Though the First World War was fought in and around many of Europe’s capital cities, a good few of which spent time under occupation by enemy forces, none of the continent’s self-proclaimed ‘great powers’ ever found its capital on the front line. Their capitals did all suffer serious social, economic and political upheaval during the War. London was also bombed, Berlin suffered serious privation, and shortages bit amid rampant political turmoil in Vienna and Rome, while St. Petersburg was engulfed by revolution and fleetingly threatened by the subsequent German invasion. Only Paris spent the war years close to the actual fighting.
Right at the beginning of the conflict, occupation of Paris had been the German Army’s primary aim. It had been a close-run thing and, with memories of German occupation during 1870-71 still relatively fresh, the city had spent the autumn of 1914 in a state of high, sometimes frantic alert. The situation had of course stabilised during the next three years, but with the front line about 100km to the east the city was never more than one military failure from disaster, a fact driven home by repeated German bombing raids.
Fear for Paris was in the forefront of French popular, military and political thinking with every subsequent crisis on the Western Front, so when the German spring offensives of 1918 brought fighting back to within 65km of Paris it was like 1914 all over again. Martial law, evacuation of the Louvre, sandbags around monuments and blackout after dark – the city braced for an intensification of air raids and it came, but so did the Paris Guns.
The German Army had made use of giant ‘Big Bertha’ railway guns at the very start of the War, initially to attack fortresses on the way to France and then to attempt long-range bombardment of French civilian targets. They had hardly been used since, but in the meantime the Krupps munitions company had been developing an even bigger adaptation. Known in Germany as the Pariser Kanonen (Paris Gun) – or the Wilhelmrohr or the Wilhelm Geschütz (inevitably, William’s Barrel and William’s Gun) – it was technically the 380mm Max E Railway Gun and was specifically designed to attack Paris from previously impossible distances.
Three Pariser Kanonen were constructed, each with a 210mm barrel, lined to allow firing of a 120kg shell. By shooting the shell into the stratosphere, where wind resistance was minimal, the guns could attack targets from a distance of about 130km. Sounds impressive, and this was the ultimate in railway gun design, but it came with some severe operational drawbacks.
The gun was anything but accurate (although Paris is hard to miss), and it lacked the weight of projectile to cause serious damage when it did hit something. It was also difficult and costly to use, because firing caused such severe erosion of the barrel that each shell had to be wider than the last and the propellant charge altered accordingly, until the barrel’s width reached about 240mm, after about twenty shots, and it had to be replaced. None of this really mattered because the job of the Pariser Kanonen, like that of Europe’s growing heavy bomber fleets, was to test the theory that civilian morale would crumble under assault from the sky.
Ready for operation by the spring of 1918, and manoeuvred into position with the greatest secrecy during the opening phase of the Kaiserschlacht Offensive, the three Paris Guns fired their opening shots at Paris on 23 March. The first shell struck the Place de la République at 7.20 in the morning, and by the end of the day the shelling had killed sixteen people and injured another 29.
The immediate effects of the strike were everything German military planners could have wished for. Even amid all that shocking news from the front, the Paris Guns caused an absolute sensation in Paris and across the Allied world, prompting fears of urban devastation to match that inflicted on battlefields by heavy artillery. Fear and outraged reached a crescendo, as did popular anxiety in Paris, on the afternoon of 29 March, Good Friday, when a shell collapsed the roof of the church of Saint-Gervais-Saint-Protais, just east of city hall (Hôtel de Ville), and exploded in the nave. Though casualty figures vary, such is the nature of wartime propaganda, I’m going with 91 people killed, including a number of prominent figures, and another 68 injured, but the shock administered to Paris, and to France as a whole, went beyond details.
In all – and again figures vary, largely because German records of the operation were later destroyed – the Paris Guns fired about 350 shells in four distinct phases between March and August 1918. The first phase ended on 1 May, the second ran for two weeks from 27 May, the third for two days in July and the last from 5 to 9 August, after which the guns were moved away from the front as Allied counteroffensives threatened their positions. The attacks killed a total of 256 Parisians and wounded another 625, but they never again provoked the hint of mass panic that had greeted their first week of operations.
The Saint-Gervais-Saint-Protais disaster’s main long-term effect was to discourage Parisians from gathering in crowds. Casualties diminished accordingly, and the city adapted to the threat in much the same way as cities attacked from the air have been doing ever since. In one way that’s not really a fair comparison, because by 1918 aircraft were already subjecting cities to much heavier damage, more accurately delivered, than anything the Pariser Kanonen could inflict. Then again, supporters of the theory always considered the impact of strategic bombing and its offshoots to be primarily psychological, and from that perspective the Paris Guns were yet further evidence that the theory was nonsense, or was until we all went nuclear.
The giant railway guns were never used again after August 1918, and although victorious forces made strenuous efforts to find them after the War, they and the relevant records were presumably destroyed to keep them out of Allied hands. Despite their limited usefulness, they were not yet fully discredited as a strategic weapon, and the Hitler regime made unsuccessful efforts to revive the type during the Second World War. Of course National Socialism was always impressed by the gigantic and thoroughly hooked on psychological warfare, excuses for its stupidity that can also be attached to the Luftwaffe’s civilian bombing campaigns during the Spanish Civil War and the Second Word War. I’m not sure I can come up with any kind of excuses, revenge aside, for the thousand bomber raids carried out in the 1940s by the RAF, which replaced the Royal Flying Corps and the Royal Naval Air Service on Easter Monday 1918.
As a postscript, and a curtain raiser to something grimly momentous, I should mention that while Parisians were scanning the sky during the spring shelling in 1918, a much more dangerous killer was flourishing under their noses. The massive and deadly influenza crisis of the period is well known, but is generally placed in 1919 and 1920, the years of its peak power (especially in Britain and the USA), but the first of two overlapping epidemics had already begun, in Kansas, and was reaching France along with US troops. The earliest cases attracted public notice in Paris during April 1918, and the flu would be a mounting problem in France for the rest of the year, killing more than 1,300 Parisians in October alone. After a second strain of influenza struck from the east, reaching Germany later in 1918, the combined epidemic would erupt to kill at least 70 million people across the globe in the immediate postwar period – but that, as I keep saying, is another story.