Kite balloons, which were used for observation and controlled by a cable attached to the ground, were often known as 'sausages' and first used on the Western Front on 8 May 1915 in the Aubers Ridge area. They had been used by both the naval and military wings of the air service, but were automatically transferred to the control of the RAF on its formation in the spring of 1918. Utilised by the Allies and the Germans, kite balloonists undertook an extremely hazardous role. Most balloons were powered by highly flammable hydrogen gas and, unless securely tethered, they could easily drift out of control. Furthermore, suspended more than 1000m above ground, they were sitting targets for enemy planes.
Each balloon, which was maintained and tethered by a team of 48 highly-trained men, carried two passengers, known light-heartedly as 'balloonatics' - a commander and an observer, who, via a telegraph wire down to the ground would send back information on troop formations and artillery locations. Each basket was equipped with telecommunication equipment, binoculars, a long range camera, maps, sandbags, pressure gauge, code book, a barometer, an air speed indicator and, more onimously, two sheath knives, two life savers and two parachutes.
These parachutes, known as the Spencer Static Line Automatic parachute, and nicknamed 'acorns,' were fitted to the outside of the basket and offered a rather unreliable exit strategy if the balloonists ran into trouble. The idea was to grap the end of a static line as you leapt over the edge of the basket, hoping very much it would open and you would manage to jump free of any potential entanglement. Sadly, parachute failure led to the fate of West End actor, Basil Hallam, who had left the stage and his legions of adoring fans to join the Kite Balloon Section in 1915. In August the following year, in an attempt to escape his balloon as it drifted towards enemy lines, Hallam became tangled and fell to his death. His story is told in 'Casualties of War,' in our latest edition of ME & You magazine which can be read via this link http://www.maryevans.com/meandyou.php
The popular artist and cartoonist Lawson Wood (1878-1957) was another member of the Kite Balloon Section and was decorated by the French for his action over Vimy Ridge.
The pictures we show here are by Sidney James Jessett (1885-1961), an artist who is believed to have also been attached to the Kite Balloons and made a number of sketches and paintings around the Salient in 1917. The desperate scramble of the basket's inhabitants, and the sight of their equipment tumbling through the air to the ground as they come under attack is a chilling reminder of how vulnerable kite balloonists could be.
The two paintings are a taster of what is to come from one of our newest contributors, David Cohen Fine Art. David and his wife Judith have been specialising in the art, ephemera and memorabilia of the Great War since 1984 and we are delighted to be representing such a prestigious collection which comes with the benefit of David and Judith's expert knowledge. We plan to feature many more images from the collection in this blog in the coming months. To learn more about David Cohen Fine Art visit www.dcfa.com
More kite balloon images here