Reported in Scientific American, this Week in World War I: August 28, 1915.

August 1915 on the Western Front: the French, British and their allies faced off against the Germans and their allies across complex, well-fortified trench systems. In the age of flight, though, airplanes and balloons were used by both sides to see over the thickets of barbed wire and camouflage to see enemy troop movements and find targets for artillery fire. Balloons were less mobile but could be linked by telephone directly with gun emplacements.

The cover image this week was painted and reported by Neal Truslow, “Correspondent for the Scientific American with the French Army.” Truslow had been living in New York and was a member of the Art Student’s League, but in May 1915 went to France to paint and report on what he saw (according to the “Fleeter Than Horses” blog). This image is noted as being painted in Arras, France, June 15, 1915, a very volatile region then in the last stages of the Second Battle of Artois (the destruction shown in the background is unlikely to be imaginary). Truslow writes:

“The work of signaling the position of the enemy, their approach, their retreat, their every movement, from aeroplanes, is most interesting. Yet the height the aviators must maintain to be out of range of hostile guns, and the speed at which they must fly, make the handling of telescopes very difficult, and the necessity of a more effective method of observation imperative. This need brought about the development of the captive balloon, which was made portable and easy to operate by means of specially constructed automobiles. The automobile required for this purpose is a three- or five-ton truck, equipped with every necessary device for the operation and transportation of the balloon.”

“The accompanying illustration of the apparatus used near Arras shows the machine responsible for the French winnings near this point. This car carries a reel holding about five thousand feet of cable, and is connected by gears and friction clutch to the main shaft of the motor, which gives perfect control of the balloon in any position. It can be maneuvered with great facility—either following along the front, retreating or advancing at the will of the operators. The gas generating device is most compact and effective, filling the balloon in a very short time. The car is also equipped with searchlight, electric generator, telephone and wireless instruments. The balloon at Arras was splendidly equipped, but, unfortunately, cameras were prohibited, so a small sketch is all I was able to obtain. War balloons are small and of two types: round and cigar-shaped. The round balloon is most in use, but the cigar-shaped bag is said to have more stability.”


Our full archive of the war, called Scientific American Chronicles: World War I, has many articles from 1914–1918 on the trench war on the Western Front. It is available for purchase at