Tuesday, July 26, 2011

British Aerial Photography and Photographic Interpretation on the Western Front - Pt 1


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.

Tuesday, July 19, 2011

A Soldier’s Diary by Ralph Scott

Worth a read . . .

A Soldier’s Diary by Ralph Scott (Ralph Scott being a pseudonym for George Scott Atkinson)

War is about real people and this book captures the reality of war at the individual level.  It is a day by day diary of a Royal Engineer (RE) Officer in France during 1918.  The diary starts at the RE’s base camp in Rouen on 23April 1918 and then moves on to the Ypres salient with 2nd Army during May 1918, capturing the confused hiatus between the end of Operation Georgette (The Lys/Fourth Ypres) and the start of the Allied ‘100 days’ offensive. As the extract below shows Operation Georgette may have failed but the German army was still far from beaten.  The diary then moves on clearly highlighting the new challenges associated with the war of movement in the last 100 days.

A Soldier’s Diary – Ralph Scott pp. 77-90.


The events that follow are necessarily somewhat confused, both from their own nature and from the fact that I was not able to set them down until some ten days after they occurred. They fell out somewhat as follows:-

The Merryway had once been a decent road, but after the fighting in June there was little left but a shattered track running at right angles to the main lines of trenches.  The Huns had pushed out a very considerable salient on both sides of this track, and as their ground was rather higher than ours they were able to make life very unpleasant for everyone around them.

With the threat of more German attacks still hanging over us and the men quite worn out, the Staff decided that we must keep up our morale by trying to lower that of the Huns.  An attack on the Merryway Salient was decided upon as the best way of doing this.

Accordingly one Infantry Brigade and one Field Coy. R.E. went over on the night of August 8th, and under cover of a terrific bombardment surprised the Germans and gained practically all their objectives.  All was quiet for two days, the Field Coy. put up quantities of barbed wire and the Staff went to sleep to dream of medals.

The morning of the 11th [August 1918] was cold and misty, and to our great consternation the Huns delivered a very heavy counter-attack.  This was quite successful and we were all driven back with the exception of one post which held out on the Merryway.  Here about 30 Huns got held up against our wire and all surrendered, although most of the men wanted to shoot, because we were too weak to find an escort.  However we sent them back with two men, but seeing that our flanks were gone and how weak the escort was, they strangled the two men and joined the fight.  Everything was now completely mixed up, the gray-coated figures were all around, and odd groups of men were fighting detached battles for their own skins against heavy odds.  Our telephone wire was cut, and rockets were useless because of the mist; the casualties were heavy, and it looked as if the line would go.  Then I saw Bradley, a fearsome sight, with a piece of his scalp hanging over his ear and his face covered with blood, trying to collect some men.  I joined him, and we got a few together and went forward again.  In technical language I suppose we led a charge or counter-attack, but it never struck me in that way at all, and I'm sure we had no clear idea what we intended to do.

Bradley was mad, and we went at the first group of Huns we saw.  There was a tussle, we killed two and the rest surrendered.  Bradley collared one of these himself, a poor miserable kid not more than twenty, and I remember the sight of him put heart into us all.

In all we got forward about two hundred yards and got in touch with the Merryway post, although, of course, we were still a long way behind our original line.

This restored the line a little, and instead of pushing through the gaps on either side of us the Huns hesitated a little and finally dug in about 50 yards away.  All the infantry officers were killed and everyone was out of touch, so that the Huns were not followed up.  During the day reliefs came up, and at night Brigade reported that we held a line of posts in touch with one another about half-way between our first and second positions.

I went up with a few men and some material to try to consolidate the position, but when I got to Merryway post everything was in absolute chaos and there was only a sergeant and six men in the post and absolutely at their last gasp.  Apparently they had been attacked again during the day, and had only just kept off the Huns after suffering heavy casualties from trench mortars.  It was obvious the Huns thought a lot of this post, and I felt sure they would try to take us during the night.  I put all my men on and tried to strengthen the place with sandbags, and made it a little deeper by lifting some bodies out of the bottom.  I had 19 men with 150 rounds each and 1 Lewis gun with several thousand rounds - this I placed at the end of the trench to fire up the track.

About 11.30 we were shelled heavily without sustaining casualties, and immediately afterwards a crowd of infantry - about 100 I think-made a dash at us, chiefly down the old track.  The Lewis gun opened at once, and I was terrified to find that the Huns had a gun on our flank which was shooting straight at our gun and right into the trench.  The gunner was killed at once and Cox wounded, so that the gun was silent.  Then the infantry sergeant took it and was shot dead immediately.  I shouted to the men to keep shooting at the infantry in front and I took the Lewis gun myself and turned it round at the German gun.  I waited for him to shoot, and then fired at the flash and silenced him.  I noticed that the men's firing had died down, and on looking to the front I was relieved to see that the first attack was beaten off-we must have killed a lot, as they were right against the skyline - and there were a lot of them moaning about in front. I felt certain we could hold them if we could keep their gun quiet, so for the next twenty minutes we worked like fiends to raise some protection across the open end of the trench.  Then they came again in a sudden rush, but I must have damaged their gun, and without that to help them we could turn our gun right into them and easily held them off.  A small party sneaked close up to us on the left away from the gun and threw some bombs right into us, blowing an infantryman to bits and wounding a sapper. Then they shelled us steadily for half an hour and got one of the look-out men in the shoulder-another rifle useless.  At this point we had our one piece of luck-found a rum jar with just enough in it to give each man a mouthful-it put new heart into us and helped us more than twenty reinforcements.  Everything went quiet for a time, and in thinking things over I had an awful job to keep myself under control.  The men were wonderful, but there were only 13 of us left and fully 200 Huns all round.  During the lull Cox died in my arms-he was very game, but just before the end he sobbed like a child : “My wife and kiddie, oh God ! sir, what's going to happen to them ?-poor kid, poor kid." And so he died.

Shortly afterwards they came at us again, and thank God none of us realised how many there were.  On the right where the gun was we held them off again, but we were hopelessly out numbered, and a German officer and a small party actually got into our trench at the other end. I heard the row and, leaving the gun with Willis, was just in time to see a man kill the officer with his bayonet and the others cleared off again. They were very close all round us now, and as we could see nothing I told the men to keep their ammunition and then split them up, some to shoot forward and some to shoot back. I was frightened that we should be bombed, and surely enough they started, but the throwing was rotten.

And then once more they tried us.  A bomb came right in the trench and laid out two more men, splashing me with blood.  We shot like fiends and the gun was nearly red-hot, but they were too many.  About eight men got into the trench and then we all went mad.  It would be impossible for me to give an accurate description because there was just one fierce wild tussle, they trying to get at Willis and that blessed gun and we trying to keep them off. We were too mixed to shoot; they used a sort of life-preserver and we used our bayonets taken off the rifles.  A German about my own size slipped into the trench behind me and I just turned in time to duck under a swing from his preserver.  What I was doing I shall never know, but by instinct I got my left hand on his throat, and before I knew what had happened I had got the bayonet dagger-wise a good six inches into his chest.  He went down without a groan.  There was no one in front of me and I turned to find a big Hun with his back to me and a life-preserver raised to hit McDonald, who had his back to the Hun, over the head. If I had had sense I would have stuck the bayonet into his back, but I was absolutely wild and dropped it.  Before the Hun could strike I got my hands on his throat and we fell down together.  I fell underneath but got on top and pressed until I thought my fingers would break. He was terribly strong and once scratched a great piece out of my left cheek. Gradually he weakened, and I kept my fingers in his throat until he died.

Much the same thing had happened to all the other men except one, who got badly mauled about the head and died shortly afterwards.  For a moment I felt we could fight the whole German army, especially when I saw McDonald smash in a German head with the rum jar.  Now the survivors were shouting for help, but that blessed Willis (ex jail-bird) was sitting with the gun out in the open, regardless of everything, swearing like hell, and none of the Huns seemed anxious to accept the invitation.  We were all clean crazy, and I even had a job to keep the men in the trench.  McDonald said something about Cox's missus, and wanted to kill ten of the "bloody bastards."

During the whole of that bloody night my hardest job was to restrain the men in that moment of semi-victory; for it was still two hours until dawn. Nine out of the nineteen of us were either dead or dying, and all the rest of us were damaged in some way.  Throughout the whole night I had never thought of anything but death.  Relief, I knew, was impossible-if we surrendered they would kill us, and I never dreamed that we could really hold them off till dawn.  Writing now, it would be easy to imagine impressions which I never really experienced, but I can safely say that throughout the whole night I calmly regarded myself as a dead man.  It seemed quite natural that I should be, and I can't remember that I had the slightest regret.  It even seems now that in some queer way I was distinctly happier and more tranquil than I had ever been in my life before.  I felt nobler, mightier, than any human being on earth, and death seemed welcome as the only fitting end.  Recalling some of my previous entries on the subject of war, I cannot understand my feelings on this occasion and can only repeat that it was so-perhaps something of

“The stern joy which warriors feel

In foemen worthy of their steel."

It was therefore almost with a feeling of annoyance, of having been cheated of something, that I saw the first streaks of gray beyond Kemmel.  I thought they would still make a last effort and waited, but we shivered in vain.  In the semi-light we managed to get an odd shot at some of them who had been behind us as they went round to the front-we shot two or three more this way.  Then I left my sergeant in charge and went back for a crawl to see what I could find.  It was almost light now, and after about half an hour I came across a picket.  They firmly believed we were all dead, and said so, and once more that odd feeling of annoyance returned. I remembered that during the night I had visualised the Brigade report on the whole business:- “Their Lewis gun was heard firing until early in the morning but it was impossible to reach them."

However, I went back, left some fresh men in the post and brought my fellows out, leaving orders for the dead to be brought down during the day if possible.  As we went back past Brigade I dropped in to report.  The General had apparently been up all night and looked very worried.  He insisted on seeing the men.  They were lying in the mud outside, bleeding and swearing-an awful but a sublime picture.  He was deeply moved, and several times under his breath I heard him say, “Marvellous, marvellous, wonderful."  Afterwards, I was told that there were tears in his eyes when he went back into the dug-out.  He has had an awful time, poor beggar.'

Friday, July 15, 2011

Trenchard’s ‘Relentless and Incessant Offensive’ - Pt 5

Back to Part 4

Compromises - The Corps Aircraft

The Corps aircraft operating in their artillery co-operation and photographic roles were arguably the RFC assets that contributed most directly to the success of the British army.

‘Observation for the artillery, visual reconnaissance, air-photography and the ‘contact-sortie’ became, therefore, the principle tasks of the Royal Flying Corps on the Western Front,…’.  Peter Mead, The Eye in the Air (London: HMSO, 1983), p. 62.

Yet these crews were expected to survive in the obsolete B.E.2 during the battle of Arras in 1917.  The replacement of the B.E.2 had begun with a RFC request for a two-seat reconnaissance aircraft that was capable of defending itselfThe result was the Bristol Fighter, introduced in April 1917.  Its robust design, powerful engine, good manoeuvrability and relatively heavy armament enabled it to excel as a fighter aircraft, condemning the Corps crews to fly the uninspiring compromise replacement, the R.E.8, and from June 1917 the F.K.8 until the end of the war.

Compromises - The Ground Attack Role

Arras saw the RFC first start ground attack missions in direct support of the army.  During Third Ypres, although largely uncoordinated and tasked against targets of opportunity, RFC ground attacks had, according to German records, a significant psychological impact on the German soldier.  The first hand accounts captured in Jack Sheldon’s book, The German Army at Passchendaele (Barnsley: Pen & Sword, 2007), present a reoccurring sense of vulnerability associated with the RFC ground attacks during Third Ypres.  By Amiens in 1918 ground attack had become, subject to weather, an integral element of the BEF’s evolving combined arms battle.  The role proved both unpopular and casualty intensive, a direct result of having to use non-specialist fighter aircraft in the role.  V.M.Yeates’ novel, Winged Victory (London: Granada, 1961), an autobiography in all but name, captures explicitly the sense of dread felt by the RFC pilots tasked with the ground attack role.  Additionally Trenchard, at a War Cabinet meeting on 4 Apr 1918, stated that between 21 Mar and 2 Apr 1918:

‘… 437 British machines had been wrecked on our side of the line, and 113 of our machines were missing.  … that the large number of machines wrecked was owing to the amount of low flying taking place; also that such low flying machines get badly shot about.  … that the casualties had been heavy, primarily due to machine-gun fire from the ground; 210 pilots had been killed, wounded, or missing, and 105 observers killed, wounded, or missing.  National Archives CAB 23/6 Image No 0004.

Unlike the Germans, with their armoured Halberstadt CL.II aircraft specifically designed for ground attack, the British, due in part to the emphasis on fighter production, did not produce a dedicated ground attack aircraft.

Compromises - The Human Cost

The manpower compromises are a little more emotive.  The human cost, whilst not avoidable, could and should have been tempered.  As stated previously the operational tempo generated by Trenchard’s offensive policies placed a strain on the RFC’s training system that led ultimately to higher casualties.  Trenchard was aware of this as is evidenced by his complaints to the War Office concerning the quality of the new pilots and his decision to send Smith-Barry back to England to ‘try out his ideas’.  Trenchard reportedly said to Smith-Barry ‘It’s about time you went home to try out these ideas you’ve been pestering me with.’ (Boyle, Trenchard, p. 202.).  Trenchard’s time at the CFS before the war and his home involvement in the initial RFC expansion during 1914 provided him with a clear insight into the pressures being placed on the training machine.  With this in mind it is perhaps easier to subscribe to Ralph Barker’s view:

‘The failure to impose strict training programmes on new squadrons as they arrived, and to organise routine training programmes on all squadrons in France, surely amounted to culpable if not criminal negligence.’  Barker, Mons to the Somme, p. 220.

Quantifying the degree to which Trenchard’s policy compromised the development of the RFC is problematic, but what is clear is as John H. Morrow states:

‘Trenchard refused to acknowledge that materiel and manpower imposed very real limitations on doctrine.’  John H. Morrow, The Great War in the Air (Washington: Smithsonian, 1993), p. 175.


Primary Sources

National Archives

CAB/23/2, Image Reference 0041
CAB/23/2, Image Reference 0052
War Cabinet Minutes. War Cabinet 134, (8 May 1917)
CAB/23/3, Image Reference 0027
War Cabinet Minutes. War Cabinet 179, (9 July 1917)
CAB/23/4, Image Reference 0017
CAB/23/5, Image Reference 0053
War Cabinet Minutes. War Cabinet 361, (7 March 1918)
CAB/23/6, Image Reference 0004
War Cabinet Minutes. War Cabinet 382, (4 April 1918)
CAB/23/40, Image Reference 0008
War Cabinet Minutes. War Cabinet 6, (5 April 1917)
CAB/24/2, Image Reference 0009
Duties of the Royal Naval Air Service and the Royal Flying Corps, (February 1916)
CAB/24/2, Image Reference 0037
CAB/24/6, Image Reference 0091
CAB/24/7, Image Reference 0006
CAB/24/10, Image Reference 0068
CAB/24/11, Image Reference 0096
Air Board, Report to the Cabinet, (26 April 1917)
CAB/24/25, Image Reference 0023
CAB/24/26, Image Reference 0004


Baring, Maurice
R.F.C. H.Q. 1914-1918 (London, Bell & Sons, 1920)
Cutlack, F.M.
Royal Air Force
Raleigh, Walter
The War in the Air Volume 1 (Oxford, Clarenden Press, 1922)


Brooke-Popham, H.R.
‘The Air Force’, RUSI Journal, 65 (Feb./Nov. 1920)
Editorial Comment
Giffard, Hardinge (Viscount Tiverton)
‘Independent Air Power’, RAF Spirit of the Air Inaugural Edition 1 April 1918 pp. 7 - 9.
Sykes, F.H.
‘Further Developments of Military Aviation’ Flight Magazine, 14 February 1914, pp. 170-173
Slessor, J.C.
‘The Air-Land Battle’. RAF Spirit of the Air Inaugural Edition 1 April 1918 pp. 10 - 11.
Trenchard, Hugh
‘Forward’, RAF Spirit of the Air Inaugural Edition 1 April 1918 p. 1.

Secondary Sources


Ash, Eric
Ash, Eric
‘Air Power Leadership: A Study of Sykes and Trenchard’, in Peter W. Gray & Sebastian Cox (eds), Air Power Leadership Theory and Practice (London, The Stationary Office, 2002)
Air Historical Branch
A Short History of the Royal Air Force (Air Ministry, AP 125, 1936)
Barker, Ralph
Barker, Ralph
Bishop, William A
Winged Warfare (New York, Doran Company, 1918)
Boyle, Andrew
Trenchard (London, Collins, 1962)
Brabazon, Lord
The Brabazon Story (London, William Heinemann, 1956)
Cooper, Malcolm
The Birth of Independent Air Power (London, Allen & Unwin, 1986)
Duffy, Christopher
Through German Eyes (London, Phoenix, 2007)
Finnegan, Terrence J.
Shooting the Front – Allied Aerial Reconnaissance and Photographic Interpretation on the Western Front – World War One (Washington, NDIC Press, 2006)
Fischer, William Edward
The Development of Military Night Aviation to 1919 (Washington, US Government Printing Office, 1998)
Franks, Norman; Guest, Russell & Bailey, Frank
Bloody April … Black September (London, Grubb Street, 1995)
Hart, Peter
Somme Success (Barnsley, Pen & Sword, 2001)
Hart, Peter
Bloody April (London, Cassell, 2005)
Hart, Peter
Aces Falling (London, Phoenix, 2008)
Jordan, David
‘The Battle for the Skies: Sir Hugh Trenchard as Commander of the Royal Flying Corps’, in Matthew Hughes & Matthew Seligmann (eds), Leadership in Conflict 1914-1918 (Barnsley, Pen & Sword, 2000)
Jordan, David & Sheffield, Gary
‘The British Army and Air Power’, in Peter W. Gray (ed), British Air Power (London, The Stationary Office, 2003)
Johnson, J.E.
Full Circle (London, Cassell, 2001)
Kennet, Lee
The First Air War 1914-1918 (New York, Macmillan, 1991)
Kilduff, Peter
‘A German airman and his war: Oscar Bechtle’, in Hugh Cecil & Peter Liddle (eds), Facing Armageddon (Barnsley Pen & Sword, 2003)
Lee, A.G.
Levine, Joshua
On a Wing and a Prayer (London, Collins, 2008)
Mead, Peter
The Eye in the Air (London, HMSO, 1983)
Morrow, John H.
The Great War in the Air (Washington, Smithsonian, 1993)
Paris, Michael
Winged Warfare (Manchester, Manchester University Press, 1992)
Saundby, Robert
Air Bombardment  (London, Chatto & Windus, 1961)
Sheffield, Gary & Jordan, David
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Sheldon, Jack
The German Army at Passchendaele (Barnsley, Pen & Sword, 2007)
Travers, Tim
The Killing Ground (Barnsley, Pen & Sword, 2003)
Turner, Charles C.
The Struggle in the Air 1914-1918 (London, Edward Arnold, 1919)
Winter, Denis
The First of the Few (London, Penguin, 1982)
Yeates, V.M.
Winged Victory (St Albans, Mayflower, 1974)

Journals and Periodicals

Dye, Peter
France and the Development of British Military Aviation’, Air Power Review, 12, (1), (Spring 2009)
Dye, Peter
‘Sustaining Airpower – Influence of Logistics on RAF Doctrine’ USAF Journal of Logistics, 30 (4) & 31 (1), (Winter 2006, Spring 2007)
Echevarria, A.J.
Greenhous, Brereton
Evolution of a Close Ground-Support Role for Aircraft in World War I’, Military Affairs, 39, (1) (February 1975)
Jordan, David
‘The Royal Air Force and Air/Land Integration in the 100 Days’, Air Power Review, 11, (2), (Summer 2008)
Liddle, Peter
‘Aspects of the Employment of the British Air Arm, 1914-1918’, RUSI Journal, 131 (4), (December 1986)
Meilinger, Phillip S.
‘Trenchard and "Morale Bombing": The Evolution of Royal Air Force Doctrine Before World War II’, The Journal of Military History, 60, (2) (April 1996)
Price, Alfred
‘Air Power taken to its Limits and Beyond.  The Battle of Amiens’, Air Power Review, 4, (4), (Winter 2001)
Smythies, B.E.
‘The German Air Force on the Western Front’, RUSI Journal, 69 (Feb./Nov. 1924)
Sutton, B.E.
‘Some Aspects of the Work of the Royal Air Force with the B.E.F. in 1918’ RUSI Journal, 67 (Feb./Nov. 1922)


Bairstow, Leonard
‘Progress of Aviation in the War Period’, Flight Magazine, 26 June 1919, pp. 853-854
Bradbeer, Thomas B.
King, H.F.
‘British Naval Flying’, Flight Magazine, 20 April 1951, pp. 467-471
Rember, Bruce
Operational Lessons from the Dawn of Air Power’, Fort Leavenworth Thesis, (May 1993)
Morley, Robert
Earning their Wings: British Pilot Training, 1912-1918University of Saskatchewan Thesis, (December 2006)