Though the first powered flight had only taken place five years earlier, aircraft had first been used in war by the Italians against the Turks in Libya in 1911, and by 1914, the French, British and Germans all had an aerial fighting force. Initially, German planes dominated the air by virtue of their far superior fighters, which were engineered with “interruptor gear”, a mechanism that allowed bullets to be fired straight through the propellor. Continuing technological developments would see each side enjoy periods of superiority throughout the war.
Aircraft were useful multi-taskers. Their role in offering aerial reconnaissance was essential, as confirmed by The Sphere in early 1916, which dubbed them “The Eyes of the Army”, but they were also used for dropping bombs. Preventing aircraft access to the airspace over the enemy’s lines and feeding back intelligence was essential.
Pilots of early aircraft would be expected to fire with a pistol or sawn-off shotgun while continuing to navigate his machine. The ensuing aerial dogfights soon became one of the most dramatic subjects for magazine artists, though a certain amount of artistic licence depicted these duels of the sky as more romantic and daring than they often were.
G. H. Davis, as a member of the Royal Flying Corps during the war, could draw from first-hand experience and had a number of paintings published in The Sphere during this time. One of his illustrations shows a British pilot dropping a wreath for a comrade’s grave in the German’s lines, which was picked up by the Germans on the ground and placed on the British aviator’s grave.
It’s only one example of the legendary chivalrous code of conduct practised among the men of the air. Manfred Von Richthoften, the famous German flying ace known as the “Red Baron’, was buried by the British with full military honours when he was eventually killed in action in 1918.
The intrepid and pioneering spirit of wartime aviation heralded a new area of interest for the ILN magazines. The Bystander and The Sphere regularly brought out a “Special Flying Number” during and after the war.