Aerial Photographs

Aerial Photography of the Western Front. A road road cutting through fields with shell craters all around.
© IWM (BOX 133-109-21AE-28H-1917)

In early 2019, IWM’s curatorial team received a request to view aerial photographs from the First World War for an undisclosed project.

During that conflict, aerial photographs were taken on reconnaissance flights over the Western Front and pieced together to make large ‘mosaics’. These ‘mosaics’ could then be used to update trench maps, see new German defences and logistic routes and were vital intelligence in planning operations.

Under the tutorage of Alan Wakefield, Imperial War Museums’ Head of First World War and Early 20th Century, access was arranged at IWM Duxford where a large proportion of the archive is stored.

Attention to detail

An IWM curator examines a book from the collection

Initially unbeknownst to Alan, the research was being conducted to authentically recreate these ‘mosaics’ for an upcoming feature film. In the opening scenes of Sam Mendes’ First World War epic, 1917, General Erinmore, played by Colin Firth, can be seen using the ‘mosaics’ in planning an operation on the Western Front.

'I was impressed with the level of attention to detail taken for a short scene in the film to make it as authentic as possible’ Alan remarked.

IWM’s extensive collections contain some 11 million photographs, 23,000 hours of film, 33,000 hours of sound recordings, 20,000 paintings, posters and drawings and 155,000 three-dimensional objects. The collections can be navigated with the help of our experienced curatorial team and provide fantastic insight for projects concerning twentieth and twenty-first-century conflicts.

Sir Sam Mendes, writer Krysty Wilson-Cairns and actor George MacKay also came to IWM to read several letters and diaries from the period and visit IWM’s award-winning First World War Galleries.

‘When I saw the film I was able to recognise a number of first-hand accounts from letters and diaries in our collection’ recalled Alan.

The Actors

George Mackay: We did loads of research. I think like first and foremost day any character or at least for myself I think you kind of understand it via it yourself and then it's about filling your brain and everything else with the context around it to kind of work out how you how you would act in that or they would act in that world. So we came to the Imperial War Museum we were there's so much amazing literature. We went to the war sites and graves and monuments, and museums in France and we went to eat in Belgium. We did military training every day so because we were rehearsing the film for about six months before we started and the beginning of each day was with our military advisers, pulpitis and the armory team, Jason, Joss and just getting our hands around all the gear. So it was a kind of constant gradual you know a gradual, just bit-by-bit just piecing it together constantly. The war poets was a way into it because the situation was so surreal I think, there's just there's so much that you can that you can learn and not just saying but the Imperial War Museum, it's the best place to start,

Dean-Charles Chapman: That's the first place I went. Literally, wake up, found out I got the part, went straight there, and I've never been there before so I was always excited to go and in that First World War section as well really, I went there the other day again like when we was there yesterday, so loved the Imperial War Museum. So good, you know, and I read a book called the Western Front Diaries, which is snippets of diary entries of the soldiers, and I actually found that my great-great-grandfather had a diary entry in that book, so I read that.

Dennis Gassner the production designer, who created the sets of the film, and you know Sam, the director, had a very clear vision of what the story we were telling. and you know it was very immersive on set. let alone watching it. and everything felt real you know none of it felt like a movie set or plastic you know. They were real trenches actually dug into the floor, you know and then when you put extras in costume and fill the trench up with hundreds of men and you look down that trench and it's raining and the atmosphere is how it would have been, the conditions are terrible, it touches you, it gives you a bit of a reality check, and you know you realize how good you've got it today. Yeah but you know once you put the gear on and you'd step in the trench, you instantly just were in that mindset, it was easy to switch it on.


George Mackay: Trying to understand the experience personally, via kind of personal accounts, listening and reading personal accounts, and then playing these soldiers ourselves, it puts into perspective the scale of the loss of life, because once you sort of start to understand it on a more personal level, you then, when you consider it was millions, that's that has kind of has never hit home quite in the same way. I think I've been shocked by the numbers but it's been a number, it's not been, I've not attached it, I've not had an understanding or insight into the personal loss, so that was a real kind of awakening.

Film: "They're walking into a trap. Your orders are to deliver a message calling off tomorrow morning's attack".

Dean-Charles Chapman: I mean first I think it's important to sort of learn from you know, human history and you know correct ourselves as we go along in history and learn from the mistakes and the good things and the bad things but, you know, those men that fought in that war literally sacrificed everything. They had and you know the more you look into the First World War it just makes you want to cry, just talking about it you know, and I think that's one thing I hope people take away from watching the film is that I hope it sort of inspires them to look at their own ancestors' history.

The film’s stars and director can be heard in the clips below reflecting on how they researched the project, including their visits to IWM.

The Director

Sam Mendes: I suppose it was based on these stories my grandfather told me and one of them just wouldn't let me go, and I just feel like this war has always been sort of affected me since he told me these stories and I wanted to go back in and tell the story of two men who could have been two amongst two million, until somehow the worm's-eye view of just a brief moment in a war for them and through this keyhole show the vastness of that landscape of destruction that was the Great War.

The whole Imperial War Museum archive is a remarkable resource and we used it to the fullest extent, because this particular war the truth of the war resides in first-person accounts, letters, interviews and things like that and so, so much of it was inspired by those voices and you know it's impossible to articulate how important that whole thing was for this film, I don't think it could have existed in this way. So many tiny incidents are remarked on come from first-person accounts but not just that
photo photographs, you know, details that you know the movie is trying to not slavishly and dryly but make this period live again and it's details and textures and trying to find new ways to express what happened there that is gonna make it live.

I mean it's over a hundred years now since the Great War ended and it still throws a big shadow. You walk into any village or town and the UK and there's the memorial to the fallen of the first war and you know we wear our poppies on Remembrance Day and all of those things, but I think there's a danger that it becomes more and more distant and it seems less and less relevant and for me you know I made the movie in a way that wants an audience to feel like it happened yesterday. It's a contemporary film, you know, it's made with all the contemporary bells and whistles of a big movie and and obviously I hope that this somehow enriches people's understanding of what these men went through because it was extraordinary and terrible.

Flm: "Mike. Pick a man bring your kit".

Sam Mendes: I wanted to feel locked together with these characters so you live every moment with them, the seconds tick by in this race against time and you begin unconsciously to realize you can't escape from that, and it's only two hours of real-time but you know through those tiny little keyhole you can see something of the scale of it all as well, and that feeling of you just know that there's no escape, I think that was very important part of the film.

IWM London was also used by production company, Entertainment One, to host a press conference with the cast and crew of the First World War epic, including Director and Writer Sam Mendes, Cinematographer Roger Deakins, and Producer Pippa Harris.

Fifty national and international press were in attendance, including journalists from The Times, the Guardian and Press Association.

The writer

To get the story right, you know, and to be believable and to pay tribute to the men who fought and died in that war, I needed to read all the first-hand accounts I could. I spent a lot of time kind of online and I'd actually read in books that people who'd access your collection as well, so it was very circular, everything came back to the Imperial War Museum, and even a lot of the films and documentaries I read came back to the Imperial War Musem, like They Shall Not Grow Old and everything as well which you guys did thank you very much for that. 

I spent a huge amount of time in your reading rooms, I am leafing through the diaries, a lot online, and actually just going through your collection here at your First World War exhibits is massively moving, so the Imperial War Museum collection played a huge role in this it was absolutely vital to me. When you read those first hand accounts some of them are very, just, this happened, this happened, this happened, but then every so often you find the poet, do you know I mean, you find someone who is just a connection to you in a way that it's not familial or necessarily about something with someone from Glasgow, something like someone with the same birthday as you and it brings it home in a really powerful way. The fact that everything's there at your fingertips it's so useful.

There was a lot of surprise and stuff, I think I think the more surprising thing throughout my research was the triumph of the human spirit. You think, when you think about the war, how did, for four years, 10 million men murder each other and sink into mud and no one go mad or say stop, and when you read the first hand accounts you realise they didn't do it for king and country, they did it for the men next to them, they did it for their wives and their daughters and their sons at home, they did it for their family.

There are a few things more important than understanding your history. The only way that we can move forward as a civilisation is to understand the huge colossal mistakes we made and World War One was a human catastrophe. It was a flood of unbelievable proportions. If you go to northern France and you drive down a mile of road you will pass four cemeteries filled with the young men who died for inches. To understand that, to remember that as a civilization, and to know that war shouldn't even be the last resort, it shouldn't be a resort, that it is despicable, the people should never ever partake in it, it's so important. The fact that it's now passed out of living memory, there no there are no survivors of the war left because we're a hundred years later, it's now more important ever, is it's no longer the veterans' burden to tell the story, it's our burden to go and learn that story, to understand that story. You know 1917 is the First World War was mainly fighting for a free and united Europe and a united Europe is in threat again, do you know I mean, at any point our world can fall back into the catastrophe of war. Go and read about what these men lived through, politicians, everyone, you know kids from age three and up, should be known about that so that we really understand that this is stupid, we shouldn't do it. It's not an accident that 1917 is a story about two men carrying a message to stop a battle, that was very much designed by Sam and I, by everyone involved. It's not pro-war, it's not about, kind of like, hey fights solves differences.

Krysty Wilson-Cairns spent ‘a huge amount of time’ reading personal accounts of the First World War while researching the script for the film 1917, which she co-wrote with Sam Mendes.

She visited IWM London to review documents and visit the First World War Galleries, explaining:  ‘To get this story right and to be believable and to pay tribute to the men who fought and died in that war, I needed to read all the first-hand accounts I could.’

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