Flower beds that meant death for German WWI soldiers

By Alex Hudson
BBC News

Image caption,
Once the site of German barracks was found using aerial photographs, military commanders turned their guns on the area and left it almost unrecognisable

World War I saw the first widespread use of aerial reconnaisance in combat including one unfortunate group of German soldiers, who were discovered because they maintained flower beds outside their barracks.

In the catacombs of the Imperial War Museum, there is a collection of about 150,000 images taken from the air during World War I, documenting the tales of devastation that ripped through Europe between 1914 and 1918.

Air travel in aeroplanes was barely a decade old when war was declared, the first aircraft only crossing the English Channel from France in 1909.

Now Britain was sending its own aircraft back over the Channel into battle.

For the first time war was taking to the skies and - with the work of the photographers - offering those in charge of troops a chance to see the battlefield in an entirely different way.

These aerial photographs of the battlefields' trenches, including pictures of the Somme and Passchendaele, showed just what was happening in the war and, aside from documenting the destruction, became a vital information gathering tool.

In Belgium, archaeologist Birger Stichelbaut, of Ghent University, has been studying the images for a number of years.

"It's a major overlooked source," he says.

"No-one ever looked at the entity of world war photographs. Nobody ever looked at using them as a primary source of information.

"Many people who study World War I use trench maps, maybe they use some aerial photographs but one of the mistakes they make is focusing on the area of the battles but much more happened 40 or 50km behind the front line."

And it is here where military commanders were able to exploit the new technology to its most lethal ends.

A German army barracks camouflaged by trees near Diksmuide in Belgium was discovered only because the soldiers had kept a number of flower beds outside their barracks.

Photographs of the area were examined and the flower beds meant that the buildings were manned - a German base had been found.

Lunar landscape

"Many of the officers or men on the ground didn't have an idea about how things looked from the air," Stichelbaut says.

"Flower beds were constructed to make life in this military camp more comfortable, to feel more at home.

Image caption,
The intricate maze of trenches created by both sides during WWI could only be fully observed from the air

"The act of making flowerbeds really draws attention onto the site. What happened a couple of months later, the landscape was already peppered with shell holes and a lot of the barracks were already destroyed."

The aerial photographers returned to document the scene and, as in Passchendaele, the landscape is almost unrecognisable - the scene of the bombings looking more like a lunar landscape than a once-inhabited piece of Europe.

"It was a revelation to [British commanders]," says Dave Parry, an aerial photography expert at the Imperial War Museum.

"They've never seen anything like this before. For the first time they could see the depth of the defences, the number of machine gun posts… it was all laid out for them with amazing clarity."

A large number of the photographs have survived the century, even though Parry says "very often the members of the photo section were reduced to washing [the glass plates] in ditches on the side of the roads".

About 500,000 images were taken and those that have survived reside in archives all across the world.

And while these photos were important for the military commanders at the time, they have proved of equal importance today.

The record of mile after mile of trenches and the total destruction caused by battles are an invaluable research tool for historians and archaeologists.

For the photographers themselves, it was just as dangerous to fly as it was to be in the infantry. The average life expectancy of pilots was actually worse than for those in the trenches. Once they arrived at the front, new pilots lasted on average for 11 days.

They had to contend with unreliable aircraft in often hostile weather conditions, and then there was the enemy's anti-aircraft weaponry.

Early aircraft would fly at about 12,000ft and the skill of keeping the unwieldy camera steady as it was aimed towards the ground was a difficult one.

One of the planes flying to France in 1914 crashed even before it reached Dover, killing both of its crew, and during WWI, figures for people killed in flight training were higher than for those killed in aerial combat.

But despite the casualties, the advent of aeroplanes meant war would never be the same again.

The First World War from Above is on BBC One on Sunday 7 November at 2100 GMT or afterwards on BBC iPlayer.