Now all roads lead to France and heavy is the tread
Of the living; but the dead returning lightly dance.
Edward Thomas, Roads

Sunday, January 9, 2022

Aerial Reconnaissance Over Germany: 1914

 By Terrence J. Finnegan

Aviation’s permanent image from the 1914 battle ground was a dove (Taube) shaped aeroplane like the one aloft at the Deutsches Museum in Munich.

Without doubt, the aeroplane–newly arrived to modern warfare–contributed significantly to how armies conducted themselves on the vast plains of Eastern Europe. As the opening campaigns unfolded in East Prussia, Russian Poland, and k.u.k. Galicia, commanders grudgingly began accepting aerial reconnaissance reporting. Other new technologies such as wireless and the ability to intercept the signal gained equal stature with them. One challenge in understanding this time is that, in the minds of many historians and researchers, the wireless intercept was the key intelligence source making the ultimate difference in battles such as Tannenberg.

Taking a more inclusive view, our new series, Shooting the Front: Eastern Operations, sets out to incorporate aviation's role for Germany, Austria-Hungary, and Russia over the Eastern Front from August 1914 to the Brest-Litovsk Treaty of March 1918 and subsequent occupation until the final Armistice of November 1918. Volume I describes in detail what role aviation played over the Northwest Front involving the German 8. Armee facing the invading Russian First Army and Second Army, culminating in the battles of Tannenberg and the Masurian Lakes.

Aerial reconnaissance was the central purpose of aviation when the Great War commenced. The evolving technology provided combatants with a vital capability to timely assess and evaluate the terrain that an adversary held. Such was the Eastern Front–an area so vast that it dwarfed anything that the Western Front experienced. In many ways, aviation proved the most rewarding resource in support of all combatants' maneuvers. Aviation's success in the first weeks of the war clearly substantiated its role for decision-makers on the German side. Germany's Fliegertruppe (Air Service) did a better job employing vital aviation resources in the Northwest Front opposite poor execution by the Russian adversaries.

Germany’s aviation assets in July 1914 were fully in place throughout the nation and able to respond to the campaigns that followed (Click on Image to Enlarge Chart)

Ironically, technological advances in aviation favored Russia thanks to Il'ya Muromets four-engined aeroplanes. Yet this indigenous design could not be produced in quantity to make a difference until almost a year into the war. Unfortunately for the Russians, the Northwest Front did not see the aeroplane's potential in 1914. The future Il'ya Muromets legacy established in 1915 made strategic aerial reconnaissance and complementary aerial bombardment a nascent fixture for the entire Eastern Front. With the commencement of hostilities, the Imperial Russian Air Fleet (IRAF) faced modern-day challenges deploying forces and establishing the proper logistic tail to support them. Russian army commanders were responsible for aviation assets and it quickly became apparent that sustaining the aerial reconnaissance force required as much if not more attention than traditional cavalry did. The home-field advantage played an important role at Tannenberg. Russian KAOs [small squadron equivalents] supporting Russian First Army and Russian Second Army suffered extensive attrition as they were cut off from a vital logistic tail. Attrition meant the loss of vital information to Russian commanders–a loss that resulted in catastrophe. Attempts to improvise met with challenges of priorities as needs for maintenance and parts for the Russian inventory of French-designed aeroplanes overwhelmed available transport–particularly as the Russian First Army and Russian Second Army entered East Prussia. Had General ot kavalerii Rennenkampf and General ot kavalerii Samsonov employed aviation effectively, they could have exploited the dangerous gaps created by General der Infanterie von François and maneuvered forces with satisfactory results.

The battle of Tannenberg clearly demonstrated to the German command that Fliegertruppe aviation played an enormous role in the victory. Research confirms that those commanders who trusted aviation, for the most part, were rewarded with decisive movements such as General der Infanterie von François's picket line to the south cutting off the Russian retreat. The Germans did possess the advantage from the start, since aerial operations were almost exclusively flown over the East Prussian homeland– an area known to most of the German pilots. Germany's Fliegertruppe aerial reconnaissance gave 8. Armee commanders throughout the campaign the most comprehensive and accurate picture of the battle in progress. When battle came, aerial observers became critical for applying visual confirmation and reporting in a timely manner. German attention to detail made daily operations function to the advantage of a rapidly evolving battleground. German commanders became dependent on what aviators provided. Time-sensitive reporting became standardized, carried out with appropriate urgency to affect German divisions in motion. The envelopment of the Russian 2nd Army succeeded thanks to the eyes of the aviators.

A testament to the technological leap of the Il’ya Muromets in 1914 – the aircrew could walk around on top of the cabin while the aeroplane flew.

German commanders also took advantage of wireless intercepts of Russian transmissions. Wireless intercepts gave the first indications, with aerial observation confirming or discarding the intelligence lead. Winston Churchill contributed greatly to the prevailing 20th-century view that intercepts of wireless transmissions were the decisive measure that decided the fate of the General ot kavalerii Samsonov's Russian Second Army. Most notably as Churchill summed up with his customary eloquence in seven words, "This is the way to make war." Wireless intercepts rightly received accolades, but at Tannenberg aerial reconnaissance confirmed the intelligence and ensured 8. Armee's annihilation of Samsonov's army.

It is appropriate that Generaloberst von Hindenburg gave credence with his definitive utterance of crediting aviation's accomplishments, "Ohne Flieger kein Tannenberg!" ["Without flyers, no Tannenberg!"]. That sums up one of the most important battles of the 20th century and the subsequent campaigns on the Eastern Front.

Shooting the Front: Eastern Operations, Volume I, is now with the publisher and should be finished in early 2022. Terry Finnegan’s website,, is the URL for updates on publishing as well as a major source for many photos, maps, and other data supporting the work. Please note that the two fellow authors, Helmut Jäger [the world’s authority on German aerial cameras of World War I, whose access to a wealth of Reichsarchiv sources is beyond anything imaginable] and Carl J. Bobrow [a leading authority on Russian aviation in World War I, possessing the best network of contacts in Russia, particularly with the “Rossiyskiy gosudarstvennyy voyenno-istoricheskiy arkhiv” (RGVIA Russian State Military Archive)], have uncovered research that will treat historians and enthusiasts to the most definitive discussion of aviation over the Eastern Front to date. Feel free to contact Terry at for additional information on the four-volume series.

Originally presented in the September 2019 St. Mihiel Trip-Wire.

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