The First World War

The First World War


Pioneers of the skies

The full story of the role the Royal Flying Corps played in the First World War is rarely told. The reconnaissance work they carried out was vital to the war effort and deserves to be celebrated along with the heroism of the air ‘aces’. The £2 coin is the only official United Kingdom coin to commemorate the role of aviation in the First World War, and is endorsed by Imperial War Museums.

Preparing for take-off was not always child’s play. Britain’s early aircrews had to battle machine and enemy to win our freedom to fly.

The Royal Flying Corps, the aviation branch of the British Army, was formed at a time when flight was new and extremely hazardous. The role of its young crews at the outbreak of the First World War was to be an ‘eye in the air’, reporting on the position and strength of enemy forces. As the war developed, these personnel fought to dominate the skies, accelerating advances in flight.

Eyes in the Air

Reconnaissance had been carried out from hot-air balloons for almost 100 years and it was thought planes would be used in the same way. As the First World War developed, the members of the Royal Flying Corps flew missions to record enemy positions and provide a tactical advantage to the British Army.

The aircrews risked their lives testing the new aircraft and photographic technology to its limits. Deployed above the battlefields, they suffered the previously unknown effects of altitude, G-forces and freezing temperatures.

From the skilled work of the reconnaissance and artillery spotting crews to the air ‘aces’, duelling in the skies above the trenches, these pioneering flyers were the first of their kind in the battle for supremacy in the air.

Man and Machine

The first flyers had to battle with their planes as much as the enemy. The aircraft were wooden-framed fuselages covered with linen, with wings of wood and a basic cockpit. These flying machines were unreliable, crashed frequently and crews did not carry parachutes. Early engines were not powerful, making take-off difficult with a man inside, while any weaponry added to the weight. In the early years of the war, fire was the airman’s greatest fear.

Force for the Future

Starting with a few hundred planes in 1914, the Royal Flying Corps grew into an independent air force with thousands of aircraft. In 1918 the Royal Flying Corps became the Royal Air Force (RAF), which has been defending Britain’s skies ever since.

The Honourable Soldier

This is the fourth in a series of five-ounce coins that takes us from Outbreak to Armistice. This year’s edition looks back to the events of 1917, as the gruelling war continued to take its toll. Inspired by the poetry of Rudyard Kipling, artist Philip Jackson has created a design that honours the individual sacrifices of soldiers.

As the Great War became increasingly global but showed no sign of resolution, more and more men were sent into battle in an attempt to make a breakthrough. On the Western Front, heavy artillery pummelled the trenches and surrounding land. Battlefields were turned into mud baths with men trudging through sludge, carrying their equipment as well as wounded comrades. Peace and growth would eventually return to this landscape but at great cost to human life.

The Design and the Designers

The £2 Aviation coin is designed by the team at design agency tangerine. It was a particularly poignant design for the agency’s Senior Designer Daniel Flashman, as his grandfather was one of the early flyers who carried out reconnaissance missions over the trenches.

"It was important to tell the true story of the role played by the young pilots at that time. One of the essential roles of the newly formed Royal Flying Corps was reconnaissance, a fact often overlooked for the commonly-held notion of the romantic fighter ace.

Reconnaissance aircraft played a crucial role, being the eyes of the British Army, taking photographs for intelligence analysis.

In this design we see two airmen, a pilot and his observer of the Royal Flying Corps, in a Royal Aircraft Factory R.E.8. They are performing a reconnaissance flight over an area of the Battle of Arras in April, 1917.

Significantly, this period of time was known as Bloody April, after the particularly heavy casualties suffered by the Royal Flying Corps at the hands of the German Luftstreitkräfte.

This design is a tribute to those brave young airmen who performed their roles successfully with great courage and skill, knowing that their life expectancy could be terrifyingly short."

Daniel Flashman, Senior Designer at tangerine

Silent contemplation

Internationally renowned sculptor Philip Jackson is recognised for his ability to convey the human condition through skilful use of body language. As Royal Sculptor to Her Majesty The Queen, his recent public works include the Mahatma Gandhi Statue in Parliament Square, the Korean War Monument in Westminster and the seven-figure Bomber Command Memorial statues in Green Park.

For this design Philip Jackson has chosen to depict the soldier in his design in a ‘rest on arms reversed’ position as often seen on war memorials. After the First World War ended, it wasn’t just the graves of those who had made the ultimate sacrifice that were marked. All across the many countries that were engaged in the conflict, cenotaphs and monuments stand in memory of those who played their part. A figure that is often chosen for these memorials is that of a soldier in the ‘rest on arms reverse’ stance. This is the position taken by the Honour Guard at services of remembrance and for military funerals.

The design is also inspired by the poetry of Rudyard Kipling, particularly the poem 'A Tree Song'.

"I have read the poetry of the First World War in its many forms for some years and this, together with the war memorials that I have designed and made, helped me to create the intense sadness required for this subject.

The small but intensely-felt figure in my design is surrounded by a wreath of oak and laurel. Laurel leaves are traditionally presented to victors in the form of a wreath, while the oak symbolises England and ‘home’, which Rudyard Kipling wrote about so aptly in his poem ‘A Tree Song’.

‘Of all the trees that grow so fair,
Old England to adorn,
Greater are none beneath the Sun,
Than Oak, and Ash, and Thorn.’
‘A Tree Song’ by Rudyard Kipling

The figure is in silent contemplation of comrades lost and battles fought. He stands in a ‘rest on arms reversed’ position, sad but not downtrodden and ready to fight another battle. He is the symbol of our collective memory of the sacrifice and losses of war."

Philip Jackson CVO DL MA FRBS

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