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 3 of 5)
On August 22, the day when British and German soldiers first clashed, 12 British BE 2a biplanes (a 1913 design that, like the Wright Flyer, used wing warping to turn) were sent up to locate the enemy. They didn’t have to fly very far: an entire German army was marching south from Brussels, split into vast columns like the prongs of a pitchfork. The Germans had thrown the French forces back, and the British had been left alone and exposed.
The British commander, Field Marshal Sir John French, was an old cavalry officer who didn’t have much use for airplanes. When one BE 2a pilot reported what he’d seen, French stormed, “How do you expect me to carry out my plans if you bring me all these bloody Germans!”
Later, however, in a post-war memoir he admitted, “This was our first practical experience in the use of aircraft for reconnaissance purposes. The timely warning they gave enabled me to make speedy dispositions to avoid disaster.” The information from the aerial scouts allowed the British to maneuver out of the way of the seemingly unstoppable German advance. French saved his army.
A few weeks later, with Germany’s noose on Paris tightening and the government evacuating, Corporal Louis Breguet, flying an AG 4 he’d designed himself, discovered a gap in German lines. The French attacked, stopping the invasion just 30 miles from the city. With the war barely begun, aerial reconnaissance had already changed the course of battle.
On the Eastern Front, in the epic Battle of Tannenberg, the Germans paid attention to their scouting pilots; the Russians ignored theirs. The result: Between August 17 and September 2, 1914, an entire Russian army was destroyed, its soldiers killed or captured, its commander dead by his own hand.
As the value of aerial intelligence soared, stopping it became ever more critical. A pilot’s life, already endangered by bad weather, unreliable engines, fragile airframes, and anti-aircraft fire, was about to become a lot more dangerous.
On Monday, October 5, 1914, a north wind blew across the vineyards near Rheims in northern France. For the soldiers of the German Second and Third Armies huddled in trenches, the cold was proof that the Six-Week War they’d been promised had been ill-named. The men of the nearby French Fifth Army weren’t any happier, but at least they could suffer with bottles of the excellent local champagne.
The drone of airplane engines turned thousands of faces up to the sky. A German Aviatik, a two-seat observation craft, was approaching at 3,500 feet to survey French lines. A second aircraft, a French Voisin, was above and behind it.