Saturday, September 24, 2011

British Aerial Photography and Photographic Interpretation on the Western Front - Pt 9

Back to Part 8

RFC Photographic Sections Formalised

Within the month the experimental photographic section at First Wing was declared a success and following the section’s report recommendation a photographic section was established at the HQ of each of the now three RFC Wings.  The original photographic section was tasked with creating and training the new sections at the other two Wings.  The centralisation of the photographic processing and printing at Wing level streamlined the RFC’s aerial photography processes ultimately widening the dissemination of the raw printed photograph (A ‘raw’ photograph is a photograph issued unanalysed, having yet to go through an interpretation process).  The centralisation also provided another key benefit; each photographic section was charged with maintaining their Army’s History of [photograph] Coverage (HOC).  The HOC comprised a record of every exposed negative which was to include; the negatives unique number, the exposure date, time and place, the exposure altitude, the atmospheric and light conditions, the shutter speed and photographic stop used.  The outline of each photograph was plotted on a map and cross-referenced to a file system (Finnegan, Shooting theFront, pp. 46 - 47).  A comprehensive, coherent and searchable HOC would prove pivotal in realising the potential of photographic interpretation; it would not be long before HQ’s at most levels began keeping records and copies of the aerial photographs that covered their areas of interest.  What was lacking though was a process that facilitated an understanding of what the photographs contained.  Gone was the ad-hoc approached practiced by Darley who had spent many hours at Division and Corps HQ pointing out and explaining the detail visible in his photographs to uninitiated Staff Officers.  The scale of the new photographic operation made the personal approach that much more difficult.  Recipients had to develop their own photographic interpretation skills and as a result during much of 1915 many recipients viewed aerial photographs as little more than very accurate maps.

The New Intelligence Source

One of the beneficiaries of this new intelligence source was Lieutenant Colonel J. Charteris, General Staff Officer (GSO) I Intelligence at First Army HQ.  Aerial photographs had been coming into First Army Intelligence in slowly increasing numbers since the start of the year.  In a diary entry dated February 24 1915, probably during the planning for the battle of Neuve Chapelle, he wrote:

‘My table is covered with photographs taken from aeroplanes.  We have just started this method of reconnaissance, which will I think develop into something very important.’.  John Charteris, At G. H. Q. (London, Cassel &Company, 1931). p. 77.

At this stage of the war the mapping of areas behind the German lines was the responsibility of the Intelligence staff.  The techniques of revising detail and plotting German defences from aerial photographs onto the available maps had been developing over the previous months and by the end of February the RFC’s pioneering photography work coupled with Laws’ camera training had enabled First Wing to photograph the entire German trench system in front of First Army to a depth that ranged from 700 to 1,500 yards.  The result was a fairly complete picture of the German tactical dispositions.  This tactical picture, which was regularly updated, was used by Haig to plan the Battle of Neuve Chapelle.  Additionally 1,500 copies of a 1:5,000 scale map overlaid with an outline of the German defensive system were specially printed and issued to each of the attacking Corps (Figure 6).  Crude compared to later standards (see Figure 8) the maps represented the first true COP ever taken into battle by a modern British army.

Figure 6.  Neuve Chapelle 1915.

1 comment:

  1. Hello Tim. May I ask where you have 'Figure 6. Neuve Chapelle 1915' from? I'd like to obtain a high resolution copy for a book I write on the history of maps.

    All the best,
    Thomas R. Berg
    Oslo, Norway