The Great War Seen from the Air: In Flanders Fields, 1914–1918

Mercatorfonds

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A remarkable photographic record of World War One, its relentless progression and the destruction it wrought, as seen from the skies above Flanders Fields

Aerial photography was a relatively new technology at the onset of World War I and was embraced as an indispensable tool of wartime intelligence by all nations involved in the conflict.  As a result, thousands of photographs taken from the air over the battlefields of the Great War have survived in archives throughout Europe, Australia, and the United States. These pictures present the war from a unique perspective, clearly showing the developing trench system, artillery batteries, bunkers, railway lines, airfields, medical evacuation routes, and more. They reveal the expanding war in Flanders Fields as the hostilities spread, kilometer by kilometer, devastating the environment and resulting in the complete destruction of the landscape at the front.
 
This illuminating volume, the results of a collaboration between the In Flanders Fields Museum, Ypres, the Imperial War Museum, London, and the Royal Army Museum, Brussels, features hundreds of photographic case studies, illustrating in unprecedented detail the physical extent of World War I and the shocking environmental damage it left in its wake. Supplementing aerial images with maps, documents, and photos taken from the ground, this one-of-a-kind visual record stands as an important contribution to World War I history, revealing the wartime landscape of Flanders Fields as rarely seen before.

Taken together, this constitutes a far more nuanced account than the straightforward use of aerial photographs as illustrations of “before” and “after” the conflict. As the introduction notes, these images are deeply human:

“Although aerial photography may appear at first glance to be ‘devoid of detail’, stripped of any human presence, on closer inspection they reveal a complete overview of human activity in a war; what we see is invariably the record of humanity at work.”

The line of a trench and a row of craters can tell a haunting story. Each photographs represents one moment in time at one location from a war spanning years and continents. From an aerial landscape we find military strategy, environmental destruction, and insight into the kinds of decisions leaders make in the face of war.

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Birger Stichelbaut is a postdoctoral researcher based in the department of archaeology, Ghent University, Belgium. 

Piet Chielens is coordinator of the In Flanders Fields Museum in Ypres.


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