy Bishop, William Barker, and Raymond Collishaw - Canada set out to create its own distinctive Air Force in the immediate postwar period. The Canadian Air Force (18 February 1920 to 1 April 1924) was truly a national organization, complete with its own uniform, badges, and symbols. Yet this experiment failed as the Royal Canadian Air Force that emerged was a faithful replica of the Royal Air Force.
The idea that there was at least one Canadian strategic air power theorist, namely the Secretary of the Air Board, J.A. Wilson, (who was looking at how air power could serve his country's unique national requirements), has not been explored to the extent that his impact on, and contribution to, the development of military aviation in Canada deserves. Instead, what is generally known is that a lack of political and public support - as well as an existing attitude that air defence was an Imperial, rather than domestic, responsibility - led to the subsequent failure of no less than five attempts between 1909 and 1924 to establish some type of a permanent Canadian military presence in the air. As such, this paper will break new ground by demonstrating that the RCAF survived because it adopted RAF identifiers which gave this force a sense of professionalism and permanency that the other efforts lacked. It will also show that this move, along with Wilson's development of what could be called Canadian "airmindedness," was part of a deliberate strategy to help the young air force counter a domestic situation where Canadians and their elected officials had not yet recognized the need for military aviation.
Adam Kane, University of Oklahoma Press

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