Pictures of World War I

Each Worth 1000 Words…

The use of Aerial Photography in World War One

Aerial photography made its military debut during the first world war. Prior to this, aerial cameras had still been used for mapping, photography and even videography, but these were all mostly experimental and creative practices. The introduction of military funding to the mix allowed aerial photography strategies and technology to advance rapidly.

Aircraft operators had always been intuitively used as the “eyes of war,” so it was only a natural progression for the military to improve an already existing practice. As such, most of the aerial reconnaissance missions during WWI would evolve to include photographic captures to use for geographic mapping of enemy territory.

Aerial-Mounted Cameras

The first semi-automatic camera was designed in 1911 by a Russian military engineer named Colonel Potte V.F. His design allowed aircraft operators to keep the camera at work with just a simple press of the shutter-release. The camera gained power from air passing by the plane and propelling small windmills or propellers connected to the camera. This technology helped automate and improve the efficiency of the entire reconnaissance process. It was greatly needed too, since in previous wars aerial scouters were forced to recount entire geographical sitings from memory or sketches.

At the beginning of the First World War, thanks to Potte’s inventions, the Russians had a competitive advantage when it came to photographic reconnaissance. Not every country had developed the technology to automate the aerial photography yet, but it would later become a necessity in all surveillance and artillery spotting missions.

Aerial Photographers

One of the most notable aerial photographers of World War I was American aviator, Friedrich Wilhelm Zinn. He was an early pioneer of photographic reconnaissance. Zinn was best known for using both his flight experience and photography fascination to help the French arming during his service. He was also one of the first pilots to try photographing troop formations from above. This practice was so useful because it was the fastest way to relay bird’s eye intelligence back down to commanders on the ground.

Eventually, Zinn’s method would become a necessity for all countries participating in trench warfare conflicts.

Photography in Battle

The first time aerial photography significantly influenced the outcome of a battle was in Neuve Chapelle in 1915. All the formation and tactic maps used by both sides had been compiled using almost solely aerial photographs. In 1918, General Allenby rallied together a fleet of five planes to photograph an area of more than 600 square miles in Palestine. Photographs were taken of the huge block of land expanding across Turkey and revealed their front lines and rear. Shortly after examining their formation, the Australian pilots were able to take out the enemy fighters planes and eliminate them as a threat.

Photography at the End of the War

Near the end of the war, both England and Germany were using aircraft to record the other’s front. These missions were performed so regularly, that England estimates their reconnaissance planes took more than half a million photographs throughout the war. Germany had similar numbers and even stated that the total sum of their aerial photographs (laid side-by-side) was enough to cover the country at least six times.

As a new staple in battle strategy, photography itself experienced rapid technological improvements throughout the course of the war too. By 1918, pictures taken from 15,000 could be enhanced to show flower beds beside a house or even footprints in the mud.


World War 1 Aerial Photography