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Technology and the First World War

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#1 John Simkin

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Posted 28 November 2003 - 06:56 AM

One way of looking at the use of technology during the First World War is to tell the story of André Jacques Garnerin. A soldier in the French Army he was captured and imprisoned in a prison in Hungary. During his three year stay he attempted to device that would enable him to escape from the high ramparts of the prison. He failed and it was not until 1797 that Garnerin completed his first parachute. It consisted of a white canvas canopy 23 feet in diameter.

Garnerin made his first successful parachute jump above Paris on 22nd October, 1797. After ascended to an altitude of 3,200 feet (975 m) in an hydrogen balloon he jumped from the basket. As Garnerin failed to include an air vent at the top of his parachute, he oscillated wildly in his descent. However, he landed unhurt half a mile from the balloon's takeoff site. Garnerin therefore became the first man to design a parachute that was capable of slowing a man's fall from a high altitude.
Over the next few years Garnerin and his wife, Jeanne-Genevieve Garnerin, made parachute jumps all over Europe including one in 1800 of 8,000 feet (2,438 m) over London.

You then ask the students if pilots used parachutes during the First World War (117 years after the first successful parachute jump)?

The answer is that they were issued to pilots in the German Airforce, French Army Airforce and the United States Air Service but not the British Royal Flying Corps. The official reason given was that parachutes were not 100% safe, it was too bulky to be stored by the pilot and its weight would affect the performance of the aeroplane. Unofficially the reason was given in a report that was not published at the time: "It is the opinion of the board that the presence of such an apparatus might impair the fighting spirit of pilots and cause them to abandon machines which might otherwise be capable of returning to base for repair."

R. E. Calthrop, a retired British engineer, had in fact developed the Guardian Angel, a parachute for aircraft pilots, before the war. Pressure was applied on Calthrop to keep quiet about his invention.

With growing numbers of pilots dying as a result of their aircraft being hit by enemy fire, Calthorp rebelled and in 1917 advertised his Guardian Angel parachute in several aeronautical journals. Calthorp revealed details of the tests that had been carried out by the Royal Flying Corps pointed out that British pilots were willing to buy their own parachutes but were being denied the right to use them.

Major Mick Mannock, Britain’s leading war ace in the war (73 victories) led the campaign for parachutes in the RFC (he had been active in the socialist movement before the war). The campaign failed and Mannock was killed on 26th July, 1918. If he had been wearing a parachute he would probably have survived.

Instead of carrying parachutes, RFC pilots carried revolvers instead. As Mannock explained, unable to carry a parachute, he had a revolver "to finish myself as soon as I see the first signs of flames." His body was so badly burnt it is not known if he was able to shoot himself before dying in the way he most feared.

After his death, Mick Mannock was awarded the Victoria Cross for: "an outstanding example of fearless courage, remarkable skill, devotion to duty and self-sacrifice which has never been surpassed". The Mannock family was so poor that soon afterwards Mick’s medals were sold by his father for £5.



#2 neil mcdonald

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Posted 28 November 2003 - 08:36 AM

That was not the only time that pilots had to use a pistol as a means of ending their lives before 'other means'. German pilots in the Battle of Britain did not like the idea of drowning in the channel and so often took pistols with them, to the point where the German authorities banned taking sidearms with them. The other reason was that in the case of the ME 109 fighter it has a swing canopy rather than sliding like the British planes. If a ME109 was hit on the left hand side and was burning the pilot had no choice but to jump through the flames. One of Germany's famous aces ended up on a beach near Kent with a single bullet wound to the head - again showing that rules are one thing but fear is another.
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