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100 Years Ago: January 1918 (includes unique spine)

Note: This is my thirty-sixth installment in my series of brief reviews of National Geographic Magazines as they reach the century mark.

This is the “Aviation Number”. Of the ten articles documented on the cover, nine are about the airplane. The tenth article is a short, ancillary article to one that was about the airplane. While eight of the articles are about the air war in Europe, one is about the future of the airplane, both in the military and commercially.

The first article is entitled “America’s Part in the Allies’ Mastery of the Air” and was written by Major Joseph Tulasne, Chief of the French Aviation Mission to America. It has two black-and-white photographs both of which are full page.

In the article Major Tulasne discusses the fact that Congress passed a bill appropriating $640,000,000 towards the creation of two American fleets of airplanes, battle squadrons (fighters) and bombing squadrons (bombers). Resources are also going to flight schools which are churning out pilots.

He mentions time as being urgent. With the winter lull, we must be ready by spring and must take air superiority quickly. With more pilots than planes arriving early, American airmen will fly British and French planes early on. Likewise, America will produce European style planes at first. Better American planes will be designed and built and should reach the front by the Summer of 1918. He ends by stating that air power will be the deciding factor in the battle of 1918.

The second article is entitled “Aces of the Air” and was written by Captain Jacques De Sieyes, of the French Aviation Service. This article also has two full-page, black-and-white photographs embedded within it.

In it, Captain De Sieyes refers to the air war as a game as if it were some type of gladiatorial sport. He talks of the great pilots of France, as well as some Americans flying for France; their exploits; victories; and, in more cases than not, their glorious deaths. He ends by discussing his own story, from losing a leg while in the infantry, being accepted to fly reconnaissance missions, being wounded, and recovering from illnesses caused by nine operations. He now is encouraging Americans to become pilots and join in the glory.

The third article, “Flying in France”, was written by Captain Andre’ De Derroeta, of the French Aviation Service. It contains twelve black-and-white photographs, half of which are full page in size.
The author discusses the evolution of aerial warfare starting with the airplane being used for reconnaissance. At the beginning of the war, it was a “war of movement”. Planes would fly deep into enemy territory, locate troop movements, and report back to operations officers. After trench warfare set in, these planes shifted responsibility to support artillery. Flying closer to the front and reporting directly to artillery officers, these planes would spot targets, land near an artillery placement, and report. Later, they would utilize “radiotelegraphy” for faster reporting and better coordination.

Planes were so scarce early in the war that if enemy planes spotted each other, they could only shake their fists, or hopelessly use their sidearms. By adding a machine gun to the plane, the combat aircraft was born. These were used both defensively and offensively, to protect the reconnaissance aircraft and to attack enemy planes.

While flying recon behind enemy lines, some pilots started dropping small bombs on enemy targets. Thus, the bomber was born. Specialized to carry bomb loads, the Allies use their bombers for military targets outside the range of artillery. The Germans use them to bomb French and British cities. The author closes by hoping that the introduction of American air squadrons will lead to complete air superiority, thus leading to victory.

Article number four is entitled “Tales of the British Air Service” and was written by Major William A. Bishop, V.C., D.S.O., M.C. The article also contains twelve black-and-white photographs. Five of those are full page.

At twenty-three, Major Bishop is Britain’s premier ace with 47 German planes shot down in 110 air battles. Instead of his own exploits, he writes about an earlier, younger ace: Captain Albert Ball who had 42 kills before he was shot down at the age of nineteen.

Major Bishop describes two encounters Captain Ball had with the enemy. In the first, Ball fought with two German pilots until they fled by landing in a field. Out of ammo, he fired his revolver at the fleeing planes and then, with paper and pencil, he wrote a note challenging the two to meet him the next day at the same place. Then he threw the challenge down to the pilots below. The next day the two Germans returned to find Ball waiting, but the Germans had laid a trap with three more planes. After nearly being shot down, Ball dove and landed in a field. The Germans, thinking he had been shot down landed to investigate at which time, Ball took off again with enough of a lead to make it home safely.

In the second encounter, Ball chased an enemy aircraft miles behind enemy lines. When he turned back, he was cut off. Charging head on into a group of German fighters, he got all but one to swerve away. One kept coming; he kept shooting. The enemy plane dove and crashed at the last moment. He was home free, or so he thought. A battle was raging across his route home. An artillery shell struck his plane two feet behind him. It passed straight through without detonating, but it damaged most of the control wires Ball needed to fly the plane. He managed to regain control of the aircraft and make it back to base. Twenty minutes later, he was in another aircraft heading back to battle.

The fifth article is “Italy’s Eagles of Combat and Defense”. It has the alliterative subtitle, “Heroic Achievements of Aviators Above the Adriatic, the Apennines, and the Alps”. It was written by General Pasquale Tozzi, Chief of the Italian Military Mission. The article has eight photographs embedded within it but the cover states “9 Illustrations”. Four of these eight photographs are full page.

General Tozzi discusses three roles of the Italian fliers in the war. The first is recon in support of artillery using Marconi’s invention, the radio. The second is the defense of the cities in the Venetian plain. While Austria-Hungary is bombing civilian targets, Italian pilots’ third role in the war is bombing military targets.

He goes into the details of two missions by Italy’s Caproni long-range bomber. In the first, two squadrons of these planes bombed the harbor of Cattaro and the island of San Marco. In the second bombing raid, a squadron of twelve Caproni bombers attacked an Austrian railroad depot 100-miles distant.

The General ends with a litany of recent speed, distance, and altitude records attained by Italian aircraft.

At the end of the fifth article is a short editorial entitled “The Italian Race – An Appreciation”. It is listed on the cover as the sixth article with no byline. It has no photographs embedded within it. The article highlights the 2,000-year history of accomplishments of the Italians in science and the arts.

The seventh article has the title, “Building America’s Air Army”. It was written by Lieutenant-Colonel Hiram Bingham, Chief of the Air Personnel Division in the Office of the Chief Signal Officer of the Army. It has forty-three black-and-white photographs of which sixteen are full page with ten half-page photos filling another five pages.

Lt.-Col. Bingham describes the immense and complex effort of building and air army from virtually nothing. He starts with a shipment of castor beans from India and explains the need for castor oil as a lubricant for airplane engines. No other lubricant can handle the heat of these engines. The British have placed an embargo on castor beans so America needs to grow its own.

He discusses the complexity of the airplane and the many parts required. He then talks of the need for spruce, for its strength and light weight. Lumber squadrons of several thousand men are being hired to harvest the trees. New lumber mills are being built. Also, standardization of size and shape for all parts crafted are a must.

Bingham then describes the building of an airplane wing with the standardized pieces fitting together precisely. Linen is used to cover the wing due to its resistance to tearing. It is pulled taut and then painted with “dope” which contracts the linen making it stiff. Finally, it is painted with varnish to make it waterproof and smooth to lower wind resistance. This is just one of the many parts, which he lists, that need to be built before all can be assembled into an aircraft.

Then the article goes into the problem of personnel. Not just the pilots, which Bingham discusses separately, but the numerous ancillary jobs that need to be filled to make this enterprise operational. He starts with administrative jobs and then goes into positions like mechanics, and medical work. Then he talks about the specialists of the air; observers, bombers, and balloonists; and the special training they all must undergo.

The Lt.-Col. finally discusses the pilots themselves. First comes the screening process to choose the best candidates, both physically and mentally. Then comes the three-part training: classroom, flight with an instructor, and finally solo flying. Additional training will be done in France involving formation flying and battle skills.

The eighth article in this issue is entitled “The Life Story of an American Airman in France”. It has the explanatory subtitle “Extracts of the Letters of Stuart Walcott, Who, Between July and December, 1917, Learned to Fly in French Schools of Aviation, Won Fame at the Front, and Fell Near Saint Souplet”. The article contains nine black-and-white photographs, of which four are full page in size.
The article has a brief intro and a slightly longer epilogue. The main body, however, is a collection of letters from Stuart to his father starting in January as a student at Princeton and ending in December with him as a pilot in France at the front.

He starts with the decision to go to Europe after graduating and trying to decide whether to become a pilot or an ambulance driver. After opting for pilot, he decides to leave college early and take some flying lessons before going overseas. He writes about that early training at Newport News and then his extensive training in France. Eventually he reaches the front and gets to fly in the air war.

After shooting down a German plane three miles behind enemy lines he was attacked by three others and shot down on December 12th. On January 7, 1918 the International Red Cross was notified that he was killed when his plane crash landed. On January 11th the French Government awarded him the Croix de Guerre posthumously. The medal was sent to Stuart’s father, Dr. Charles D. Walcott, Secretary of the Smithsonian Institution, Washington.

The ninth article is entitled “The Future of the Airplane” and was written by Rear Admiral Robert E. Peary, U. S. Navy. It has four black-and-white photographs, two full-page and two half-page taking up a third page. These “Illustrations” were not documented on the cover, probably due to space constraints.

Peary starts by comparing air power to commercial and military sea power of the last two centuries that is a necessity for any great nation. He predicts that America, with her unlimited resources, inventiveness, and spirit, will be the “first air power of the world”. He then goes into the current need for coastal defense by air, especially versus the submarine.

He talks of plans for converting the Army’s plane and pilot into a commercial force after the war, for both mail and passengers. He states that plans are already underway in Europe, both allies and foes, to do the same.

He indirectly discusses ground infrastructure while discussing the current flight training corridor from Dayton Ohio to Rantoul Illinois. There are large numerals and arrows painted on barn roofs and a series of lights of different colors and blinking patters all along the route.

The Admiral finishes by discussing the four planned intercontinental air routes: the Woodrow Wilson, the Langley, the Wright Brothers, and the Bell & Chanute. The last of these routes extends from Boston to Seattle. The Woodrow Wilson route goes from New York to San Francisco. Both the Langley and the Wright Brothers routes start in Washington, with the Langley route ending in Los Angeles and the Wright Brothers taking a more southern route to San Diego.

The tenth article is entitled “Germany’s Air Power”. It is only one page in length with no photos or byline.

As with the Allies, Germany is making every effort to gain complete mastery of the air. In an article in Der Motorwagen, a Berlin Journal, Lieutenant Bothe, of Berlin, stated that the Germans had left their adversaries far behind in both number and quality of the aircraft being produced.

He goes on to discuss the next war, one where massive air power will decide the conflict before the first battle is fought on the ground. He envisions massive bombing raids destroying, or severely hampering, an enemy’s ability to fight.

At the bottom of the last page is a notice to members that the Index for Volume XXXII (July to December 1917) is available and will be mailed to members upon request.

And now the promised discussion regarding the unique spine on this issue. But first, a little background:

From December 1913 through December 1959 the National Geographic Magazine used a standard Spine layout. This layout consisted of the issue date (month name, full year), the magazine name (THE NATIONAL GEOGRAPIC MAGAZINE), and the issue number (Vol. Roman numerals, No. number 1 through 6). Before December 1913, the spine was blank. From January 1960 to the current issue the magazine used, and is still using a different layout comprising of the magazine name (NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC), the issue date (month name, full year), and an abbreviated table of contents.

I mentioned before that this is the Aviation Number. That fact is not mentioned on the cover. Instead, this bit of information is documented on the spine, enclosed in brackets, immediately after the magazine name.

With ten articles, the table of contents filled all available space on the cover leaving no room for this title to be displayed like the October 1917 “Flag Number”. For some reason, the Society decided not to display it across the top of the cover like the Nov-Dec 1917 “Mid-Winter Double Number”. Instead, they opted to print this on the spine making this issue unique as the only issue with content information on the spine prior to 1960.

Tom Wilson

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As always, well done Tom!

Merry Christmas to you and Linda!


Thanks for the information about the spine,



Very well done and informative.

Hope you and your family have a very Merry Christmas!


I never noticed the spine anomaly on this one ! Thanks Tom .



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