War over the Trenches: Air Power and the Western Front Campaigns, 1916-1918

  • Published

War over the Trenches: Air Power and the Western Front Campaigns, 1916–1918 by E. R. Hooton. Ian Allan Publishing, 2010, 352 pp.

The impetus for the rise of American airpower does not begin with Billy Mitchell in the interwar years but within the Anglo-German competition for aerial dominance during World War I. That is just one of the themes that emerge from E. R. Hooton’s superbly researched volume War over the Trenches: Air Power and the Western Front Campaigns, 1916–1918. The author provides the reader with what may be the first detailed study of the contributions of airpower during the war.

Most airpower studies tend to gloss over World War I, focusing on airpower theory and its development afterward but rarely addressing the actual use of airpower in that conflict. One sees the same tendency in the Air Force’s professional military education for officers, resulting in a fairly superficial view of airpower’s contributions. Hooton seeks to fill this gap in historical research by giving the reader comprehensive descriptions (both quantitative and qualitative) of the employment of airpower on the Western Front from 1916 to 1918.

The author chronicles the evolution of airpower at this time by dividing the book into separate periods by chapter. In each, analysis first addresses the campaign from the perspective of the ground commander before discussing the contributions of airpower. Intertwined with the historical accounts is considerable detail about tactical- and operational-level air operations, which Hooton uses to explore the beginnings of many of today’s airpower roles.

For example, he examines the Allied successful campaign in the Somme from June to November 1916, describing the static form of warfare that killed hundreds of thousands of troops in the process of taking small stretches of ground (p. 91). Airpower relieved much of the stalemate. During this battle, British airmen under Marshal of the Royal Air Force Hugh Trenchard flew more than 21,400 combat sorties (p. 124). Regarding the Somme, Hooton documents one of the first realizations of the split between tactical- and operational-level air operations: “Trenchard believed this outer air battle both on the main battle front and on its periphery was the key to success in the Tactical Level inner air battle to keep the enemy air force at arm’s length” (p. 97). Additionally, he notes the emphasis on strategic bombing (a concept applied emphatically in World War II): “Sustained bombing was the other plank of Trenchard’s strategy, the aim being to inflict material damage, to divert enemy resources and to dilute enemy air power on the main battlefront” (p. 113). Between 1916 and 1918, aircraft dropped 25,000–30,000 tons of bombs on the Western Front (p. 77). Compared to the tonnage dropped during the next war, these totals may seem insignificant, but in the context of World War I, they are noteworthy, given the fact that bombing began early in the war with pilots releasing hand-grenade-size explosives directly from the cockpit.

In War over the Trenches, the author offers the reader unparalleled information about air operations on the Western Front in World War I. That said, the reader should buckle in and brace for 65 detailed tables and an impressive list of sources in multiple languages. Clearly, Hooton addresses a fundamental gap in airpower history, having produced a body of knowledge that should be an asset to both the researcher and recreational reader. For today’s airmen, this book makes for a very interesting read—indeed, a must-read for any instructor who needs the context to talk intelligently about the contributions of airpower during World War I, much less the origins of many airpower roles that modern air forces perform today. Even though the author’s extensive research may at times overwhelm the reader with detail, the concepts related in the book will appeal to any airpower professional or enthusiast.

Maj Steven J. Ayre, USAF

Naval Postgraduate School, Monterey, California

"The views expressed are those of the author(s) and do not reflect the official policy or position of the US government or the Department of Defense."