During its early phases, the war in France generally stopped for lunch, a national habit personified by Army c-in-c Joffre, who always insisted on a full, uninterrupted midday meal wherever he happened to be on the Western Front. Today in 1914, Sunday lunch was well underway all over Paris when, at 12.45, a lone German aircraft flew over the city.
The aircraft was a Taube , a little reconnaissance monoplane, already in service for four years and appropriately slow, that was known for its stable flight and therefore considered ideal for bombing experiments. Parisians, who at this stage called any German aircraft a Taube, watched as it circled the city centre and tossed five small objects over the side
Four were bombs, small four-pounders designed for anti-personnel use, and the fifth was a propaganda message to Parisians, advising surrender in the face of the impending German Army onslaught. The bombs killed two people, injuring two more, and the propaganda had no discernible effect, but both were global firsts with long-term implications.
There’s never been the slightest proof that dropping propaganda leaflets on enemy civilians has any effect on anything, but air forces still do it today. Nor, nuclear madness aside, has there ever been any evidence that large-scale bombing of civilian targets can deliver a knockout blow to an enemy, or even significantly shorten a major war – but the bombs dropped on Paris a century ago were the first, small expression of a theory that went on to blight the twentieth century in defiance of logic.
The theory that massed fleets of aircraft could bomb cities and nations into submission, even instant submission, was popular with a few military theorists and many more fiction writers even before powered flight had been achieved. Informed observers at the start of the War were well aware that aircraft technology couldn’t yet deliver this ‘war-winning weapon’, but experiments began nonetheless and development of heavier, long-range machines soon followed.
Paris, within easy reach of German forces at the front line, bore witness to the wartime escalation this entailed. The raids by single Taube machines continued in 1914, arriving at about five o’clock each evening and killing a few civilians but occasioning more curiosity than panic. Zeppelin raids would follow, spreading greater destruction and fear but remaining no more than a minor nuisance to the city, and as the War grew old fleets of German heavy bombers – the Gothas – would deliver smaller loads in greater numbers and with more destructive power. By the end of the War German bombs had killed 275 Parisians, injured more than six hundred and achieved nothing of military value.
The story was the same elsewhere. German raids on other cities and countries (including Britain), Allied reprisal raids on more distant German targets and, ultimately, a major British experiment in massed bombing, all failed on a number of levels. Lumbering bombers were easy meat in daylight for improving defence systems, night raids were hopelessly inaccurate, and even when targets were hit civilian populations showed no sign of the morale meltdown predicted by strategists. At the end of the War, their case still unproven, the disciples of ‘strategic bombing’ in Britain, Germany, Italy and elsewhere went right on believing that all they needed to win future wars at a stroke were aircraft that were big enough, fast enough and numerous enough.
History records that they were given their chance to prove it and that, until Hiroshima and Nagasaki changed the rules, they kept on trying in the face of repeated and ghastly failure. Even now, conventional bombing of civilians is used to create ‘shock and awe’ on the grounds that raining death on people makes them stop wanting to fight. As Parisians gathered each evening to watch the daily Taube in 1914 they surely knew something new had come into the world. They couldn’t know they were witnessing the birth of the twentieth century’s most monstrous chimera.
We can know, even should know, but somehow our commemorative obsession with the Western Front manages to bypass some of its most far-reaching consequences. The heritage story sees the air war over France as a support act for the futility of trench warfare. In many ways it was, and air forces did get tangled up in their own private war, well documented and essentially pointless. History can show us there’s more to it, stretching the story across time to reveal hidden punchlines and make direct connections with our modern experience. Strategic bombing is a huge story, casting a giant shadow across the last hundred years and worth a lot more than a few hundred words. Any version of the War that ignores its first chapter is sadly incomplete.