Now all roads lead to France and heavy is the tread
Of the living; but the dead returning lightly dance.
Edward Thomas, Roads

Saturday, May 27, 2023

The Pre-1914 Fear of Aerial Bombardment

Battle of Coloquintos, Albert Robida, 1880

Strategic bombing of cities and civilians by aerial means was not a new concept in 1914. Beginning with the Montgolfièr experiments with manned flight in 1783, the possibility of using balloons and eventually heavier-than-air machines for military use was envisioned. Initially used as observation posts and artillery spotters, the idea of using airships and aircraft offensively soon found enthusiasts. It was not until the advent of the internal combustion engine, however, that the potential of aerial bombardment from a controlled platform became realistic. In an 1893 letter to the chief of staff of the German Army, Count Ferdinand von Zeppelin, developer of the rigid airship that would bear his name and theorist on strategic bombing, wrote that his machine could perform not only observation and transport roles, but also “bombard enemy fortifications and troop formations with projectiles.”

Original Publication in 1908

In popular literature and science fiction, the inevitability of airships cruising over cities and dominating future warfare was a popular topic by the late 19th century. Jules Verne, no stranger to prescient fiction, wrote in his 1887 story "Clipper in the Clouds" about an aerial battle between two airships loosely resembling the German dirigibles of the First World War. However, it was H.G. Wells who envisioned the strategic bombing of population centers in the future. In his 1908 novel The War in the Air, Wells described a scene in which a fleet of German airships bombed New York City, eerily predicting the fear and terror felt by the public in London and Paris during the Great War. As the historian Lee Kennett argued, so profound and persuasive at capturing public attention was this type of futuristic literature around the turn of the century, that by the time reliable airships and aircraft finally appeared en mass, “extravagant and impossible things would sometimes be expected of them.” During the war, dirigibles and aircraft were seen as an extension of scientific advancement akin to other innovations such as submarines, machine guns, tanks, and poison gas.

Apocalyptic Landscape 3, Ludwig Meidner, 1913

So profound were the concerns over the possibility of airborne bombardment, even before the technology to accomplish such a task was near ready, politicians throughout Europe and the United States attempted to regulate aerial warfare. The 1899 Hague Convention, proposed by Russian Tsar Nicholas II in an attempt to regulate armaments and warfare, passed a resolution “agree[ing] to prohibit, for a term of five years, the launching of projectiles and explosives from balloons, or by other new methods of similar nature.”

Russian Lithograph, 1914, Artist Unidentified

Although tactical aerial bombing in support of combat operations was employed as far back as 1911 when Italian airplanes dropped the first bombs in combat on Turkish forces in Libya, 1914 saw the first strategic use of bomber aircraft to “strike at the very foundation of the enemy’s war effort—the production of war material, the economy as a whole, [and] the morale of a civilian population.” A few days after the beginning of the First World War, German pilots dropped a few small bombs on Paris in August 1914. In October of that year, the British achieved the first substantial strategic success when one airplane destroyed a zeppelin airship in its shed at Dusseldorf, Germany. By December 1914 the Germans were dropping bombs directly on England.

Source: Christopher Warren, Air & Space Power, Issue #3, 2018

1 comment:

  1. Excellent summary of pre-war public perceptions... suggest two books "The Impact of Air Power" by Alfred Gollin and "Winged Warfare" by Michael Paris