We live in the trenches out there. We fight. We try not to be killed, but sometimes we are. That’s all. ~Erich Maria Remarque’s All Quiet on the Western Front
An extraordinary collection of aerial photographs of World War One trenches has come to light nearly a century after the conflict.
The images were collected by Sergeant Alex Statters, who served in France and helped to draw up maps of the battlefield on behalf of the Allied forces.
They show how the trenches snaked across the countryside, which was pock-marked with hundreds of shell craters from the bombardment of the two sides.
The photographs form part of a scrapbook compiled by Sgt Statters during the war, which also includes the telegram announcing the end of the conflict and a signed portrait of Winston Churchill.
The book does not provide details of where and when the pictures were taken or of Sgt Statters service. He appears to have been a Royal Engineer (RE). Sapper were responsible for using balloons and aeroplanes to carry out reconnaissance missions above the trenches – the planes being flown by pilots from Army air units, and when it was formed, the Royal Air Force.
The missions were fraught with danger and technical difficulty. As well as being targets for the Germans who would fire from the ground and attack from the air, taking pictures involved holding the camera firmly and hoping that the exposure was quick enough not to be shaken.
Photographs had to have sufficient resolution to be of use to Royal Artillery gunnery crews on the ground, meaning that plate glass film was initially used. As technology advanced, lighter cameras were brought in, but compared to modern technology, they were still large, heavy and difficult to use.
One of the documents on auction along with Sgt Statters’ collection of pictures names a ‘topo’ – ‘topography’ unit, suggesting that he was part of one.
These units were responsible for plotting where British batteries would be sited, and were part of the RE’s Field Survey Companies, which produced reports which allowed Royal Artillery intelligence officers to plot both where to site their batteries, and where enemy guns were positioned.
As the war progressed, more and more men were involved technology advanced, and the scale of the RE’s operation expanded, so that by July 1918, the companies were upgraded to battalions.
Artillery had become the deadliest killer in the trenches rapidly and dominated the war, meaning that assessing the impact of shells on the enemy, the accuracy of aim, and the location of enemy positions was crucial.
It is unclear if Sgt Statters flew himself or acquired the pictures in the course of his work.
The book is going up for auction next month and is expected to fetch around £2,500.
Hover/click images to read captions/enlarge.
View the rest of these aerial images here.
Below are some diagrams of the trenches I found on a Google image search; what a way to live!