The airplane has totally changed the nature of warfare. It has almost eliminated the element of surprise, by rendering impossible that secrecy which formerly protected the accumulation of stores, or the gathering of forces for the attack, a flanking movement or a "strategic retreat." To the side having command of the air the plans and activities of the enemy are an open book. It is true that more is heard of combats between planes than of the routine task of collecting information, and the public mind is more apt to be impressed by the fighting and bombing aspects of aerial warfare. Nevertheless, the fact remains that the chief use of the airplane in war is reconnaissance. The airplane is "the eye of the army".
In the early days of the war, observation was visual. It was the task of the observer in the plane to sketch the outlines of trenches, to count the vehicles in a transport train, to estimate the numbers of marching men, to record the guns in an artillery emplacement and to form an idea of their size. But the capacity of the eye for including and studying all the objects in a large area, particularly when moving at high speed, was soon found to be quite too small to properly utilize the time and opportunities available in the air. Moreover, the constant watching of the sky for the "Hun in the sun" distracted the observer time and time again from attention to the earth below. Very early in the war, therefore, men's minds turned to photography. The all-seeing and recording eye of the camera took the place of the observer in every kind of work except artillery fire control and similar problems which require immediate communication between plane and earth.
The volume of work done by the photographic sections of the military air service steadily increased until toward the end of the war it became truly enormous. The aerial negatives made per month in the British service alone mounted into the scores of thousands, and the prints distributed in the same period numbered in the neighborhood of a million. The task of interpreting aerial photographs became a highly specialized study. An entirely new activity —that of making photographic mosaic maps and of maintaining them correct from day to day—usurped first place among topographic problems. By the close of the war scarcely a single military operation was undertaken without the preliminary of aerial photographic information. Photography was depended on to discover the objectives for artillery and bombing, and to record the results of the subsequent "shoots" and bomb explosions. The exact configurations of front, second, third line and communicating trenches, the machine gun and mortar positions, the "pill boxes," the organized shell holes, the listening posts, and the barbed wire, were all revealed, studied and attacked entirely on the evidence of the airplane camera. Toward the end of the war important troop movements were possible only under the cover of darkness, while the development of high intensity flashlights threatened to expose even these to pitiless publicity.