In anticipation of next year’s World War I centennial, the United Kingdom’s Imperial War Museums and Alfred A. Knopf have produced a stirring retrospective: The Great War: A Photographic Narrative. The 20th century’s first titanic upheaval created a line between old world and new; when the war ended, almost nothing was the same as it had been.
Among the changes documented in The Great War is the introduction to warfare of a new weapon: the airplane. As the photographs in this gallery show, airpower created not only a new kind of fighting but also a new type of war hero. After French pilot Adolphe Pégoud shot down five German aircraft, French newspapers began referring to him as an “ace,” an honorific still used to describe combat pilots with five or more victories.
The first world war was a period of intense aeronautical invention, and the variety of aircraft produced was captured on film, from Germany’s Zeppelins and Fokkers to France’s Nieuports and England’s Sopwith Camels. The two technologies—aeronautics and photography—were soon combined. In January 1915, the Royal Flying Corps produced the first mosaic of aerial photographs. By March of that year, Corps photographers were using hand-held cameras to document pilots flying at 800 feet during the Battle of Neuve Chapelle. In May, French photographers began using autochrome film to take the first color images of war.
Throughout the coming year, there will undoubtedly be many reconsiderations of World War I. Here at Air & Space magazine, we will recapture pilots’ experiences through diaries and memoirs; interview the descendants of Norman Prince, who founded the American air volunteer service, the Lafayette Escadrille; and examine how aerial tactics invented in the airplane’s first war continue to influence military pilots today.