The First World War was an important yet gruesome event. While 620,000 soldiers joined the war effort, more than 60,000 never made it home. Many of these young men travelled away from their homes and families, risking their lives to fight a war in a foreign land. These soldiers fought to preserve the freedom they held dear—the freedom we currently enjoy.
While there were many factors that led men to enlist, many men to joined the war effort because they believed that they had the skills, knowledge and bravery, to win the war. A good example of these skilled men were pilots in the Canadian Aviation Corps (CAC) who contributed to the success of the allied forces—also known as the Triple Entente. Soaring on machine steeds, they flew off into a battle with everything at stake, so that others wouldn’t have to lose their freedom.
In the beginning of WWI, there was no interest in flight as a means for warfare. Some Western nations, like France, held small air forces, but aside from demonstrations by Wilbur Wright and Louis Blériot, it was not a popular method. In the military, the sky was only a field for air balloons, which were used to perform reconnaissance missions.
Another issue remained with the primitive navigation techniques. Pilots would often have to page through maps mid-flight and there are even accounts of pilots swooping down close to train stations, to read their signs and determine where they were. In fact, often times a general confusion over identification led to planes being fired at by their own anti-aircraft artillery!
Airplanes were first recognized as a plausible means of warfare at the First Battle of Marne in September, 1914. Pilots from the Triple Entente spotted weaknesses in the German front line, insights that helped the Entente forces halt German advancement towards Paris. It was then that military strategists saw how valuable battling in the sky could be.
WWI pilots were brave, skilled individuals who believed they had the skills to fight in the sky, representing their countries in the “War to end all wars”. No example sets this point further than that of Billy Bishop, Canada’s hometown ace, who left Canada at the mere age of 20 and returned home, three years later, with 72 planes notched to his name. He won several awards, most notably the Victoria Cross.
What makes Bishop so personal for me, as a Torontonian, is that for a time he lived by St. Clair street in Toronto’s north. Bishop was special not only because of his skill at aviation, but also his maverick spirit and gallantry in the face of danger. To start, one of his hobbies during the war was taking his plane out before dawn and shooting parked German aircrafts still in their lots. Naturally this was incredibly dangerous, but he was so skilled that even with (at times) multiple planes trailing him, he would always make it back safe. You could say he was the original adrenaline junkie.
One of Bishop’s most famed exploits was his battle with Manfred von Richthofen, the ‘Red Baron’. The Red Baron was the ace of WWI aces. He recorded 80 kills, the most of any WWI pilot. Bishop met him and his famed Jasta 11. Bishop survived of course, and went on to survive the war.
This past Thursday at my school’s Remembrance Day assembly, I was made witness to an extraordinary event in one veteran’s life. William P. Wilder is an alumnus of my current school, and he served in the Second World War. He enlisted in the navy where he notably fought in D-Day.
A member of the French militia was also at my school’s assembly to award William P. Wilder with la Légion d’honneur—the equivalent of a knighthood in France. We watched as a Frenchman came to Canada to thank a man who liberated his country years before. This was a powerful moment for me and my school—to meet a man who had willingly offered his life for the good of his country, in order to help another nation that he had no connection to.
It is easy to trivialize war. It is easy to think of war as numbers or statistics, but whenever we do that, we ignore the faces and the names of those who lost their lives in combat, or the civilians who were caught in the wrong place at the wrong time. It is important that everyone, youth and adults alike, remember those who never made it home.
Canadian pilots gave themselves up to one of the riskiest methods of warfare for the greater good. It is said that history repeats itself. Let these pilots serve as a reminder of what war brings, and the costs that it reaps. These pilots flew, seated in their planes, and like knights they raised their lances—each charging towards bettering the future for their families, values and country.
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Morton, Desmond. 2013. “First World War (WWI) | The Canadian Encyclopedia”. Thecanadianencyclopedia.Ca. https://www.thecanadianencyclopedia.ca/en/article/first-world-war-wwi.
“Going To War – Canada Enters The War | Canada And The First World War”. 2018. Canada And The First World War. https://www.warmuseum.ca/firstworldwar/history/going-to-war/canada-enters-the-war/.
“Recruitment And Conscription – Voluntary Recruitment | Canada And The First World War”. 2008. Canada And The First World War. https://www.warmuseum.ca/firstworldwar/history/life-at-home-during-the-war/recruitment-and-conscription/voluntary-recruitment/.
“Canada Enters The War – Canada And The First World War – History – Veterans Affairs Canada”. 2018. Veterans.Gc.Ca. http://www.veterans.gc.ca/eng/remembrance/history/first-world-war/canada/Canada3.
Vázquez García, Juan. 2018. “Top Guns Of World War 1: The Birth Of Combat Aviation”. National Geographic History, , 2018.