Portrait of the Enemy

Photographs taken from the world’s first warplanes changed the course of battle.

The book that robbed the enemy of his secrets. A key to shapes shows a circle can be a haystack or a gun emplacement. (Eric Long)
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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.

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.

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