Aerial Reconnaissance in World War I
French had first used balloons for reconnaissance during the Napoleanic
wars and later in the Franco-Prussian War. So aerial reconnaissance was
a strategy that was familiar to them, and it was natural that they would
use aircraft for this purpose as planes became able to perform that
the first days of World War I, the airplane demonstrated its ability to
be the "eyes of the army." As the British Expeditionary Force (BEF)
retreated from German invaders in France, the roughly two-dozen
reconnaissance airplanes of the Royal Air Force watched from above. On
August 22, 1914, British Captain L.E.O. Charlton and Lieutenant V.H.N.
Wadham reported that German General Alexander von Kluck’s army was
starting to prepare to surround the BEF, contradicting all other
intelligence. The British High Command listened to the pilots’ report
and started a retreat toward Mons--destroying morale but saving the
lives of 100,000 soldiers.
later, French aerial reconnaissance units began reporting that the
Germans were moving toward the east of Paris. Although the intelligence
officer refused to listen, General Joseph-Simon Gallieni, the military
commander of Paris and a supporter of aviation, did. He issued orders
sending French troops to the exposed German flank. The resulting First
Battle of the Marne was a victory for the French because it forced the
Germans away from Paris. Meanwhile, on the Eastern Front in Poland,
aerial reconnaissance reports on the movements of the Russian Army
helped the Germans and Austrians stop an advance at the Battle of
Tannenburg. But the result of these two battles was to push the armies
fighting on both fronts into defensive positions in the trenches--a
stalemate that would last almost until the end of the war.
both fronts of the war settled into the mud of the trenches, the pilots
started to develop their roles. In two-seater airplanes such as Bleriot
XI-2s and Rumpler Taubes, they were able to fly over enemy lines and
bring back reports on enemy positions, the locations of munitions, and
the movements of supplies and reinforcements. But there were still
problems. The officers on the ground were not always willing to listen
to the observations of pilots, who sometimes exaggerated what they saw.
Some aerial observers accidentally reported on the wrong army, since all
muddy soldiers looked the same from above. One German pilot even
reported that an English unit was running around in disarray and with a
sense of great panic. They were playing soccer.
were also problems communicating aerial observations. Ideally an
airplane could land and the crew could deliver an observation in person,
but it was not always possible to find a suitable landing location near
the proper officer’s unit. Some units devised systems of having messages
dropped in weighted bundles, but many of the notes blew away, landed in
trees, or were ruined in the mud. Other units invented signal systems
based on airplane position and movement, but these were frequently
misinterpreted. By 1915, mechanics began to add wireless telegraph
equipment that could send messages to the ground in Morse Code to the
Reconnaissance airplanes held two people--the pilot and the aerial
observer. The observer would often sketch the scene of the ground below.
Soon, some English observers thought it would be easier and more
accurate to use their cameras to photograph the enemy lines. This idea
was quickly seized upon and copied by the aerial observers of all the
nations. The maps that were used by both sides for the Battle of
Neuve-Chappelle in France in 1915 were based entirely on aerial
reconnaissance photographs. The Germans and the British photographed the
entire front at least twice a day. After the war, England estimated that
its flyers took one-half million photographs during the four years of
the war, and Germany calculated that if you laid all its aerial
photographs side by side, they would cover an area six times the size of
Germany. The quality of cameras had improved so much by the end of the
war that photographs taken at 15,000 feet (4,572 meters) could be blown
up to show footprints in the mud.
Reconnaissance pilots had proved their usefulness to the military.
Unfortunately, both sides knew that if they were receiving valuable
information from their pilots, the other side must be doing the same.
Pilots realized that the enemy they had flown past and given friendly
waves to was also close enough to shoot with a service pistol. Ground
mechanics began mounting machine guns and soon, the Germans debuted the
Fokker Eindecker as a separate type of airplane--fast, light, and well
armed with a trained pilot--to be devoted solely to destroying
reconnaissance planes. Suddenly, the slow, awkward two-seaters, already
weighed down with the heavy wireless equipment, became easy targets for
enemy fighter pilots. Escort fighter planes were then sent to protect
their own reconnaissance planes.
with threats from anti-aircraft guns on the ground and the fighter
planes in the air, the reconnaissance work continued. In addition to
observing the enemy’s troops, ground forces found other uses for
airplanes. Artillery units were unable to see if they were hitting their
targets, so airplanes hovering over the targets could send signals to
help the units adjust their aim. Airplanes also served on contact
patrols, communicating with infantry units that had become cut off from
their Command. Planes would warn other units of the lost unit’s location
so it wouldn’t be misidentified and shot at by its own forces.
Reconnaissance was not the most exciting duty for a pilot in the war.
The airplanes they flew in, such as Caudrons, Albatros B.II, Salmson
2A2s, and the American De Havilland DH-4, were not the fastest or
sleekest of the fleet. But in conjunction with other aerial observation
systems--balloons, dirigibles, man-flying kites, and the
fesselschraubenfliger (an early helicopter)--reconnaissance airplanes
saw enemy movement long before it could be seen from the ground. And out
of reconnaissance activities, all other military uses for aircraft
emerged. The reconnaissance pilots were the first to fire at enemy
airplanes and they were the first to drop grenades on troops below. The
names of the reconnaissance pilots are not as well remembered as the
names of the aces, but it was due to their activities that aviation
became a part of modern war.