We have all seen photos of the devastating damage left in the wake of the First World War. Cities that were reduced to rubble, large sections of land across Europe completely destroyed, and the catastrophic effects of trench warfare. Although we have seen the images from the ground, we rarely see the full extent of the destruction. Here, we look at aerial film footage taken in 1919 that gives us an extraordinary view of the massive scale of the devastation across the western front.
Jacques Trolley de Prévaux
The aerial film footage was taken by French balloon pilot Jacques Trolley de Prévaux. He was born on April 2, 1888, in Paris, France. After he finished school, he decided to become a sailor. In 1906, he entered the French naval academy, where he came in third place in the competitive entrance examination.
In 1911, Trolley de Prévaux was received into the French Navy, and in 1917 he was promoted to lieutenant. That same year, Trolley de Prévaux was granted a transfer to the French Naval Aviation, and was assigned to command the Marquise-Rinxent Directed Center. Prior to this, he worked on the torpedo boat Chasseur and gunboat Diligente.
Jacques Trolley de Prévaux clocked many flight hours as airships emerged as a powerful weapon in the First World War. For his actions in the War, he was awarded the Legion of Honour and War Cross.
During the Second World War, Trolley de Prévaux and his wife, Lotka Leitner, joined the French Resistance. Sadly, on August 4, 1944, the Gestapo shot him and his wife in Lyon as the Allies were liberating Paris.
World War I damages from above
In 1919, Jacques Trolley de Prévaux flew over the battlegrounds of the First World War to document the damages. He traveled from the Belgian coastline to the French city of Verdun. He captured the ruins of Ypres, the flooded craters of Passchendaele, and the miles and miles of trenches visible from the air.
It was important for France to document their war damages, as a considerable portion of the fighting on the Western Front took place in their country. Of the eight million Frenchman mobilized during the First World War, 1.3 million had been killed and 1 million badly injured.
Similarly, large parts of northeastern France, the nation’s premier industrial and agricultural area, were completely destroyed. Some regions and cities in France were so severely damaged that it was not even worth attempting to rebuild.
Jacques Trolley de Prévaux’s film captured this devastation in France. The full film is about 78 minutes long and was first shown in France during the 1920s. The movie was then given to the Musée Albert-Kahn in Boulogne-Billancourt, where it would remain for nearly 90 years, until 2008 when it was transferred into digital form.
In 2010, the BBC included Trolley de Prévaux’s film footage in their documentary, The First World War From Above. The short documentary is worth a watch, especially as it features Jacques Trolley de Prévaux daughter, Aude Yung-de Prévaux, who was only a baby when the Gestapo killed her father.