The First World War witnessed major technological advances, perhaps none more significant than the development of the aeroplane as an instrument of war.
Very quickly, aircraft assumed offensive capabilities and dog fights became common as the two sides fought to dominate the skies above the battlefield. Mastery of the skies meant that aircraft could take photographs of enemy positions and direct artillery fire accurately on to them; eventually by the war’s end they were able to do this through direct radio communication with ground troops. In 1918, the Royal Air Force was created by the amalgamation of the army’s Royal Flying Corps (RFC) and the Royal Naval Air Service.
In 1915 the RFC began rapidly to expand the number of its squadrons on the Western Front, and appealed for army officers with a knowledge of machine guns to transfer as observers and gunners. Among these was Elgie Jefferson of Ballahot near Ballasalla. He flew with No 18 Squadron which operated FE2B aircraft in which the observer stood upright in a front cockpit, with no harness and no parachute. In one hair-raising incident, Jefferson’s pilot was rendered unconscious and the plane fell out of control before making a forced landing. Not surprisingly, Jefferson’s injuries were not confined to physical bruising. His medical notes mention ‘nerve shock’, and in a subsequent letter to his commanding officer, Jefferson stated: ‘I have the honour to apply for three weeks leave of absence from my squadron in the field, on medical grounds. I was given special leave which expires on the 19th [September] for medical reasons. My nerves are very strained and I feel very run down and do not feel fit enough to carry out my work as an observer, for the present…’