War effort takes to the skies

Ernest Holdsworth
Ernest Holdsworth

By 1917 the First World War had ground into a war of attrition in the trenches of the Western Front with the appalling number of casualties, killed and wounded, crippling the effectiveness of both sides in the conflict.

War on the ground was becoming bogged down in the fields of Flanders during what became known as the Third Battle of Ypres as abnormally heavy rains in August lashed down on the troops.

September was a better month for weather but the deluge re-commenced in October, leaving the battlefield one massive swamp that could drown a man in minutes if he slip off the sodden duckboards, that ran through the trenches, into the morass.

War in the air was a new development in this first highly technological war. An aeroplane had first lifted off the ground less than 15 years before with the celebrated first flight by the Wright Brothers in 1903. The Royal Flying Corps, the air wing of the British Army, had only been created a couple of years before the start of war and to say it was a fledgling organisation is an understatement.

Aircraft were flimsy, made mostly from wood and canvas, many with a top speed of less than 100mph. Pilot training was rudimentary. Pilots were recruited mostly from the army, given army ranks and regulated by army laws. Squadrons were formed to operate within the RFC structure.

Many of the planes, such as the BE2 series, were two-seater with room for a pilot and an observer. Often the pilots were under the command of the observer, usually an officer, and only later in the war did pilots take on the more dominant role.

German planes were technically better than the British craft, faster and more mobile, the pilots more experienced. Training with the RFC was rudimentary and the life expectancy of a pilot was rated at six weeks. Some 8,000 pilots died in training accidents. This balance of power, however, slowly change so that by late 1917 the British air arm was on a par with its German counterparts. The final year of the war saw the British finally win the air battle … and the war itself.

Some single seater airplanes were built as the nature of war in the air changed from reconnaissance duties to a more attack minded stance of strafing and bombing. Typical of this type of aircraft was the French designed Nieuport Scout plane, whose role changed in a short period of time from reconnaissance to fighter.

The Northumbria World War One project, researching the war’s casualties from the borough, has uncovered 20 young men who died fighting the air war, including 19-year-old 2nd Lieutenant Ernest Holdsworth. He was killed in aerial combat flying a Nieuport on September 23, 1917, close to the deadly Ypres Salient, after being shot in the head, careering straight into the ground below. His death left behind many sorrowing friends and family, especially his grandmother whom he stayed with at The Crescent in Whitley Bay. He is buried in Mendinghem Military Cemetery near Ypres.

If you have any details on any casualties from North Tyneside, visit www.northumbriaworldwarone.co.uk or call in at B9 in the Linskill Centre, Linskill Terrace, North Shields, Monday to Friday from 10am to 4pm, or send me an email, tommy@northumbriaworldwarone.co.uk