Along the Western Front from the end of 1915 onwards, photo-reconnaissance units were sent out systematically for different purposes but mostly to record the outline of the enemy’s defences. The majority of the aerial photography was intended to show the first lines of defence, although many strategic missions were carried out to capture information far behind enemy lines. Aerial reconnaissance work was conducted by a variety of nationalities. The photographs were produced by an almost industrial process, brought together over four years, and survive in large quantities; archival collections are spread out across Europe, the United States and even Australia. In the study of World War One landscapes, the importance of the archival aspect should be emphasised because this forms the starting point of any further research. Scholars willing to study an area should be well informed of both the geographic and physical dissemination of these collections in a variety of archives and museums. An understanding of the principal goal of aerial photography – gaining intelligence on the enemy – shows us the necessity of a multi-archival approach. Moreover, this is especially true if we want to understand extensive regions on the fronts rather than particular sites. Consequently, it should be clear that for an aerial study of German occupied territory, we should mostly rely on the war records in allied archives. These scattered sources and the need for combining collections is well illustrated along the Flemish coastline. On Belgian, British and French aerial photographs of the occupied territory along the North Sea we have an oblique “seaside” view of the entrenchments, thus protecting the safety of the pilot and observer. On German photographs of the same area we have exactly the opposite view, looking towards the sea. A GIS plotting of many of the collections has been carried out. The production of this kind of overview maps required huge work efforts in archival research.
Overview of aerial photographic collections
World War One aerial photographs can be found in a variety of different archives, private collections and museums. The amount of photographs, their quality but most of all their accessibility varies enormously. For instance the following institutes have significant sources available:
- Bayerisches Haupstaatsarchiv
- Belgian military archives (Belgium)
- National Archives and Record Administration (United States)
- Russian State Military History archive (Russia)
- Service Historique de l’Armée
- Australian War Memorial (Australia)
- L’Historial de la Grande Guerre
- Imperial War Museum (United Kingdom)
- In Flanders Fields Museum (Belgium)
- Royal Museum of the Armed Forces and Military History (Belgium)
Museums and memorials:
The above overview is neither exhaustive nor detailed. It only gives us an idea of the dispersion of the more important collections. At most of the national archives of the warring countries and their army museums, enquiries have been made to discover where major collections could be expected to be found. Most of the institutes answered that collections were available for study, but at different levels of quantity, quality and accessibility. It was not possible to research every single archive or collection in the allotted time but, based on the information sent by the archives and museums, selections have been made for a detailed study of the most promising and largest collections. Private collections are also numerous and many individual aerial photographs can be purchased through online auctions sites such as Ebay (Haupt 2001). Since most of these assemblages are heterogeneous, it is necessary to ignore them.
In this overview, the most important and interesting collections will be discussed and dealt with by their country of origin. The focus will be on their content, quantity and geographic distribution of the aerial coverage where possible. In most cases it was not possible to acquire data on the history of the collections since no documents or historical sources were to hand.
In order to achieve a full understanding of this archival patchworkof aerial coverage, a major goal is to create a GIS-based index layer that comprises the geographic coverage of the major aerial photographic collections and, where possible, this will be combined with a quantification of these records. This very useful tool will allow us to determine which archives will be of interest for particular areas in Europe.