The Perils of Technology: Aviation During the First World War


The First World War was the first in which air warfare played a significant part. While aircraft were ultimately to change the face of warfare, the demands of the war provided a rapid boost to this very new technology.

At the outbreak of the war effective powered flight was a technology not much more than ten years old, but each of the participating countries already had an armed air service of some sort. The allies had 208 aeroplanes between them, and Germany 180.  There were also airships, which initially seemed better-tried and more practical, although their importance diminished as the war progressed.  The British aircraft were split between the Royal Flying Corps (RFC), under the command of the army, and the Royal Naval Air Service (RNAS), under the command of the Navy.  These were merged to form the Royal Air Force (RAF) in 1918.

The types of aircraft in use were very varied, because each country had several of their own manufacturers and models of aircraft, and almost any machine which was available might be pressed into service. Aircraft models evolved rapidly, as technology was improved, and the needs of the war changed.

Initially, aeroplanes were regarded as primarily useful for reconaissance, and stable two-seaters, such as the British B.E.2, were preferred.  These were not very manoeuvreable and were poor at defending themselves or evading enemy anti-aircraft guns, which led to the development of fast, single-seater fighters, such as the French S.P.A.D.

The Germans made parallel developments; their early reconnaisance aircraft including monoplanes with distinctive swept-back, birdlike wings, such as the Rumpler Taube.  By the end of the war bigger, heavier aircraft designed for bombing had been developed.

From the beginning of the war both allied and German air forces had to establish, for the first time, how to make their aircraft recognisable, both to other airmen and to those on the ground. National markings were rapidly adopted, and by the beginning of 1915 both French and British authorities had produced posters showing silhouettes of enemy aircraft, entitled ‘Fire on these’.

In late 1914 or early 1915 the French produced the very first book of aircraft silhouettes for recognition purposes, Silhouettes D’Avions, Diagrams of Aeroplanes. These were produced with text in French and English and distributed to both troops and airmen.  An alternative version was produced on cards, for better durability.  Updated editions and supplements were issued to reflect new developments.  We hold two versions of this in our collections – the very first edition, showing French, British and German aircraft of late 1914, and a supplement of French aircraft from September 1915


Examination of the two shows just why these publications were of limited success in preventing both ground troops and airmen from attacking the wrong aircraft. The pictures are not very high quality, and do not show up the main features of the individual aircraft particularly clearly, especially to an untrained eye.   Take the picture of the B.E.2 – it is quite difficult to make out that it is trying to indicate that the upper wings are longer than the lower ones.

The illustrations for the two editions are printed from different artwork, which shows up ambiguities in the lines.  The Parasol Morane is included in both.  In one illustration there are lines which might be either substantial structural struts, or nearly invisible cable, but all of which are omitted from the other picture entirely.

The S.P.A.D. was a very common aeroplane type, but it takes some effort to work out from its picture that the propeller was located in the middle of its fuselage.

There is even one illustration we have not been able to identify, the Avion de Chasse Morane, which does not seem to entirely correspond to any aircraft made by the Morane company and which was used during the war, that we can find a modern record of!

These manuals were all produced in a hurry; they illustrate only a selection of models, and do not show variants or all the latest developments of equipment. Even more confusing, not to say downright unhelpful, is the earlier edition, which summarises all the other British models of aircraft as being similar to the ones illustrated.

Towards the end of the First World War the problems of distinguishing aircraft, while not solved, were somewhat reduced. In 1917 the RFC ordered 1000 Bristol Fighter aircraft, so that although there were still many different models of aeroplane in the skies, there began to be some standardisation.  More successfully, in early 1918 the French set up a ‘Flying circus’ which toured examples of the different models of their aircraft around the British airfields.  This had the happy result of not only familiarising the RFC with the appearance of the different models, but the opportunity to compare performance and develop some camerarderie with the French aviators.

Despite the shortcomings of these identification manuals, this approach continues to be used today, better pictures and combining it with other methods of teaching improving its effectiveness, although today it is more likely to be used by enthusiasts for civilian aircraft, and combined with a mobile phone app for detecting and tracking aircraft.


The Battle of Jutland – 100 years on

This week sees the hundredth anniversary of the Battle of Jutland, the largest and most important naval engagement of the First World War, and also a particularly Scottish event, as the majority of the British ships involved set out from Scottish ports – from Rosyth on the Forth, up to Scapa Flow in Orkney.

As the Navy, the politicians and VIPs, heavy security and the media descend on Orkney this week, it seemed an appropriate moment to see what we could find in our collections of the contemporary reporting and commentary on the battle.

The outcome of the battle of Jutland was complex: the losses of British ships and lives were far higher than the Germans’; but, it was a tactical advantage in that Britain retained control of the seas, maintained the blockade of German shipping and ultimately it contributed to winning the war.   However, immediately after the battle the longer-term consequences were not obvious and the consequences of the confused action were very much open to interpretation.

Jutland, was, for the Admiralty, a media disaster: the German High Seas Fleet, having retreated to port, issued prompt communiques declaring it their victory.  The Admiralty was unable to report so rapidly; the British fleet was still at sea, and they had no information.  When they did issue their own communique it was so badly worded as to make the British media interpret it as a defeat.

This was embarrassing.  The situation inspired the Admiralty to start a systematic propaganda campaign, as well as a review of how they handled these matters.

Their propagandist of choice was Rudyard Kipling – famous, influential, very much in support of the war, but long sympathetic to the lot of the ordinary soldier or sailor.  He was already writing general newspaper articles for the Admiralty – three were ready for publication when Jutland happened, appearing in The Times in late June 1916.  Kipling’s visits to the Fleet in connection with these had made contacts among the officers, and he had heard first-hand accounts of the battle as soon as a week after it happened.   In August he was provided with all the official reports, and in October four articles were published in The Daily Telegraph.

SB 82391 Kipling sea warfare c

These begin by outlining a positive interpretation of the battle, stressing the confusion of the action and the difficulty for those involved of being sure what was happening.  The rest of the articles, consistently upbeat in tone, consist of anecdotes showing the bravery, resourcefulness and ingenuity of the men involved, in overcoming battle damage, hitting their enemy targets, and getting their ships home.  They owe as much to Kipling’s contacts among the ships’ crews as to the official reports, and are as colourful in the telling as his fictional stories.  Indeed, they are openly somewhat fictionalised to avoid disclosing military intelligence.

From a modern perspective the thing which seems odd about these is the timing.  In our modern instant-news culture a series of lengthy articles would be unlikely to be published four and a half months after the event, and certainly not as a means to win round public opinion in that way.  What is even more alien to modern media culture, is that these, along with Kipling’s other articles for the Admiralty, were republished in book form before the end of 1916.

SB 82391 Kipling sea warfare b

However, the book version interspersed the articles with verse, and acquired a greater nuance of interpretation than that conveyed by the original articles alone.  The Jutland section of the book opens with ‘My Boy Jack’, a reflection on the dead.  This undoubtedly carries some of Kipling’s feelings about the loss of his own son at the battle of Loos the previous year, framed in naval terms.

SB 82391 Kipling sea warfare d

Our copy of Sea Warfare, can be consulted in the Centre for Research Reading Room, shelfmark: S.B. 82391 Kip.

‘Der Tag’, Grand Fleets, and ‘Kia ora’: HMS New Zealand and the surrender of the German High Seas Fleet, 21st November, 1918

In March 1991 the Government of New Zealand presented Edinburgh University Library with the Library of New Zealand House, London. The New Zealand Studies Collection has recently been catalogued and is now fully accessible via our online catalogue.


One item which came to light in the process was a copy of Onward : H.M.S. New Zealand, detailing the ship’s construction and record of service in the First World War.


She was built by Fairfield Shipbuilding & Engineering Co., Govan, Glasgow, being commissioned on the 19th November, 1912. The cost of her construction was met by the Dominion of New Zealand, who then gave her to the British Navy.


She had a very active wartime service record, being present at the Battle of Heligoland Bight (August, 1914); the Battle of Dogger Bank (January, 1915); the Battle of Jutland (May-June, 1916); Second Battle of Heligoland Bight (November, 1917); during 1918 she was occasionally used on escort duty for convoys sailing between Britain and Norway, and was present at the time of the surrendering of the German High Seas Fleet in the Forth, in November, 1918.

Our copy is full of manuscript annotations from its original owner, P.J. Voyzey, Wardroom Messman. He lists all the ships he served on though a naval career of 38 years, spanning both world wars. He was on board H.M.S. New Zealand from 1917 to 1919, and so, presumably, was there at the surrender of the German Fleet.

With the signing of the Armistice on 11th November, 1918, the First World War was over. One stumbling block was the Allied powers’ failure to reach an agreement on what should happen to the German surface fleet. It was the suggestion of Admiral Rosslyn Wemyss that the fleet be interned in at Scapa Flow, Orkney, Scotland, to await a decision. The Grand Fleet would guard the German ships and their skeleton crews.

Germany was instructed to have her High Seas Fleet ‘ready to sail’ by the 18th November. Admiral Beatty, aboard his flagship, HMS Queen Elizabeth, had several meetings with Admiral von Hipper’s representative, Rear-Admiral Meurer, where the terms of surrender were worked out: U-boats would surrender to Rear-Admiral Tyrwhitt at Harwich; the surface fleet would sail to the Firth of Forth and surrender to Admiral Beatty. Thereafter, the fleet would be escorted to Scapa Flow to be interned.



The surrender was executed with great formality and as a great spectacle. Our collections include this framed chart showing the position of all the ships involved.  H.M.S. New Zealand is in the group in the top left-hand corner.

german fleet detail

Von Hipper refused to surrender the fleet himself, passing on the duty to Rear-Admiral von Reuter. On the morning of 21st November the light cruiser Cardiff met the German fleet, and led it to the rendezvous with the 250 ships of the British Grand Fleet and flotillas of the other allies. In all 70 German ships sailed that day: König (battleship) and Dresden (light cruiser), suffering engine trouble, were left behind. V30 (destroyer) was extremely unlucky in striking a mine en route and promptly sinking.

The German fleet was then escorted into the Firth of Forth. Once anchored, Beatty signalled:

The German flag will be hauled down at sunset today and will not be hoisted again without permission.


After nine months in Scapa Flow, waiting for a final decision on the fate of the fleet, Rear-Admiral von Reuter decided to scuttle the fleet rather than let it fall into hands of the British Navy. On 21st June 1919, after months of secret preparations – welding bulkhead doors open, laying charges and disposing of vital keys – the order to scuttle was given. Fifty-two ships were sunk while twenty were beached by the British Navy.

After the war H.M.S. New Zealand took Admiral Jellicoe on a tour of naval defences throughout the British Dominions, including Australia and New Zealand. She was sold for scrap in 1922, her armaments being regarded as obsolete. Various of her guns and other equipment were returned to New Zealand for re-use, and two were placed in front of the Auckland War Memorial Museum.

It took until 1944/45 for the Government of New Zealand to finally pay off the loan used to fund the construction of the ship.

Kia ora (“be well/be healthy”): a Māori native language greeting. It also forms the half- and running-titles of the book Onward : H.M.S. New Zealand.