Aragorn is uneasy. 

“Flocks of birds, flying at great speed, were wheeling and circling, and traversing all the land as if they were searching for something; and they were steadily drawing nearer…

‘Lie flat and still!’ hissed Aragorn, pulling Sam down into the shade of a holly-bush; for a whole regiment of birds had broken away suddenly from the main host, and came, flying low, straight towards the ridge…

Not until they had dwindled into the distance, north and west, and the sky was again clear would Aragorn rise.  Then he sprang up and went and wakened Gandalf.

‘Regiments of black crows are flying over all the land between the Mountains and the Greyflood…I think that they are spying out the land.”  (The Fellowship of the Ring, Book Two, Chapter 3, “The Ring Goes South”)

As always, welcome, dear readers.  I’ve often written about the relation between Tolkien’s experiences in our world and events in Middle-earth and, in this posting, instead of looking at the earth, we’ll be looking up, as Aragorn did and as Second Lieutenant Tolkien

 would have done in 1916, scanning the clouds for German scouts.

Both sides had begun to include aircraft in their practice warfare—maneuvers—from 1911 on.  The British had employed both airplanes and airships,

and, in the first weeks of war in 1914, it had been British scouting planes

which had spotted the masses of German troops

marching to outflank the British and French armies in what was called the Schlieffen Plan,

allowing the relatively small British Expeditionary Force to escape the trap set for them, although it took hard fighting

and hard marching to do it.

What gave the British the advantage in 1914 was something which had been imagined and wished for for centuries, at least from the days in which Leonardo da Vinci, as early as the 1490s, made intricate drawings of flying machines.

Nothing came of this until the late 18th century, when the Montgolfier brothers

first demonstrated their hot-air balloon in 1783. 

When the Revolution came and French armies were pressed to deal with a huge coalition of hostile European powers, a French balloon surveyed the scene at the Battle of Fleurus, 26 June, 1794

and served at a few other actions before being disbanded in 1799.

It doesn’t appear that much of anything military was done with what, if nothing else, would provide a superior (in more than one sense) observation platform until the American Civil War, where Thaddeus Lowe

a balloon enthusiast, took the Intrepid along on McClellan’s 1862 attempt to capture Richmond.

Although McClellan’s nerve failed him and the attempt in turn failed, Lowe’s balloon allowed observers to see what his army never did:  Richmond.

Lowe’s balloon saw very little service after the failed expedition and military ballooning seems to have been, with very limited exceptions, put on hold until the turn of the century, when the US Army took a balloon along on its expedition to Cuba, in the summer of 1898.

Although it did some service in observing the Spanish lines outside Santiago, it produced an unfortunate side-effect:  the balloon clearly indicated the presence of US troops and Spanish artillery shells quickly began to burst around its position.

And here we see a real difficulty with such balloons.  They may have made good observation posts, but they were immobile, once raised, and, even as they spied on the enemy, they could reveal their own army’s position at the same time. 

It was only with the advent of the airplane, at the very beginning of the 20th century,

that a more flexible method of spying from the air came to be employed and, with the movements of massive armies and then the construction of nearly 500 miles of trenches, from Switzerland to the North Sea in late 1914, into 1915,

it became imperative to have better ways of surveying those movements, as well as the many lines of fortifications both sides rapidly constructed.  The demands of a vast war accelerated creation and employment of such ways and soon aircraft were crisscrossing the sky, their cameras photographing everything on the ground below.

From such photos

elaborate maps were made,

allowing attack plans to be more sophisticated than ever before.  This, in fact, is the Schwaben Feste, the Schwaben Redoubt, which Tolkien’s own unit, the 11th Lancashire Fusiliers attacked during the terrible battle of the Somme, at the beginning of July, 1916. 

Flights of enemy aircraft overhead, then, might signal reconnaissance which would lead to attack. 

Suspecting that “regiments of crows”, as Aragorn says to Gandalf, are “spying out the land”, convinced Gandalf that they must be more careful in their movements:  we can be sure that hearing the sound of enemy aircraft overhead must have done the same for Second Lieutenant Tolkien.

Thanks, as ever, for reading.

Stay well,

Keep your heads down,

And know that, as always, there’s