Shooting with a Camera above the Western Front

February 25, 2011

It’s been almost a century since the outbreak of World War I. Although it’s rightfully remembered for its frightful battlefield slaughter, the Great War also marked a huge leap forward in the use of modern technology in war. One of those technological developments was the use of aerial reconnaissance photography to map enemy terrain and extract intelligence information on troop movements, defenses, and strategy.

Shooting the Front: Allied Aerial Reconnaissance and Photographic Interpretation on the Western front – World War I, published by the National Defense Intelligence College, is not the kind of product normally associated with that estimable agency, which usually deals with more contemporary issues. That’s one of the things that intrigued me about this hefty, profusely illustrated volume. It’s got lots of photographs, of course – the image of Fort Douaumont after Verdun gives new meaning to the term “leveled to the ground” – but also lots of information about how aerial photography evolved in the course of the war. It’s analogous to the progression of aircraft armament from a pistol in the hand of a co-pilot in 1914 to synchronized machine guns in1918. Interestingly, it was the French who led the way in developing aerial recon photography into a real science, and their partnership with American personnel was much more significant than is usually assumed.

I also enjoyed the brief biographies of the pioneers of Allied aerial photography: Eugene Marie Edmond Pepin, the brilliant Sorbonne graduate; John Theodore Cuthbert (known as “J.T.C.” – my initials!) Moore-Brabzon, the quintessential English gentleman (“‘You will obey your superior officers,’ the No. 9 Squadron commander once remarked early on. Moore-Brabzon replied, ‘Superior officer? – senior, if you please, sir.’”); and Edward Jan Steichen, the great American photographic master, who once joked that anyone producing a fuzzy photograph would be court-martialed! Retiring as a Lieutenant Colonel in the reserves in 1924, Steichen received a commission as a Lieutenant Commander in the Navy reserves in 1941 at the age of 62, was on the carrier Lexington and in the Battle of Iwo Jima, and retired again as a Navy Captain in charge of all naval combat photography – talk about the engaged artist!

Shooting the Front is an excellent study of a neglected aspect of World War I and aviation history. At first I thought it might be too technical, but instead I found it absorbing to shift between the text and the photos, in a sense becoming a combat photograph interpreter myself. You can view the Table of Contents and Chapter I here, get a copy here, or find it in a library. For other Government publications touching on “the war to end all wars,” you can browse here.

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