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Aerial photography and Operation Borderland, 28 June 1918

Image of Vertical aerial photograph of 27.SE. (west of Vieux Berquin, Nord, France), 5 June 1918 (Ref: WDL/G/21)
Vertical aerial photograph of 27.SE. (west of Vieux Berquin, Nord, France), 5 June 1918 (Ref: WDL/G/21)

The First World War was a conflict that involved enormous technological advances, very much contrary to the popular view which tends to view it as four years of static trench warfare and slaughter. Aerial photography advanced massively, as did the aircraft that carried the cameras, and by 1918 thousands of photographs were produced daily and used to draw and update maps and to plan operations on the ground. In 1915 British topographical surveyors had set up a grid covering the whole of the British sector of the Western Front. The vertical photograph seen here covers parts of square 27.SE. and was taken by a reconnaissance aircraft of the newly formed Royal Air Force on 5 June 1918. The area seen is west of the village of Vieux Berquin not far from Merville in northern France. This area had not been fought over until the British Army was driven back by the huge German offensive of April 1918 codenamed Georgette. It is amongst a sequence of photographs in the papers of former Durham University classics lecturer William Douglas Lowe who was the commanding officer of 18th Durham Light Infantry at this time.

The landscape shown in the photograph is very different from the heavily shelled wasteland of the Somme and Verdun battlefields of 1916 and 1917. There are no continuous, complicated trench lines snaking across the countryside; defences consisted of fortified farms and villages often defended by machine gun teams rather than large numbers of infantry. Positions were also protected by belts of barbed wire and the flat terrain gave good fields of fire where it was not obstructed by hedges. Field boundaries and roads are clearly visible and this is quite recognisably an agricultural landscape that had been farmed until recently.

At the end of June planning began for Operation Borderland, a complex attack intended to drive the the Germans back over the small stream called the Plat Becque which can be seen as a black line running across the top left of the photograph. The two buildings just below the stream were known as Ankle Farm and the Factory and formed the objective of 18 D.L.I. and 13 York and Lancaster Regiment. During the Michael and Georgette offensives of the spring, in common with the other battalions in 93 Brigade, 18 D.L.I. had been reduced to a couple of hundred men. Colonel Lowe was responsible for building the battalion back up to strength and making it into an effective fighting unit.

The attack opened at 00.30 a.m. on the night of 27/28 June 1918. British artillery was vastly more competent than it had been a year or two earlier and the barrage opened with no warning as the infantry left their trenches, targeting strongpoints and tracks pinpointed from the aerial photographs. A massive machine gun barrage prevented the Germans from reinforcing their front line whilst 18 D.L.I.’s Lewis gunners supported the attack with automatic fire. Two follow-up platoons of Durhams ejected the Germans from the factory buildings and inflicted heavy casualties on the retreating enemy as they ran back towards Vieux Berquin. As dawn broke another attack was launched by 15 West Yorkshire Regiment with 18 D.L.I. in support, catching the Germans by surprise, some of them being asleep in shell holes. By 08.00 93 Brigade had inflicted about 500 casualties and had secured all its objectives. This was a remarkable achievement by battalions that had been severely reduced both in numbers and expertise mere weeks before. The British Army had suffered huge casualties in the spring offensives but was now beginning to use infantry, artillery, tanks, armoured cars, aircraft, wireless, chemical weapons and cavalry welded into a force that delivered all arms attacks at a pace the Germans could not stop. Much of this depended on precise and swift planning by that much derided group, the staff officers, who engineered the biggest victory in British history, using such sources as the humble aerial photograph we see here.

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