Background to the Conflict
In 1917, British Prime Minister Lloyd George
famously lauded airmen as “the knighthood of
this war.” A year later, in an introduction to a
posthumous biography of French ace Georges
Guynemer, Prime Minister Clemenceau wrote
with grandiloquence, addressing the public’s
fascination with the 20th century’s ultimate
combatant: “A new warfare has surged upward
from the depths of the unexpected. The pomp
and decorum of chivalrous actions in which our
ancestors delighted, the very ostentation of the
Napoleonic plumes...have given way to silent
ranks of phantoms, wrapped in formless rags.
They are petrified with mud, making their way
through subterranean paths...while others fly in
their winged machines—supreme humiliation
of Pegasus—for voiceless combats in the infinite
space of the blue vault.”
Howe ver, the reality lagged behind the oratory.
In truth, it took nearly two years for air forces to
deliver on the potential of fighter aviation.
According to legend—if not history—the first
ace was prewar French flier Roland Garros, the
first to cross the Mediterranean. In early 1915, he
was said to have shot down five German aircraft,
using steel plates to deflect bullets fired through
the propeller arc of his Morane-Saulnier. That
April, he actually downed three before he fell
The first “genuine” aces were two other French-
men: Adolphe Pégoud (allegedly the first to per-
form a loop) and Eugène Gilbert. Both made
their fifth claims by June 1915.
Pégoud and possibly Gilbert,
however, achieved nonlethal
victories among their totals.
Through 1915, there were few
genuine fighter aircraft: single-
seaters with forward-firing
machine guns. The Fokker Ein-
decker series was the first with
a synchronized Maxim shoot-
ing through the prop arc, while
Nieuports with wing-mounted
Lewis guns served most of the
Allies. The Royal Flying Corps
(RFC) fielded the inadequate
Vickers F.B. 5 “Gunbus,” with
a gunner deploying a forward-
firing Lewis ahead of the pilot.
One of the more success-
ful British “fighters” was the
government-built F.E.2, a large
two-seat pusher deployed as a fighter in early
1916. The “bathtub” configuration featured a
pilot seated high behind the gunner, who fired
Lewises forward and astern over the top wing.
Though ungainly, the “Fee” could be dangerous:
It defeated several German aces.
Additionally, in 1916, Airco delivered the
single-seat DH.2, also with a nacelle-mounted
forward-firing gun. As a pusher, the type’s maneuverability made it a contender, despite its rudi-
The Dutch aircraft designer
Anthony Fokker poses
with a Fokker E.II (“E” for
Eindecker, or monoplane).
The Eindecker’s synchronized
Maxim gun revolutionized
aerial combat and gave
early German aces, such
as Max Immelmann and
Oswald Boelcke, a decided
edge over their enemies.
(Photo courtesy of Greg van