The Application of First World War Aerial Photography to Archaeology: The Belgian Images
Stichelbaut, Birger, Antiquity
The material remains of the First World War are fragile, and under continual threat from modern land use. This study describes how a specific, non-destructive methodology can offer new materials for archaeological and historical research into warfare and provide the means of effective resource management. The method applies new cartographic technology to photographs that were taken between 1914 and 1918. During the conflict, thousands of aerial photographs were taken by both sides; they give accurate insights into the density, distribution and location of military remains, and offer a fuller picture than the trench maps made on the ground. The research described in this paper focuses on a small sector of the Belgian Western Front, using aerial photographs mostly taken by the Aviation Militaire Beige (AvMB), the Belgian air force, and largely covers the Belgian sector of the West Flanders front line, between Nieuwpoort and Steenstraat (Figure 1).
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The research programme had three stages. First, the origin, context and developments of Belgian military aerial reconnaissance during 1914-1918 were traced. Then over a thousand photographs were studied, digitised and loaded into a GIS. Finally, an inventory was made of sites relevant to the Great War, as well as of more traditional archaeological features. The methodology described below can be extrapolated to the whole Western and Eastern Front since the primary sources, the photographs, are similar. The only requirements are access to First World War aerial photographs, the use of GIS and accurate digital topographical maps or cadastres, and red/green stereoscopic viewers and software.
After the First Battle of the Marne on 5-11 September 1914, the First World War became static. Both sides started to entrench their armies in the 800km long stretch of land between the North Sea and the French--Swiss border. The armies soon realised the strength and possibilities of a new weapon, military aviation carrying out aerial reconnaissance. Pilots and observers became the eyes of the army, a role up until then only filled by the cavalry. From the first weeks of the war, aeroplanes of the AvMB, the Belgian air force, were sent out to scrutinise the German military movements. During 1914, reconnaissance reports were mainly made 'at sight', using the observers' eyes and without cameras. The first British and Belgian photographs were taken on 15 and 23 September 1914 (Lampaert 1997: 35-6; Delve 1997: 128). During the first months of the war, aerial photography was considered to be a bobby of a few enthusiastic airmen. From 1915 onwards the new discipline developed and became widely used by the military air services.
The infantry command used the photographs of the front-line trenches to get information for the preparation of raids on enemy trenches and patrols into no-man's land, to detect preparations for an offensive (troop movements, ammunition storage, trains, etc.), or to monitor their own preparation of attacks (looking for weak spots, locating strong defensive positions, etc.). A second category of photographs was taken during artillery missions. Photographic interpreters used these for tracing camouflaged artillery positions and locating other possible targets. Photographs were also useful for verifying the accuracy and results of the bombardments (Desmet 1921: 40). Other regions were photographed regularly, for instance, the flooding of the Ijzer river and the enemy's defences and trench fortifications. The Allies' own trenches and positions were also photographed, for checking levels of damage and verifying camouflaged positions. Most images were also used for the production of trench maps at different scales.
The Belgian First World War photographs have a number of formats depending on the camera used (13 x 18cm camera with a focal length of 26cm; 18 x 24cm camera with focal lengths of 52 and 120cm; Anon 1925: 7) but are all panchromatic. …