Measuring apples and oranges

In England and the Aeroplane, David Edgerton made the following striking, and oft-cited, point about Britain's aerial strength at the outbreak of the First World War:

Overall, England had fewer aircraft than the other great powers. The total of 113 compares with 120 for France, 232 for Germany, 226 for Russia and 36 for Austro-Hungary. These figures are commonly cited to indicate England’s relative weakness but such a conclusion is based on the assumption that absolute air strength was important in 1914. If we consider what aircraft were for we may reach a different conclusion. Since aircraft were used for reconnaissance by both armies and navies the number of aircraft should be considered in terms of the sizes of each army and navy. If we do this England comes out as the most aeronautically inclined nation, since its mobilised army numbered less than one million men, whereas the French and German armies each had more than three million.1

And he's right. There were few advocates of independent airpower in 1914, as the proper use of aircraft was considered to be to support the army and the navy. And so we shouldn't just compare the number of aircraft possessed by each nation to each other: the numbers need to be contextualised. But how?

Here is Edgerton's argument in tabular form. I've used his numbers for the aircraft figures, and have taken the mobilisation strengths of each nation's army from Niall Ferguson's The Pity of War.2

CountryAircraftSoldiersSoldiers per aircraft

So despite having fewer aircraft than most of the great European powers in absolute terms, Britain actually had more in proportionate terms. Germany may have had twice as many aeroplanes than Britain, but since they had to support a much bigger army they were spread much more thinly: a British army unit had around four times as many aeroplanes to scout for it than its German equivalent.

But wait a moment. Why compare Britain's airpower to the size of its army? Britain was first and foremost a naval power, which is one reason why its army was so much smaller than those on the Continent. If we're trying to establish how seriously it took airpower, wouldn't the correct comparator be the Royal Navy? Indeed, Edgerton does refer to both armies and navies in the above quote, but in the final sentence mentions only armies. Perhaps that is because even the greatest navy in the world didn't add up to much manpower alongside the mighty armies of Europe. But then that's because navies were (and are) much less manpower-intensive than armies. So let's redo the above table in terms of the size of each navy, again drawing on Ferguson.3 (I could use tonnage or numbers of ships but let's keep it simple.)

CountryAircraftSailorsSailors per aircraft

Britain now comes off worse in this comparison, by a considerable margin. If we accept that Britain's army was relatively well-supported with airpower then we must accept that its navy was relatively poorly-supported.

Except ... my analysis here doesn't make much sense: it treats aircraft as all alike, equally likely to be deployed to support the army or the navy as required. Of course, this wasn't the case. When formed in 1912, the RFC had a military and a naval wing, the latter of which had hived off to become the Royal Naval Air Service by the outbreak of war in 1914. The other powers had similar divisions, whether more or less formal, although Britain had the largest naval air arm -- which doesn't necessarily mean it had the largest naval air arm relative to the size of its navy. So instead of a column for 'aircraft', there should be columns for 'military aircraft' and 'naval aircraft'.

Here is the first table redone purely in terms of military aircraft. Edgerton doesn't split up the aircraft numbers into naval and military (except for Britain), so I have got the latter from John Morrow's The Great War in the Air.4 Despite being for military aircraft alone, they are generally higher than Edgerton's figures because he used only 'first line' aircraft (for comparison, he credited the RFC with 63 and the RNAS with 50). Despite this, the ratios of soldiers to aircraft come out pretty much the same, i.e. in line with Edgerton's argument.

CountryMilitary aircraftSoldiersSoldiers per aircraft

And here's the second table above, redone with naval aircraft only. The data here are taken from R. D. Layman's Naval Aviation in the First World War.5 Again, these are aeroplanes of all states, even if they are unserviceable, trainers, etc. The result is that Britain comes off a bit better: it doesn't have the worst ratio of sailors to aeroplanes but is in the middle, about equal with Russia and a bit better than Germany. And Austria-Hungary has the most lavish levels of naval aviation support.

CountryNaval aircraftSailorsSailors per aircraft

So if you accept my premise that Britain's airpower in 1914 should be measured by its seapower, I think I've made my point (though my tweeted claim was wrong): it was under-resourced, though not terribly so. But having said that, Edgerton is still right insofar as British aviation was well-prepared for fighting over land, compared with its likely allies and enemies.

One caveat: despite saying 'aircraft' the numbers I've used don't include airships, which most air forces had at the outbreak of war in 1914. I can get numbers of airships pretty easily, but should they simply be added to the number aeroplanes? No: a single airship represented a considerably greater investment of resources than a single aeroplane, so some other method should be used to capture both types of aircraft: total number of airmen, total aviation funding, total number of engines, total weight of aircraft, and so on. I haven't been able to find a decent set of these, so I've left it as is.

Finally: just for fun, here's Edgerton's aircraft figures (which, remember, are both military and naval aircraft) against the total military and naval personnel for each nation, taken from Paul Kennedy's The Rise and Fall of the Great Powers (I think for standing forces only, i.e. before mobilisation).6

CountryAircraftSoldiers and sailorsMen per aircraft

Britain doesn't do too badly, but it doesn't do as well as its partner in antagonism, Germany. That's one for the Kaiser, then.

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  1. David Edgerton, England and the Aeroplane: An Essay on a Militant and Technological Nation (Basingstoke and London: Macmillan Academic and Professional, 1991), 10. []
  2. Niall Ferguson, The Pity of War (London: Allen Lane, 1998), 92. On Ferguson's numbers, Britain's strength actually fell after mobilisation, so I presume there's a typo somewhere, or maybe he's using the BEF as the mobilised strength. It flatters Edgerton's position so I'll keep it. []
  3. Ibid., 85. []
  4. John H. Morrow, The Great War in the Air: Military Aviation from 1909 to 1921 (Washington, D.C.: Smithsonian Institution Press, 1993). []
  5. R. D. Layman, Naval Aviation in the First World War: Its Impact and Influence (Annapolis: Naval Institute Press, 1996), appendix 1. []
  6. Paul Kennedy, The Rise and Fall of the Great Powers: Economic Change and Military Conflict from 1500 to 2000 (London, Sydney and Wellington: Unwin Hyman, 1988), 203. []

13 thoughts on “Measuring apples and oranges

  1. Very interesting. I wonder about the relative effectiveness of the naval air arms - the German navy seems to have had most use from its Zeppelins, both for reconnaissance and for strategic bombing, whereas the RNAS seems to have used fixed-wing aircraft successfully almost from the beginning of the war, whether on land (the Nov 1914 Friedrichshafen raids) or at sea (Dec 1914 Cuxhaven Raid.) In fact, with its armoured cars and land-based aircraft the RNAS sometimes seems to have been in competition with the army as much as carrying out its naval roles...

  2. Erik Lund

    What jumps out at me from the numbers is just how not-small-at-all the British armed forces actually were in 1914. The numbers might not translate into many divisions in the field in France, but there are other interesting lines of comparison possible.

  3. What jumps out at me from the numbers is just how not-small-at-all the British armed forces actually were in 1914.

    I suppose that's because Britain was a predominantly naval power, and naval manpower didn't expand at mobilization in the same way that continental army manpower did. You fought the war with more or less the same number of sailors that you had in peacetime.

    By contrast, Germany had a surprisingly small peacetime army in 1914 given the size of its population: partly because of the difficulty the federal government had in raising revenue, and partly because of socio-political objections to expansion by the Junker class (who baulked at the idea of giving Social Democrats rifles). Once war actually broke out, of course, the German Army grew enormously.

  4. Post author

    Churchill's restlessless helped, but related to this was the fact that the RNAS had little else to do in the early part of the war. By the same token, the RFC had a lot on its plate, and few resources to spare for anything other than observation.

    On the size of Britain's armed forces, those numbers would also include colonial commitments (but exclude the Indian Army).

  5. Neil Datson

    All very interesting.

    Note that the number of military aircraft (taken in its crudest sense) would give first place to Germany and second to Russia. Therefore a glib case could be made to promote the idea that Russia was more 'advanced' in respect of airpower than Britain and France. Edgerton was (in my view very soundly) debunking the 'the British were backward' school of air power historians. Oddly, I've never read a single article that contrasts British backwardness with Russian progress.

    Brett: On the issue of the the RNAS I will suggest that it wasn't really a case of it having 'little else to do'. Rather it was its curious status as a sort of semi-detached part of the navy.

    This may (in a back-handed sort of way) have been a consequence of Churchill's appointment:

    '. . . it was common gossip amongst junior officers, no doubt with very little foundation, that the Sea Lords had gladly given the forceful young First Lord a free hand over air matters in order to divert him from interfering with the Grand Fleet.' (Fisher to Churchill, 1911 letter, quoted in Till, Air Power and the Royal Navy.)

    The other important factor was the appointment of Sueter as Director of the Air Department in 1912. For all Sueter's abilities he was (like Montgomery I seem to recall) hell to serve over. No doubt many in the Admiralty were only too happy to allow him to get on with things, which he did with immense vigour. (Even Churchill noted that Sueter needed checking.)

    The consequences were that in 1914 the RN had an air arm that was brimming with ideas and energy, but which it didn't control. Its doctrine was written on the hoof by Sueter and Churchill. Sueter was able to base the seaplane carriers at Harwich, Churchill sent a detachment to Ostend, while Jellicoe's pleas for an air reconnaissance capability were largely ignored.

  6. Some interestiong figures there. Interesting that Britain does not come out too badly. I wonder how this would change if simialr table were produced for the end of the war. How would Britain compare then, especially when we have the first independent air force. However, while measuring it against the navy is useful we should remeber that RFC is part of the army. Therefore, the measure of it against military manpower would be more useful as this is the organisation that it is part of. Perhaps this is indicative of the organisation of air power at the start of the war.

  7. Post author


    I don't disagree that individual personalities had a lot to do with how the RNAS was used at the start of the war. But that's not an inconsistent with it being otherwise underemployed. The RFC wasn't in the mainstream of Army life before 1914 either and yet the ground troops made increasingly heavy use of it as the war grew in scale. Jellicoe may have been denied aerial reconnaissance for his fleet; but if he had been heavily engaged in fighting the German navy in the North Sea I doubt that would have happened. It wasn't just the RNAS that didn't have all that much to do, either, the Navy as a whole initially had a surplus of men which is why a whole Naval Division was eventually formed.

  8. Neil Datson


    I've been meaning to get back on this one for a while. Apologies for the delay.

    Your reply to my earlier comment doesn't wholly convince me. Obviously in 1914-15 all fighting arms were fumbling towards air doctrines. Yet the case of the RNAS is unusual.

    Seaplanes were used successfully in the 1913 manouvres, especially to detect submarines. According to Marder, some officers were already speculating about the possibilities of an aerial depth charge. So the RN was starting to see a vital role for aircraft in supporting surface vessels before WWI.

    I can't agree that the RN was underemployed in 1914. Arguably it was more stretched than at any time later in the war. It didn't do a lot of fighting, but that's another matter. Its main employment was bottling up the High Sea Fleet, which was an absolutely critical job. Jellicoe badly wanted good air reconnaissance (and to deny air reconnaissance to the HSF) in order to bring the enemy to battle on favourable terms, and prevent his fleet falling into U-boat traps. To object that he wasn't actually fighting the HSF is to put the cart before the horse. Even as late as August 1916 (when the HSF made a sortie) Jellicoe was left rueing the superiority of German air reconnaissance, which he believed had enabled the HSF to evade him. The German reconnaissance was actually nowhere near as good as the British thought it was, but they were right about their own shortcomings.

    At the outbreak of war Churchill (unilaterally?) relieved the RFC of the air defence of Britain. He then sent a component over to Ostend on the very Churchillian grounds that the best form of defence is attack. Meanwhile Sueter was free to launch the Christmas Day raid of 1914. Neither of them showed much interest in putting air resources at the disposal of the surface fleets. When Fisher returned as First Sea Lord one of his first actions was to commence the Blimp programme, which proved useful for anti-submarine patrols later in the war. (As indeed did aeroplanes, seaplanes and flying-boats.)

  9. Post author

    I still don't think there's any necessary incompatibility between our respective views. Quite the opposite. If you object to my characterisation of the Navy as 'underemployed' in 1914, fair enough. You're right that it had lots to do. I'll restate it as: the sea was not where the critical fighting was to be found. The Navy couldn't directly contribute to staving off defeat (or winning victory) on the Western Front, aside from its role in protecting the BEF as it crossed the Channel. For somebody with Churchill's temperament, who always liked to be part of the action, this would have chafed. So on this view Antwerp was to the Admiralty as Sidney Street was to the Home Office, and after that Churchill busied himself with schemes for land ironclads and so forth. But if the Grand Fleet had been duking it out with the High Seas Fleet in decisive Mahanian battles, you can bet your bottom shilling that Churchill would have been camped out in the Admiralty's radio room, if not Jellicoe's flagship, instead. The lack of fighting at sea both drove Churchill to look elsewhere for action, and allowed (some) naval resources to be redeployed to fight on (or over) land.

    The issue of home air defence also fits in with this view. Churchill didn't unilaterally take it over from the Army; the latter consented because every RFC plane and man that could fly went with the BEF (so much so that it seriously impaired the remaining RFC units' training and replacement functions). Home air defence was a sideshow that the Army was happy to be rid off so that it could concentrate its forces in the decisive arena. Churchill, again characteristically, took this opening and ran with it. Again, if there had been major fleet actions to support with the RNAS, I doubt he would have been so concerned about Britain's air defence.

  10. Neil Datson

    Sure, there's no great quarrel here. And I didn't mean to imply that Churchill 'nicked' air defence from the RFC, far from it. Simply that he committed the RNAS to air defence without consulting within the Admiralty.

    Yet the Grand Fleet's problem remained. Obviously, with the benefit of hindsight, we know that the HSF would never have got involved in a fleet action on anything like even terms. Probably no amount of air resources (certainly of the sort that could have been available) would actually have helped Jellicoe bring one about. But Churchill, Jellicoe, etc didn't know how timidly it was to be used. More and better air resources would have given Jellicoe more confidence, but they could only have been provided well in advance of any fleet action. Once the HSF put to sea it was months (if not years) too late to deploy them.

    Also, I'm not so sure about:

    'the sea was not where the critical fighting was to be found. The Navy couldn’t directly contribute to staving off defeat (or winning victory) on the Western Front, aside from its role in protecting the BEF as it crossed the Channel.'

    Throughout the war the RN was vital to staving off defeat. As Churchill himself observed, Jellicoe was the only man on either side who could lose the war in an afternoon. (And in 1917, of course, the U-boat offensive brought Britain close to defeat.) Certainly the Grand Fleet wasn't fighting great battles, but it was winning a truly Mahanian strategic victory.

  11. Post author

    Sure, but that's why I said 'on the Western Front' :) The Navy was vital, yes, but nobody ever said that Jellicoe was the only man who could win the war, in an afternoon or even a year.

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