Aeroplane Reconnaissance Photography in World War I

Our Documentary Heritage showcases holdings drawn from the vast collections of the Pennsylvania State Archives.

World War I marked a significant turning point in the history of armed conflict for many reasons, not the least of which was the development of more sophisticated reconnaissance. For thousands of years, men on horseback served as the main vehicle for information-gathering in most armies. With the proliferation of trench warfare and the mechanization of equipment in the Great War, the horse cavalry soon became a less effective force not only on the battlefield but also in reconnaissance work.

Hundreds of thousands of horses were killed during the war by machine guns, artillery and poison gas; others died of exhaustion and disease. Barbed wire also limited the usefulness of cavalry on the battlefield. During the war’s later years, horses were mainly used for logistical support, such as pulling wagons through muddy fields and roads for hospitals and ammunition trains. At the same time, aeroplanes, or airplanes, were being used more frequently for vital reconnaissance missions, with aerial photography employed to capture enemy positions and movements.

The aeroplane was not the first means by which battlefield commanders had access to aerial reconnaissance. Balloons had been used to gather information about opponents on battlefields dating back to 18th-century France. Observation balloons were also used on battlefields during the American Civil War. But with aeroplane reconnaissance more ground could be surveyed at a faster rate of speed.

Reconnaissance missions were dangerous, because pilots tried to fly level and straight to facilitate the photographic operation. These aeroplanes presented a tempting target for enemy fighter planes and antiaircraft guns, while reconnaissance crews were also sometimes tasked with flying far behind enemy lines.

Aeroplane reconnaissance photography was quite useful to commanders in the field. The photographs proved to be most valuable for defensive positions, because they provided early warning of massed enemy troop movements, which helped prevent devastating surprise attacks. The reconnaissance photographs were often overprinted on existing maps for precise targeting of up-to-date enemy positions, including troop and equipment movements.

Conveyance of interpreted aerial photographs to field commanders, however, did not always occur in a timely manner. The military was short on experienced aerial photograph interpreters, and this became a persistent problem throughout the war. Interpreters had to have extensive knowledge of military hardware and the ability to use shadows to judge the size of objects in the photographs. Manuals, instruction booklets and copious images were produced to train American military personnel to serve in aerial photograph interpretive units during the war.

The Pennsylvania State Archives holds (in MG-272m.143) a manual, Instructions for the Intelligence Service of an Infantry Regiment by the War Department, Office of the Chief of Staff, 1918, and an album, Illustrations to Accompany Notes on the Interpretation of Aeroplane Photographs, Issued by the General Staff. These documents contain text and numerous illustrations and diagrams designed to teach military personnel how to interpret aerial photographs, such as the one pictured here, to gain intelligence regarding enemy troop strength, location, types of equipment, structures, fuel depots and artillery.

The donor of these items was veteran Edward Herman Lightner, who was born in Nineveh, Greene County, in 1896. Lightner was employed as a machinist prior to World War I. He enlisted in the Pennsylvania National Guard in Pittsburgh on July 26, 1917, as a private in Company D, 18th Infantry (which later became part of the 111th Infantry, 28th Division). In June 1918 he was transferred to Headquarters Company, 111th Infantry, 28th Division, where he began his military intelligence work. Lightner served overseas from May 1918 to April 1919 and was involved in the Fifth German Offensive, Meuse-Argonne and Thiacourt Sector. In May 1919 he was honorably discharged as a sergeant.


Richard C. Saylor is an archivist for the Pennsylvania State Archives and author of the award-winning book Soldiers to Governors and numerous articles on military, political and sports history.