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A report on aerial photography and photographic interpretation written by Major Edward Steichen, an American officer, dated 26 December 1918 referred to a perceived weakness in the British photographic interpretation processes during the war.
‘Frequent cases have been noted where an interpreter who knew nothing about photography mistook imperfections in the photographic plate or print for things recorded by the camera. Numerous British officers have stated that the French get more value out of their photographs than the British do. . . .the fact that in the French service the interpretation and all matters pertaining to aerial photography rest in the hands of the French Air Service is chiefly responsible for this superiority. Edward Steichen, Aerial Photography. The Matter of Interpretation and Exploitation, (Headquarters Air Service, S.O.S., A.E.F., Office of C.A.S. Photographic Section, 26 December 1918); printed in: Finnegan, Shooting the Front. p. 478.
The initial criticism was valid and the split between photograph processing and photograph interpretation that was formalised in 1916, when the squadron photograph processing sections were established, created a knowledge divide that became more pronounced as the interpretation process moved further away from the photograph processing. Balanced against this, and the report’s intimation that the RFC/RAF should have controlled the flow of aerial photograph derived intelligence, is the evidence that by 1918 photographic interpretation conducted downstream provided a unique unit focus that helped maintained situation awareness and proved invaluable for battle planning and mission rehearsal. Rather than control the flow the solution would arguably have been to improve the photographic interpretation training.
At the higher command levels the utility of aerial photography for operational planning was highlighted through Darley’s mosaic in early 1915, and confirmed through Haig’s use of aerial photography in the planning for Neuve Chapelle.
Although invaluable for the higher command and infantry it was the artillery that had the greater dependence on aerial photography. The First World War was fundamentally an artillery war. Battery survey and knowledge of the enemy’s precise location became the cornerstone of good artillery operations. Pivotal to identifying and then targeting an enemy’s precise location was the map. The only viable source of data for map production was derived from aerial photography through photographic interpretation. Put simply; no aerial photography, no map, reduced artillery effectiveness.
From the artillery STA perspective, the aerial photograph proved a useful corroborative tool that helped develop confidence in the use and success of the emerging artillery intelligence sources; flash spotting and sound ranging. Additionally, when compared to the other STA intelligence sources, the aerial photograph had a unique advantage. German battery detection, location and identification could be achieved without the German guns firing.
For much of the BEF aerial photography proved an invaluable tool, for the artillery it was indispensable.
Next: Part 24 ‘Bibliography’