World War I Battlefields, 100 Years Later

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.

Aerial view: the location and timing of this view is unknown but it shows something of the scale of trench systems which were used by both the Allies and the Germans. There is very little evidence of shell damage, suggesting that these are newly entrenched areas - which could either by the start of the war, or more likely towards the very end when movement had resumed. They could also be training trenches, although their scale makes that unlikely. On the left of the picture, the trenches have a regular pattern but angular sections jutting out. This was intended to allow for sniper fire to protect against an incursion from no man's land. Across the top of the picture is a lengthy communications trench, which zig-zags to make sniper fire more difficult, and also to make it more difficult for artillery fire to rake it. It connects to other what are more likely to be front line trenches, which are in two rows running from top to bottom of the picture. The trenches are dug in a pattern lik  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.

Close-up: It is hard to grasp the scale of trench warfare, but each section of the zig zag would have been between five and ten feet long. Zig zags were protective: if an enemy party managed to enter the trench, they could not fire down its length, and a soldier could defend the corner as long as ammunition - or more primitive weapons - held out. But the number of shell hols shows the constant danger soldiers were under. it also suggests the area is the very front line - the commucations trenches curve back from it towards the left of the photograph, but do not appear to project much further. Some short trenches extend beyond the apparent front line, which seems to run from top to bottom. They may be the remains of older workings.

Dark, cold, wet, trench. WWI. 1918.
Dark, cold, wet, trench. WWI. 1918. Found on

This photograph has no geography or date, and shows both trenches and what appear to be heavy gun emplacements (top centre). The lack of shell damage and the small number of trenches suggests this is behind the front lines, where heavy guns would be emplaced. it is impossible to tell if it was a photograph taken to show German positions or British ones. The Royal Engineers photographed both to allow Royal Artillery intelligence officers to have a complete picture of the battlefield - meaning risky aerial missions with cumbersome cameras.

View the rest of these aerial images here.

World War I trench. Found on

Below are some diagrams of the trenches I found on a Google image search; what a way to live!



Read more: