from Somerset, Devon and Dorset
© Andrew Templer 2023
Those who fear, or pretend to fear, that England may witness a revolution like the French Revolution of the eighteenth century or the Russian Revolution of the twentieth century would be well advised to compose their minds by the study of English history. That history, in all its parts, shows the passion of the English people for continuity of development. The first care of the practical Englishman who desires change is to find some precedent, which may serve to give to change the authority of ancient usage. Our laws have always been administered in this spirit; we are willing to accept, and even to hasten, change, if we can show that the change is no real change, but is only a reversion to an older practice, or a development of an established law. It was a saying of King Alphonso of Aragon that among the many things which in this life men possess or desire all the rest are baubles compared with old wood to burn, old wine to drink, old friends to converse with, and old books to read. The English people are of a like mind; what they most care for is old customs to cherish. The very rebels of England are careful to find an honourable pedigree for their rebellion, and to invoke the support of their forefathers. A revolution based only on theory, a system warranted only by thought, will never come home to Englishmen.
The national love for continuity of development is well seen in the history of the genesis of the national air force. The whole of that force, aeroplanes, airships, kite balloons, and the rest, must be affiliated to a certain small balloon detachment of the Royal Engineers at Chatham. Little by little, very slowly and gradually at first, while only the balloon was in question, with amazing rapidity later, when the aeroplane and the airship came into being and were needed for the war, that single experimental unit of the Royal Engineers grew and transformed itself into a vast independent organization. Names and uniforms, constitutions and regulations, were altered so often that the whole change might seem to be an orgy of official frivolity if it were not remembered that the powers brought within reach of man by the new science were increasing at an even greater speed. But there was no breach of continuity; the process was a process of growth; the new was added, and the old was not abolished.
From the days of the Montgolfiers for more than a century the value of the balloon in war was a matter of debate and question and experiment. At the battle of Fleurus, in 1794, the triumphant French republican army used a captive balloon, chiefly, perhaps, as a symbol and token of the new era of science and liberty. Balloons were used in the Peninsular Campaign, but Napoleon's greatest achievements owed nothing to observation from the air. Even in the American Civil War, where the Federals certainly derived some advantage from their use, balloons were criticized and ridiculed more than they were feared. In Great Britain military experiments with balloons began at Woolwich Arsenal in 1878. In the following year Captain R. P. Lee, of the Royal Engineers, reporting on the work done at the arsenal, stated that they had a thoroughly sound and reliable fleet of five balloons, and a few trained officers and men, competent to undertake their management. One of these balloons accompanied the troops on manoeuvre at the Easter Volunteer Review at Brighton. Captain H. Elsdale, of the Royal Engineers, who was in charge of the party, took part in the final march past; he was in the car of the balloon at a height of two hundred and fifty feet, while Captain J. L. B. Templer, a militia officer, managed the transport on the ground. A balloon section was present at the Aldershot manoeuvres both in 1880 and in 1882; it was judged a success, and instructions were issued in the autumn of 1882 that the Balloon Equipment Store, as the establishment at Woolwich was called, should be removed to the School of Military Engineering at Chatham, where a small balloon factory, depot, and school of instruction was established in 1883. The practice with the balloons was under the charge of Major Lee, and in that year Major Templer came to Chatham to carry out certain experiments in the manufacture of balloons. He brought with him a family of the name of Weinling, to construct balloons on a system devised by himself. The fabric of the balloons was the internal membrane of the lower intestine of the ox, sometimes called gold-
Nevertheless, in the course of a year, several balloons were made, of three sizes, the largest size having ten thousand cubic feet of capacity, and the smaller sizes seven thousand and four thousand five hundred cubic feet. When, in the autumn of 1884, an expedition was sent to Bechuanaland under Sir Charles Warren, to expel the filibusters who had raided the territory, to pacificate the country, and to reinstate the natives, a balloon detachment under Major Elsdale and Captain F. C. Trollope, of the Grenadier Guards, attached to the Royal Engineers, was included in the expedition. They took with them in the detachment three balloons, and a staff consisting of fifteen non-
Balloons were used again on active service in the following year, 1885, in the Soudan. A small detachment, under Major Templer with Lieutenant R. J. H. L. MacKenzie, of the Royal Engineers, and nine non-
On the return of these two expeditions no attempt was made to keep up a regular balloon section. What was done must for the most part be credited to the energy of those few officers who believed in the future of balloons. Majors Elsdale and Templer ran the factory for building balloons and making hydrogen, and a few non-
The German Emperor was present at these same manoeuvres, and a march past on the Fox Hills was organized for his benefit. The balloon detachment was ordered to take part in it. Balloons, being an unrecognized part of the army, were not hampered by any of those regulations which prescribe the etiquette to be observed on formal occasions. Lieutenant Ward, who was in command of the detachment, resolved that he would march past in the air, at an altitude of about three hundred feet, in a balloon attached to the balloon wagon. The weather was fine and calm, and the balloon sailed by in state, with the result that the spectators all gazed upwards and had not a glance to spare for the horse artillery, the cavalry, or any other arm of the service.
Sir Evelyn Wood reported favourably on the use of balloons, and in 1890 a balloon section was introduced into the British army as a unit of the Royal Engineers. The question of a site for the depot caused some delay. Opinion favoured Aldershot, but the General Officer Commanding objected that Aldershot should be reserved for military training. Major Templer was in favour of Lidsing, where for several years he had carried on at his own costs. In the result the depot moved to Aldershot, and having taken over a piece of very soft ground at South Farnborough, near the canal, began to erect sheds. The contractor for a balloon shed was nearly ruined by the expense of making foundations. So things fluctuated; the factory remained at Chatham, and the depot and section, after a summer spent at Aldershot, collected at Chatham again for the winter of 1890-
In 1899 the South African War began. Four balloon sections took an active part in the campaign. The first section, commanded by Captain H. B. Jones, operated with the troops under Lord Methuen, and proved its value at the battle of Magersfontein. The second section, commanded by Major G. M. Heath, was with Sir George White throughout the siege of Ladysmith. An improvised section, commanded by Captain G. E. Phillips, was raised at Cape Town, and joined Sir Redvers Buller's force at Frere Camp, for the relief of Ladysmith. The regular third section, commanded by Lieutenant R. D. B. Blakeney, embarked for South Africa early in 1900, and joined the Tenth Division at Kimberley. It is not easy to make a just estimate of the value of the balloons in this war. Some commanding officers were prejudiced against them, and the difficulties and miscarriages which are inevitable in the use of a new instrument did nothing to remove the prejudice. The steel tubes in which the hydrogen was compressed were cumbrous and heavy to transport. The artillery were not trained to make the fullest use of the balloons; the system of signalling by flags was very imperfect; and the signallers in the air often failed to attract the attention of those with the guns. For all that, the balloons proved their value. The Ladysmith balloon did good service in directing fire during the battle of Lombard's Kop, and, more generally, in reporting on the Boer positions. Later on in the siege it was impossible to get gas, and the balloons fell out of use. At Magersfontein it was by observation from the air that the howitzer batteries got the range of the enemy's ponies concealed in a gully, and accounted for more than two hundred of them. On the 26th of February 1900 an officer in a balloon reported on General Cronje's main position at Paardeberg, and the report was of value in directing the attack on the position.
These operations put a heavy strain on the factory. Its normal output of one balloon a month was increased during the war to two balloons a month, and new buildings at a cost of more than four thousand pounds were proposed in 1900, and approved by the Aldershot Command. Even during the South African War there were other calls on the factory. In the summer of 1900 a balloon section, under the command of Lieutenant-
On the 5th of October the ship flew from Farnborough to London, circled round St. Paul's Cathedral, manoeuvred over the grounds at Buckingham Palace, and, on her return journey, as she could make no headway against the wind, descended in the centre of the cycle-
The output of the factory was small, almost insignificant, compared with the efforts being made by foreign nations. Colonel Capper preferred not to attempt the construction of rigid airships till more was known of them. The Zeppelins were the only reputed success, and no Zeppelin, at that time, had succeeded in making a forced landing without damage to the ship. But the output of the factory is no true measure of the progress made. The officers in charge worked with an eye to the future. Early in 1906 a proposal was put forward by Brevet Colonel J. D. Fullerton, Royal Engineers, and was warmly supported by Colonel Templer, for the appointment of a committee consisting of military officers, aeronauts, mechanical engineers, and naval representatives, to investigate the whole question of aeronautics. A modified form of this proposal was put forward three years later, in 1909, by Mr. Haldane, then Secretary of State for War. He invited Lord Rayleigh and Dr. Richard Glazebrook, the chairman and the director of the National Physical Laboratory, to confer with him, and asked them to prepare for his consideration a scheme which should secure the co-
The same sort of credit belongs to the conduct of the balloon factory under Mr. Mervyn O'Gorman, who had charge of it during that very crucial period from the autumn of 1909 to the summer of 1916. When he took over the factory he found at Farnborough one small machine shop, one shed for making balloons, and one airship shed. The workers were about a hundred in number, fifty men and fifty women. Seven years later, when Lieutenant-