Tuesday, March 18, 2014


March 18, 2014:

          In one of those odd coincidences in which life abounds Yale University Press has sent me a review copy of an enormous book about aerial photography, even though they could not have known that I am an expert on the subject. The title of the book is The Great War Seen From the Air: In Flanders Fields, 1914-1918, it contains more than 500 aerial photographs made during the war, and I spent eight years as a young man working for the aviation pioneer Sherman Fairchild, known in the industry as the "father of aerial photography." I was his personal historian, an odd enough job in its own right. After the Great War was over he invented the first aerial camera accurate enough to be used to make maps, and his company went on to become the premier aerial camera manufacturer in the world. The aerial cameras used in the Great War were not Fairchilds; he designed his cameras to correct their manifold inadequacies. So technically advanced were they that when America went into space, highly sophisticated Fairchild cameras went along. They were used all during World War II, of course, and the company expanded in the 1960s when it pioneered in the development of silicon transistors, which put the world into the computer age. As his historian I studied the cameras that were used in the Great War and know their inadequacies thoroughly. The book is more than welcome. Thank you, Yale.

          But enough about me. The book is welcome, and it's splendid. The Great War was the first war in which airplanes fought and the first to use aerial photography systematically to take pictures of battlefields from the air. This revolutionized warfare. It was no longer possible to move large bodies of troops without being detected. Reconnaissance from the air made artillery fire much more accurate. Trench systems were now fully exposed to enemy scrutiny. The effects of bombardment could now be clearly seen. All of this the book illustrates, in detail, following the course of the war as it stalls in Belgium, northern France, and elsewhere on the Western Front, explaining, using pictures, text, and diagrams, what the pictures reveal, and showing how constant bombardment changed the landscape. Its overall effect is chilling. Whole communities simply disappear from the ground as the war goes on and on, with neither side gaining anything substantial. Cemeteries grow larger and larger. Farmland turns into huge fields of craters, craters turn into defensive positions. The book uses photographs taken from the ground to complement the aerial photographs, and plastic overlays printed with trench lines and other features to help with the interpretation of the photographs underneath them. And it covers the whole course of the war. Indeed, it continues beyond the war. I found one set of photographs in particular quite striking, photos showing the Belgian town of Nieuwpoort on the North Sea at the end of the war, when little is left of it but ruins, and again in 1923, five years later, when it has been almost completely rebuilt.

          The Great War goes on. It destroyed empires, unleashed ethnic and nationalistic forces that still engulf us, made instant enemies of the United States and Russia after the U. S., at the end of the war, intervened in the civil war then being waged in Russia between the Bolsheviks and the so-called White Russians loyal to the Tsar. It unsettled the Middle East when European powers created instant "nations" there without regard to the indigenous population and its tribal divisions. And of course it triggered feelings in Germany that led directly to the rise of fascism and World War II. I just finished a piece for Military History magazine on the English war poets who emerged in the Great War and have written on the civil war in Yugoslavia during the Nazi occupation in World War II for the same publication, and that sideshow, too, came out of the Great War. We are now entering on the centenary of the Great War's beginning in 1914 and already publishers are flooding the market with books describing various aspects of it. But none of them can surpass this book's visual explanation of how it was waged, and what effect it had on the landscape. People are still occasionally killed when their plows run into unexploded ordinance in Flanders. The trench lines ran all the way from the North Sea to the Swiss border. Millions of people died; on one day alone, at the first battle of the Somme, there were 27,000 casualties. War is hell, said General Sherman. Take a look at The Great War From the Air if you want to see what hell looks like.