In A Nutshell
They’re some of the most iconic photos from World War I, and they’re completely fake. They’re the photos of aerial dogfights, of planes diving and swooping at each other, of smoke billowing from the loser. And they were all faked by Wesley David Archer, an American RAF serviceman turned set designer for the film industry. It took until 1984 for them to be deemed without-a-doubt fake, and that was only when the Smithsonian inherited some of his possessions that included photos of him faking the iconic pictures.
The Whole Bushel
They’re pretty incredible photos, and we’ve all seen them, usually in reputable sources like newspapers, textbooks, and reference books about the horrors that all soldiers faced during World War I.
They’re iconic—a series of photographs of World War I dogfights, complete with billowing smoke and, in a few of them, a pilot or gunner plummeting to his death. Planes crash into each other, they spiral to the ground. The photos are still used today, in fact, often illustrating news stories and special interest pieces as new information about the war comes to light.
But they’re completely fake, and we didn’t even know it until 1984.
The photos were originally published as part of a book called Death in the Air: The War Diary and Photographs of a Flying Corps Pilot. It was released in 1933, and it was an immediate success. The pilot’s name was never given, in large part, it was said, because he had broken some pretty strict regulations about taking cameras up in the air on missions. The story says that he used the machine gun he was manning as a sort of firing mechanism for the camera, as well, and he got some incredible aerial photographs of combat that civilians only heard about or saw from the ground. The book also included portions of the pilot’s diary, detailing life on the front lines and in the air.
After the war, the photos were sold by the widow “Gladys Maud Cockburn-Lange” for the incredibly hefty sum of $20,000 (around $360,000 today). And no one ever questioned it.
The only time the authenticity of the photos and the diary were really questioned was in the mid-1980s, by the Society of World War I Aero Historians. Their reach wasn’t a far one, though, and it wasn’t until the Smithsonian got involved in doing some serious research that the truth about the iconic images came out.
When they received some suitcases that had belonged to a Wesley David Archer, things started to get suspicious. Archer was an American who had been serving with Britain’s RAF in 1918. He went home in 1920, though, and that was apparently when he struck on his idea for using his experiences to write a believable book and using his skill as a model-maker to create the photos. Included in the possessions donated to the Smithsonian were some photographs that made it pretty clear that the ones that had been some of the most iconic images of World War I were fake—they were photographs of him faking the shots.
Once he had returned from the war and recovered from his injuries, he had taken a job in the film industry making sets. He and his wife, the woman who posed as the erstwhile “Gladys Maud Cockburn-Lange” and who had sold the original photographs, staged the photos and made what was a small fortune at the time.
The photos seemed to have been fairly simple to fake, using invisible wires to hang the model airplanes, and the occasional body plummeting to the ground. Easy to fake, perhaps, but less easy to convince people they were fake. The Smithsonian still gets requests to use the photos all the time.