Skip to main content

Full text of "Shooting The Front Allied Aerial Reconnaissance And Photographic Interpretation On The Western Front — WW I ( 2007)"

See other formats

Colonel Terrence J. Finnegan, 
USAF Reserve (Retired) 


the Front 

Allied Aerial Reconnaissance and 
Photographic Interpretation 
on the Western Front — 

World War I 

with a foreword by General George A. Joulwan 
Former Supreme Allied Commander ; Europe 





Aerial Reconnaissance at the 
Commencement of the War 

Aeronautical reconnaissance from the first 
five months of war clearly demonstrated the ac- 
ceptance of aerial observation as an integral part 
of modern warfare. Both sides made significant 
advances through reconnaissance, thanks to the 
array of uniquely designed aeroplanes that pro- 
vided the battlefield commander with a view 
from the “higher ground.” The opening weeks 
of combat established patterns that became the 
foundation for one of the most important roles 
of aviation in the 20th century. Information be- 
came an integral part of aeronautics. Observation 
became both science and art as aeroplanes ma- 
neuvered with ground forces, contributing data 
to commanders that helped reveal enemy inten- 
tions. The ability to detect the movement of forces 
meant that whatever was on the ground was now 
accessible to reconnaissance. These lessons were 
quickly learned by aviators and commanders 
alike. Confidence in the aeronautical arm was es- 
tablished. However, the initial salvos of the first 
months of combat also demonstrated the need for 
technology to reinforce aerial observation. 

The roots of aerial reconnaissance for mili- 
tary purposes go back to the 18th century. Then 
the French demonstrated that a balloon was be- 
yond novelty and could support military objec- 
tives. With each trial the aerial proponent discov- 
ered that an aeronautical advantage correlated to 
a combat advantage. The powers of Europe had 

the resources to leverage aeronautics for their 
standing militaries. Pioneer British aerial histo- 
rian Sir Walter Raleigh observed in 1922, “The 
pride of Germany was in her airships, and the 
pride of France was in her aeroplanes.” 1 Britain 
dabbled with both, albeit not to the extent of be- 
ing competitive. It was preoccupied with the na- 
val race against Germany. However, it was not 
blind to the advances achieved through military 
aviation. British assessments in 1911 concern- 
ing French aviation acknowledged it equated 
to national power projection. As Raleigh stated, 
“There is no doubt at all but that the Germans 
have suddenly realized that the French Army 
since the general employment of aeroplanes with 
troops has improved its fighting efficiency by at 
least twenty per cent.” 2 

Early aerial reconnaissance introduced a 
unique technology. Fragile prewar aerial plat- 
forms were incapable of sustaining meaningful 
sorties of long duration. Yet the opportunity to 
alert infantry and artillery to the advancing en- 
emy provided the impetus to integrate aviation 
within the standing forces. The French were 
keen on this idea: “The aeronautic mission was 

1 Sir Walter A. Raleigh and H. A. Jones, The War in the 
Air, Being the Story of the Part Played in the Great War by 
the Royal Air Force (6 vols., Oxford: The Clarendon Press, 
1922-37; reprint, London: The Imperial War Museum, and 
Nashville, TN: The Battery Press, 1998), I, 75. Raleigh 
authored the first volume and Jones the others. Hereafter 
cited as Raleigh for references to vol. 1, and as Jones for 
vols. 2-6 and Appendices. 

2 Raleigh, 1, 177-178. 


FIGURE 2. Capitaine Saconney,the 
French Aviation Militaire's visionary for 
aerial observation platforms. Source: 
SHAA, photo contained in Charles Chris- 
tienne and Pierre Lissarague, A History of 
French Military Aviation (Washington, DC: 
Smithsonian Institute Press, 1 986). 

initially fixed, strategic reconnaissance against 
a rapidly advancing enemy.” 3 Aerial photogra- 
phy at this moment was an experiment, con- 
sidered by many in the military to be another 
minor novelty of technology. However, pho- 
tography was a well-established part of the cul- 

ture of the day and was soon recognized as a 
medium that could contribute to the conduct of 
a campaign. Advances in aeronautics over the 
fifty years since the American Civil War had 
demonstrated observation roles for lighter-than- 
air balloons and the later-designed dirigibles. 
In France, the means to capture the aeronauti- 
cal dimension for military purposes was accom- 
plished through ongoing experimentation with 
man-carrying kites for observation. 

During this vibrant period of experimenta- 
tion, the roots of aerial photographic reconnais- 
sance took hold. Public awareness of aviation’s 
potential for acquiring information was demon- 
strated in unique ways prior to powered flight. 
Innovative aerial platforms for photography 
went beyond balloon units. In 1896, the public 
was entertained by the potential of aerial photog- 
raphy through publications describing successful 
coverage from parakites and pigeons armed with 
miniature cameras. 4 Throughout the latter half 
of the 19th century, photography and aerial plat- 
forms proved their military usefulness. As early 
as the late 1860s, the Prussian General Staff or- 
ganized a corps trained in photographic meth- 
ods to conduct aerial military surveys, aiding its 
planning for military operations in the Franco- 
Prussian War of 1870. 5 Campaigns were employ- 
ing aerial platforms to commence initial plan- 
ning. Innovations experienced by balloonists in 
the U.S. Civil War, the Franco-Prussian War of 
1870, and the Spanish- American War confirmed 
the utility of balloon-hosted aerial observation 
and photography. 

Experimentation blossomed as existing tech- 
nologies were applied to aviation. In 1906, a 
British inventor, Samuel Franklin Cody, built a 
man-carrying kite that was accepted by the Brit- 
ish Army. A year later, Cody built the first Brit- 
ish-designed aeroplane, which was subsequently 
identified as Army Aeroplane No. I. 6 In 1910 
Robert Loraine, in a Bristol aeroplane fitted with 
a transmitting apparatus, succeeded in sending 

3 “Aeronautics,” June 1921, 1, Part XXXVE, sec. 3, in 
American Mission with the Commanding General, Allied 
Forces of Occupation, Mainz, Germany, “A Study of the 
Organization of the French Army Showing its Development 
as a Result of the Lessons of the World War and Comprising 
Notes on Equipment and Tactical Doctrine Developed in the 
French Army, 1914-1921,” NARA, RG 120, Box 819. 

4 Gilbert T. Woglom, Parakites (New York: G. P. Putnam’s 
Sons, 1896), 41-44. 

5 James W. Bagley, The Use of the Panoramic Camera in 
Topographic Surveying (Washington, DC: GPO, 1917), 12. 

6 Roy C. Nesbit, Eyes of the RAF: A History of Photo- 
Reconnaissance (Phoenix Mill, UK: Alan Sutton Publishing, 
Ltd., 1996), 9. 

Chapter i: The Evolution of Aerial Reconnaissance as a Force Multiplier 


radio messages from a distance of a quarter of 
a mile. 7 The French Aerial Photographic Ser- 
vice conducted research in both aerial photog- 
raphy and restitution (analysis of photographic 
images applied to developing and enhancing in- 
formation on a map) under the command of Cap- 
itaine Jacques Saconney. 8 French military trials 
in February 1910 used man-bearing kites to sup- 
port artillery observation and attempt aerial pho- 
tography. Saconney developed and employed a 
man-bearing kite to an altitude of 560 meters. 
The three-kite configuration allowed various pas- 
sengers to both observe and photograph the area. 
Despite the apparent risk, Capitaine Saconney’s 
commander General Joly went aloft in the kite. 9 

Aeroplane reconnaissance quickly ceased 
being a concept and became reality. The com- 
mand staff of the French Armee, the Grand 
Quartier General (GQG), supported aviation’s 
role in several instances. They put the idea into 
practice, demonstrating aerial reconnaissance for 
military purposes on 18 September 1911. During 
a military exercise, Capitaine Eteve and Capit- 
aine Pichot-Duclas flew a 42-kilometer track in 
a Maurice Farman north from Verdun to Etraye 
and west to Romagne at an altitude of 1,000 me- 
ters, providing in-depth observations of activ- 
ity. 10 The next year, four Bleriot Type XI aero- 
planes deployed to Morocco, providing aerial 
reconnaissance for the French Armee. These air- 
craft were not just a novelty; they were now part 
of the operational scheme. 11 At the same time, 
the French reinforced their traditional forces by 
establishing a Bleriot Cavalry (BLC) unit with 
three Bleriot aeroplanes. 12 

7 Wireless and radio were interchangeable terms. Radio 
will be the primary term used in this book. Raleigh, I, 170. 

8 “Lecture on Aerial Photography, Centre d’ Etudes de 
l’Aeronautique,” 25 April 1923, NASM A30.2/36. 

9 Rapport du Capitaine du Genie Saconney , au Sujet 
des Experiences de Cerfs-Volants Ejfectuees avec Nacelle 
Lestree a bout de Cable , 21 February 1910, SHAA; 
Marcellin Hodeir, “La Photographie Aerienne: ‘de la Mame 
a la Somme,’ 1914-1916,” Revue Historique desArmees , 
No. 2 (1996): 108 (translation by Commandant Marc 
Riviere, French Air Force). 

10 Manoeuvres du 6* me Corps d’ Armee, Flight Log, 18 
September 1911, SHAA. 

11 James J. Davilla and Arthur M. Soltan, French Aircraft 
of the First World War (Stratford, CT: Flying Machines 
Press, 1997), 55. 

12 Davilla and Soltan, 1. 

FIGURE 3. General Joly observes 
a 1 91 0 French military exercise from a 
Saconney-designed kite. Source: SHAA, 

However, despite the progress through ex- 
perimentation, aviation’s potential was not fully 
understood. While attending an air race in east- 
ern France in 1910, General Ferdinand Foch 
commented, “Flying, you must understand is 
merely a sport, like any other; from the mili- 
tary point of view it has no value whatever.” 13 
His attitude was echoed by another future se- 
nior commander of the coming conflict, General 
Sir Douglas Haig. Haig spent his career in the 
cavalry, and as “the Apostle of Cavalry,” he ex- 
pressed his bias in 1911 on the technology that 
was being introduced. “Tell Sykes [Colonel F.H. 
Sykes, soon to become the first British chief of 

13 Foch, quoted in Georges Blond, The Marne (trans., 
London: Macdonald and Company, 1965), 163. 

Chapter i: The Evolution of Aerial Reconnaissance as a Force Multiplier 


staff for aviation] he is wasting his time, flying 
can never be of any use to the Army.” 14 As the 
war proceeded, both became recognized advo- 
cates of aviation’s potential. 

Though critics were wary, influential propo- 
nents saw potential value, and aviation became 
more legitimized. On 19 March 1912, Aviation 
Militaire was recognized by the GQG as an in- 
tegral part of the French armee. 15 Ten days later, 
French Aviation Militaire units were formed 
under Colonel Hirshauer, comprising an aerial 
force strength of five escadrilles. 16 The British 
also commenced structuring their aeronautical 
force. The Royal Flying Corps (RFC) was con- 
stituted by a Royal Warrant on 13 April 19 12. 17 
In 1913 the French Aviation Militaire was placed 
under the command of French Corps d’ Armee 
(CA) commanders, or local administrators, to 
diminish the authority of the permanent inspec- 
tor for aviation. Military maneuvers that year 
showed reconnaissance information from Avia- 
tion Militaire was extremely useful. On 4 April 
1914, Aviation Militaire became a separate de- 
partment of the Ministry of War, making it an 
independent French military service. 18 Army 
sponsorship for aviation also occurred within 
the U.S. Army Signal Corps. This arrangement 
existed until the U.S. Air Service was created as 
a separate entity in 1918. 

14 Maurice Baring, Flying Corps Headquarters , 1914- 
1918 (London: William Blackwood & Sons, Ltd., 1968), 

15 “Report on Aeronautical Matters in Foreign Countries 
for 1913,” 16, TNA, PRO: AIR 1/7/6/98/20. 

16 Davilla and Soltan, 1. 

17 Raleigh, I, 199. 

18 Davilla and Soltan, 1-2. 

FIGURE 4. Prior to the war, French avi- 
ation actively exercised aerial reconnais- 
sance in military operations and exercises. 
A Bleriot pilot is in the process of debrief- 
ing the reconnaissance to an intelligence 
officer. Source: Claude Grahame-White, The 
Aeroplane in War (London:T. Werner Laurie, 
191 2), 192. 

The French and British militaries both devel- 
oped coherent aviation organizational structures. 
The French promoted homogeneity of aircraft 
types for the various escadrilles to save on main- 
tenance while promoting a diverse collection of 
craft primarily used in observation and reconnais- 
sance missions. Along with infrastructure came 
development of a specific air doctrine for obser- 
vation and reconnaissance missions. By 1913 
Aviation Militaire comprised eight companies for 
aerostat (ballon/dirigeable) work and ten sections 
for aviation work. 19 British aviation worked with 
both resources. RFC squadrons comprised a mix 
of aeroplanes, while the Royal Navy deployed a 
dirigible fleet for naval missions. 20 

Military staffs also started to refine the 
routing of information from their aeronautical 
sources. French officers were encouraged to be- 
come familiar with aviation and its reconnais- 
sance potential. Staff officers were expected to 
make passenger flights, and some were even de- 
tached for a period as observers. Absolute famil- 
iarity with the maneuvers and formations of all 
arms was considered essential. The French also 
realized early on the potential for having aero- 
planes observe artillery fire. A British intelli- 
gence estimate described the process: 

Two white lines are marked on the 
ground to show the observer where 
the battery is in position. The aero- 
plane ascends behind the battery and 
rises to a height sufficient to be clear of 

19 “Report on Aeronautical Matters,” 12, TNA, PRO: AIR 

20 Charles Christienne and Pierre Lissarague, A History 
of French Military Aviation (Washington, DC: Smithsonian 
Institution Press), 59. 


Chapter i: The Evolution of Aerial Reconnaissance as a Force Multiplier 

the trajectory of the shells. The battery 
commander then fires his bracket. The 
observer is provided with a sheet of pa- 
per across which two parallel lines are 
drawn indicating the two extremities of 
the bracket. Having observed the first 
rounds he marks on the paper the po- 
sition of the rounds with reference to 
the space between the two lines repre- 
senting the extremities of the bracket. 

He then drops the paper near the bat- 
tery commander's position . 21 

In another maneuver, a suitable landing 
place for the dropped information was selected 
by marking it with a large white sheet. A party of 
two non-commissioned officers and eight troop- 
ers were permanently on duty so as to be ready 
to take messages to the proper quarter. 22 Addi- 
tionally, the French started realigning their com- 
mand centers to areas where aeroplanes operated. 
Messengers were stationed at designated land- 
ing zones to transfer reports to the various units. 
Over time the landing zones became the rendez- 
vous point for military commanders to dissemi- 
nate their own information. 23 

The French proceeded to develop an aerial 
camera, commencing development under strict 
conditions of secrecy. 24 An aerial camera was 
developed by the French Telephotography Lab- 
oratory prior to the outbreak of the conflict. 25 
By August 1914 the laboratoire des recher- 
ches aeronautique (Aeronautical Research Cen- 
ter) at Chalais-Meudon had three wood-frame 
prototype cameras for aerostat observation. 
They employed 100 cm, 60 cm, and 50 cm fo- 
cal lengths. However, despite the progress, the 
laboratory encountered a lack of interest as their 
cameras were demonstrated to artillery staffs. 26 
By the time the French mobilized for war, they 

21 “Report on Aeronautical Matters,” 16, TNA, PRO: AIR 

22 “Report on Aeronautical Matters,” 16, TNA, PRO: AIR 

23 “Report on Aeronautical Matters,” 16, TNA, PRO: AIR 

24 Raleigh, 1, 177-178. 

25 Raleigh, 1, 170. 

26 Gaston Labussiere, “La Photographie Aerienne,” 
in Maurice de Brunoff, ed., 1914-1918: L’ Aeronautique 
pendant la Guerre Mondiale (Paris: M. de Brunoff, 1919), 
183 (translation provided by Commandant Marc Riviere). 

had established three photographic sections to 
work with the aerostat units. The Paris section 
was led by Capitaine Georges Bellenger (chef 
d’ avion VP me Armee). He was an artillery officer 
whose aviation career had an auspicious begin- 
ning. He served as advisor to a leading French 
parliamentarian, Senator Reymond, on aeronau- 
tical matters. 27 Bellenger became the catalyst for 
creating the aerial observer’s role in the upcom- 
ing first weeks of the war. The Verdun sector was 
led by Lieutenant Maurice Marie Eugene Grout, 
another French artillery officer by training who 
proved to be the most successful transformer for 
the French military’s adaptation of aerial photog- 
raphy. 28 Lieutenant Grout was a brilliant and ex- 
tremely hard-working staff officer. Educated at 
France’s elite Ecole Poly technique, he was a key 
member of the staff at Chalais Meudon, devel- 
oping aerial telegraphy and photography before 
the war started. 29 The third photographic section 
supported the eastern French region headquarters 
at Toul. 30 

The British did not strongly emphasize aerial 
photography prior to the war, although they did 
experiment with balloons during the Boer War in 
South Africa at the turn of the century. However, 
their attempts to combine aerial photography 
and aeroplanes remained experimental well into 
the first months of the war. In the first year of its 
existence, the RFC dabbled with taking photo- 
graphs from the air (airships, balloons, and kites) 
at Farnborough using the “Panros” (Pan-Ross) 
hand-held camera and showing the results at the 
Annual Exhibition of the Royal Photographic So- 
ciety. Before the outbreak of the war, an exhibi- 
tion at Farnborough featured “Photographs from 
Aeroplanes.” 31 The Pan Ross was a press camera 
with a 6-inch lens using 5 -inch and 4-inch glass 
plates. 32 Interest in aerial photography generated 
a call for volunteers to join the Military Wing of 

27 John H. Morrow, Jr., The Great War in the Air: Military 
Aviation from 1909 to 1921 (Washington, DC, and London: 
Smithsonian Institution Press, 1993), 34. 

28 Hodeir, 108. 

19 Lieut Maurice Marie Eugene Grout, Personnel Records, 

30 Hodeir, 108. 

31 Original spelling of the Pan Ross was Panros. Lieut 
Charles W. Gamble, “The Technical Aspects of British 
Aerial Photography during the War 1914-1918,” TNA, 

PRO: AIR 1/2397/267/7; Raleigh, I, 250. 

32 Nesbit, 11. 

Chapter i: The Evolution of Aerial Reconnaissance as a Force Multiplier 


the RFC. One volunteer was Frederick Charles 
Victor Laws. He transferred from the 3rd Battal- 
ion of the Coldstream Guards and became a First 
Class Mechanic Air Photographer. Laws im- 
proved the photographic laboratory at the Farn- 
borough test grounds shortly after his arrival. He 
subsequently was promoted to sergeant and be- 
came the RFC’s first noncommissioned officer 
in charge of photography. 33 Laws made RFC his- 
tory by serving as aerial photographer using the 
first British-designed aerial camera, the Watson 
Air Camera. In 1913, Laws flew on a dirigible 
and took aerial photographs of the Basingstoke 
Canal. It was an auspicious start. Laws became 
the leader of many British initiatives in develop- 
ing aerial photography for the remainder of his 
military career. 34 

RFC No. 1 Squadron became the initial aero- 
plane unit to explore aerial photography. In 1913, 
the British transferred all dirigibles from the RFC 
to the Royal Naval Air Service (RNAS). No. 1 

33 Nesbit, 10. 

34 Nesbit, 11. 


FIGURE 5. CapitaineBellengeivan 
early French aviation pioneer, directed 
the French Armee photographic section 
for the Paris sector at the outbreak of 
the war. Source: SHAA, B84.3023. 

Squadron served as an “Aircraft Park” to experi- 
ment on new aerial capabilities. 35 While assigned 
to No. 1 Squadron, Laws proved the capability 
for developing a photograph in-flight. In early 
1914, RFC No. 3 Squadron took the lead in de- 
veloping British aerial photography. The officers 
purchased their own cameras and commenced to 
learn the art of photography on their own. They 
even learned Laws’ technique for developing 
negatives in the air and had them ready for print- 
ing upon landing. On their own initiative they 

35 The Royal Naval Air Service was the naval counterpart 
of the RFC until the RAF was established in 1918; Nesbit, 
11 . 

Chapter i: The Evolution of Aerial Reconnaissance as a Force Multiplier 

photographed the defense of the Isle of Wight 
and the Solent at an altitude of 5,000 feet. 36 

In June 1914, Sergeant Laws flew as aerial 
observer in a Henri Farman (HF 7, “Longhorn”) 
with the Watson Air Camera mounted on the nose. 
The sortie ended when the engine motor cut off 
and the plane crashed. Not to be dissuaded, two 
days later Laws took off as observer in a Maurice 
Farman (MF 11, “Shorthorn”) and photographed 
a military review and parade in progress. What 
caught Laws’ attention as the photographs were 
developed was the difference in light reflection 
on the adjoining grass from personnel walking 
through the area. It gave reason to further explore 
the potential that aerial photographic interpreta- 
tion could offer. 37 Despite the amazing effort un- 
derway, the prevailing attitude among military 
circles was mixed: “If that young fool likes to 
get himself killed, let him do so.” 38 With each 
demonstration of aerial photography, “those who 
came to scoff remained to pray.” 39 

French armees and aviation assets com- 
menced mobilization when the war started. “At 
the time of mobilization military aeronautics was 
still in its earliest infancy. We may say it was as 
the fighting went on that this science was evolved 
and developed.” 40 French aeronautic units were 
governed under Plan XVII (14 February 1914) 
comprising both aerostation and aviation. 41 The 
French aviation section now comprised 21 flights 
of six aeroplanes. Two BLC flights of four aero- 
planes were added at the start of the war. The 
mainstay Bleriot XI was capable of flying for 
two hours at 1,500 feet, providing a mobile aer- 
ial platform that maneuvered over the country- 
side and acquired vital glimpses of enemy forces. 
Immediately after mobilization, new flights were 
created from aeroplanes delivered or salvaged 
behind the lines. Aviation personnel numbered 
about 3,500, including 480 officers and non- 

36 Raleigh, I, 250. 

37 Nesbit, 13. 

38 Unknown source quoted in Gamble, “Technical 
Aspects of British Aerial Photography,” TNA, PRO: AIR 

39 Unknown source quoted in Gamble, “Technical 
Aspects of British Aerial Photography,” TNA, PRO: AIR 

40 “Aeronautics,” June 1921, NARA, RG 120, Box 819, 1. 

41 Christienne and Lissarague, 59. 

commissioned officers. 42 Increased awareness of 
the value of “higher ground” reporting resulted 
in a support element to convey critical informa- 
tion. Each escadrille had a “fast car” and a mo- 
torcyclist assigned to rapidly disseminate air- 
borne-acquired reports to the respective ground 
commander. 43 

French intelligence, known as the 2 e Bureau, 
actively monitored the advancing German forces 
with all the resources at its disposal. The fledgling 
radio intercept function was effective in view of 
the capabilities of the time. Established in 1909, 
the French radio intercept specialists were rec- 
ognized as experts in this field. 2 hme Bureau also 
conducted cryptological analysis that served the 
highest levels of the government. 44 The French 
had committed their intercept service in full, 
even before the beginning of the war, and were 
following German Army traffic attentively. After 
a few days, they had a perfectly clear picture of 
the operational structure of the German Army in 
the west as it marched through Belgium in the di- 
rection of Paris. 45 

The Commencement of Combat 

French aviation was put to the test as bat- 
tle commenced. Each armee included a flight of 
aeroplanes. Order of battle for Aviation Militaire 
comprised P me Armee (six escadrilles), lP me Ar- 
mee (four escadrilles), IIP me Armee (four esca- 
drilles), YV hme Armee (two escadrilles), W me Ar- 
mee (five escadrilles), and two BLC escadrilles. 46 
When the war commenced, the French used their 
aeroplanes for daytime reconnaissance and di- 
rigible fleet for nighttime observation. The first 
French wartime reconnaissance mission was ac- 
complished by a Maurice Farman (MF) 7 from 
escadrille MF 2. 47 

Like the French Aviation Militaire, the Brit- 
ish Military Wing prior to the commencement of 

42 Christienne and Lissarague, 58. 

43 Douglas Porch, The French Secret Services: From the 
Dreyfus Affair to the Gulf War (New York: Farrar, Straus, 
and Giroux, 1995), 56. 

44 Porch, 56. 

45 Wilhelm F. Flicke, War Secrets in the Ether , ed. by 
Sheila Carlisle (2 vols., Laguna Hills, CA: Aegean Park 
Press, 1977), I, 23. 

46 Davilla and Soltan, 3. 

47 Davilla and Soltan, 219. 

Chapter i: The Evolution of Aerial Reconnaissance as a Force Multiplier 


the war was designed for aerial reconnaissance, 
with the squadron assuming the role of the basic 
British aviation unit. 48 Five squadrons had been 
established prior to the war. On 31 July 1914, 
total operational aircraft from RFC Squadrons 
No. 2, 3, and 4 numbered 22 BE 2a, five Bleriot 
XI monoplanes, and six Henri Farman F.20. An 
additional 24 aeroplanes were to be added prior 
to deployment to France. 49 It was indicative of 
the way aviation evolved between the French 
and British that a common airframe was used in 
the first years of the war. Both Bleriot XI and 
HF 20/F.20 were flown by French and British 
pilots. Of the two, Bleriot XI was a more rec- 
ognized airframe due to the worldwide public- 
ity gained from the first crossing of the English 
Channel in 1909. However, as an observation 
platform, the Bleriot design was not ideal. The 
broad wings were a viewing obstacle to observ- 
ers. 50 The British had yet to adopt homogeneous 
airframe types for each squadron. It was not yet 
practical due to the embryonic condition of the 
British aircraft industry at the time. However, 
despite the diversity of aeroplanes that compli- 
cated ground maintenance, squadron operations 
were effectively maintained. Sorties did not in- 
clude formation flying. The standard procedure 
called for each aeroplane to act independently. 51 

The German adversary was no stranger to the 
potential of aerial reconnaissance. This resource 
had strong advocates within the senior headquar- 
ters, the German High Command (Oberste Heere- 
sleitung [OHL]). During the first month of com- 
bat, successful aerial reconnaissance gave the 
German armies an advantage in their initial oper- 
ations on the Eastern Front. Each active German 
corps and headquarters (8th Army) was assigned 
a six-plane Feld Flieger Abteilung, comprised 
of a composite of monoplanes (Tauben) and bi- 
planes to provide timely information to German 
battlefield commanders. Priority for the mission 
and command of the two-seater aeroplane went to 
the observer, not the pilot. The Germans also em- 

48 Raleigh, I, 260. 

49 J. M. Bruce, The Aeroplanes of the Royal Flying Corps 
(Military Wing) (London: Putnam, 1982), xvi. 

50 Paul-Louis Weiller, “The French Aviation of 
Recognition,” in de Brunoff, 63 (translation provided by 
Commandant Marc Riviere). 

51 John Terraine, Mons: The Retreat to Victory (New York: 
The Macmillan Company, 1960), 31. 

ployed Zeppelin craft for longer-range strategic 
reconnaissance. 52 German aerial reconnaissance 
gained favor in the war’s first major battle at Tan- 
nenberg in eastern Poland. The OHL was person- 
ally briefed by Flieger Abteilung crewmembers 
as the Russians commenced the attack. German 
reconnaissance provided locations of maneuver- 
ing Russian units and aided planning for appro- 
priate countermoves. 53 Intelligence information 
proved critical in this first major battle of the 
war. Success came to the Germans when they in- 
tercepted Russian radio transmissions containing 
exact force disposition and locations. Aerial re- 
connaissance had reinforced German command 
decisions, but not as decisively as the radio inter- 
cept. Tannenberg became the first battle in history 
where interception of enemy radio traffic played 
the decisive role. 54 Intercepts included Russian 
operational orders and, more significantly, the or- 
ganization and destination of the Russian Second 
Army. The Russian maneuvers were successfully 
countered. 55 Modern intelligence technology had 
validated itself on the battlefield. 

During the first days of combat on the West- 
ern Front, the Germans employed dirigibles for 
aerial reconnaissance and bombardment. Their 
first aerial bombardment sortie targeted Liege 
on 6 August 1914. During this sortie, a dirigi- 
ble was hit by cannon and returned to the Ger- 
man base with damage. Another dirigible was 
hit over Alsace while on a reconnaissance mis- 
sion. A third, dirigible ZVIII, was shot down by 
French artillery. 56 

On 13 August, the RFC under Brigadier- 
General Sir David Henderson deployed to 
France. The first unit to make the crossing was 
No. 2 Squadron, with the first aeroplane depart- 
ing early that morning and arriving at Amiens 
approximately two hours later. The departure of 

52 Dennis E. Showalter, Tannenberg: Clash of Empires 
(Hamden, CT: Archon Books, 1991), 152-153. 

53 W. M. Lamberton, comp., Reconnaissance & Bomber 
Aircraft of the 1914-1918 War, ed. by E. F. Cheesman 
(Letchworth, UK: Harleyford Publications, Ltd., and Los 
Angeles, CA: Aero Publishers, Inc., 1962), 9. 

54 Flicke, I, 3. 

55 Flicke, I, 6-7. 

56 Christienne and Lissarague, 61; Andre-H. Carlier, La 
Photo graphie Aerienne pendant la Guerre (Paris: Libraire 
Delagrave, 1921), 16 (translation provided by Commandant 
Marc Riviere). 

Chapter i: The Evolution of Aerial Reconnaissance as a Force Multiplier 


other RFC aeroplanes that day was not so for- 
tunate. Several aircraft of No. 4 Squadron were 
damaged while following their leader in a forced 
landing on a plowed field. 57 The following RFC 
squadrons and aeroplanes that flew to France on 
13-15 August 1914 were: No. 2 Squadron, 12 BE 
2a’s; No. 3 Squadron, 6 Bleriot XFs, a Bleriot 
Parasol, 4 F.20s; No. 4 Squadron, 6 Bleriot XFs, 
a Bleriot Parasol, 4 F.20s; No. 4 Squadron, 11 
BE 2a’s; No. 5 Squadron, 4 F.20s, and 3 Avro 
504s. 58 Those were the aeroplanes that arrived; 
others were lost on the way. Two days later, a 
British pilot met an unusual welcoming com- 
mittee while landing near Boulogne-la-Grasse. 
Lieut. R.M. Vaughan of No. 5 Squadron was ar- 
rested by the French and held in prison for nearly 
a week while local officials tried to determine his 
true nationality and purpose. Lieut. Vaughan was 
able to rejoin his squadron on the eve of the Bat- 
tle of Mons. 59 

These the were the state-of-the-art aero- 
planes of the time. The BE 2a had a maximum 
speed of 65 mph at 6,500 feet. It took approx- 
imately 35 minutes for the aeroplane to reach 
7,000 feet. 60 Aerial observation commenced at a 
speed that fit available airframe and motor tech- 
nology. Despite Sergeant-Major Laws’ success- 
ful demonstration of aerial photography, the RFC 
did not employ his talents when the British Expe- 
ditionary Force (BEF) arrived in France. Instead, 
Laws was assigned to an antiaircraft unit as an 
aeroplane spotter and identifier. 61 

Initial RFC attempts to commence aerial re- 
connaissance operations against the Germans 
were precluded by weather. The heat of summer 
brought thunderstorms, mists, and haze. Flight 
logs described these conditions as “unsuitable 
for reconnaissance.” 62 Aerial reconnaissance op- 

57 Henderson was a career intelligence officer who was a 
recognized authority on reconnaissance. His work, The Art 
of Reconnaissance, provided vision to the use of aeroplanes 
in a reconnaissance role; Terraine, 3 1 . 

58 Bruce, Aeroplanes of the Royal Flying Corps (Military 
Wing), xvi. 

59 Boulogne-la-Grasse is located southeast of Amiens; 
original text says only Boulogne; Terraine, 31. 

60 Bruce, Aeroplanes of the Royal Flying Corps (Military 
Wing), 353. 

61 Nesbit, 14. 

62 Lyn Macdonald, 1914: The Days of Hope (New York: 
Atheneum, 1987), 74. 

FIGURE 6. The first RFC aerial recon- 
naissance in wartime was flown by Cap- 
tain Philip Joubert de la Ferte. Source: 
Bleriot No. 260 Netheravon, 1913 (Crown 
Copyright reserved). Sir Philip Joubert de 
la Ferte, Air Chief Marshal, The Fated Sky, An 
Autobiography (London: Hutchinson & Co., 
1952), 33. 

erations got underway on 19 August with the first 
RFC aerial reconnaissance flight flown by Cap- 
tain Philip Joubert de la Ferte, No. 3 Squadron, 
and Lieutenant G.W. Mapplebeck from No. 4 
Squadron. Joubert de la Ferte flew a Bleriot XI- 
2 (without observer) while Mapplebeck took off 
in a BE 2a from Maubeuge (south of Mons) that 
morning. Mapplebeck flew to the north while 
Joubert de la Ferte was ordered to inspect the 
Belgian country west of Brussels and report on 
any evidence of enemy troops. Shortly after take- 
off, the pilots struggled with cloudy weather and 
a general unfamiliarity with the region, resulting 
in their getting lost. Both considered it “rather 
bad form to come down and ask people the way,” 
but discretion was soon applied. 63 Joubert de la 
Ferte recalled: 

I wandered round Western Belgium 
for some time and then seeing a large 
town over which the Belgian flag 
seemed to be flying. I landed on the pa- 
rade ground. I discovered that this was 
Tournai, still in Belgian hands, and I was 
given a most excellent lunch by the 
commandant of the garrison. Leaving 

63 Bruce, Aeroplanes of the Royal Flying Corps (Military 
Wing), 131-132; Terraine, 61-62. 

Chapter i: The Evolution of Aerial Reconnaissance as a Force Multiplier 


an hour later, I lost myself again very 
quickly. Finally I recognized the Bruges 
Ship Canal, flew south from there, and 
landed near Courtrai. Here my recep- 
tion was not at all cordial. The local po- 
lice threatened to put me in jail. I was 
saved by the kindness of a little North 
of Ireland linen manufacturer, who was 
visiting Courtrai, where there are a lot 
of spinning mills. He placed a Union 
Jack on my aircraft, and the tone imme- 
diately improved. I got what I wanted, 
which was petrol, and the directions 
how to find my way back to Maubeuge, 
and flew off very thankfully, completed 
my reconnaissance, and landed back at 
Maubeuge at 5.30. 64 

As for Lieutenant Mapplebeck in the BE 2a, 
he flew over Brussels itself without recognizing 
it. The result of both reconnaissance missions was 
negative. Joubert de la Ferte and Mapplebeck re- 
ported with assurance on where the Germans 
were not, but had nothing to say about where 
they were. 65 The time had come for aerial observ- 
ers to be included on reconnaissance sorties. 66 
Mapplebeck’ s aerial legacy included a narrow 
escape. While conducting aerial reconnaissance 
over German lines near Lille, he experienced en- 
gine problems, landed, and two German soldiers 
literally grabbed one of the wings. Mapplebeck 
escaped into Lille wearing peasant clothing that 
he found on the way. He found a French busi- 
nessman who cashed a London cheque that pro- 
vided him with French notes bearing a German 
stamp. Mapplebeck proceeded to buy a new suit 
and walked from Lille through Belgium to the 
Dutch border. He obtained passage to London 
and reported in at Farnborough. The Air Minis- 
try provided him with a new aeroplane to fly to 
France. When he showed up at the squadron in 
France, Mapplebeck reported for duty “just as 
though nothing unusual had happened.” 67 

64 Capt. Philip Joubert de la Ferte quoted in Terraine, 

65 Terraine, 61-62. 

66 Nesbit, 16. 

67 Account related by J. T. C. Moore-Brabazon to Frederic 
Coleman, quoted in Frederic Coleman, With Cavalry in 
1915: The British Trooper in the Trench Line (Toronto: 
Wilbam Briggs, 1916), 130-132. 

That same day, the French committed their 
dirigeable (dirigible balloon) forces to reconnais- 
sance missions. The French dirigeable Fleurus 
became the first Allied airship to fly over Ger- 
many by successfully flying over the Saar and 
Treves while on a night reconnaissance sortie. 68 
The irony of early French dirigeable experience 
was they suffered more from friendly fire than 
from German antiaircraft artillery. Two dirige- 
ables were damaged. One French dirigeable, 
the Dupuy de Lome, suffered casualties (the pi- 
lot was killed) as well as being shot up fairly se- 
verely while heading toward the French city of 
Rheims. Following these mishaps, the French 
delayed dirigeable operations until April 19 15. 69 
For the remainder of the war, French dirigeables 
played a secondary role serving the armee. They 
were eventually discontinued from serving ar- 
mee objectives in 1916 and were eventually 
transferred to the navy. 70 

On 20 August British cavalry were on the 
move in Belgium. They pushed forward as far 
as Binche (16 kilometers east of Mons) with- 
out encountering the enemy. At the same time, 
RFC aerial reconnaissance was ordered to find 
the German Army, pinpoint its position, and esti- 
mate its strength. The RFC discovered elements 
of the German Army heading through Louvain 
(approximately 25 kilometers southeast of Brus- 
sels). Aerial observation estimates of strength 
proved too difficult since German Army columns 
went beyond the visual horizon. That day the 
German Army moved into Brussels. The main 
echelon was heading toward France. 71 On the 
morning of 21 August, aerial reconnaissance was 
incapable of operating due to ground mist. Re- 
connoitering squadrons and patrols were pushed 
out toward Soignies and Nivelles in southern 

68 Christienne and Lissarague, 62. 

69 Christienne and Lissarague, 63. 

70 Christienne and Lissarague, 64. 

71 Macdonald, 1914, 75; Raleigh, I, 298-300; Constance 
Babington-Smith, Air Spy: The Story of Photo Intelligence 
in World War II (New York: Ballantine Books, 1957), 

9; Brig-Gen Sir J.E. Edmonds (general editor), Military 
Operations: France and Belgium , 1914, 3 rd ed. (2 vols., 
London: Macmillan and Co., Ltd., 1922-25; reprint, London: 
The Imperial War Museum and Nashville, TN: The Battery 
Press, 1996), I, 50. Hereafter, titles in this series, 1914-1918, 
will be referred to as Edmonds, followed by the war year; 
see bibliography for complete citations for each title. 

Chapter i: The Evolution of Aerial Reconnaissance as a Force Multiplier 


FIGURE 7. German Advance on Paris 
22-23 August 191 4. Source: The West Point 
Atlas of American Wars. Vol. 2, 1 900- 1 953. Ed. 
Vincent J. Esposito (2 Vols., New York Fred- 
erick A. Praeger, 1 959), map 6. Courtesy, De- 
partment of History, U.S. Military Academy. 

Belgium. 72 Once the weather cleared, RFC re- 
connaissance commenced and quickly acquired 
significant observations of German cavalry and 
artillery maneuvering southeast of Nivelles. 73 

Aerial activity assumed a more dynamic role 
as the armies came in contact. On 22 August Brit- 
ish cavalry engaged the Germans for the first time 
near Soignies. 74 That day the RFC flew twelve 
reconnaissance sorties from Maubeuge, France 
(on the French-Belgian border, 15 kilometers 
south of Mons), reporting on extensive German 
maneuvers and the presence of large masses of 
troops. One critical RFC reconnaissance revealed 
a long German column estimated at army corps 
strength marching along the road from Brussels 

72 Field-Marshal Viscount French of Ypres, 1914 (London: 
Constable and Company, Ltd., and Boston: Houghton 
Mifflin Company, 1919), 47. 

73 Edmonds, 1914, 1, 52. 

74 Terraine, 77-78. 

due west to Ninove. Upon reaching the town, the 
German forces turned southwest to Grammont. 
RFC aerial reconnaissance reported that the Ger- 
man infantry was in close support of the advanc- 
ing German cavalry heading south. 75 Soon the 
German Army’s maneuver brought it outside the 
British left flank. This critical issue was person- 
ally brought to the attention of the British Com- 
mander-in-Chief Field-Marshal Sir John French 
by the RFC commander, Brigadier-General Hen- 
derson. French was initially skeptical until he re- 
ceived further verification from his French coun- 
terparts. 76 The first losses from aerial combat then 
occurred. An Avro 504 from No. 5 Squadron was 
shot down while performing aerial observation. 
The downed aeroplane provided the Germans 
with their first positive confirmation that British 
forces were now engaging them. 77 The signifi- 
cance of the occasion was recalled by German 
commander General Alexander von Kluck, ob- 
serving that a British reconnaissance aeroplane 
from Maubeuge was shot down. 78 Aerial com- 
bat now commenced in earnest. One RFC pilot, 

75 Edmonds, 1914, 1, 63; Baring, 22. 

76 Terraine, 77-78. 

77 Brace, Aeroplanes of the Royal Flying Corps (Military 
Wing), 112. 

78 Gen Alexander von Kluck, The March on Paris and the 
Battle of the Marne 1914 (trans., London: Edward Arnold, 
1920), 40. 


Chapter i: The Evolution of Aerial Reconnaissance as a Force Multiplier 

Lieutenant Louis A. Strange, fitted a Lewis gun 
on his F.20 and took off in pursuit of a German 
aircraft discovered in the area. However, it was 
to no avail since the German simply out-climbed 
the Farman. 79 Additional opportunities for the 
first aerial combat occurred when two British BE 
2a’s armed with Lewis guns chased an Albatros 
biplane for 45 minutes. 80 

The German Advance on Paris 

With the campaign now under way, the ben- 
efits of aerial observation were beginning to take 
hold among senior commanders. In his post-war 
reminiscence, Field-Marshal French described 
his view of aerial reconnaissance during the Ger- 
man advance on Mons: 

The opening phases of the Battle of 
Mons did not commence until the 
morning of Saturday, 22 August. The 
intelligence reports which constantly 
arrived, with the results of cavalry 
and aircraft reconnaissance, only con- 
firmed the previous appreciation of 
the situation, and left no doubt as to 
the direction of the German advance; 
but nothing came to hand which led 
us to foresee the crushing superiority 
of strength which actually confronted 
us on Sunday, 23 August. This was our 
first practical experience in the use of 
aircraft for reconnaissance purposes. It 
cannot be said that in these early days 
ofthefighting the cavalry entirely aban- 
doned that role. On the contrary they 
furnished me with much useful infor- 
mation. The number of our aeroplanes 
was then limited and their power of ob- 
servation were not as developed or ac- 
curate as they afterward became. Nev- 
ertheless, they kept close touch with 
the enemy, and their reports proved of 
the greatest value. Whilst at this time, 
as I have said, aircraft did not altogether 
replace cavalry as regards the gaining 
and collection of information, yet, by 

79 Lieut. Strange flew a French-designed, British-built 
aeroplane called the Henry Farman F.20; Bruce, Aeroplanes 
of the Royal Flying Corps (Military Wing), 233. 

80 Raleigh, I, 327-328. 

working together as they did, the two 
arms gained much more accurate and 
voluminous knowledge of the situa- 
tion. It was, indeed, the timely warning 
they gave which chiefly enabled me to 
make speedy dispositions to avert dan- 
ger and disaster. There can be no doubt 
indeed that, even then, the presence 
and cooperation of aircraft saved the 
very frequent use of small cavalry pa- 
trols and detached supports. This en- 
abled the latter arm to save horse-flesh 
and concentrate their power more on 
actual combat and fighting, and to 
this is greatly due the marked success 
which attended the operations of the 
cavalry during the Battle of Mons and 
the subsequent retreat. 81 

French was a career cavalryman. However, 
his follow-on comments reflect the special sig- 
nificance of military intelligence transformation: 
“At the time I am writing, however, it would ap- 
pear that the duty of collecting information and 
maintaining touch with an enemy in the field will 
in future fall entirely upon the air service, which 
will set the cavalry free for different but equally 
important work.” 82 

With the Germans pressing in on Mons, 
the need for more information on their ad- 
vance became critical. On 23 August 1914 the 
RFC launched 12 reconnaissance sorties with 
key sightings of enemy activity and reports of 
heavy rifle fire. One RFC pilot had been airborne 
by half past four that morning and was hover- 
ing over the German right flank by first light. 
He was back at the landing ground with his re- 
port by breakfast time. It was not a settling ex- 
perience, for the RFC was on the move, trav- 
eling south in a fleet of lorries to set up a new 
headquarters near Mons (Casteau). Aerial obser- 
vation did not operate from airfields as under- 
stood in today’s terms. Aeroplanes and support 
were totally mobile, operating from any suitable 
area, known as the “landing ground.” It was well 
past ten a.m. before the day’s vital information 
reached General Fergusson, Commander of the 
BEF 5th Division. RFC observers were now see- 

81 Field-Marshal French, 43-44. 

82 Field-Marshal French, 44. 

Chapter i: The Evolution of Aerial Reconnaissance as a Force Multiplier 


FIGURE 8. Aircraft recognition 
proved challenging for both sides in the 
first days of the war; resulting in inci- 
dents of friendly fire. A Maurice Farman 
(MF) 1 1 is observed flying low over in- 
fantry. Source: SHAA, photo contained in 
Christienne and Lissarague, A History of 
French Military Aviation 

ing thousands of Germans moving southwest on 
the Belgian plain. Some twenty miles to the north 
of Casteau, long columns of troops were passing 
through Lessines and veering westward. To the 
west another large force snaked over ten miles 
of road between Ath and Leuze-en Hainaut. The 
Germans were now a few hours march away 
from Mons. Over Elouges and Quievrain on the 
Belgian-French border, RFC fliers saw signs of 
more immediate danger. An entire German army 
corps was there, split into four echelons like the 
prongs of a fork and massing for an advance. Ma- 
neuvering around smoke from burning villages, 
the observers sighted entire batteries of German 
guns moving up to cover the immediate attack. 
German forces were at the same time digging in 
along the Mons-Valenciennes railway and road, 
covering the high ground to the north. 83 

The RFC observers drafted their in-flight re- 
ports on enemy movements and forwarded infor- 
mation to commanders immediately upon land- 
ing. Confusion reigned as the battle heated up. 
Captain Joubert de la Ferte recalled, “We were 
rather sorry they [the British soldiers arriving 
on scene] had come because up till that moment 
we had only been fired on by the French when- 
ever we flew. Now we were fired on by French 
and English. To this day I can remember the roar 
of musketry that greeted two of our machines 
as they left the aerodrome and crossed the main 
Maubeuge-Mons road, along which a British col- 
umn was proceeding.” 84 

Aeroplane recognition posed a significant 
challenge for the early aviator. Infantry on both 
sides were not accustomed to aeroplanes and 

83 Macdonald, 1914 , 118-119. 

84 Raleigh, I, 288-289; Terraine, 31-32. 

their role. The priority for establishing and as- 
signing distinguishing marks of nationality be- 
came a necessity to safely operate at lower alti- 
tudes. “Union Jacks have been put on the under 
surfaces of the lower planes. They are not large 
enough and larger ones are necessary. The French 
have a blue spot, surrounded at an interval, by 
a red ring. The Germans have a black cross on 
some of their machines.” 85 Confusion over iden- 
tity eventually led to the British adopting the 
French- style roundel with a blue outer circle and 
red spot. 

That afternoon of 23 August, the RFC made 
further reconnaissance toward Charleroi (about 
40 kilometers south of Brussels) and ascertained 
that at least two German army corps (Guard Corps 
and the Guard Cavalry Division) were attacking 
the French V® me Armee on the line of the Sambre. 
When the observers returned in the evening, they 
presented grave news that the French center had 
been driven back. 86 Field-Marshal French learned 
in the evening when he returned to his headquar- 
ters that the French armees on the left flank were 
pulling back. Since the BEF was still advancing, 
this news, coupled with further ominous reports 

85 W. S. Douglas, “Notes on Equipment of Units of 
RFC with BEF,” 27 September 1914, TNA, PRO: AIR 

86 Edmonds, 1914, 1, 66. 

Chapter i: The Evolution of Aerial Reconnaissance as a Force Multiplier 


from the RFC that German movements were put- 
ting his forces at risk, made it clear to French that 
the BEF must fall back as well. 87 

The next day, a German column the size of a 
corps was observed moving due west on the Brus- 
sels-Ninove road. It proved to be General von 
Kluck’s Second Corps. Armed with this critical 
information, the British senior staff was able to 
map an accurate picture of the German advance. 88 
That evening French met with his staff to discuss 
the intelligence and determine courses of action. 
The battle map showed the British Army’s posi- 
tion in relation to the advancing Germans. RFC 
aerial reconnaissance began to tell the story that 
the German commander, General von Kluck, was 
preparing to envelop British forces. The value of 
aerial observation proved itself to senior staff. The 
information gleaned enabled the British forces to 
keep ahead of the German maneuver and avoid 
a catastrophic situation. Decisions were quickly 
made. The British now commenced the famous 
“retreat” from Mons and headed south. 89 

Aerial observation leading up to the retreat 
from Mons exemplified a dysfunctional recon- 
naissance routine. Lyn Macdonald described an 
aerial operation in flux: 

For the past week the Flying Corps, like 
the Army, had been moving gypsy- 
like round France sleeping wherever 
chance had led them, in barns, in cha- 
teaux, in lorries, under hedgerows, 
even occasionally in hotels. Every day 
they had spent many hours in the air 
searching for the enemy and half as 
long again searching to find their own 
base, for there was no guarantee that 
the makeshift airfield the patrols had 
left would still be in the same place 
when they returned. Standing orders 
were not much help — Fly approxi- 
mately twenty miles south and search 
for aircraft on the ground . 90 

87 Terraine, 124-125. 

88 Raleigh, I, 301-302. 

89 Raleigh, I, 304, 314; Babington-Smith, 9. 

90 Macdonald, 1914, 244. 


Despite the confusion, the RFC was demon- 
strating its potential. On 25 August Major Hu- 
bert D. Harvey-Kelly and two other pilots from 
No. 2 Squadron forced a Rumpler Taube to land 
near Le Cateau. 91 Two RFC pilots from No. 5 
Squadron demonstrated aviation’s liaison role 
with the British command in a harrowing con- 
frontation with German forces. In an effort to 
deliver a critical message to General Haig, they 
“landed between the firing lines in a field pro- 
tected by a rise in the ground from the direct fire 
of the enemy. With the aid of a cavalry patrol 
they succeeded in delivering their message to 
General Sir Douglas Haig, after which they re- 
turned to their machine, started up the engine, 
and flew away in the presence of two Uhlans, 
who had just ridden into the field.” The quick- 
ening pace of battle created a greater challenge 
for successful communication within the British 
Corps. Every possible means of liaison, includ- 
ing the creation of new links with aviation as- 
sets, was being put to a critical test. 92 

On Friday, 28 August, du General Comman- 
dant en Chef les Armees, General Joseph Jacques 
Cesaire Joffre, asked French to undertake air re- 
connaissance on the western flank of the Allied 
forces covering French territory. 93 RFC aerial 
reconnaissance during the day showed German 
columns sweeping southward over the Somme 
between Ham and Peronne, coming down on 
the French VP me Armee and between the Oise 
and Somme west of Guise. Aerial observation 
reported several sightings of devastation as the 
Germans continued south. 94 Meanwhile, the Ger- 
man commander, General Alexander von Kluck, 
continued to employ his own aerial reconnais- 
sance near Albert-Doullens-Amiens, but his pi- 
lots were unsuccessful in locating the retreating 
British forces. 95 

While the Germans were advancing on Paris, 
the most pressing question on the minds of Al- 
lied commanders was in what direction the Ger- 

91 M. L. Skelton, “Major H. D. Harvey-Kelly, 
Commanding Officer, No. 19 Squadron,” The Journal of the 
Society of World War I Aero Historians 16, No. 4 (Winter 
1975): 365. 

92 Terraine, 150. 

93 Field-Marshal French, 9 1 . 

94 Edmonds, 1914, 1, 241. 

95 Von Kluck, 73. 

Chapter i: The Evolution of Aerial Reconnaissance as a Force Multiplier 

FIGURE 9. Battle of Le Cateau and Battle of Guise, 26-29 August 191 4. Source: West Point 
Atlas, map 8. Courtesy, Department of History, U.S. Military Academy. 

man forces were heading. Unbeknownst to them, 
General von Kluck deviated from the original 
strategy of advancing directly on Paris and de- 
cided to go after the retreating Allied armies. Von 
Kluck’ s solution was to annihilate the French 
armies in the field without enveloping Paris. 96 
Von Kluck was convinced that he had crushed 
the BEF and considered the time opportune to 
crush the French on the flanks away from Paris. 97 
On the evening of 30 August, a message from 
the overall German commander, General Karl 
von Bulow, ordered von Kluck’s maneuver to 
help von Btilow “gain the full advantage of vic- 
tory” over the retreating French V 5mc Armee. Von 
Billow’s request complemented von Kluck’s per- 
spective and the decision was made to move to 

96 Barbara Tuchman, The Guns of August (New York: 
Ballantine, 1962), 443-444. 

97 Michael S. Neiberg, Fighting the Great War: A Global 
History (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2005), 

the southeast toward Noyon and Compiegne. 98 
The next day RFC aerial observation began to 
see signs of the maneuver. Despite the constant 
flux of RFC operations as a result of continued 
mobility, RFC sorties over the Compiegne region 
managed to detect signs that the Germans were 
changing direction. 99 On the afternoon of 3 1 Au- 
gust, RFC pilot Captain E.W. Furse discovered 
the lead German cavalry corps spearheading the 
German Army in a new direction. A subsequent 
sortie from RFC No. 4 Squadron flown by Cap- 
tain Pitcher and Lieutenant A.H. L. Soames con- 
firmed the maneuver. 100 This, combined with re- 
ports from French cavalry, alerted the Allied 
commanders that something significant was in 
progress with the German forces. The Germans 
had reached the limit of their western advance 

98 Tuchman, 443-444. 

"Macdonald, 1914 , 245. 

100 Michael Occleshaw, Armour against Fate: British 
Military Intelligence in the First World War (London: 
Columbus Books, 1986), 56. 

Chapter i: The Evolution of Aerial Reconnaissance as a Force Multiplier 


FIGURE 10 . Western Front Situation 30 August to 2 September 1 91 4, Battle of the Marne. 

Source: West Point Atlas , map 1 0. Courtesy, Department of History, U.S. Military Academy. 

and were now heading southeast. 101 The French 
yeme A rm £ e commander, General Charles Louis 
Marie Lanrezac, and VP me Armee commander, 
General de Maunoury, were provided the infor- 
mation at the most critical moment, saving their 
forces from a decisive German maneuver. 102 The 
RFC was achieving tremendous credibility at this 
climactic moment. 

Throughout the campaign, the French were 
equally aggressive in maintaining aerial observa- 
tion on the advancing German forces. Unfortu- 
nately for their aviators, they not only had to find 
the Germans but also had to convince their se- 
niors of what was observed. The French GQG 
had a variety of intelligence sources to draw 
from in determining the location and direction of 
the German advance. French agents had reported 
that the German campaign plan called for march- 
ing from Brussels toward southwestern Belgium, 
eventually heading to the Oise River. However, 
by 1 September the direction of the German ad- 
vance did not validate that intelligence source. 

101 Robert B. Asprey, The First Battle of the Marne 
(Philadelphia: J.B. Lippincott Company, 1962), 85; 
Edmonds, 1914 , 1, 248. 

102 Occleshaw, 56. 

Aerial reconnaissance kept confirming the south- 
east advance. At this critical moment, French 
Armee headquarters staff became reticent, not 
following up on the new information due to ap- 
prehension that it contradicted the prevailing 
opinion of the GQG. With indecision, critical 
time was lost. French staff began withholding 
information, afraid to admit possible mistakes. 
Capitaine Bellenger, commanding the air sec- 
tion of the French VP me Armee, became increas- 
ingly alarmed at this state of affairs. He quickly 
sent one of his observers, Lieutenant Andre Wa- 
teau (a lawyer by training), to the GQG to make 
the case for their aerial observation sighting of 
the German maneuver in progress. Wateau suc- 
cessfully explained the case and at the same time 
took credit for the discovery. 103 

The Allies’ aerial observation reporting on 
the German maneuver received further substan- 
tiation from a map retrieved from a German of- 
ficer. 104 Armed with this more convincing infor- 
mation, the Allies gained an advantage. German 

103 Lt Col Georges Bellenger, letter to Francois Baban, 
6 February 1954, SHAA (translation provided by 
Commandant Marc Riviere). 

104 Asprey, 86. 


Chapter i: The Evolution of Aerial Reconnaissance as a Force Multiplier