Category: History

Poilu: The World War I Notebooks of Corporal Louis Barthas, Barrelmaker

A “Must-Read” pick for the New York Post and a Daily Beast “Hot Reads” title!


As discussed in our March”WAR!” theme, it remains of the utmost importance to consider the individual experiences of soldiers. Those on the front lines provide a personal narrative – one that is often separate from political aims and general strategies.

Poilu: The World War I Notebooks of Corporal Louis Barthas, Barrelmaker, 1914-1918Poilu: The World War I Notebooks of Corporal Louis Barthas, Barrelmaker, 1914-1918 is Edward M. Strauss‘s excellent translation of one soldier’s wartime writings to English-language readers for the first time. Louis Barthas is a thirty-five-year-old French barrelmaker enlisted to fight the Germans from the very start of World War I. His journals of the next four years present a vivid account of life and war.

Below are some excerpts from Barthas’s writings, journal entries detailing the perceptions of the war, the discouragement of soldiers, and the treatment of  the poilu – or “hairy one,” as French infantry men were often called. But perhaps most interesting are Barthas’s reflections at the end of World War I  once he is returned home and given time to process his experiences.


Garrison Duty: August 2–November 1, 1914

General mobilization. Departure for Narbonne.

August 2, 1914. A broiling hot August afternoon. The streets of the village all but deserted. Suddenly, a drumroll. Probably a traveling merchant setting up shop on the main square, or maybe some acrobats announcing their evening performance.

But no, it’s not that. When the drum falls silent, we hear the voice of the town clerk, the commissaire as we call this unique embodiment of local authority. So we lend our ears, expecting to hear the reading of a new decree about rabies or keeping the streets clean.

Alas! This fellow proceeded to announce the most frightful cataclysm to afflict humanity since the Flood. He announced the greatest of all scourges, the source of all evils. He announced the general mobilization, prelude to the war— the accursed, infamous war, which forever dishonored our century and blighted the civilization of which we were so proud.

This announcement, to my great amazement, aroused more enthusiasm than sorrow. Unthinking people seemed proud to live in a time when something so magnificent was about to happen. Even the most indifferent didn’t doubt for an instant that victory would be prompt and decisive.


The Somme Offensive: In the Blood-Soaked Mud:

August 29–November 1, 1916

And our bosses weren’t mistaken. They knew quite well that it wasn’t the flame of patriotism which inspired this spirit of sacrifice. It was simply a sense of bravado, to not seem more cowardly than one’s neighbor. Then there was the presumptuous faith in one’s own star; for others it was the secret and futile ambition for a medal, or a sleeve stripe. Finally, for the great mass, it was the uselessness of protesting against an implacable fate.


1918. Convalescence. Paris. Guingamp. Garrison life.

At Valence we disembarked quietly. But just like at Lyon, as soon as the train started up again we made a dash for the gates. This time most of us were held back by the station crews repulsing the assailants.

I managed to fly through a gate which wasn’t guarded and plunked myself down quietly at the end of a railway-car corridor.

I was duly warned that I would be put off at Avignon and handed over to the station police there, which left me utterly cold. I offered to pay my way; they refused. Even paying poilus weren’t welcome on this train. It just would not do to have crude, dusty, muddy creatures like us offending the fine messieurs and their belles dames lounging on the soft banquette cushions.

You should have seen the disdain with which they looked at me, crouched in my corner. Several times the conductors swore at me, threatened me.


1918. Armistice! Liberation!

I was free, after fifty-four months of slavery! I was finally escaping from the claws of militarism, to which I swore such a ferocious hatred.

I have sought to inculcate this hatred in my children, my friends, my neighbors. I will tell them that the fatherland, glory, military honor, laurels—all are only vain words, destined to mask what is frighteningly horrible, ugly, and cruel about war.

To keep up morale during this war, to justify it, they lied cynically, saying that we were fighting just for the triumph of Right and Justice, that they were not guided by ambition, no colonial covetousness or financial or commercial interests.

They lied when they said that we had to push right to the end, so that this would be the last of all wars.

They lied when they said that we, the poilus, wanted to continue the war in order to avenge the dead, so that our sacrifices would not be useless.

The End of the Nightmare:

August 11, 1918–February 14, 1919

Returned to the bosom of my family after the nightmare years, I taste the joy of life, or rather of new life. I feel tender happiness about things which, before, I didn’t pay attention to: sitting at home, at my table, lying in my bed, putting off sleep so I can hear the wind hitting the shutters, rustling the nearby plane trees, hearing the rain strike the windows, looking at a starry, serene, silent night or, on a dark, moonless night, thinking about similar nights spent up there . . .

Often I think about my many comrades fallen by my side. I heard their curses against the war and its authors, the revolt of their whole beings against their tragic fate, against their murder. And I, as a survivor, believe that I am inspired by their will to struggle without cease-fire nor mercy, to my last breath, for the idea of peace and human fraternity.

Video: Ship of Death, A Voyage that Changed the Atlantic World

In 1792, a ship set sail from England with the best of intentions. Its tragic journey would change the course of history forever.

Historian Billy Smith uncovered a remarkable story of tragedy unleashed from misguided humanitarianism in his book Ship of Death: A Voyage that Changed the Atlantic World. The Hankey was engaged to ferry abolitionists seeking to establish a colony free of slavery to West Africa. Lack of understanding and respect for the cultures they encountered doomed the ship’s original mission. The video below, narrated by Smith, traces the far-reaching results—the changes to the fate of the Haitian Slave Rebellion, contributions to the Louisiana Purchase and the death of hundreds of thousands across several continents.

The Catholic Church’s Role in World Development

Last week, President Obama and Pope Francis met for almost an hour in a much-anticipated private visit in which they discussed, among other issues, income inequality and global peace. Indeed, in his first year as Pope, Pope Francis has emphasized the necessity to care for the poor, both from the standpoint of the Church and in political terms. This special emphasis on the plight of the poor has touched many, and drawn particular attention to the Church’s role in addressing these needs. In his book Earthly Mission: The Catholic Church and World Development, Robert Calderisi places the role of the Church in global and historical context. This book takes on the Catholic Church’s practical role in developing nations, particularly in the last 60 years. In so doing, Calderisi touches on the relationship between religion and politics, the economy, and social progress.

Earthly MissionIndeed, in looking at both individual people and official institutional practice and dogma, this book obliquely raises the question, “What is the Church?” The tension between the institution and the individual occurs throughout Earthly Mission, in ways one wouldn’t always expect. The institution has often, but not exclusively, played a “conservative” role; in fact, the term “conservative” takes on wider meaning than a distinct place on the political spectrum. There are institutional, national, and economic issues at stake in the meeting between the Catholic Church and international development, not to mention the actions of persons outside the institution.

In addition to keen historical and economic investigation, Calderisi draws from the stories of people he met in fourteen developing nations from Rwanda, to Argentina, to Bangladesh. He speaks to cab drivers in Italy, economists in the Philippines and pastors in Tanzania. This approach gives Earthly Mission the insight that comes from individual experience alongside broader analysis with hard data.

The scope of the Catholic Church’s role in world development is vast and complex, and Earthly Mission includes the range from hopeful moments where poverty has been alleviated and to the most difficult ones. Calderisi examines heartbreaking moments in world history, such as the horrors of the Rwandan genocide in the 1990s. Calderisi speaks to those who were there and grapples with the incomprehensible violence.  “Church leaders did nothing to prevent the butchery,” he explains, “and some even seemed to encourage it.” The heroism of some individuals is set up against failures of courage on the other. Priests, nuns and lay Catholics all participated, some as victims, others as perpetrators.

In the end Earthly Mission provides a dynamic picture of the intersection between religion and politics and the diverse ways that appears in different places on the globe. It is in part a story of the Church’s institution meeting governmental institutions, and the individuals in between. “Diverse and all too human in its internal organization,” Calderisi writes, “the Church has varied greatly in its responses to social challenges. Vagaries of character, pressures of circumstance, and instincts of self-preservation have sometimes won out over the eternal truths to which it is dedicated.” Laying his cards on the table, Calderisi himself does not give up hope for the Catholic Church, yet leaves the story open for readers to draw their own conclusions as to whether the Catholic Church, as a whole, has been a force for good.

March Theme: War!

Although it may be an uneasy topic, the discussion of war, military studies, and the related political and governmental histories and current events are a vital part of the cultural conversation to which Yale University Press authors contribute.

Now out in paperback, Wall Street Journal  Supreme Court correspondent Jess Bravin’s The Terror Courts: Rough Justice at Guantanamo Bay covers the Guantanamo Bay prison camp since its inception reports on the legal, political, and moral issues that have stood in the way of justice. Read an excerpt and listen to the Yale Press Podcast interview with YUP Director John Donatich, now available on iTunesU.

On the 11th anniversary of the Iraq War, we posted about Peter Mansoor’s Surge, accounting for his time served during he turning days of the conflict in 2007-2008, in the final days of the Bush administration. Mansoor writes: “The American people need a more comprehensive account of the Iraq War during the years of the surge, one written from the inside perspective of a member of General Petraeus’s team.”

And for the 2014 centennial, the relentless progression of World War I and the devastated wartime landscape of Flanders Fields are presented in unprecedented detail in Birger Stichelbaut and Piet Chielens’s The Great War Seen from the Air in Flanders Field, 1914-1918, a unique historical record comprised primarily of aerial photographs taken over the bitter four-year course of the Great War. Visit the Yale ARTbooks blog for image details of the trenches and bunkers seen from above.

mar2014Two books of letters from the western front are now available: Life, Death and Growing Up on the Western Front, written from historian Anthony Fletcher’s discovery of his grandfather’s letters and French Corporal Louis Barthas’s writings, translated by Edward M Strauss in Poilu: The World War I Notebooks of Corporal Louis Barthas, Barrelmaker, 1914-1918, one of “This Week’s Hot Reads” for the Daily Beast (along with Michael Coogan’s The Ten Commandments, an upcoming feature in our April “Ancient Texts, Modern Beliefs” theme).

One hundred years before the Great War put two notable generals in direct conflict, and two new biographies, Rory Muir’s Wellington: The Path to Victory: 1769-1814, and Philip Dwyer’s Citizen Emperor: Napoleon in Power, the second volume in his study of France’s most notorious general,  illustrate one of the greatest military rivalries of modern history.

We were saddened to learn of the passing of Tennent Harrington Bagley in February; Bagley had been the author of Spy Wars: Moles, Mysteries, and Deadly Games and a guest on the Yale Press Podcast in 2007. Read our full obituary here.

Kristie Macrakis is the author of the new YUP book, Prisoners, Lovers, and Spies: The Story of Invisible Ink from Herodotus to al-Qaeda—the first history of invisible writing, uncovered through stories about scoundrels and heroes. Read an interview with the author and learn about the spy wars, chemical discoveries, and famous characters that make up this hidden history.

In Through a Screen Darkly, Martha Bayles explains the use of popular culture, politics, and the projection of America’s global image  – our post on “The Urban Singles Comedy and Public Diplomacy” covers the perspective on popular shows like Friends, Sex and the City, or Desperate Housewives and their role in the culture wars of America as seen from abroad.

Be sure to sign up by this Friday, April 4, to receive our March “War!” e-newsletter, with a special discount on all the titles discussed this month on the Yale Press Log, and more!

Q&A With Kristie Macrakis, Author of Prisoners, Lovers, and Spies


Prisoners, Lovers, and Spies: The Story of Invisible Ink from Herodotus to al-Qaeda is a book about concealing and revealing secret communications. It is the first history of invisible writing, uncovered through stories about scoundrels and heroes. Spies were imprisoned or murdered, adultery unmasked, and battles lost because of faulty or intercepted secret communications. Yet, successfully hidden writing helped save lives, win battles, and ensure privacy. Yale University Press sat down with author Kristie Macrakis to talk about the spy wars, chemical discoveries, and famous characters that make up this hidden history.


Yale University Press:What inspired your research into the history of hidden writing?

Kristie Macrakis: It was precisely the hidden nature of the subject that inspired my research. It all began with a quest to uncover the Stasi’s (East German secret police and intelligence agency) secret writing methods in order to better understand the United States’ secret methods.

After spending considerable time probing secret writing files I finally hit pay dirt. I was handed a top secret Stasi Cold War invisible ink formula from the 1970s and successfully reproduced it. It was so exciting that my heart started pumping like that of a kid who just stole a candybar. When I was slated to deliver a lecture on invisible ink, I discovered no single book had been written about the subject though there were dozens about codes and ciphers.

The book grew out of that discovery, was research out of curiosity, and was written because of a need. It is the book I wish I had found on the shelf.


YUP: What is your all-time favorite story about invisible ink?

KM: It depends on my mood, but I’m particularly fond of the Nazi tooth spy story. I’ve just written a blog about it, but to make a long story short, a Nazi spy parachuted into England with secret ink hidden in his molar. It’s a good story, but it is just one example of many about the fascinating and bizarre ways in which people concealed their secret ink materials.


YUP: Do you reveal any previously secret hidden writing techniques or stories in Prisoners, Lovers, and Spies?

KM: The whole book is filled with secrets that have never been told before! It’s suitable for anyone who loves a secret. It started with the discovery of the Stasi secret writing method and goes backward from there. While some readers may have heard that General George Washington used sympathetic ink, not many know that the Nobel-prize winning discoverer of Vitamin C, Linus Pauling invented ingenious secret ink methods during World War II. He went to his grave with the secret revealed here for the first time. Of course, I can’t reveal all of them here!


YUP: Did hidden writing ever change the course of history?

KM: Probably one of the most changing the course of history events happened thousands of years ago in ancient Greece and shaped the future of Western civilization. It involved Demaratus’s (a Spartan exiled in Persia) warning of surprise attack by Xerxes, king of Persia, written on a blank wax tablet. How many changing the course of history events happened after that is up for debate.  Hidden messages save lives, win battles, ensure privacy, and occasionally change the course of history.


YUP: Do advances in hidden writing reflect changes in the way we wage war today? Is it possible to identify causal relationships between changes in hidden writing and changes in warfare?

KM: It’s not necessarily changes in warfare that reflect advancements in secret writing, but changes in society and technology in general. For example, one could say that digital steganography (or digital hidden writing on the internet or in digital images) is the modern technological sophisticated reincarnation of invisible inks like lemon juice, highly sophisticated chemical combinations or better yet, ancient seemingly blank wax tablets. Stego came about because of new sophisticated digital techniques. Generals and foot soldiers then use the most effective way to communicate available. As a result, you’d be more likely to see a CIA spy propped up against a tree trunk with a laptop encrypting messages and sending them through an image jpeg rather than mixing chemicals. However, don’t forget, you can always use old-fashioned invisible ink in a pinch. If a spy is holed up in an al-Qaeda prison, he or she might only have urine – or he, semen – to write with.


YUP: In the book you show that during WW I there was kind of an arms race to develop new invisible inks. In the absence of such an open global war do you think hidden writing will stagnate?

KMacrakislightblue2KM: Yes, there was an arms race or see saw battle of wits as each side responded to more sophisticated invisible ink methods. The same thing could happen in modern warfare. For example, the NSA’s perceived enemies might have figured out how the NSA spies on its communications so it will develop other ways to communicate. When it does this, the NSA will  respond with new communication methods. Sometimes the warfare context stimulates scientific or technical change.


Kristie Macrakis is professor of history, technology, and society at the Georgia Institute of Technology. She is a historian of science as well as espionage and the author of numerous books and articles, including Seduced by Secrets. She lives in Atlanta, GA. Visit her website at

In Memoriam: Tennent Bagley

Tennent Harrington Bagley, author and former C.I.A. officer, passed away on Feb. 20 in Brussels at the age of 88. While working for the C.I.A., Bagley assisted a Soviet spy, Yuri Nosenko, turn against Russia, only to believe this spy was a double-agent. Bagley spent many years trying to prove his suspicions.Bagley_Tennent.jpg

Bagley was born in Annapolis, Maryland on Nov. 11, 1925.  Coming from a military family, his father was a Navy Admiral and his brothers followed suit.  Indeed, his uncle was the first American officer killed in the Spanish-American war. According to the Independent, this background was typical for those joining the Agency in its early years. Bagley spent his youth in France, California, Washington and Hawaii.

While studying at Princeton, Bagley left to join the Marine Corps during WWII. After the war, he graduated with a degree in Political Science from the  University of Southern California, and later, a doctorate in Geneva at the Graduate Institute of International and Development Studies.

Listen to Bagley‘s 2007 Spy Wars interview for the Yale Press Podcast

The C.I.A. recruited Bagley while the Agency was still in its early years and he rose quickly through its ranks. First serving in occupied Vienna, Bagley moved to working in counterintelligence against the Soviet Bloc and the KGB in the 1960s. He rose to deputy chief of the Soviet bloc division.


Bagley met Yuri Nosenko, a Russian KGB officer who was offering to help the Americans, in a Geneva safehouse in 1962. He was tasked to be his chief handler as Nosenko provided information. The case would soon grow increasingly complex as Bagley and James Angleton, the Agency’s  counter-intelligence chief, began to doubt Nosenko’s story. It appeared to Bagley that Nosenko was part of an elaborate plot of misdirection, intended to tie up the Agency’s resources.

Spy Wars, published by Yale Press in 2007, tells this fascinating and complex story as well as exploring the inner workings of espionage and what it means for the intelligence community. It was chosen by the American Library Association as one of “The Best of the Best from the University Presses: Books You Should Know About,” and by William Safire in the New York Times to be the publishing sleeper-seller of the year for 2007.

Bagley is survived by his wife Maria of 58 years, three children, a brother, and five grandchildren.

On the Anniversary of the Iraq War

On March 20, 2003, coalition forces led by the United States and the United Kingdom invaded Iraq in what is still seen as a highly controversial decision made by the United States and its allies to “end the regime of Saddam Hussein” and to eliminate what were allegedly weapons of mass destruction in the possession of the Iraqi government.   On May 1 2003, President George W. Bush delivered his “Mission Accomplished” speech proclaiming the end of major combat operations in the war. Instead, it was only the beginning of the insurgency that has lasted to this day.

Read Pete Mansoor’s Reddit AMA


Surge: My Journey with General David Petraeus and the Remaking of the Iraq War

Retired US Army colonel Peter Mansoor, author of Yale University Press titles Baghdad at Sunrise and Surge: My Journey with General David Petraeus and the Remaking of the Iraq War, formerly served as executive officer to Petraeus, who was commander of Multi-National Force-Iraq from 2007 – 2008.  But Mansoor is an educator, too; currently he holds the position as General Raymond E. Mason, Jr., Chair of Military History at Ohio State University In writing Surge, he observes:

The misinformation and ignorance—among the general public, in the historical community, within the halls of government, and even in the military—about why the surge in Iraq succeeded is somewhat disheartening. Indeed, a number of pundits still refuse to admit that the surge had anything to do with the reduction of violence in Iraq. The American people need a more comprehensive account of the Iraq War during the years of the surge, one written from the inside perspective of a member of General Petraeus’s team.

Using newly declassified documents—including Petraeus’s own papers— unpublished manuscripts, interviews, author notes, and published sources, Mansoor‘s account of the 2007-2008 surge is the first to fully address not only insider events and knowledge alongside journalistic reporting in the media, but also information presented in the body of literature recently published on the topic of the Bush administration’s handling of the war. The results of Mansoor’s “perspective that time alone can provide” are synthesized in the book, and in fascinating detail he tells the on-the-ground story of what might yet become one of the most famous turning points in American military history. Watch our video trailer with the author and get started on the withdrawal from misinformed status.


The Urban Singles Comedy and Public Diplomacy

Preview the book and learn more on the Through a Screen Darkly website!


As a form of light popular entertainment, television sitcoms such as the hugely successful Friends, which depicts the lives of six young, singles Manhattanites, appear to be unlikely candidates for ambassadors of American culture. In Through a Screen Darkly: Popular Culture, Public Diplomacy, and America’s Image Abroad, Martha Bayles illustrates the transformation of entertainment and popular culture into the primary form of American public diplomacy after the Cold War and highlights the resulting distortion of the American image abroad. According to Bayles, the television genre of “urban singles comedy” exemplifies the disjunction between the American image and its reality that is created by boundless exportation of American popular culture. In the chapter “The American Way of Sex,” she establishes the far reach and global viewership of American shows like Friends:

When I started my research, Friends was not uppermost in my mind. But the more I traveled, the more I saw the extent of its global appeal. The producer of Friends, Warner Brothers, estimates that the program has been telecast in 135 countries and “key territories,” reaching an average of fourteen million viewers per telecast. And these figures are only for the lucrative markets of Europe, Australia, and East Asia. They do not include a host of other countries where Friends is carried by satellite and terrestrial channels. Nor do they reflect the incalculable distribution of Friends via illegal downloads and pirated VCDs. When pressed, they estimated that the total number of “hits” (individual viewings of a single episode) was in the neighborhood of seventeen billion!

Bayles’s interviewees attribute two reasons for Friends’s (and the urban singles comedy’s) international appeal and staggering popularity. The first reason is “the sheer display of affluence,” or “eye candy,” in the sitcom’s representation of Manhattan as an opulent world consisting only of sophisticated, white individuals and fashionable business establishments. The second reason is “titillation” over the fictional sexual situations enacted onscreen. But Bayles also reveals that the most important reason – and the one most often cited to her by young people overseas – is the urban singles comedy’s portrayal of the seemingly seductive “sweet spot” between living with family and getting married, during which young, single men and women live in “pleasant urban settings with a comfortable income, a huge amount of personal freedom, and little to no contact with their families or communities of origin.” At the same time, she observes, regardless of appearing on Friends, Sex and the City, or Desperate Housewives, the fictional inhabitants of this “sweet spot” are isolated from the rest of society. Even when they venture out, the relationships they form with those outside their own established circles inevitably fail after a number of episodes. Encounters with parents or older characters are rare. Long-term commitment is but a distant possibility. Despite the glamorousness and provocativeness of these characters, they lead profoundly limited lives trapped within this “sweet spot.”

The problem with this, Bayles argues, is that while American viewers probably realize that television comedies offer a skewed version of American life to entertain and make a point, foreign viewers who have met few (if any) Americans are less likely to perceive the distinction between American comedy and reality:

To Americans, the urban singles comedy draws a more or less amusing caricature of life in the sweet spot. To others – not media officials in China, but millions of ordinary men and women – this caricatured aspect is harder to discern. Without a doubt, foreigners enjoy watching the erotic shenanigans of Americans on television. But their enjoyment is tinged with a voyeurism that should give us pause. Are they laughing at Americans as fellow human beings, struggling in all our comic frailty to achieve a more equitable path to commitment and generativity? Or are they laughing at alien, even grotesque creatures who refuse to acknowledge any sexual good beyond pleasure?

Remembering Barry Rubin

Barry Rubin (1950 – 2014), author, scholar, journalist and political analyst, passed away on February 3, 2014 after an 18-month battle with cancer. He was 64. Rubin was an expert on the Middle East and issues related to terrorism.Barry Rubin

Rubin earned his Ph.D. in Middle East studies from Georgetown University in 1978. Based in Tel Aviv, Rubin directed the Global Research in International Affairs Center, and served as editor of the Middle East Review of International Affairs Journal.

Rubin’s output was prolific, writing and editing dozens of volumes in addition to penning columns, frequently to the Jerusalem Post, and a regularly with his “Rubin Reports” column for PJ Media. Rubin’s academic credentials are also impressive: a Fulbright fellow, Rubin held teaching positions throughout this career at the American University, Bar-Ilan University, Georgetown University, the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies, Tel Aviv University and other institutions.

Nazis, Islamists, and the Making of the Modern Middle EastBarry Rubin’s most recent book, Nazis, Islamists, and the Making of the Modern Middle East, was recently published by Yale University Press on February 25. In this book, Rubin and Wolfgang G. Schwanitz investigate the little-known alliance during the second World War between Nazi leaders, Arab nationalists, and Muslim religious authorities. Jeffrey Herf of University of Maryland praised the book, writing, “This book presents an abundance of previously un- or under examined material. It is most impressive and greatly advances our knowledge.”

Israel: An IntroductionRubin’s first book with YUP was Israel: An Introduction, in 2012, which Rubin edited and to which he contributed.  In the book, he set out to give a history of modern Israel in overview from its geography, economy, and to the culture found among its people. Designed for people new to the topic, Sol Sokol of the Jerusalem Post called the book, “a great accomplishment. “The comprehensive look Rubin takes at everything from the political to the social, religious and cultural (the changing role of women in literature comes to mind) stands out as introducing Israel anew to even those who thought they understood the country.”

Rubin is survived by two children, and his wife Judith Colp Rubin. He is warmly remembered, as this tribute in the Jerusalem Post attests.

From the Sky: Images of The First World War

9780300196580The Great War Seen from the Air in Flanders Field, 1914-1918a monumental publication we are pleased to distribute on behalf of our Belgian colleagues at Mercatorfonds, gathers a wealth of meticulous research and carefully curated images – more than 500 images, culled from an archive of over 20,000 to provide the most comprehensive overview of aerial photography during the First World War. The eye-opening book features clear and detailed annotations throughout and striking overlays that provide multiple ways of understanding the scene.

Taken together, this constitutes a far more nuanced account than the straightforward use of aerial photographs as illustrations of “before” and “after” the conflict. As the introduction notes, these images are deeply human:

“Although aerial photography may appear at first glance to be ‘devoid of detail’, stripped of any human presence, on closer inspection they reveal a complete overview of human activity in a war; what we see is invariably the record of humanity at work.”

The line of a trench and a row of craters can tell a haunting story. Each photographs represents one moment in time at one location from a war spanning years and continents. From an aerial landscape we find military strategy, environmental destruction, and insight into the kinds of decisions leaders make in the face of war.


From Case 43

Case43_smThis is an image of Hooge, which was overtaken by German forces in 1916. In 1917, the British implemented a series of mine detonations and artillery fire as they advanced from Ypres Salient toward the coast. The Third Battle of Ypres was imminent, and this photograph shows a newly dug trench on the British side amid a cratered terrain.


From Case 46

Case46_smLikely taken by Australian war photographer Frank Hurley or his assistant Hubert Wilkins, this image shows Ypres’ town centre in September 1917. Visible are Dutch infantry barracks, and Ypres Reservoir Cemetery. In The Great War Seen from the Air in Flanders Field, 1914-1918, this image is set against even more detailed shots of the same location.


From Case 54

Case54_smTrenches and bunkers crowd the western bank at Dries Grachten. A French outpost captured by the Germans, this is where Yprse-Yser canal, the Ieperlee and the Martjesvaart meet. This photograph was taken on 29 July, 1917, before the Third Battle of Ypres, and is a witness to the preparatory bombardments in anticipation of the conflict.


From Case 91

Case91_smThe town of Dikmunde, almost destroyed in 1918. Due to the intensity of the bombardments, German bunkers which were concealed within ruined houses are now seen.


From Case 93

Case93_smThis photograph depicts the feat of aerial photography itself over enemy territory. We see a Belgian Breguet 14 photographed above Kortekeer in 1918. ”They took photographs from an open cockpit,” the book explains. “The exposure had to be set manually and after every shot the glass negative had to be replaced and stored away. Meanwhile, the observer photographer combed the skies for enemy planes looking for observation planes to shoot down.”


Jean Bourgeois of Ghent University explains how we can begin to comprehend the place of these images in our understanding of history. Bourgeois writes in the preface:

“Everywhere in the world landscapes tend to develop and change to the rhythm of the decades, centuries, and even millennia. Here four years sufficed. Unimaginable. And if our minds can also visualize in this landscape living beings, allies, or enemies, civilians or military, the idea of war becomes even more of a nightmare.”