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Shooting the Front: Allied Aerial Reconnaissance and Photographic Interpretation on the Western Front—World War I

Shooting the Front: Allied Aerial Reconnaissance and Photographic Interpretation on the Western Front—World War I by Terrence J. Finnegan. National Defense Intelligence College Press, 2006, 508 pp.

Let no one think the observation plane

Inferior to pursuit. Eyes of the army

And backbone of the Air Force it remains.

—Leighton Brewer

“Riders of the Sky” (1934)

Leighton Brewer’s admonishment notwithstanding, tales of World War I fighter pilots continue to dominate the literature on aviation in that war. In contrast, writers have paid far less attention to the contributions of airmen involved in the less glamorous mission of aerial reconnaissance—or “observation,” as it originally was known. And virtually nothing has been written about the World War I origins and rapid evolution of “photographic interpretation”—the art and science of analyzing aerial photographs for useful information. At over 500 pages and based on prodigious research in US and European archives, Shooting the Front represents a monumental effort to provide an in-depth examination of these important but understudied aspects of the air war as practiced by the major Western allies: France, Britain, and the United States. (Aside from noting the existence of “parallel developments” on the other side of No Man’s Land, this study largely ignores aerial reconnaissance and photographic interpretation as practiced by the Central Powers.)

As author and retired Air Force intelligence officer Col Terrence J. Finnegan makes clear, the operational impasse associated with trench warfare propelled the marriage of the camera and the airplane. Locked in a static front extending from Switzerland to the North Sea, ground commanders demanded information that could help them break the stalemate on the Western Front—hence their growing dependence on aerial observation and its handmaiden, photographic interpretation, and the rapid maturation of each under the pressure of war.

Both a historical narrative and a comprehensive reference work, Shooting the Front maintains that aerial reconnaissance and photographic interpretation together constituted a military information revolution that “reinvented the way modern battle was envisaged, planned, and executed” (p. 3). In support of that claim, Finnegan argues that aerial photography offered a reliable means to validate what is now known as “fused” intelligence (information drawn from multiple sources), inspired such cartographic innovations as maps composed of numbered and lettered squares (i.e., grid maps), and facilitated an enormous increase in artillery effectiveness by pinpointing the location of ground targets. Few would dispute either these assertions or Finnegan’s broader conclusion that aerial observation “created an air of greater confidence for the front line combatant in what often seemed a fruitless and never-ending endeavor” (p. 4). On the other hand, students of World War I aviation will note that the author fails to recognize a more troubling impact of aerial observation on the nature of combat in the Great War: by diminishing the possibility of surprise, air reconnaissance contributed substantially to the murderous stalemate on the Western Front.

That omission aside, this study has many virtues. Chief among them is its detailed examination of the emerging craft of photographic interpretation. Finnegan’s treatment of that subject is further enlivened by his informed appraisals of the exceptional individuals—military men, scientists, and even artists—who promoted the rapid development of this fledgling military specialty between 1914 and 1918. Another key finding involves the close, nurturing relationship between French airmen and intelligence personnel and their eager but inexperienced American counterparts. Contrary to the received wisdom that emphasizes the importance of British tutelage, Finnegan convincingly argues that a Franco-American entente cordiale played the largest part in the success of the US Air Service’s observation efforts. In turn, this close partnership resulted in lessons learned that established the basic operational framework for aerial reconnaissance and photo interpretation for the remainder of the twentieth century.

In sum, Shooting the Front is a vast storehouse of useful information and cogent analysis on a long-neglected subject. It is well written throughout and graced by numerous period photographs, maps, and drawings. Especially worthy of note is the author’s skill at rendering the more arcane aspects of his study comprehensible to nonspecialist readers. Shooting the Front is highly recommended to anyone seriously interested in the evolution of air intelligence or World War I aviation history. Other students of modern warfare will find it a useful reference source.

Dr. James Titus

US Air Force Academy

"The views expressed are those of the author(s) and do not reflect the official policy or position of the US government or the Department of Defense."

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