In the air

Before the conflict began, military aviation was in its infancy. Between 1914 and 1916, aerial duels between “aces”, which still made use of pistols or rifles, were its defining feature. It was also used for reconnaissance missions by means of aerial photography, or harassment missions of enemy troops through the release of explosive arrows.

From 1916, innovations led to major changes in aviation, such as increases in speed, agility, rapid ascent capacity and more robust apparatus. The synchronisation of machine guns with propellers, that same year, was also crucial for the development of aviation. At the end of the war, the Allies had absolute superiority: planes were deployed en masse during aerial combats, strategic bombardments and large scale operations in support of land offensives.

The Allies also used airships, more specifically for observation and reconnaissance purposes. The German army, meanwhile, had the notorious Zeppelins at its disposal. These were used to bomb London on several occasions.

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  • Aerial photo, 1914-1918, photo, © Cassel, musée départemental de Flandre

    Aerial photography allowed the army to prepare new attacks by precisely locating the enemy. Camouflage techniques were developed at the time to conceal this information. Artists such as Fernand Léger (1881-1955) or Georges Braque (1882-1963) were recruited for a special section which created camouflage.

  • French soldiers standing around a French airplane that crashed nose down, first quarter of the 20th century, gelatin silver print on paper, coll. Historial de la Grande Guerre, Péronne

    During the Great War aviators clashed during epic airborne battles. After more than five victories they were considered « aces », like the German, Manfred Von Richthofen (1892-1918), also known by his nickname The Red Baron, or the Frenchman René Fonck (1894-1953)

  • Balloonist in the gondola of a balloon, first quarter of the 20th century, gelatin silver print on paper, coll. Historial de la Grande Guerre, Péronne

    A balloonist was the term used for the pilot and crew members of the military dirigibles. The latter were used simultaneously with airplanes for aerial reconnaissance missions, as well as kites that had been fitted with cameras.

aerial photoFrench soldiers standing around a crashed planeBalloonist in the gondola of a balloon