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The Great War Seen From the Air
In Flanders Fields, 1914–1918
by Birger Stichelbaut and Piet Chielens. 352 pages. Mercatorfonds, 2014. $90.

Reviewed by Anthony Brandt

The First World War introduced aerial combat to warfare and aerial photography as a systematic way to reconnoiter battlefields, record the effects of bombardment, and make maps. The resulting archive of aerial photographs numbers in the hundreds of thousands. The authors of this impressive volume have culled through the most interesting of those images and focused on one theater of the war, Flanders, showing us what the war looked like from above.

The book is a marvel. It contains more than 500 photographs, most of them aerial but some of them images of soldiers or of the same sites from both the ground and the air. You can watch towns and villages crumble to ruins as the war progresses through four years and relentless artillery fire. Many of the aerial photographs come with translucent overlays that clarify trench lines, gun emplacements, barracks, and other features on the ground. The text gives a brief history of aerial photography, an explanation of aerial cameras developed during the war, and a primer on how to interpret aerial photographs. The explanatory captions are thorough but do not dominate the visuals.

The overall effect of the book is terribly poignant. We see no dead bodies, but the dead landscapes are horrendous. By the end of the war the beautiful little town of Ypres is nothing but rubble. Neat, orderly farms with their mosaics of fields turn into vast areas of pitted mud, laced with trench mazes. The extent of those mazes is astonishing: frontline trenches, then secondary lines, communication trenches, trenches in the rear—a crenelated spiderweb zigzagging over the landscape.

At the end of the book the authors have placed photographs of some of the devastated towns after they were rebuilt, and this adds another level of poignancy. Only two decades after one brutal war ended, another world war would wrap Europe in its arms, and all the devastation would begin again.

In truth, that first war’s potential to wreak havoc is not entirely over. Just recently two Belgian farmers working in Flanders fields were killed when unexploded ordnance from the First World War went off beneath their feet—a not uncommon event even today.

Anthony Brandt was the book columnist for Men’s Journal for nine years. He writes about World War I and military affairs.