Scouts, surveillance, and war in the air


Scouting, as a way of finding out facts about the enemy’s position and defences, has a long history in war. The relevant entry in the first edition of the OED had been completed in 1911; to scout, it confirmed, was ‘to act as a scout; to play the spy’, as well as (under sense 4) ‘To reconnoitre, to examine with a view to obtaining information’. ‘Besides, they must skoute, discouer, with all dueties that belongs vnto an Armie’, as RogerWilliams had stated in his Briefe Discourse of Warre in 1590 (the quote appeared in the OED in illustration of the first sense given above). Jonathan Swift’s mock-battle in his Tale of a Tub provided the first illustrative citation of scout sense 4: ‘One surveys the Region round, while t’other scouts the Plain’. Nineteenth-century news discourse usefully provided evidence for its later use, as in an OED quotation taken from the Daily News in 1871 (‘Bazaine has been condemned by every military authority in Europe for not scouting the ravine of Gorze’). The same newspaper provided the OED’s concluding quotation too, dated to 1900: ‘Major Karri Davies, with eight men of the Light Horse, were ordered to scout the country’.

Newspaper citations of this kind also provided, of course, the kind of precedent which Andrew Clark widely adopted for his own project in tracking words in use, and the changes in form and meaning that they could reveal, here within the time-frame of a specific historical event. The three years since the OED entry of 1911 brought, as Clark argued, a range of new developments in these terms. Scouting offered a range of interesting changes, closely linked with the emergent technologies of modern warfare. ‘Scouts beneath the Waves’, as the Daily Express stated in September 1914 – a statement which it glossed by the explanatory ‘Hidden Watchers in Submarines’. ’Scouts in the Air’, it affirmed, if to rather different ends. ‘Scouting missions’, as Clark noted, could be realised in entirely new ways in WWI, involving aviators and daredevils** rather than the advance parties on horse or foot who people the relevant entries in the OED.

air scout
‘OFFICIAL PHOTOGRAPH TAKEN ON THE BRITISH WESTERN FRONT IN FRANCE. “Homeward Bound”: a scout returning to her aerodrome. National Library of Scotland _3000092751860

In other popular locutions, scouts could even be realised in non-human form entirely: ‘The air scouts of an army in action start from a landing-ground … that is obviously some distance behind the actual scene of action. The aeroplanes start from that point, make their reconnaissances, and return thereto, either to make their reports or to land for supplies of petrol and oil’, as the Daily Express explained to its readers in late August 1914′. ‘Soon, however, another machine hove into view, which turned out to be a German Otto biplane, a type of machine which is not nearly so fast as our scouts’, the Evening News stated to similar effect in October 1914. As Clark pointed out, scouts  in this respect signified the planes rather than their occupants.As another early entry in the Words in War-Time archive notes,  scouting monoplanes of this kind (‘One of our aviators on a fast scouting monoplane sighted a hostile machine’, Evening News 15 October 1914) formed, of necessity, another absence in the contemporary OED.

As Clark realised, air scouts and aerial scouting (the latter recorded in the Evening News  in September 1914)**  served to realise and express the new enterprise of air reconnaissance  — another form which came into historical prominence in the early days of WWI (even if this, too, remained and, indeed, still remains absent from the OED):

From their [the German] rate of fire they seemed to be nearly automatic, but so far they have not had much effect in reducing the air reconnaissance carried out by us (Evening News Oct 15 1914).

As Clark noted, evidence on reconnaissance in the contemporary OED had ended in 1875; it was moreover Wellington’s military missions which had been deemed to provide appropriate illustration in ways which evoked a far earlier period of history (‘A body of troops sent to reconnoitre’: 1811 Wellington, ‘The enemy sent a reconnaissance of cavalry…consisting of about fourteen squadrons…of the Imperial Guard’).Flight, and the wide-ranging role of air scouts instead bought results which, as the Scotsman contended, surely rendered older forms of reconnaissance  obsolete:

even with a limited flying service, if it is efficiently handled, secrecy in the concentration of large bodies of troops has been rendered almost impossible. The air scouts receive their orders, and whirl aloft.  Each sweeps upon an individual route, and each returns with observations, that are blended to form a whole. Where is the enemy in greatest strength? what troops are in motion, and in what direction are they moving ?

As it added, ‘Instead of groping clumsily in a twilight, as was the case in former times, a Commander-in-Chief in this war, thanks to his aircraft, finds himself provides with an all-seeing eye’. Patriotic pride centred, as here, on these new scouts of the air in a diction which is densely emblematic of time and place. The ‘splendid work of the Flying Corps’ is praised  for its strategic importance in what was depicted as acts of of information rather than attack. ‘The main object of military aviation is the collection of information’, as the Scotsman announced on 15th September 1914, providing useful evidence on reconnaissance flight as another newly familiar formation.  ‘The constant object of our aviators has been to effect the accurate location of the enemy’s forces’, it added.

Here and elsewhere, the Words in War-Time archive emblematises the historical moment, presenting, as in the quotations above, eloquent evidence of the changes which took place in contemporary perception, not least in terms of the diverse role of flight in modern war, and its vital significance.

** daredevil was another word which took on an interesting alignment with the enterprise of war in the air. Clark located early evidence in October 1914 which suggested a new meaning restricted specifically to airmen, and those who ventured on dangerous missions as part of the Flying Corps:

that is why the work in the air will always demands the daredevil. That is why the world will thrill to the deeds of the airmen, to the wild swoop through the shrapnel upon the mark for the bomb, to the vaunting swoop above the trenches that belch forth searching bullets’ (17th October 1914)

Dare-devil had been recorded in the relevant section of the OED (printed in 1894, and provided with evidence 1794-1874), but Clark, rightly, suggested yet another change was at work, embedded in the ways in which one could, in a time of war and via flight, find new ways in which being ‘recklessly daring’ might be manifest. The OED1 entry remains unrevised in OED Online. See dare-devil, n. and adj.” OED Online. Oxford University Press, December 2014. Web. 22 December 2014.

** aerial scouting (Evening News, 4 Sept 1914): ‘ThTheir usual plan is to send out aeroplanes, which are followed by a Zeppelin with explosives’