The First World War from Above


The First World War from Above

The story of the Great War told from a unique new aerial perspective, featuring archive footage filmed from an airship and newly developed photographs taken by pilots.


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Transcript


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'This is the story of a remarkable journey

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'that began as the echo of the guns from the Great War died away.

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'A French pilot and his cameraman climbed into an airship

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'and flew over the Western Front.

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'They made this unique film

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'and captured with astonishing clarity the aftermath of devastating conflict.

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'90 years later, I'm retracing that journey,

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'flying on a rather safer airship over that very same landscape.

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'And visiting the battlegrounds where such terrible slaughter took place.'

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What would we have seen then?

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It would have been total devastation, very much like a lunar landscape,

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but with just the awfulness of modern war thrown in.

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'I'll also uncover another of World War One's secrets -

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'a collection of revolutionary aerial photographs.

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'They gave the generals a bird's-eye view of the battlefield.

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'Now these images can be brought to life using today's state-of-the-art technology.'

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Three, two, one...

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'And I'll be taking to the air in one of those flimsy early aircraft flown by those brave pilots.

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'Like most people, I've always imagined World War One from the ground.

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'But seeing it from the air will give me a totally new perspective.

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'The trench networks that ran for thousands of miles.

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'The epic destruction that the war left behind.

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'And the memory of millions advancing to their deaths.'

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The bullets are coming from this side and that side, so what you had to do

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was to walk through a stream of lead.

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'Above all, this is a story of human courage.

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'And my journey will end with an extraordinary encounter

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'when I meet the daughter of the airship pilot of 90 years ago.'

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What does it mean to you, seeing him like this?

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I couldn't expect seeing my father alive.

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'From the intimate to the truly epic,

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'here is the conflict in a way we thought we'd never see it -

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'the First World War from above.'

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Deep inside the vaults of the French army's film archives in Paris,

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a unique snapshot of our history has been unearthed.

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A 78-minute film which has spent nearly a century hidden from view.

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It follows the flight of an airship along the Western Front,

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the infamous battle line that divided the Allies and Germans during the First World War.

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The airship's pilot Jacques Trolley de Prevaux and his cameraman Lucien Le Saint captured a lost world

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just months after the end of the fighting.

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A city with its proud medieval cathedral reduced to ruins.

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Battlefields scarred with shell holes where men waited to die.

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And ghostly figures,

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people still holding their street market in front of their shattered homes.

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This breathtaking film isn't simply a record of the First World War.

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It's a showcase for two of the greatest inventions in modern times -

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flight and film.

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The First World War had brought about a revolution in the technology of the air and photography.

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What this footage represents is a marriage of the two

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to create a vision of the battlefield

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quite unlike anything that had ever been seen before.

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Over 90 years later, I'm about to look down

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on those former battlegrounds from a modern-day airship.

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I'll fly over the same landscape filmed in 1919

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to see what remains of the Western Front.

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This heavily defended line of trenches stretched for 400 miles

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from the English Channel down to the Swiss Alps.

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The French airship made a series of journeys along that front line.

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The story starts at Nieuport on the Belgian coast,

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a town just 50 miles across the Channel from England,

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but marking the most northerly point of the Western Front.

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Here in the early years of the war, the Belgians flooded the low-lying fields with sea water,

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slowing the German advance and pushing the enemy inland.

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After Nieuport, the airship flew down from the coast,

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its camera capturing some of the worst killing grounds of the war.

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One infamous combat zone was Chemin des Dames.

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This plateau in northern France lay between the German army and Paris

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and saw some of the fiercest fighting in the war.

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This footage shows French tanks lying abandoned in No Man's Land.

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And enormous trenches stretching as far as the eye can see.

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Today, there are very few trenches left in the former battlefields.

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This small area of woodland near Wytschaete in Belgium

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still contains part of the old German front line.

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I've come here with archaeologist Nick Saunders, an expert on trench warfare.

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How much protection was provided by these trenches? How safe could a soldier feel in here?

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Well, they could feel safe from horizontal shrapnel,

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but they certainly couldn't feel safe from a direct hit

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or indeed a hit on the other side which blew in vast amounts of earth on top and often buried people alive.

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-Why did they dig in a zig-zag pattern?

-This was basically for protection.

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They found out in the beginning of the war that when artillery shells landed,

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the blast effect near a trench could go all the way along a trench and kill half a dozen soldiers,

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so the basic idea of the design was a quick change to a zig-zag, so that only one or two or three got killed

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and the other three, four, five on the other side of the zig-zag were safe.

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We're in one tiny section of trench, but it was a vast network on both sides, wasn't it?

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Yeah, because you had the Allied trenches and these were mirrored on the other side by the Germans.

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And they have support trenches and communication trenches.

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So it just goes on and on and on.

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There are literally tens of thousands of miles of interconnected trenches

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from the English Channel to the Swiss border.

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Using exact details from Allied and German trench maps,

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we can re-create the scars that ran across the Western Front.

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An alien landscape of man-made furrows.

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Rat runs where men lived, fought and died.

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The trenches were not only photographed by the French airship in 1919.

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During the war, there had been another revolutionary way of looking at these vital communication lines.

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For the first time, commanders would no longer rely on the worm's eye view from the trenches.

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Now they could look down on enemy positions.

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Photography from aeroplanes would change warfare for ever.

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'Today, many of World War One's aerial photographs, the first ever taken,

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'are kept safe by the Imperial War Museum in their original wooden caskets.

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'Dave Parry, the museum's aerial photography expert,

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'has brought me to see these images known as the Box Collection.'

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Look at all of these.

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How many?

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In all, about 145,000 to 150,000 remaining.

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There were about half a million, but these are the only ones that survive.

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What were these pilots looking for as they were flying over the Western Front?

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What kind of material can we see in these incredibly heavy boxes?

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-LAUGHTER

-That is so...

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All right, here's one. Let's take a look at this. Wow, look at that!

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Now, what are we seeing here? What's all this?

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These look like trenches under construction.

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Because it's a negative, all the spoil which is thrown up by the trenches looks dark,

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-but it is in fact chalk.

-Chalky soil.

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-Chalky soil.

-In northern France.

-That's right.

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I'm trying to imagine the British commanders' reaction when the first box of these glass plates comes in

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and they see for the first time in the history of warfare an aerial photograph of the enemy.

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It must have been quite a moment.

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It's a revelation to them. They've never seen anything like this before.

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For the first time, they could see the depth of the defences,

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the number of machine-gun posts, trench mortars.

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It was all laid out for them with amazing clarity.

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I presume developing these must have been an incredibly primitive business,

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-given that the conditions are, to put it mildly, far from ideal.

-It was very difficult indeed.

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Very often, the members of the photo section were reduced to washing them in ditches by the sides of the roads.

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-And they've survived. It's our last link with these men and their flying machines.

-Indeed it is.

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These flying machines were another revolutionary part of the First World War.

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For the first time, men took war to the skies.

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And I've come to try out one of the original aircraft

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at the Shuttleworth Collection in Bedfordshire.

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During the war, more pilots died in training than in actual battle.

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Three, two, one, go!

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And the most dangerous part of all was take-off.

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If the engine cut before you got airborne,

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the plane simply drove itself and the pilot into the ground.

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This was an advanced aircraft for its time

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as it was built in 1917 towards the end of the war.

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Travelling in it today is petrifying.

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You really do get a sense of the risks taken by the pilots.

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Flying these planes over the Western Front was phenomenally dangerous.

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You had ground fire coming up, enemy fighters trying to hunt you down.

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These early pioneers of aerial photography were men of untold courage.

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It's extraordinary to think that when the First World War started,

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men had been flying for barely a decade.

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It was only in 1909

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that Frenchman Louis Bleriot had developed an aircraft good enough to fly across the English Channel.

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Just five years later in August 1914,

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four squadrons of Britain's Royal Flying Corps flew back across the Channel to France.

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This time, they were going to fight in the Great War against the Kaiser's men.

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Britain's first wartime aircraft were a ramshackle collection.

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The technology was new and unreliable.

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One plane had even crashed before it reached Dover, killing both of its crew.

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As for the men who made it to France,

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flying over the Western Front would carry even more danger.

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Now they were targets for German anti-aircraft fire.

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And as I come to the end of my flight today,

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I can begin to understand why the life expectancy for pilots was actually worse

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than for men in the trenches.

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Well, there we are, terra firma at last.

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What an extraordinary experience! You know what I felt up there?

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-The most amazing vulnerability.

-Very much so.

-And we were doing this on a beautiful summer's day.

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What was it like in winter with fire coming at you from every angle?

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What was it like for them?

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Well, they were a long way up.

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They operated over the front lines at over 12,000 feet,

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so it was cold, freezing cold.

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There would be fighters to contend with. There would be anti-aircraft fire.

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There were lots of things to contend with, as well as taking photographs.

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-Which must have been pretty cumbersome if you had to lean out of this aircraft that far up?

-Indeed.

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The camera was big. The air speed was high. You've just experienced it.

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Although it's an old aeroplane, we were travelling at 100mph,

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so to hold a camera over the edge steady enough to take a photograph of something 12,000 feet below you

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must have been hugely difficult.

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Despite their primitive and unwieldy cameras,

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the Royal Flying Corps managed to take hundreds of thousands of detailed photographs.

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The results of their work were invaluable for the British generals planning the war

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and 100 years later, these images still have stories to tell.

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Belgian archaeologist Birger Stichelbaut has been digging deeper into the aerial photographs.

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I think it's a major overlooked source. Nobody ever looked at the entity of world war photographs.

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Nobody ever looked at using them as a primary source of information.

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Many people who study World War One use trench maps.

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They look at perhaps some aerial photographs,

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but one mistake they make is they focus on the area of the battles,

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but much more happened 40, 50 kilometres behind the front line.

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This photograph taken over Diksmuide in Belgium shows

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how some German soldiers unwittingly gave away their position.

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The men's barracks were safely camouflaged under trees,

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but to relieve the boredom, the soldiers had been gardening.

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And to the British photographic experts, the German flower beds were clearly visible from above.

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Many of the officers or men on the ground didn't have an idea of how things look like from the air.

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On this photograph, we can see a lot of military barracks, in fact,

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but we can see that something else happened here.

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When we go to a detailed photograph of this...

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..we can see that these are the barracks

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and in fact, these are actually flower beds,

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flower beds that were constructed

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to make life in this camp more comfortable, to feel more at home.

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But the new technology of aerial photography was about to bring devastation to the German soldiers.

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Once the British commanders saw the flower beds,

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they uncovered the barracks and directed the big guns on to the position.

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The act of making flower beds really draws the attention towards the site.

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This is actually what happened a couple of months later.

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Around the area, we can see that the landscape is already peppered with these shell holes

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and a lot of the barracks have already been destroyed.

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The art of interpreting aerial photographs soon became highly developed in the war.

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As experts scrutinised each inch of the enemy front line,

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life on the ground would no longer be hidden.

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As the war progresses, you have aerial photography and it completely changes life

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for men in the trenches because now everything can be seen from above

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and there's much more accurate targeting.

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That's true, but as time went on, different sides decided that they could develop the idea of camouflage,

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so there was a lot of feint and counter-feinting going on here.

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And basically, it was much more developed, the systems were deeper, they were more organised,

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yet at the same time, the aerial photography from the other side enabled them to take camouflage.

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-Let me have a look. You've got some examples of aerial photography here.

-That's right.

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What do these patterns tell you about the experience of the men

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who lived and died in these trenches?

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I think it was chaotic and horrific.

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The trenches gave a lot of protection. It was partly psychological.

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But it was constantly trying to outwit the enemy,

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outthink the enemy, outdig the enemy.

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There's a German side, and on the British side, you were constantly finding new trenches being built,

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new connections being made to get troops from one place to another safely.

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So, for the ordinary soldier on the ground, there was a psychological dimension to the safety,

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particularly in a dugout, but in reality, at the end of the day,

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they had to get out of the trench and go across No Man's Land and that was just lethal.

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No Man's Land, the thin strip of ground separating the two armies,

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turned into a vision of hell after unceasing pounding by heavy artillery.

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Villages and towns were reduced to shells.

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And the French airship captured this destruction in intimate detail.

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Flying over Armentieres on the border between Belgium and France,

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pilot Jacques Trolley de Prevaux flew so close to the shattered church,

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he and his cameraman nearly came to grief.

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The two men filmed mile after mile of the ruined landscape.

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But there's one infamous battlefield you won't find in the footage -

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the Somme, the place where I'm heading now.

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In summer 1916,

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this 15-mile stretch of the Western Front would see the darkest days

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in the history of the British army.

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And the build-up to this epic battle was captured by tens of thousands of photographs

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of the German defences taken by British aerial photographers.

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Using these images, we can reconstruct a part of the German front line

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just days before the Battle of the Somme began.

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The photos show just how complex the German trenches had become.

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A network of interlocking lines and heavily defended redoubts.

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Crucially, the Germans also held the high ground,

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in some cases, just yards above the British positions.

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The attack was planned for the 1st of July.

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For seven long days before, there was a massive artillery barrage,

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an attempt to weaken the German defences.

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120,000 soldiers assembled in the front-line trenches,

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ready to go over the top.

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These men now sat waiting in the tense moments before the start of the battle.

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On the day of the battle, the pilots were out early,

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photographing the German front lines.

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18-year-old Cecil Lewis was one of those flying above the Somme that morning in July.

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Years later, he wrote about one of the most shocking things he'd witnessed -

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a massive explosion just moments before the attack began.

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"The earth heaved and flashed.

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"A tremendous and magnificent column rose up into the sky.

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"There was an ear-splitting roar,

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"drowning all the guns, flinging the machine sideways in the repercussing air.

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"Then the dust cleared.

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"The infantry were over the top.

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"The attack had begun."

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Up in the air, Lewis could have had no real idea of what was about to unfold.

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On the ground, as soon as the men climbed out of their trenches,

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the battle plan went catastrophically wrong.

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Historian Peter Barton is taking me across a stretch of No Man's Land at La Boisselle,

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one of the Somme's most notorious killing fields.

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We're just crossing the British front line now.

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You would have climbed out of a trench here to go into the attack across No Man's Land,

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so all those German front lines ahead of us would have been erupting day and night for a week

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and that filled everybody with a tremendous sense of confidence.

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You can see that in the testimony and letters. "We're going to do great things tomorrow." And...

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-Within seconds of getting... Many men didn't make it over the parapet.

-Yes, the Germans were prepared.

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The moment that barrage lifted, that was the signal for the Germans to start firing.

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Across this ground here, at the height of this wheat,

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they would fire their machine guns at the height of this wheat, so you were being cut down here.

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That's why you read so many accounts of people being cut down as if they're being scythed down.

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They were being scythed down. And the bullets were coming from this side and that side.

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So what you had to do was to walk through a stream of lead.

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And men kept going.

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I think that's what the...

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The thing that affects me so much is that the second wave would have seen what happened to the first wave.

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The third wave would have seen what happened to the second wave and on and on.

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One of the things which a lot of the accounts tell us is that whenever the firing stopped,

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men could suddenly hear the sound of skylarks and other birds.

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We can hear it now, what they would have heard.

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BIRDS SING That's right. There were little windows in that barrage.

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The birds just kept on singing.

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By the end of the first day of the Battle of the Somme,

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60,000 British soldiers had been killed or wounded.

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All but a handful of the attacks had failed

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and the slaughter would continue for another four months.

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By the time the battle ended in November 1916,

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there had been more than a million casualties.

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To this day, here in No Man's Land, they're still finding fragments of the lost

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like this button belonging to the tunic of a French soldier.

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A British private, J McCauley, who was assigned to bury the dead,

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remembered how for weeks afterwards the smell of decay lingered in his nostrils.

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"If only the world could see this," he wrote,

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"how nearer we would be to perpetual peace."

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McCauley must have known, of course, that he was writing more in hope than anticipation.

0:25:200:25:26

Today, it's hard to imagine

0:25:280:25:31

that this peaceful landscape was the scene of such terrible slaughter,

0:25:310:25:35

but inside this area of woodland, owned by a local French family,

0:25:350:25:39

the ground has been left pretty much as it was when the fighting stopped.

0:25:390:25:44

-What was in here?

-You're walking through a German communication trench,

0:25:450:25:51

leading to the front line up here.

0:25:510:25:53

-This path takes us up to the German front line from where they could easily have seen the British.

-Yeah.

0:25:530:25:59

At the top of this crest, you can see how close they were.

0:25:590:26:02

Here is your German front line along this crater's edge.

0:26:020:26:05

On the far crater's edge is the British front line, 35 metres away.

0:26:050:26:09

-They would've seen them very, very close.

-They could smell each other's cooking.

0:26:090:26:15

What's this down here?

0:26:160:26:18

It looks like a German shell. This is the most common shell that the Germans used.

0:26:180:26:23

-That's a large shell. Is that still live?

-It is, yeah.

0:26:230:26:27

It's been fired. You can tell by the band at the back of it.

0:26:270:26:30

The fuse is still on it, that is still live, so we don't kick it.

0:26:300:26:34

Let's move on.

0:26:340:26:36

Areas like this which, as you can see, there's craters within craters,

0:26:360:26:40

over 18 months of war, this ground has been thrown up in the air and landed back on top

0:26:400:26:46

and again and again and again,

0:26:460:26:48

and whoever was buried in here is still buried in here.

0:26:480:26:51

We know there are many Frenchmen beneath our feet, British and Germans,

0:26:510:26:56

so this is a mass grave that we're walking on and there's no way these men could ever be found.

0:26:560:27:01

-And there you have the dead.

-That's right.

0:27:010:27:04

And that's precisely why this family preserve this piece of ground on their behalf.

0:27:040:27:11

'One feature of the Battle of the Somme still stands out among the wheat fields -

0:27:170:27:23

'an immense crater right in the middle of what was once the German front line.

0:27:230:27:28

'This is a different part of the Somme story.

0:27:280:27:31

'The great explosion Cecil Lewis saw from the air

0:27:310:27:34

'was really a drama played out underground

0:27:340:27:37

'because it was on the Somme

0:27:370:27:40

'that the British High Command turned to an old form of warfare -

0:27:400:27:44

'tunnelling under the enemy and setting off enormous mines.'

0:27:440:27:48

To create this mine, what did they have to do?

0:27:480:27:52

They started tunnelling several hundred metres back in that direction, in the valley behind,

0:27:520:27:57

dug down to a depth of about 90, 95 feet, then went under No Man's Land to this point here,

0:27:570:28:03

planted the mine in two chambers,

0:28:030:28:06

and then blew it at a time given by the divisional commander.

0:28:060:28:09

What's it like when a man is digging or a group of men are digging their way towards the German lines?

0:28:090:28:15

The tunnelling war was a very particular kind of conflict.

0:28:150:28:20

It was private, it was secret, it was in tiny, constricted spaces

0:28:200:28:24

underneath No Man's Land, underneath the enemy lines.

0:28:240:28:27

You're either listening for the enemy coming your way and trying to destroy them underground

0:28:270:28:32

or you are trying to undermine his trenches.

0:28:320:28:35

The closer you get to the enemy, although you're 90 feet down, you have to be ever more quiet,

0:28:350:28:40

so by the time they've reached this spot, they'd pick out lumps of chalk with a bayonet

0:28:400:28:45

and catch them before they hit the ground, so they couldn't be heard by the Germans.

0:28:450:28:50

One of the strange things about this is although they're only working, digging with one candle,

0:28:500:28:55

they are surrounded by pure white chalk and they became snow-blind in these tunnels.

0:28:550:29:00

They had to be taken out of the tunnels until their vision came back again

0:29:000:29:05

and you'd go back in and it would happen all over again.

0:29:050:29:08

If you're tunnelling and you hear the enemy, how do you kill him if you can't see him?

0:29:080:29:14

Well, you can hear him tunnelling towards you.

0:29:140:29:17

What you do is, after his tunnel has got close enough to yours, you plant a charge in your tunnel,

0:29:170:29:23

block your tunnel off with sandbags and then blow that charge.

0:29:230:29:27

You either obliterate him or entomb him or gas him underground with gas from the explosion.

0:29:270:29:33

Those men are trapped down there. And if you got trapped underground,

0:29:330:29:38

your comrades would make every possible effort to find you.

0:29:380:29:42

If you are killed underground...

0:29:420:29:44

Try to imagine. Decay on the surface is bad enough, decay of the human body on the surface.

0:29:440:29:50

Trapped within a tunnel, deep under No Man's Land...

0:29:500:29:54

Tunnels are always dug on a slight upward angle for drainage purposes,

0:29:540:29:58

so the remains of that man would drain back towards the rescue team, if you know what I mean.

0:29:580:30:05

-So the blood would run through the chalk.

-One of the starkest images of warfare I've ever heard.

0:30:050:30:11

It's utterly unimaginable.

0:30:110:30:14

And anybody who was on top of this in the German positions, they were obliterated in an instant.

0:30:140:30:20

Vaporised, these men. Yeah.

0:30:200:30:22

As a result of the tunnelling, this mine and nine others exploded on the first day of the Somme.

0:30:240:30:30

This was a war of annihilation,

0:30:300:30:33

as seen in this Box Collection photograph.

0:30:330:30:36

The Somme proved that tunnelling could be devastatingly effective.

0:30:390:30:44

The British would escalate their use of mines in 1917 at Messines,

0:30:440:30:50

an area of high ground, stretching south from the most famous city on the Western Front, Ypres.

0:30:500:30:57

The story of Ypres in Belgium has come to symbolise the First World War's epic destruction.

0:31:000:31:06

Over the course of the war, the medieval city was pounded relentlessly by artillery fire.

0:31:090:31:16

Using data from aerial photographs, we can re-imagine those four long years of bombardment.

0:31:180:31:24

When the guns were at last quiet and the French airship flew over the city centre,

0:31:290:31:35

all that was left of this once-beautiful place were

0:31:350:31:38

the remains of its 13th-century cloth hall and cathedral.

0:31:380:31:43

Pilot Jacques Trolley de Prevaux waved down at people wandering through the ruins.

0:31:440:31:50

He then directed his airship towards the battlefields, beyond the city's medieval moat.

0:31:500:31:56

Today Ypres has been rebuilt in almost the exact image of what it once was.

0:32:030:32:09

Beyond the city, you can look down on the scene of a surprising British breakthrough.

0:32:100:32:16

The Messines Ridge is a line of villages stretching for nine miles,

0:32:180:32:23

on high ground that in 1917 was held by the Germans.

0:32:230:32:27

If you look today, there are 17 deep craters now filled with water.

0:32:270:32:32

These holes were all made within 30 seconds of each other, with huge amounts of high explosive,

0:32:330:32:39

450 tonnes of it planted right under the Germans' feet,

0:32:390:32:43

culmination of the biggest British tunnelling operation of the war.

0:32:430:32:49

These photos show the heavily-defended Messines Ridge before the start of the battle.

0:32:530:32:59

The audacious British plan was to dig tunnels for over a year

0:33:000:33:04

and place mines beneath the German lines.

0:33:040:33:07

The would all be detonated at three in the morning, shortly before the infantry attacked.

0:33:080:33:14

When the mines exploded, the enemy defences would be obliterated in an instant.

0:33:140:33:20

In the early hours of June 7th, 1917, a British general turned to his officers and said,

0:33:220:33:28

"Gentlemen, we may not make history, but we'll certainly change the geography." In fact, they did both.

0:33:280:33:35

The biggest explosion in the long, bloody story of warfare

0:33:350:33:40

ripped through this countryside.

0:33:400:33:42

Mankind came face to face with his own capacity for destruction.

0:33:420:33:48

One by one, the mines exploded, sending pillars of flame into the sky.

0:33:540:33:59

The explosions echoed across Western Europe, even rattling the teacups in Downing Street.

0:34:080:34:14

Two years later, the French airship filmed parts of this battlefield.

0:34:200:34:25

Pilot Jacques Trolley de Prevaux flew over Mont Kemmel,

0:34:270:34:30

the highest point overlooking the Battle of Messines.

0:34:300:34:34

Kemmel offered the perfect viewpoint for the British generals

0:34:370:34:41

to see if their tunnelling operation would work.

0:34:410:34:45

'At three in the morning on the day of the attack, the top brass gathered here to watch.'

0:34:450:34:52

There had been an artillery bombardment, so the Germans were pretty shaken up as it was,

0:34:520:34:58

but they had no idea of what was coming next.

0:34:580:35:02

No, they didn't. They knew that there was probably a battle coming

0:35:020:35:06

and they might have expected artillery and perhaps a mine or two,

0:35:060:35:10

but they had no idea there would be 19 mines in sequence. That would take them completely by surprise.

0:35:100:35:16

-That's one reason why the battle was such a success for the British.

-That crucial element of surprise.

0:35:160:35:22

-And this awesome explosive power.

-Yeah. And also, psychologically,

0:35:220:35:27

they saw the mines exploding and coming towards them,

0:35:270:35:31

so by the time you get down to the south, by Plug Street Wood,

0:35:310:35:35

-they'd had a chance to see and hear the others.

-In quick sequence.

0:35:350:35:39

-Just in a few seconds.

-There's nowhere to run.

-Nowhere to go.

0:35:390:35:44

By the time the last one went off,

0:35:440:35:47

the Germans around there were in complete shock. Totally paralysed.

0:35:470:35:51

They had never heard or seen anything like this before.

0:35:510:35:56

I read that the largest part of a German they found after these explosions was a foot in a boot.

0:35:560:36:02

I think that was true. A foot in a boot is probably what they found after the battle,

0:36:020:36:08

but when we do archaeology here, we find bits and pieces of humans no bigger than a fingernail clipping.

0:36:080:36:14

-Completely fragmented.

-Tiny pieces of bone.

-Yeah, miniscule fragments.

0:36:140:36:18

That's all that's left of the Germans who were underneath the mines.

0:36:180:36:22

To understand the underground attack on Messines, it's best to take to the air.

0:36:280:36:33

The craters left by 17 of the mines that exploded look today like pretty ponds on the landscape.

0:36:350:36:42

Until you think of how they were made.

0:36:450:36:48

Basically, we have three big craters here that have been reincorporated

0:36:490:36:54

into a rebuilt farm after the war.

0:36:540:36:57

They're now part of people's gardens. And this is the southernmost part of those mines.

0:36:570:37:03

They stretch up towards Ypres.

0:37:030:37:06

This big one over here. What's that? Is that from a mine?

0:37:080:37:12

That's almost certainly two mine craters

0:37:120:37:16

because of the huge size of these things. They've also been incorporated into modern buildings.

0:37:160:37:23

In fact, they've been incorporated into a golf course.

0:37:230:37:26

Quite extraordinary.

0:37:300:37:32

It's also something to bear in mind

0:37:330:37:36

that almost certainly there are many, many human remains at the bottom of these lakes.

0:37:360:37:42

So although they may be landscaped for a golf course or as part of somebody's garden,

0:37:420:37:47

if you dried them out and excavated them, you'd almost certainly find human remains.

0:37:470:37:53

'Below the craters, many of the tunnels are still there

0:37:580:38:02

'and relics of the underground war can be found across this region.

0:38:020:38:06

'Even today, solid ground can suddenly collapse,

0:38:060:38:10

'as one farmer's wife discovered to her terror.'

0:38:100:38:14

TRANSLATED: I'd finished cleaning the windows and was taking my ladder to the barn.

0:38:140:38:20

I looked down and I saw some weeds.

0:38:220:38:24

Right here.

0:38:250:38:27

So I came back to get my bucket,

0:38:290:38:31

but when I stepped here I fell down a hole.

0:38:310:38:35

It led into a network of tunnels, the roof of which was just three feet below the farm's foundations.

0:38:370:38:44

Waist-deep in the muddy water,

0:38:450:38:47

Simone Duleux had no idea of what had just happened or how she'd get out.

0:38:470:38:53

TRANSLATED: At first, I thought I'd fallen into a cesspit.

0:38:530:38:57

Then I had to wait an hour for my husband to get home.

0:38:570:39:01

I knew he wouldn't be out forever.

0:39:010:39:04

I was already in for a ticking off for staying out too long.

0:39:040:39:08

I had to look for her. I searched everywhere, even in the attic.

0:39:080:39:13

Then I changed into my normal clothes and went to look again.

0:39:130:39:17

While I was standing by the kitchen table, I looked out of the window and I saw her hand sticking out,

0:39:170:39:24

just her hand, that was all. She had her hand up like that.

0:39:240:39:28

Then, of course, I ran to find a ladder. I lowered that in and she was able to get out.

0:39:280:39:35

For the men who dug the tunnels, Messines was a stunning victory.

0:39:360:39:41

Once the mines had exploded, the British infantry easily overran the German trenches on the ridge.

0:39:410:39:47

After Messines, it seemed as if the stalemate was at last over.

0:39:490:39:54

The British commander General Haig told his men they were now to wear down the enemy's resistance.

0:39:540:40:00

But on the German side, General Erich Ludendorff ordered

0:40:000:40:04

that every piece of ground lost was to be retaken by ferocious counter-offensive.

0:40:040:40:10

It was that determination which created the mud and the slaughter of a place

0:40:100:40:16

whose name has become synonymous with the sacrifice of World War One.

0:40:160:40:20

Passchendaele.

0:40:200:40:22

The Battle of Passchendaele would be defined not by trenches or tunnels, but by weather.

0:40:240:40:30

The summer of 1917 was one of the wettest since records began.

0:40:310:40:36

The French airship would film a stretch of the Western Front

0:40:380:40:43

that had been turned into a sea of mud and blood.

0:40:430:40:47

During the fighting, men were as likely to drown as they were to be shot dead.

0:40:470:40:53

Today Passchendaele has returned to what it once was - a tranquil village in rural Belgium.

0:40:580:41:05

But the Box Collection photographs show how the fighting in World War One flattened everything here.

0:41:060:41:12

Britain and its allies fought for control of the village

0:41:120:41:16

in an attempt to outflank the German army.

0:41:160:41:20

After four months of shelling, Passchendaele was almost wiped off the map.

0:41:200:41:25

All that was left were the shattered ruins of the church.

0:41:250:41:29

'I've met up with the historian Nigel Steel to find out more about those aerial images.'

0:41:300:41:37

-The photographs tell a huge amount of the story.

-Yes.

0:41:370:41:41

We can learn a lot by looking at the sequences you can find.

0:41:410:41:45

This is a nice example here.

0:41:450:41:48

This is a photograph taken before the battle begins. It shows Passchendaele.

0:41:480:41:53

You can see the roads from Zonnebeke, going around the top.

0:41:530:41:57

You can just see the church in the middle of the village.

0:41:570:42:01

And when the battle reaches the top of the ridge and washes over it,

0:42:010:42:06

-it becomes something almost inconceivable.

-Good lord!

0:42:060:42:10

-That is extraordinary.

-This is something you only see from the air.

0:42:100:42:15

You can still see - just - the shape of the road, the remains of the church that sits in the middle.

0:42:150:42:21

Everything else obliterated.

0:42:210:42:24

-And everywhere these shell craters filled with water. In which men drowned.

-That's right.

0:42:240:42:30

Carry any weight of equipment, you'd go down. If you fell into it, often you'd drown, get sucked down.

0:42:300:42:37

It was like crossing quicksand.

0:42:370:42:39

How many lives did it take to capture small pieces of ground? If you wanted to advance a mile?

0:42:390:42:46

Well, over the course of the battle,

0:42:460:42:48

275,000 casualties are thrown up as a result of moving from the start line to the top of the ridge.

0:42:480:42:56

We're talking about 20,000 plus casualties to gain 1,500 yards, at one point.

0:42:560:43:02

And that's for something that looks like a relative success.

0:43:020:43:06

When you see this period in September and October, when it stops raining

0:43:060:43:10

and they're able to go forward and hold the ground,

0:43:100:43:14

you still incur casualties of around 20,000 per step.

0:43:140:43:18

When you say those words nowadays, people find them hard to believe.

0:43:180:43:22

You simply wouldn't accept that in a modern war with the British Army.

0:43:220:43:26

No, it's inconceivable and it's something which today still makes people shudder.

0:43:260:43:32

It sits at the back of your mind as the worst of the First World War.

0:43:320:43:37

If you know what to look for, this aerial photograph of No Man's Land contains a secret story -

0:43:390:43:45

a famous British tank bogged down in the mire.

0:43:450:43:49

The crew of nine men inside it found themselves stranded between British and German lines

0:43:500:43:56

at the height of the battle for Passchendaele. The tank's commander had a sense of humour

0:43:560:44:02

and he gave it the nickname Fray Bentos, after a famous tinned meat.

0:44:020:44:07

'And now the photograph has helped to pinpoint the very spot where this happened.'

0:44:090:44:15

We're right in the middle of the German battle zone.

0:44:150:44:19

Almost smack bang in the middle - British front lines over here, Germans coming up to here.

0:44:190:44:25

The British bring up tanks ahead of the infantry and one tank gets isolated.

0:44:250:44:31

Yeah, the Fray Bentos tank ditched in this hollow here.

0:44:310:44:35

It ground to a halt. The problem was that it was in the front line with the infantry,

0:44:350:44:41

but they were driven back by the Germans,

0:44:410:44:45

so Fray Bentos found itself way out in front of the British line

0:44:450:44:49

and it gradually became surrounded by Germans. Over three days,

0:44:490:44:53

the guys inside the tank fought off the Germans. They were on the roof, firing at them,

0:44:530:44:58

trying to blow them up, they were hit by shells coming over the top.

0:44:580:45:03

All they could do was try to make their way back over here, past where they'd come from,

0:45:030:45:09

to get back to the British lines, which they did. This stands out

0:45:090:45:13

because that little group became very heavily decorated.

0:45:130:45:18

Two Military Crosses for the officers, two Distinguished Conduct Medals and four Military Medals.

0:45:180:45:24

Eight people with a gallantry award, which is a testament to the repeated bravery that they showed

0:45:240:45:30

in fighting off the people who were literally swarming over their tank.

0:45:300:45:34

Passchendaele was eventually taken by Canadian troops on 10th November, 1917.

0:45:340:45:41

Corporal HC Baker wrote that, "the village was so thickly strewn with shell-exploded bodies

0:45:420:45:47

"that a fellow couldn't step without stepping on corruption".

0:45:470:45:52

Just over a mile from the village,

0:45:530:45:55

Tyne Cot, the largest cemetery for Commonwealth forces in the world,

0:45:550:46:00

holds 12,000 of the men who died.

0:46:000:46:02

When you add the names of those whose bodies were never found, the numbers are even more sobering.

0:46:030:46:09

140,000 men killed just to capture five miles of enemy territory.

0:46:110:46:17

Barely two inches of ground for each man lost.

0:46:180:46:22

A senior British officer who came to Passchendaele after the battle and saw the destruction

0:46:250:46:31

burst into tears and asked, "My God, did we really send men to fight in this?"

0:46:310:46:37

Well, they did. And again and again for another year of war.

0:46:370:46:42

In the year following Passchendaele, the tide of war turned in favour of the Allies.

0:46:470:46:53

America finally committed to joining the conflict

0:46:530:46:57

and by the middle of 1918 the influx of new soldiers was helping to tip the balance.

0:46:570:47:03

As the year came to a close, German soldiers started to surrender in massive numbers

0:47:030:47:08

and in October Germany admitted defeat.

0:47:080:47:12

At 11am on the 11th of November, the guns were at last quiet.

0:47:150:47:20

Slowly, the people of France and Belgium came back to their shattered lands.

0:47:290:47:35

The airship filmed extraordinary scenes as communities tried to rebuild lives out of nothing.

0:47:350:47:41

Jacques Trolley de Prevaux flew low over the French city of Lens.

0:47:420:47:47

Here they still held their weekly market,

0:47:480:47:52

next to houses so damaged all that remained were the gaping holes of what were once cellars.

0:47:520:47:58

'Therese de la Rouelle still lives in the same area that her parents returned to in 1918.'

0:48:000:48:06

After the war, when your parents came back, what did they find? What was here?

0:48:060:48:13

TRANSLATED: Everything was demolished. There was nothing left.

0:48:130:48:17

It was a field of ruins.

0:48:170:48:20

My father had always dreamed of going back to his farm, and he was ruined.

0:48:200:48:26

But they wanted to have a nice family and what mattered to them most was the children's education.

0:48:260:48:32

What did they find? Was there anything left of what they'd owned?

0:48:330:48:38

When they came back, my parents had absolutely nothing,

0:48:380:48:42

but they did find one thing under the ruins of the house.

0:48:420:48:47

I'll show it to you.

0:48:470:48:49

It's what people used in those days for a bread knife, before the First World War,

0:48:490:48:54

because my grandparents had a bake house, with a bread oven.

0:48:540:48:59

This was the only thing that was left from the ruins of the war? A bread knife.

0:48:590:49:05

Yes, a bread knife.

0:49:080:49:10

And she also had her clock. My grandmother had taken it with her.

0:49:100:49:14

It was her treasured possession.

0:49:150:49:17

She'd taken it to Normandy when they were refugees.

0:49:190:49:23

And these are the only two things we have left that belonged to our grandparents before WWI.

0:49:230:49:29

In the months and years that followed the war, life began again in this ravaged corner of Europe.

0:49:310:49:37

But there remained the task of burying the dead.

0:49:380:49:42

Hundreds of British and Commonwealth cemeteries were built along the Western Front.

0:49:420:49:48

'There were also a handful of German cemeteries, like this one at Fricourt on the Somme,

0:49:520:49:58

'where 17,000 soldiers lie buried.'

0:49:580:50:01

By the time the war ended, there were a million and a half dead Germans

0:50:030:50:09

and the country faced a massive bill for reparations - six and a half billion pounds.

0:50:090:50:15

Already broken, Germany would now be humiliated

0:50:150:50:18

and made to pay.

0:50:180:50:21

After his epic journey along the Western Front,

0:50:230:50:27

Jacques Trolley de Prevaux turned his airship back home to Paris,

0:50:270:50:31

filming the French capital untouched by war.

0:50:310:50:35

Near here, the world's leaders had gathered to discuss how to deal with Germany in the fighting's aftermath.

0:50:360:50:43

At the grand Palace of Versailles, they drew up a peace treaty

0:50:480:50:52

designed to punish Germany and to ensure that this really was the war to end all wars.

0:50:520:50:59

By the time the Treaty of Versailles was signed on June 7th, 1919,

0:50:590:51:05

most of the men who had fought in the war and survived

0:51:050:51:09

had gone back home to try to rebuild civilian lives they'd known before.

0:51:090:51:13

But the conflict had also created a restless generation,

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men who now looked to the future for adventure and challenges,

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men like the airship pilot Jacques Trolley de Prevaux.

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De Prevaux's flights over the Western Front had been a unique experience,

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starting with its most northerly point and the floods over Nieuport,

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flying over landscapes studded with shell holes and scarred with lines of trenches.

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And filming towns and villages that lay in ruins.

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But just 20 years later, the great promises of Versailles were broken

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and de Prevaux's country threatened once again.

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A new world war began and Paris was occupied by the Germans.

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Jacques Trolley de Prevaux would fight the enemy in very different circumstances.

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Flying the airship along the ruins of the Western Front had turned de Prevaux

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into a staunch patriot, determined to defend France in the future.

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And that determination would lead him, ultimately, to tragedy.

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20 years after his flight, when the Second World War began,

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Jacques Trolley de Prevaux was living in Paris.

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There he met and married a beautiful Polish fashion model, Lotka.

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Three years into the fighting, in 1943, they had a daughter named Aude.

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'Aude still lives in Paris, and I'm going to meet her to find out more about her father.

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'Both her parents died when she was still a baby, but in the last few years, Aude's been piecing together

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'their incredible life story.'

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By the time of WWII, your father is a captain in the French navy,

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but he decides he's not going to give up, not going to surrender. And so he stays.

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-And he acts as an agent, a spy, along with your mother.

-Yes.

-A team.

0:53:260:53:30

What was their life like during that period?

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Em, my mother was always on the roads...

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..with documents to deliver.

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Or accompanying people to hide them

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or to bring them to a safe place.

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And my father was pretending he was a shopkeeper,

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travelling with goods to show and to sell.

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-That was his cover.

-Yeah. His cover.

-The Gestapo eventually closed in on your parents, they arrested them.

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Mm-hm. There was among them a traitor.

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And they went to my mother's house and arrested her

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and she had just a few seconds to take me

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and give me very quickly to my nurse.

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Saying, "Hide the baby!" So she was taken, too, and they were arrested

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and tortured and nobody...nobody told anything.

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They kept a silence.

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-It was pretty brutal torture.

-It was.

-They used electric shocks, they immersed them in water.

0:54:320:54:39

-Yes.

-Among other things.

-Yes.

-But they never spoke.

-They never spoke.

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After their arrest, did they ever see each other again?

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They saw each other when they were killed, when they were shot, yes.

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-They took them to this airfield and they dug trenches?

-Yes.

0:54:540:54:58

-Stood them in front of the trenches and machine-gunned them.

-Yes.

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And...yes. That was the end.

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Do you know...that your father

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took an airship right across the Western Front at the end of the Great War?

0:55:120:55:18

-No.

-Yes.

-Uh-huh?

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And he also brought with him a cameraman and they filmed it.

0:55:210:55:26

-Ah?

-Yes.

-Really?

0:55:260:55:28

Yeah.

0:55:280:55:30

-And there is footage, there is a film...

-Uh-huh?

-..which was taken by your father.

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-Are you sure?

-I'm absolutely positive.

-Well!

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And you can see your father in this film.

0:55:410:55:45

-Would you like to see it?

-Oh, yes! A film?

-Yeah.

0:55:450:55:49

Yes.

0:55:490:55:51

He was smiling. Was he?

0:56:110:56:13

-Yeah.

-I never...

0:56:130:56:16

In all the photos, he is always so severe.

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I couldn't imagine him smiling. And now I saw him smiling.

0:56:210:56:26

What does it mean to you, watching him like this, seeing him like this?

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It's very moving.

0:56:340:56:36

I couldn't expect seeing my father alive.

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Ah. It's a complete shock.

0:56:420:56:44

Ahh.

0:56:530:56:54

This is a happy moment?

0:57:020:57:05

Oh, yes. Happy, but painful, too.

0:57:050:57:07

Yes.

0:57:070:57:09

It's a great moment.

0:57:090:57:11

-It's like as if he was alive.

-Really?

-Ah, yes.

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The story of men like Jacques Trolley de Prevaux epitomises a generation

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that faced the challenge of total war.

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On the other side of Paris, beneath the Arc de Triomphe, is a monument

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commemorating those who died in the First World War.

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The Tomb of the Unknown Soldier.

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A single grave containing the body of one unidentified combatant.

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Killed in a struggle that had claimed the lives of some 16 million people.

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Those four years between 1914 and 1918

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would change forever the way war was fought,

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but couldn't alter a fundamental truth of the battlefield -

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war is fought between individuals.

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And to them belongs its courage, its terror

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and its sacrifice.

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Subtitles by Subtext for Red Bee Media Ltd - 2010

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Email [email protected]

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Fergal Keane tells the story of the Great War from a unique new aerial perspective. Featuring two remarkable historical finds, including a piece of archive footage filmed from an airship in summer 1919, capturing the trenches and battlefields in a way that has rarely been seen before. It also features aerial photographs taken by First World War pilots - developed for the first time in over ninety years - that show not only the devastation inflicted during the fighting, but also quirks and human stories visible only from above.


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