Over a century since the beginning of the Great War: reflections from the sky

(To Carmine Savoia)

The 24 May 1915, one year after the beginning of hostilities, Italy entered the war alongside the Entente powers: France, Great Britain and Russia. In support of its initial neutrality, it referred to the defensive character of the Triple Alliance to which it belonged, albeit with great inconvenience: in fact the alliance with Austria-Hungary represented a real contradiction, considering that to hinder the completion of the Unity The Austrian presence in the north-east of our peninsula was national. With the secret agreements of the "pact of London" of the 26 April 1915, which in addition to the reunification of the unredeemed lands provided for substantial territorial rewards - then disregarded - the situation was unblocked and Italy definitively left the Triple Alliance, siding against the Central Powers. At 4 at the 24 in May, the Italian artillery opened fire on the Austrian positions of the Verle fort, near Levico in the province of Trento. Thus began the First World War for our country: the first large-scale conflict, fought in the trenches, in the mud, which wet not only the lands but also the seas and rivers with the blood of the fallen, one of all the river sacred to the Fatherland, the Piave; but it was also the first war to be three-dimensional, because it was also fought in the skies.

The most expert, at this point - perhaps - will turn up their noses, stating that in reality the first three-dimensional conflict, ie a conflict fought in the three dimensions of the war: terrestrial, naval and air, was the Italian-Turkish one in Libya in the 1911. Quite right. In the Italo-Turkish war the airplane was used for the first time as a weapon of war, so much so that during that conflict the first bombardment of history took place, by one of our pilot, Giulio Gavotti. But there is a "but" that justifies my initial statement: in the Italian-Turkish war there was no Turkish air contingent, so there were no air fights, our airmen did not confront any enemy in the sky and the airplanes were used exclusively as scouts and at most bombers.
Therefore it is legitimate to understand the first world war as the first war fought in all dimensions, while the Italo-Turkish war can be defined as a general test of what we then saw in the Great War. One merit, however, must be given, in addition to this, to the Libyan war of 1911, that is, to have given the "la" to the doctrines of the "Air Power" which will show their validity in the first world war, unlocking the situation of lacerating immobility of the war of trench.

But to make the discussion of these topics more exciting, I would like to give life to a character, a kind of "Unknown Soldier", a pilot, of those many strangers who risked their lives for the Fatherland. A tribute to those who, in silence, did their duty. I will let him tell the war, tell you about how the use of the airplane in battle evolved, of the so-called "Air Power" and I will give him a voice so that he can express his "reflections from heaven":

The first rays of sun illuminate the long and extensive lawn of our airfield. The branches of the trees are motionless, the wind is completely absent and in the sky there are no clouds on the horizon. It also seems that nature has understood that the end of hostilities and this war has come. Today my squadron will make one last sortie on the lands taken from the foreigner and returned to the motherland. Memories run through the mind, fast and clear. Every action in which I participated in this conflict is engraved on my skin.
The pistons of my airplane's engine break the silence of this quiet and signal, with their roar, the last effort that this machine will have to make to decree, also for her, the end of the war. We get up in the air, passing the field and the adjacent hills. The cool wind of the morning wet with moisture caresses my face, while my long scarf flutters on my shoulder, projecting towards the tail of the aircraft, without however escaping from my neck, which must protect from possible ills. It would be the height of a terrible fever at the end of the war, after having flown between bullets for very long years. My last mission, entrusted to me by my colonel, an elegant Cavalry officer, is a reconnaissance mission. I, along with who knows how many other planes of our Royal Army, will have to ascertain the positions of our troops and the retreat of the enemy ones. In a few months there will be important international conferences from which the new political geography of the continent will emerge. There are many interests at stake and so many promises to keep. Who knows what changes we will go against: we hope that the expectations of the combatants will not be betrayed, that a complete national unity will be reached. But I can write about this in a few months, when the die is cast.

My airplane and I hit the valley, we dart through the trees and along the river beds, flying over the houses and lands. The signs of war and its passage are evident: long wounds run between the fields, like a circuit of labyrinths. They are the trenches, where for years they fought, to gain, sometimes, only a few meters. Handkerchiefs of land cost thousands of deaths. Who knows how long it will take because from those trenches flowers are born, so that that atmosphere of terror and death can be disposed of, so that every change is canceled and everything flourishes again.
I think and wonder: how many things has this war changed !? So many, too many. First of all our lives, for some in a definitive way, erasing them.

You, my airplane friend, have changed me for example. Once I was a "knight", I served the Cavalry Weapon, like almost all my fellow pilots, and I went from riding beautiful purebred horses to riding the skies with you. Now I'm a pilot, a modern knight, a knight of the future. But you too, my dear Hanriot HD1, are the fruit of great changes that I see, alive, in you.
This war has changed you airplanes too. It seems a century has passed since that December 17 1903, when for the first time the Wright brothers realized the dream of man par excellence, making a small jump of 12 meters. Instead, little more than ten years have passed.
Look at yourself. You are capable of speeding at 180 km / h and flying with a range of almost 500 km! This too is due to the war. It's sad, it's paradoxical, it's disheartening, but that's the way it is. The need to prevail over the enemy meant that a lot of money was invested in the aircraft. It is very disheartening that in order to fly at this altitude and at this speed, to have such progress for humanity, it was necessary for humanity to kill itself. On the other hand, it was already clear when we fought in Libya that we could no longer rely on airships, the so-called “lighter than air”. There I got the feeling that my first Bleriot XI, the monoplane that replaced my horse, would be only the first of many other aircraft that would dominate the sky with an exponential development. As it became clear that the so-called "heavier-than-air", that is the planes, would have retired the slow and vulnerable dirigibles, unable to withstand an enemy in flight and intense artillery fire, such as those that were expected on the horizon. What Libya did was successful and decisive for this war. So decisive as to elevate the airplane to the perfect weapon of war. So much so as to get to talk about "Air Power." This is how our general Douhet defined it
(Photo): "Air Power is the ability to project a military force into an aerial dimension".

I was able to witness a discussion between my dear colonel and the general, who explained his theory. Air Power, therefore aviation, would be dominant and superior to the other components because it is capable of being asymmetrical, as happened in Libya, where the greater Italian technology, represented by the air component which was instead absent from the Turkish side, made our contingent higher.
Furthermore, it would be superior in that it is fast, and therefore able to be deployed or redeployed quickly depending on the evolution of the conflict, and finally it would also be ubiquitous, that is, able to operate over large distances compared to other naval and land vehicles. , with much shorter times. All this, according to the "Doctrine of Air Power" of General Douhet, made the airplane dominant compared to other means of war.

So the general turned to us pilots and explained to us the importance of obtaining the dominion of the sky, so that whoever had obtained this domain would have automatically controlled also the other dimensions, therefore the land and the sea. And so it was.
In the first year of the war, I remember that there were few fights. The Hunt was not yet developed to such an extent as to have aerial clashes. Basically for two reasons: first of all because the airplanes were used mainly as scouts for the artillery and second because they had been made heavy by a second member on board to which the machine gun was entrusted, weighing down the aircraft, limiting its performance.

But the time for aerial combat came, but above all came the time of my baptism of fire. It was a few weeks since my Squadron was equipped with HD1, the first aircraft designed for the Hunt. By now there was too much crowd in the skies and the clashes became inevitable. The time therefore came to seize the dominion of heaven, as indicated by General Douhet, to control the entire battlefield.
I flew over the skies of Istrana, with a very young pilot in the wing, when we flew an Austrian fighter pair. I immediately gained a further quota, worried about the young wingman in the wing, hoping to be able to move ahead of the enemy, hoping that I had not already been identified. Fortunately this was not the case. When the enemy formation became aware of our presence it broke and descended. So we started in pursuit. Four airplanes competed for that portion of the sky, performing innumerable maneuvers, with machine-gun fire looming sometimes over one and sometimes over the other, with the propellers of the engines cutting the air, supporting the flight. My wingman, perhaps because of his inexperience, perhaps prevailed by the panic of those tense moments, put his steed in an unusual order and found the Austrian perfectly in line. In vain he tried to turn the events in his favor. For my part, I was putting my opponent in difficulty but I was not lucky enough to finish before my wingman was hit: I saw, to my great displeasure, his plane lose fearfully high in a black cloud. I found myself at a numerical disadvantage. Whenever I could put my opponent under fire, the other plane was in the queue and I had to disengage. So I tried to take advantage of the advantages of my car and played cunning. In the higher altitudes the enemy struggled in maneuverability and lost much more speed than me. So I managed to get one of the two again, but with a few more seconds to try a burst without risking being hit on the other side. I quickly swung and started 12 shots, which hit the cockpit, killing the enemy pilot on the spot. I was very sorry. My goal was and has always been the airplane, not the life of the pilot, but unfortunately in the agitation of the combat it was not always possible to damage only the aircraft. While the enemy was falling, the other was starting a desperate volley against me, which passed about ten meters from my airplane. Fortunately I did not make the mistake that all pilots commonly make, that is to say to stay and watch the plane knocked down, instead of disengaging quickly. Thus the enemy marched to my right, beating down to the ground and facilitating the next winning move. I turned sharply to the right, placed the knife-like aircraft and found the spot where, in a few moments, the opponent would be found, and I started a burst of machine gun. The enemy was struck in the engine and a dense white cloud emanated from his airplane, caused by the burning oil. I then searched for my wingman, hoping he could make an emergency landing, but I had to put my soul in peace when I saw the burning remains of an HD1 scattered along the side of a road.

I stroke the controls of my HD1 and returned to reality. It is time to resume altitude to complete this last mission. Exactly on a notebook, resting on my thigh, what I observe. After a couple of rounds of reconnaissance I can serenely affirm that the battlefield is free and that only our tricolor waves on these lands.
I decide to make one last gesture, before finally putting an end to this sortie and this war, turning the bow towards the Piave, to fly over our river and to head over the Montello, to Nervesa della Battaglia, where our Ace fell in flight Francesco Baracca.

The Istrana airfield is already on the horizon, where my Squadron is based, and a last memory makes its way into my mind before landing. The memory of the Istrana battle of the last 26 December, when I found myself fighting in a pit of over 50 aircraft, among our HD1, German bombers and fighters, in offensive on our airfield. A hell from which, at least in flight, we came out winners. The Germans succeeded, with their bombs, in destroying a hangar and nine HD 1 on the ground, while in flight none of our fighters were shot down. On the contrary, 11 enemy planes were shot down.

But here I am going down the flight field, close to touching the ground. My friend's wheels sign the closure of hostilities by my Squadron, which is waiting for me in a crowd near the Hangar. A soldier rushes to my aircraft, and shouting to prevail over the roar of my engine, he asks me happy if it's really over now. I look at it, smile and nod.
I close the engine, take off my scarf and glasses, heaving a big sigh of relief. I hear the Squadron cheering in the distance with irrepressible happiness. But I don't go down. I'm still here with you, my friend. I look at your propeller that slowly loses laps, which comes close to stopping completely. I have a feeling that it will no longer start. That you, dear HD1, will no longer want. That now that you no longer serve, everyone will forget about you. I hope it does not happen even with the fighters. I hope it does not happen even with the goals for which they risked and gave their lives. I hope, but I don't know why, I have the impression that it won't be like this.
I put the scarf on my neck again and restart the engine. The propeller returns to spin attracting the attention of the whole Squadron. I caress the commands and take you flying: you deserve to fly again, my friend, and I owe you. "

Alea iacta est: the die is cast

Unfortunately, the negative presentiments of our "Unknown Soldier" will prove to be true. The aviation will be abandoned stupidly to itself, believing that it will no longer be useful. The fighters, on the other hand, will be betrayed twice. They will be forgotten and then mocked in the Paris Peace Conference.
Italy, in fact, will not be able to fully enforce the London Pact with which it entered the war alongside the agreement and which provided, in the event of victory, that the lands of South Tyrol, Trentino would go to our country , Gorizia, Gradisca, the territory of Trieste, the entire Istrian peninsula up to the Kvarner Bay with the islands of Cres and Lošinj, the islands of Dalmatia and the cities of Zadar, Sibenik and Trau; the city of Vlora and the island of Saseno, sovereignty over the Dodecanese and finally the recognition of areas of influence in Turkey and the sovereignty of the occupied African territories of Italy. Of all these beautiful promises, which were mainly opposed by US President Wilson, only the annexation of Trentino, Alto Adige, the basin of Ampezzo, the basin of Tarvisio, the saddle of Dobbiaco, and the Austrian Pontebba materialized .
But the areas of Dalmatia and Istria, including Fiume, were not included, which represented one of the most convincing reasons that had brought Italy into the First World War. Finally, those who, like D'Annunzio and his daring (photo), will try to keep up the honor of their homeland, occupying Fiume, will be shot at by ships in their own country.

Epochs, historical events and the ways in which they manifest themselves change. The characters and their actions also change, but some things remain sadly the same. Meditate ...