The Sky Their Battlefield II: Air Fighting and Air Casualties of the Great War. British Commonwealth and United States Air Services 1912 to 1919 (RCAF Journal - FALL 2015 - Volume 4, Issue 4)

The Sky Their Battlefield II:Air Fighting and Air Casualties of the Great War. British Commonwealth and United States Air Services 1912 to 1919

By Trevor Henshaw

High Barnet, United Kingdom: Fetubi Books, 2014
406 pages
ISBN: 978-0-9929771-1-5

Review by Major Chris Buckham, CD, MA

Historians undertake two main roles in the course of their studies: one is to gather first-hand recollections, information and statistics, and the other is to interpret and recount that material for future audiences. Author Trevor Henshaw has produced a reference work of enormous breadth and depth, cataloguing the losses, on all fronts, of the British Commonwealth air forces from 1912 until 1919 as well as United States Air Service casualties from 1916 onwards.

The book is structured in a very logical manner with an easy-to-follow layout, ensuring the reader can access quickly and efficiently the information that they are seeking. Commencing with a guide on how to follow the nomenclature of the book, Henshaw has incorporated in excess of 16,800 casualty (wounded, missing and killed) write-ups into the body of the book; they are broken out by year, region and circumstances (accident or combat). He has also referenced thousands of German records in order to confirm Allied losses.

Interspaced within the text is an ongoing narrative of significant events that add an additional dimension to his work. It is very easy to view these losses two-dimensionally, especially given the common structure of presentation; however, Henshaw has provided hundreds of photographs that clearly present the grim results of many an airman’s dream. His interjections highlight interesting events within the chronological layout of the text; thus he identifies, for example, new aircraft introductions; air lessons learned during the Ypres battles; Hindenburg-line preparations; and myriad other information relating to the development, execution and challenges of aircraft design and combat. The central theme, however, of recognizing, as well as identifying the fate of, aircrews remains the primary focus throughout.

Added to this publication is “The Accidents Addendum” that outlines the fates of the 4,530 aircrew who were injured or killed in circumstances not directly related to enemy action. This is both very appropriate and informative, as history tends to forget about those whose sacrifices resulted from old airframes, limited experience, poor air doctrine and a host of other “behind the lines” reasons. Henshaw also incorporates those “other rank” members who were lost, but despite there being no known cause, their sacrifice is no less telling or significant.

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Another aspect of this work that lends weight and credence to it as an outstanding source for future historians is the analysis undertaken by the author of the information that he has gleaned from official records. This represents the second phase of historical relevance: statistics are only as meaningful as the interpretation of what they tell you. His evaluation and presentation in table form of the operational cause factors (i.e., bombing, strafing and reconnaissance) of loss is a goldmine of information in and of itself. His appendices include: “Western Front Losses 1914–18: By Aircraft Type”; “Western Front Losses 1914–18: By Category, Nature of Operations, & Cause”; “The Cost of Aircraft and Engines”; “Important AIR1 Files, in the National Archives, Kew: Air Casualties”; and “RFC [Royal Flying Corps] and RAF [Royal Air Force] Role of Honour Wounded Listings.” Each appendix is presented as useable raw data with emphasis placed upon key aspects and markers, such as casualty rates by aircraft type.

The amount of time and effort associated with researching and cataloguing the information within this book is staggering. The scope and depth of both the analysis and the discussion of what the statistics amount to is second to none. Henshaw has provided a treasure trove of information for the reading public and the future historian as well as a testament to the sacrifice of the personnel of the Royal Flying Corps, the Royal Air Force, Royal Naval Air Service, the Commonwealth air services and the nascent United States Air Service. One only begins to appreciate the vastness of the operations and the geographic scope of the undertaking when it is laid out in a format such as this. Henshaw is to be commended for producing a book of such richness and gravity.


Major Chris Buckham is an air logistics officer presently employed in A5 Plans, 1 Canadian Air Division. He maintains a professional reading blog at www.themilitaryreviewer.blogspot.com.

 

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