Tag Archives: Allies

Over Here: American Aviation during the First World War

Handley Page Aircraft, between ca. 1915 and ca. 1920. Picture courtesy of Library of Congress http://www.loc.gov/pictures/item/ggb2006002611/                                                           Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division Washington, D.C. 20540 USA http://hdl.loc.gov/loc.pnp/pp.print

In this latest Guest Blog, Professor Ross Wilson, from Chichester University, talks about the visiting US forces that were present in West Sussex and their aviation contribution during WW1.

Ross’ project was funded via Gateways to the First World War, an AHRC Funded WW1 Engagement Centre. The joy of this project was that it was locally focused.   The Chichester News also featured the project in detail, remarking on technology, training and personal histories.

When the United States entered the war in April 1917 the need to expand their armed services was matched by a pressing issue of modernisation. Whilst the army and the navy could be developed, the nation had fallen behind Britain, France, Italy and Germany in one key area: aviation. Over the course of their engagement in the First World War, new aeroplane designs, engines and services were created that brought American aviation up to speed and sparked a new era of fascination for flight in the post-war era.

This wartime development of military aviation in the United States can be traced to the factories and flight schools that were developed after 1917. Workshops that had been making automobiles, were quick to produce the famous, powerful ‘Liberty’ engine that could outperform its European competitors. American universities and colleges also began training students as the US Government realised the enormous gulf between themselves and their new allies. The Aviation Section, Signal Corps, of the United States Army expanded rapidly with an extensive recruitment drive.

However, the site of these advances in aviation were also located in the American aerodromes that began to be constructed in Italy, France and Britain. These military bases enabled the United States to share knowledge, training and tactics with their allies in arrangements that set the basis of international military alliances during the twentieth century. Contracts were signed between the allies and manufacturers which provides materials and land.

It was the Handley Page Agreement of January 1918 that brought Americans to Sussex. This would offer access to a new development in aviation technology: the Handley Page Bomber. This huge machine, with a wing-span of over 20 metres, was designed to conduct raids into enemy territory. It was regarded as a key part of the development of the United States’s arsenal. The agreement enabled:

“…assembling Handley Page machines in the United Kingdom, of which all the component parts have been manufactured in the United States, and for providing thirty Handley Page Squadrons to be entirely at the disposal of the Commander in Chief of the United States Army in Europe.

This was a highly ambitious plan. Construction and shipment of the parts were to commence immediately with the following targets:

  • May 1918: 50 aeroplanes with 125 Liberty motors
  • June 1918: 100 aeroplanes with 250 Liberty motors
  • July 1918: 160 aeroplanes with 400 Liberty motors

Aerial photograph of Ford Aerodrome in 1918, courtesy of the New York Public Library Digital Collections: The Miriam and Ira D. Wallach Division of Art, Prints and Photographs: Photography Collection, The New York Public Library. “View of Ford Aerodrome taken from the air. Ford [] Aerodrome, Sussex England, Oct. 23, 1918.” The New York Public Library Digital Collections. 1860 – 1920. http://digitalcollections.nypl.org/items/510d47d9-b379-a3d9-e040-e00a18064a99
The parts would be shipped to a factory in Oldham from the United States and then delivered to training bases in Sussex. Five sites were selected for aerodromes but only Ford, Rustington and Tangmere were constructed with hangars, classrooms and barracks in place by August 1918. Individuals were assigned duties at these locations but delays in manufacturing meant that none of the Handley Page Bombers ever arrived. Instead, pilots, navigators and ground crew trained on two smaller aircraft:

  • Royal Aircraft Factory B.E.2
  • Airco DH.4 (De Havilland)

A strict regime of training was set out at these bases. Many of the pilots had been avid aviators before the war and the thrill of this new and precarious technology attracted the free-spirited and brave. Therefore, instruction focused on discouraging any techniques unsuitable for military purposes:

“All pilots are warned that “stunting” over hangars, diving over troops, transports, camps, villages or towns is expressly forbidden.”

Picture Courtesy of Library of Congress: By Louis D Fancher 1844-1944.  A poster for recruiting for the Aviation Section, Signal Corps “Over there! Skilled workers On the ground behind the lines” – In the Air Service / / Louis Fancher. Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division Washington, D.C. 20540 USA http://www.loc.gov/pictures/item/93502849/

 

 

The arrival of Americans in Sussex was warmly received by local residents and social events were arranged to welcome the newcomers whilst baseball games and music shows were used to develop good relationships with locals. An ‘American Club’ was founded in North Pallant, Chichester, in the summer of 1918 to make servicemen feel at home and romantic relationships saw a few local Sussex women go to the United States after the war.

This was a period of experimentation and aviation was a very dangerous area of military development. As such, a number of American aviators sadly lost their lives at the aerodromes in Sussex. For example, Second Lieutenant Carlton Merrill Bliss (1895-1918) from Massachusetts, died at Tangmere in November 1918, in a crash probably caused by a malfunctioning control. He was buried at Brookwood American Military Cemetery in Surrey.

Brookwood American Military Cemetery in Surrey – Photograph Courtesy of Professor Ross Wilson

Whilst the aerodromes in Sussex were quickly decommissioned in November 1918, the legacy of the expansion of American aviation can be witnessed in the interwar development of the United States Air Force as the Signal Corps was found to be insufficient. This history highlights how the conflict can be measured in the physical construction of factories, aerodromes and military capabilities, but also the social relationships that were formed between people away from the front who would never have met save for the conditions of wartime.

 

The Middle East and World War One

Nowhere in the world did the First World War have such profound or long-lasting effects than the Middle East. Carrie Dunn reports on an Early Career Fellowship that’s helping to shine a light on a crucial period of world history.

An AHRC-funded research project is the first study of the ideas behind the West’s attempt to replace the Ottoman Empire after the First World War and their consequences.

Dr James Renton of Edge Hill University is looking at the British Empire’s development of the concept of the ‘Middle East’, a system based on the principle of nationality – which also resulted in a plethora of violent ethnic, religious and nationalist conflicts.

He argues that the work is vital to understanding the problems across the region today.

“There’s been an explosion of interest in how the West has understood the Middle East, and the relationship between that understanding and imperialism and colonialism, and it was clear to me that there wasn’t a recognition that there was a massive change at the time of the First World War.”

The British hoped to mobilise support for the Allies and secure post-war control of strategically important areas in the region by claiming that they were fighting for a new era of national freedom. They embarked on a huge propaganda campaign to make that case. Renton’s project also examines how the idea of a new age of nationality and freedom succeeded in increasing nationalism among Arabs and Jews.

“I came to realise that this new vision was being presented for political reasons to mobilise the Middle Eastern world behind the war effort,” Renton says. He suggests that the British never expected the Middle East to be genuinely independent because of their racial stereotypes about the people living there – that they were somehow inferior and incapable of governing themselves.

Yet the promotion of national self-determination had the apparently unforeseen effect of mobilising widespread calls for immediate independence, and when that didn’t happen, there was widespread protest and violence.

'Map of the Middle East, 1918
‘Map of the Middle East, 1918’

“Political elites across the Middle Eastern world started to have new expectations of complete national freedom, and so although the British and their French allies stimulated a new vision of the future, it took on a life of its own,”

However, these roars of dissent did not succeed. Instead, the British and French Empires, with the approval of the international community in the newly-established League of Nations, imposed a new autocratic system that remained in place until the beginning of the 21st century.

Renton stresses the complexity of the interactions between the Middle East and the “outside world”. He points out that to attribute many of the current conflicts in the region solely to the impact of the 2003 Iraq invasion or the Arab Spring – as many media debates do – is far too simplistic.

“It’s a picture of complexity that goes back to the First World War,” he says, and he is keen that today’s policymakers understand that, adding: “I’m not talking about some trite effort to learn lessons from the past.

“It’s not about drawing parallels with then and now – it’s making the case that the war marked  the beginning of a system of political instability, with the interaction between this attempt at control and the unleashing of an expectation for national freedom. It’s a wider story that began in 1914 – and it hasn’t ended.”