Capturing the Lines: Aerial Photography in the First World War

By Jonathan Franklin, Chief, Library, Archives and Research Fellowships Program, NGC on August 18, 2014

Photo © Yale University Press

If you were a First World War general poring over aerial photographs of enemy lines, how would you tell the difference between a genuine bomb crater and an artificially created one? The answer is that the artificially created bomb crater would be just a little bit too perfectly round, and would show no traces of an actual explosion. This is one of many questions answered in the fascinating book, The Great War Seen from the Air In Flanders Fields, 1914–1918, by Birger Stichelbaut and Piet Chielens, published in cooperation with the In Flanders Fields Museum, Ypres; the Imperial War Museum, London; and The Royal Museum of the Armed Forces and of Military History, Brussels.

There is perhaps not a great deal of conscious art-making to be found within its pages, beyond a few watercolours produced by soldiers near the front lines, and photographs of decoratively laid-out German cemeteries—most of which would disappear at the end of the conflict, when the remains of the soldiers were moved to a few collective burial grounds.

For the most part, the photographs are technical rather than beautiful. It is interesting to learn that, among the collections of First World War aerial photography that have survived, the official archives contain far greater numbers of bird’s-eye views. These were obviously more informative to the generals in the field, but harder to appreciate for civilians. The personal “memory” albums and collections, on the other hand, tend to feature smaller numbers of oblique views, more closely approximating a traditional way of portraying the landscape.

One can only marvel at the courage of the photographers. As explained in a text relating to a photograph of a German fighter plane—taken from above by an Allied photographer in another plane only a machine-gun volley away—this was photography under the most unnerving conditions. There is also the anticipated frisson of the before-and-after photographs: Passchaendale as bucolic landscape, and then as churned-up mud. And, less expected, a certain fascination in the photographs of local villages and towns under reconstruction in the early 1920s—not to mention the superficially bland aerial photographs of the same terrain taken in 2012.

The book’s aim is to allow the photographs to present the First World War landscape in a neutrally informative manner. But aesthetics and emotion inevitably seep in, like muddy water in the trenches. The preface alludes to the suffering of the countryside, an anthopomorphizing tendency echoed towards the end of the book in the notion of the countryside as the “last witness” of the conflict, now that the human combatants have all passed on.

There is also a reference to the poem “In Flanders Fields,” written just north of Ypres by Canadian doctor John McRae on May 3, 1915. Students of Canadian art may ponder the connection that has been made in other writings about the influence of the First World War landscapes on later portrayals of the rugged and barren landscapes of the North by Canadian artists, several of whom had served in the trenches.

And finally, just in case you were wondering why anyone would go to the trouble of creating an artificial bomb crater, that is another question the book can answer. They were training grounds designed to acclimatize soldiers, newly arrived at the front, to the landscape in which they had come to live—and all too often die. 

The Great War Seen from the Air In Flanders Fields, 1914–1918 (Brussels: Mercatorfonds, 2013) is available through the NGC Bookstore. The Great War: The Persuasive Power of Photography is on view at the NGC from June 27 until November 16, 2014.


By Jonathan Franklin, Chief, Library, Archives and Research Fellowships Program, NGC| August 18, 2014
Categories:  Recommendations

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Jonathan Franklin, Chief, Library, Archives and Research Fellowships Program, NGC

Jonathan Franklin, Chief, Library, Archives and Research Fellowships Program, NGC

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