He was born in Giebichenstein, the son of a schoolmaster recently returned from Argentina. After leaving school he joined Telegraphen-Bataillon Nr. 3 in Koblenz as a Fahnenjunker (cadet officer). In mid-1914 he transferred to the Fliegertruppe. His training took from May to August at the Halberstädter Fliegerschule, and he was then immediately posted to active duty.
He was initially posted to Fliegerabteilung 13. He transferred to Fliegerabteilung 62 in April 1915, based at Douai. Here he came under the tutelage of Max Immelmann and used some of the first synchronized forward-firing guns with the Fokker E-I. Boelcke won his first aerial combat on July 4, 1915 and downed four more enemy aircraft before the end of the year and flying a new biplane he had four more 'kills' in January 1916. Also in January 1916 he and Immelmann were the first German fliers to be awarded the "Blue Max". Immelmann was killed in June 1916. In March 1916 Boelcke was made leader of the newly formed Fliegerabteilung Sivery and led them in action over Verdun.
The German air force (Luftstreitkräfte) was reorganized in mid-1916 and Boelcke was appointed commander of his hand-picked group of Jagdstaffel Nr. 2, usually called JASTA 2, in September. Of his first choice pilots were Manfred von Richthofen, Erwin Boehme and Hans Reimann. Initially flying the new Albatros D.II over the Somme, Boelcke shot down eleven RFC planes in his first month with JASTA 2. His command always flew in large disciplined formations and he repeatedly drilled them in tactics, the Dicta Boelcke.
Boelcke was killed when his Albatros D.II collided with that of Boehme during a dogfight with D.H. 2s flown by 24 Squadron of the RFC. He had forty successes to his credit. Boehme survived the collision but was horrified and had to be prevented from committing suicide.