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Shooting the Front: Allied Aerial Reconnaissance in the First World War

by Terrence J. Finnegan, Trafalgar Square Publishing, Chicago, 2011, $44.95

With all the emphasis on fighter aces like the Red Baron and Eddie Rickenbacker, it’s easy to forget that the original purpose of the airplane during World War I—and its key purpose throughout that conflict—was aerial intelligence-gathering, with fighters either trying to stop the other side’s reconnaissance aircraft or protect their own. It is remarkable how little has been written on reconnaissance in comparison to fighters and bombers in the first air war. Terrence J. Finnegan has filled a vast gap in that area of study with Shooting the Front.

Focusing on the French, who made the widest strides in aerial photography, along with the British and Americans, Finnegan goes into meticulous detail on the application of aerial recon to positional—i.e., trench—warfare and strategic intelligence-gathering, and to the unsung personnel who analyzed that intelligence so their armies could use it. He covers the cameras and those who pioneered their use, such as France’s Captain Eugène M.E. Pépin, Britain’s Lt. Gen. Sir David Henderson and the U.S. Army Air Service’s Captain Edward Steichen. Due attention is paid to the most significant recon aircraft of the period, such as the Caudron G.4, Breguet 14A2, R.E.8 and de Havilland D.H.4, including a passing tribute to the war’s most effective strategic reconnaissance plane, Russia’s Sikorsky Ilya Muromets, with its continuously photographing Ulyanin camera. That said, while a photo or two is included to remind us of Belgium’s recon aircraft, Italy’s efforts—culminating in the high-speed, long-range SVA-5, the Lockheed SR-71 of its day—are curiously absent.

Within his selected realm, however, it is unlikely that anyone will match the depth of Finnegan’s coverage of WWI photography, or of the manner in which the three Allied powers on which he focuses shared their knowledge. One photo, showing Steichen holding a German-made camera, suggests the need for a future book dealing with what was going on among the Central Powers at that time. But Shooting the Front will remain an essential reference for anyone expanding on this neglected aspect of military aviation.


Originally published in the July 2012 issue of Aviation History. To subscribe, click here.