How important was aerial photography and photographic interpretation to the British Expeditionary Force (BEF) in France during the First World War? Ian Beckett in his book The Great War, 1914-1918 provides a clue:
‘By 1918, however, photographic images could be taken as high as 15,000 feet and photographic interpretation was advanced; the RFC, for example, having 3,000 specialist interpreters by the end of the war.’ Ian F. W. Beckett, The Great War, 1914-1918, (Pearson Education Ltd, Harlow, 2007) p. 254. [As this narrative will show Beckett’s assertion is wrong the photographic interpretation was not carried out by the RFC/RAF, the 3,000 specialists were photographic specialists not interpretation specialists.]
As did Air Commodore H. R. Brooke-Popham who in a lecture given on 3rd December 1919 stated that:
‘As regards photographs, our best day’s work was May 3rd, 1918, when 4,090 new photographs were taken.’ H. R. Brooke-Popham, The Air Force (Lecture), Royal United Service Institute Journal, 65 (1920:Feb/Nov) p. 43.
These two statements imply a level of importance, but also serve to illustrate the gobbet style in which the subject of air photography and photographic interpretation has largely been addressed in historical works to date. In general material covering aerial photography has tended to focus on the engineering elements; the cameras, the airframes, and the Royal Flying Corps (RFC) personalities linked to aerial photography. Material covering photographic interpretation is limited and what there is, is largely a repetition of what has been published in the Official Histories. The wider intelligence application of aerial photography although referred to, is superficially covered. The one exception to this is Terrence Finnegan’s work; ‘Shooting the Front – Allied Aerial Reconnaissance and Photographic Interpretation on the Western Front – World War One’ published in the UK in May 2011.
A review of the secondary source material suggests that the evolution of British aerial photography and photographic interpretation on the Western Front provides a classic example of the learning process that occurred within the BEF in France during the First World War. This evolution touched every level; from the Private infantryman who could expect that by 1917 the trench raid he was involved in had been planned using the latest aerial photograph (T McK Hughes, Private Papers of T McK Hughes, IWM Catalogue Number 12244 PP/MCR/C15.), through to the Commander in Chief Sir Douglas Haig who, based on photographic intelligence, called off the Amiens offensive in August 1918 (Peter Chasseaud, Artillery’s Astrologers, (Mapbooks, Lewes, 1999) p. 454, and Charles Messenger, The Day we Won the War, (Weidenfeld & Nicolson, London, 2008) p. 222.). Aerial photography moved from a novelty collected by Staff Officers as souvenirs in early 1915 to becoming, by the end of 1917, a pre-requisite for any military operation. When viewed in the context of the ongoing academic debate concerning the war this evolution both epitomises and emphasises the concept of the learning curve.
This narrative focuses on British tactical photographic interpretation and aerial photograph usage and will seek to place it in the context of its wider intelligence application.
Next: Part 2 ‘The Pre-Cursor 1849 to August 1914’