So many things about the Great War—especially 1914—seem of a different age to us. It is almost quaint to think that the French Army went into battle in those August days wearing blue, tailed coats and bright red trousers just like those worn by Napoleon’s soldiers. There were cavalry skirmishes, and bayonet charges, and officers carrying swords. In retrospect, August 1914 can be considered the last month of the previous century. It has been said, in fact, that the 19th century ended in those bloody late summer days.
If it is true that August 1914 was the last month of the 19th century, then it is true that it was also the first month of the 20th century. This period of time is so fascinating because the old world of cavalry charges and bright uniforms co-existed for a brief time with methods of warfare that would seem familiar to us. For instance: strategic bombing.
E. Alexander Powell was an American war correspondent who travelled to Belgium as Germany invaded it in 1914. In late August, after Brussels had been occupied by the German Army, he found himself living in the newly established Belgian capital, Antwerp. This city was soon under siege by the Germans who were anxious to crush Belgian resistance as they pushed their way further into France. Powell wrote a book later that year which recorded his experiences in Belgium in early 1914. He titled it Fighting in Flanders. In this book, excerpted below, he records the first use of strategic bombing in history:
“At eleven minutes past one o’clock on the morning of August 25 death came to Antwerp out of the air. Some one had sent a bundle of English and American newspapers to my room in the Hotel St. Antoine and I had spent the evening reading them, so that the bells of the cathedral had already chimed one o’clock when I switched off my light and opened the window. As I did so my attention was attracted by a curious humming overhead, like a million bumblebees. I leaned far out of the window, and as I did so an indistinct mass, which gradually resolved itself into something resembling a gigantic black cigar, became plainly apparent against the purple-velvet sky. I am not good at estimating altitudes, but I should say that when I first caught sight of it it was not more than a thousand feet above my head—and my room was on the top floor of the hotel, remember. As it drew nearer the noise, which had at first reminded me of a swarm of angry bees, grew louder, until it sounded like an automobile with the muffler open. Despite the darkness there was no doubting what it was. It was a German Zeppelin.
Even as I looked something resembling a falling star curved across the sky. An instant later came a rending, shattering crash that shook the hotel to its foundations, the walls of my room rocked and reeled about me, and for a breathless moment I thought that the building was going to collapse. Perhaps thirty seconds later came another splitting explosion, and another, and then another—ten in all—each, thank Heaven, a little farther removed. It was all so sudden, so utterly unexpected, that it must have been quite a minute before I realized that the monstrous thing hovering in the darkness overhead was one of the dirigibles of which we had read and talked so much, and that it was actually raining death upon the sleeping city from the sky. I suppose it was blind instinct that caused me to run to the door and down the corridor with the idea of getting into the street, never stopping to reason, of course, that there was no protection in the street from Zeppelins. But before I had gone a dozen paces I had my nerves once more in hand. “Perhaps it isn’t a Zeppelin, after all,” I argued to myself. “I may have been dreaming. And how perfectly ridiculous I should look if I were to dash downstairs in my pyjamas and find that nothing had happened. At least I’ll go back and put some clothes on.” And I did. No fireman, responding to a night alarm, ever dressed quicker. As I ran through the corridors the doors of bedrooms opened and sleepy-eyed, tousle-headed diplomatists and Government officials called after me to ask if the Germans were bombarding the city.
“They are,” I answered, without stopping. There was no time to explain that for the first time in history a city was being bombarded from the air.
I found the lobby rapidly filling with scantily clad guests, whose teeth were visibly chattering. Guided by the hotel manager and accompanied by half a dozen members of the diplomatic corps in pyjamas, I raced upstairs to a sort of observatory on the hotel roof. I remember that one attaché of the British Legation, ordinarily a most dignified person, had on some sort of a night-robe of purple silk and that when he started to climb the iron ladder of the fire-escape he looked for all the world like a burglarious suffragette.
By the time we reached the roof of the hotel Belgian high-angle and machine-guns were stabbing the darkness with spurts of flame, the troops of the garrison were blazing away with rifles, and the gendarmes in the streets were shooting wildly with their revolvers: the noise was deafening. Oblivious of the consternation and confusion it had caused, the Zeppelin, after letting fall a final bomb, slowly rose and disappeared in the upper darkness.
The destruction wrought by the German projectiles was almost incredible. The first shell, which I had seen fall, struck a building in the Rue de la Bourse, barely two hundred yards in a straight line from my window. A hole was not merely blown through the roof, as would have been the case with a shell from a field-gun, but the three upper stories simply crumbled, disintegrated, came crashing down in an avalanche of brick and stone and plaster, as though a Titan had hit it with a sledge-hammer. Another shell struck in the middle of the Poids Public, or public weighing-place, which is about the size of Russell Square in London. It blew a hole in the cobblestone- pavement large enough to bury a horse in; one policeman on duty at the far end of the square was instantly killed and another had both legs blown off. But this was not all nor nearly all. Six people sleeping in houses fronting on the square were killed in their beds and a dozen others were more or less seriously wounded. Every building facing on the square was either wholly or partially demolished, the steel splinters of the projectile tearing their way through the thick brick-walls as easily as a lead-pencil is jabbed through a sheet of paper. And, as a result of the terrific concussion, every house within a hundred yards of the square in every direction had its windows broken. On no battlefield have I ever seen so horrible a sight as that which turned me weak and nauseated when I entered one of the shattered houses and made my way, over heaps of fallen debris, to a room where a young woman had been sleeping. She had literally been blown to fragments. The floor, the walls, the ceiling, were splotched with—well, it’s enough to say that that woman’s remains could only have been collected with a shovel. In saying this, I am not speaking flippantly either. I have dwelt upon these details, revolting as they are, because I wish to drive home the fact that the only victims of this air-raid on Antwerp were innocent non-combatants. (1)
The scenes recorded by Powell in August 1914 shocked his sensibilities, as they would anyone’s. However, this event pales in comparison with what is coming. This first air-bombardment of a city—an attack on the morale of a civilian population—proved to be a horrible prelude to the bombing of places like Guernica in 1937, the Blitz of Britain in 1940, the total destruction of Dresden in 1945, and ultimately the dropping of the atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki.
The age of bayonets and cavalry charges was ending in August 1914. A new era of warfare was coming. The bloody 20th century had now begun in earnest.
1. E. Alexander Powell, Fighting in Flanders (Toronto: McClelland Goodchild & Stewart, 1915), 51 – 56.
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