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.
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.
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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
Damage: This photograph shows how the countryside was covered in shell craters from the aerial bombardment campaign carried out by both sides. The picture is one of the few which has information on it, dated 24 June 1917 top right corner. The date is shortly after the Battle of Messines had been launched. it is not known if this is in that area, but the scale of damage suggests a heavy bombardments.The remains of the roads which covered the area can still be seen.
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.
Intricate: This photograph is dated 18 March 1918. At the time both sides were experiencing something of a calm period – but only for a few more days. On 21 March, the Germans launched their Spring Offensive. Fortified in numbers thanks to Russia being out of the war, and using newly developed tactics of stormtroopers moving rapidly, they broke through the Allies positions, overran the trenches, and opened a war of movement. In the end, however, the Spring Offensive was seen by many historians as the Germans’ undoing as the country did not have the resources to support the newly mobile armies, and their supply chains suffered. This photograph shows how trneches were built with forward-projecting sections like the tops of medieval battlements, and also built in rows. The presence of the corner at the top centre of the picture suggests some form of change of direction in the trenches, possibly due to change in the topography – the section here is built on flat ground.
This picture is one of the few with specific geographical details. It appears to be taken in the air above German positions near Cambrai, in the Somme, and Arras, in the Nord Pas de Calais. At the top left is an arrow pointing towards the Bois de Bourlon, which is around three miles south-west of Arras. To the right is the village of Anneux, which is just outside Cambrai. In the front is the Hindeburg Line, a German defensive system which ran south from Arras. It was built in the winter of 1916 and 1917 and designed to hold off an expected offensive which the Germans believed would happen in the summer of 1917. The Hindenburg Line in fact largely held and although the Germans lost land in front of it (in this picture the fields in the foreground) it appeared to prevent a larger breakthrough by the Allies. The photograph is date 17 August 1917, by which time British offensives in the area had largely ended following the Second battle of Bullecourt. However there were further offensives after this photograph and in November 1917 Anneux was taken by the 62nd (West Riding) Division on 20 and 21 November 1917. Anneux remained in Allied hands until the following 6 December. It was recaptured on 27 September 1918, by the 57th (West Lancashire) and 63rd (Royal Naval) Divisions, acting with the 52nd (Lowland) and the 1st and 4th Canadian Divisions. It is today home to a Commonwealth War Graves Commission cemetery, with the majority of soldier buried there from the Canadian army.
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.
Another undated image suggests positions behind the front lines, as the heaviest shell damage is concentrated at the bottom left. Lengthy communication trenches were needed to bring forward supplies, and although World War One was not a war of movement, the shifting positions of the fronts meant that not all were used all the time. Roads remained crucial – the white chalk road is typical of the north of France or Belgium, while the fields seem unused. It is unclear what the dark sections along the centre represent – it could be something printed on to the pictures to show planned fortifications, or the beginnings of works on the ground.
The sheer scale of bombardment, together with the trenches on the right, suggests that this is a section which has recently been the subject of action. The trenches on the right are a front line, although the lack of clear information means whose – and where – is not known. The pictures are marked (top left) with coding which would allow the Royal Engineers and Royal Artillery to assemble an overview of the battlefield. The pictures also show how roads – and in this case what may be the canal of the Somme, running from centre left to bottom right – survived bombardment, At the top of the photograph, however, the intense bombardment means the chalk underneath the topsoil is all that can be seen. Artillery units wanted to rain shells down on trenches, not elsewhere, but accuracy was limited. Shellfire became the main weapon of the war and each side became evenly matched in their ability to produce weapons and ammunition.
Historic: Another object in the scrapbook is the telegram announcing the Armistice and the end of the First World War. The underlining of ‘Topo’ suggests that it was sent to the topographic section of a Royal Engineers Field Survey Battallion, which appears to be where Sgt Statters served. The signal was sent from the headquarters of the British Third Army, which in November 1918 was under the command of General Sir Julian (later Lord) Byng.