Portrait of the Enemy
Photographs taken from the world’s first warplanes changed the course of battle.
- By Robin White
- Air & Space magazine, September 2008
(Page 2 of 5)
The military’s view on aviation had clearly undergone a major shift. Only a few years before Notes was issued, General Ferdinand Foch of France had said, “Flying is merely a sport and from the military point of view has no value whatsoever.” When Austrian Archduke Franz Ferdinand’s 1914 assassination in Sarajevo sent the world to war, reconnaissance was conducted by cavalry—that’s right, men on horses.
As for aerial reconnaissance, early observers went aloft over France in tethered balloons armed with nothing more than sketchpads. Now, according to Notes, overlapping photographs covering half a continent were routinely shot from more than a mile high, with camera lenses that were good enough to show whether a trench was full of soldiers or mud.
Aerial reconnaissance, like aviation itself, had entered World War I as a primitive art. How had it become a science so quickly? A phrase in Notes provided a clue: “The disregard of aerial photographs has cost many avoidable disasters and useless loss of life.”
The Germans had laid out the conquest of Europe in great detail in the pre-war Schlieffen Plan, a strategy for conquering the continent by way of a lightning thrust through neutral Belgium, the capture of Paris, and, in six weeks, German forces on the English Channel. Like most such plans, it didn’t survive contact with the enemy. The quick war of maneuver bogged down to a bloody stalemate. One of the main reasons: aerial reconnaissance.
At the outbreak of fighting, on August 1, 1914, the French could muster 132 military airplanes. The British had 40 able to fly across the Channel. Though the Italians had been the first to use airplanes in war, sending Blériot XIs to Libya in 1911 to bomb, scout, and even photograph Turkish troops during the Italo-Turkish War, they were years from joining the conflict. The Russians planned to adapt Igor Sikorsky’s immense, four-engine Ilya Mourometz—a precursor to the modern airliner with a heated, lit cabin and bathroom—as a bomber, but at the start of the war, the Russian air force consisted almost entirely of aircraft imported from France, Britain, and Germany, sources that dried up at the first shot.
All military aircraft of the day served only as observation platforms, meant to augment the reconnaissance work of tethered spotting balloons. None was armed.
The first of the Allied scouts took off on August 19, 1914. They were hampered by typical summer weather: haze, heat, clouds, and thunderstorms. There were no charts, no navigation aids of any kind. The results were predictable. A British pilot left his field in northern France in a Blériot XI and promptly got lost, managing to fly directly over Brussels without recognizing it. A French pilot in another Blériot came down in a town that was still in Belgian hands and later reported back that “an excellent lunch was provided by the garrison commander.”
And the Germans? They had about 200 aircraft, split between the Eastern and Western Fronts, plus a secret weapon: a few aerial cameras with superb Zeiss lenses.