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War in the Air

The First World War was the first conflict in which aircraft played a part. In 1914, airplanes were still very primitive, and none of the combatants possessed many of them. But the value of the aircraft quickly became apparent, and over the course of the war there were great technological advances and a vast increase in the number of warplanes. Some 24,000 Canadians were involved in the air war, forming a quarter of the strength of the British air forces, and 1,500 of them became casualties.

In the early days of the war, the airplane was used primarily in the role of reconnaissance. As the war progressed, aircraft became more technologically advanced, but this intelligence-gathering role remained their main function. Two-seater scouting aircraft would photograph enemy trenches, spot the fall of artillery fire and locate enemy troop concentrations. Although less romantic than the famous fighter aces, the aircrew of the spotters had a much greater impact on the outcome of the war.

The single-seat fighters were the best known part of the air war. Their most important function was destroying enemy spotter aircraft, but they were soon also fighting each other for command of the air. Successful fighter pilots became heroes; in a war where mechanized killing seemed to overwhelm mere mortals, these "knights of the air" harkened back to the days of chivalry. Some of the most successful -- W.A. "Billy" Bishop, William Barker and Raymond Collishaw, among others -- were Canadians.

Other types of aircraft remained secondary during the First World War. Later in the war, aircraft were used to harass ground troops, but this interdiction role was never decisive. Heavy bombers were developed, and both sides conducted bombing raids on cities. However, these bombers could not carry heavy enough bomb loads, or deliver them accurately enough, to inflict significant damage. Flying boats were used to patrol coastal waters and attack enemy submarines. The Germans used dirigible lighter-than-air craft (the famous Zeppelins) for reconnaissance and bombing, and both sides used tethered balloons for spotting; they were often targets for enemy fighters.