Tuesday, 17 June 2014

Kings of the Air: 'War, German style' 3

The third of three posts on Paris under attack during the Great War.

'Berthas by day, Gothas by night,' proclaimed l'Illustration, 'the dull rumble of the guns at the front, the uhlans just "five marches" from the boulevards … things should be pretty grim in Paris right now! [But no.] Everyday life continues, no airs, no graces and no faint hearts. This is our Paris in wartime: no fuss, no panic, no bravado. A model of steadiness and self-control.'

Under the bombardment in Paris was the American Mildred Aldrich: 'We were hardly on the balcony, when, in an instant, all the lights of the city went out, and a strange blackness settled down and hugged the housetops and the very sidewalk. At the same instant the guns of the outer barrage began to fire, and as the night was cold, we went inside to listen, and to talk. I wonder if I can tell you – who are never likely to have such an experience – how it feels to sit inside four walls, in absolute darkness, listening to the booming of the defence, and the falling of bombs on an otherwise silent city, wakened out of its sleep. It is a sensation to which I doubt if any of us get really accustomed – this sitting quietly while the cannon boom, and now and then an avion whirs overhead, or a venturesome auto toots its horn as it dashes to a shelter, or the occasional voice of a gendarme yells angrily at some unextinguished light, or a hurried footstep on the pavement tells of a passer in the deserted street, braving all risks to reach home. I assure you that the hands on the clock-face simply crawl. An hour is very long. This raid of the 17th lasted only three-quarters of an hour. It was barely half-past eleven when the berloque sounded from the hurrying firemen's auto – the B-flat bugle singing the "all clear" – and, in an instant, the city was alive again – noisily alive. Even before the berloque was really audible in the room where we sat, I heard the people hurrying back from the abris – doors opened and banged, windows and shutters were flung wide, and the rush of air in the gas pipes told that the city lights were on again.'

'Every one hates it,' she continued. 'But every one knows that the chances are about one in some thousands – and takes the chance. I know of late sitters-up, who cannot change their habits, and who keep right on playing bridge during a raid. How good a game it is, I don't know. Well, one kind of bravado is as good as another. Among many people the chief sensation is one of boredom – it is a nuisance to be wakened out of one's first sleep; it is a worse nuisance to have proper saut de lit clothes ready; and it is the worst nuisance of all to go down into a damp cellar and possibly have to listen to talk.' This short film shows the entrances to some of the shelters, and how some shopkeepers, in taping up their windows to reduce the dangers of shattered glass, tried to create 'artistic' arrangements. This film shows some of the measures to sandbag historic monuments.

'No use complaining!' cautioned La France illustrée. 'It's war. War, German style! Our enemies have handed us another lesson. Our will to win may equal theirs, but do we match them in our determination to develop weapons of war, achieve the technical superiority required to counter the threat of their evil genius, find new applications for science or make the most infinitessimal of new discoveries?'

Before the outbreak of war, Clément Ader had prophesied great (Anglo-German!) air fleets that would lay waste to the centre of Paris, and excitable politicans and excitable newspapers had been fascinated with the notion ever since. It came as no surprise that many from within that constituency wanted to do nothing more than lay Germany waste from the air.

'It is sad to think,' mourned deputy Alain d'Aubigny (file under: Excitable Politician), 'that what our air force could not do was provide the weapon of reprisal that every Frenchman wanted to see used against our enemies; and what heartbreak for after the war. Britain, the United States, [and] our enemies, understand the role the heavy bomber has in enforcing peace.'

A journalist asked Giovanni Caproni, the Italian bomber manufacturer, 'Do you believe in long-range bombing? Would you see Paris, Lyon, Le Creusot [and] Saint-Chamond bombarded?' 'Oh yes,' came the reply, 'with an unforseen regularity.'

Georges Kirsch (V29) was a reluctant supporter: 'There was no question of us trying to inflict physical damage on military targets,' he wrote of a raid on Saarbrücken. 'Our task was to sneak up on the major arteries and drop the lot at zero hour, midday German time, as people were leaving the factories. Four hundred and twenty dead. We thought it despicable, but that's war.' 
The position of these bombing enthusiasts included a number of contradictions, which they did nothing to address. One of the main underlying assumptions was that German moral, particularly that of German workers, was nowhere near as good and steady as that of French workers, and so would immediately collapse. So, our civilians can take it, simply because they are ours; theirs cannot, because they are them. Obviously.

In his post-war book L'Aéronautique hier, demain (Paris, Masson, 1920) Major Jean Orthlieb, who had been an army aviation commander during the war, noted with some satisfaction the poor results of the German raids on Paris, particularly when compared to the decisive interventions by French tactical bombers on the battlefield. Yet he concluded, 'what we really lacked during the war, and something that would have played a decisive role, was a longe-range aircraft, with a powerful bomb load.' The Aircraft of the Future was to be a 'night battleship' (cuirassé nocturne) carrying several tons of explosives. So when they do it, it's rubbish; but when we do it, it's a war winner.

After Major Louis Robert de Beauchamp made a solo raid on Munich in 1916, Captain Henri de Kérillis, who led C66 on their reprisal raid on Karlsruhe later that year, wondered, 'what would have happened if fifty had gone with him ... You can see that fifty Sopwiths dropping 500 bombs onto the streets of the city would have given pause to the torpedoers of the Lusitania and the incendiarists of Reims.' But when zeppelins started regular raids against London, de Kérillis condemned it as terrorism. So when we do it, it's a justified reprisal; when you do it, it's terrorism.

Yet if the object of the German air-raids and the bombardment was destroy French civilian morale, it did not work. Journalist Marie Harrison reported on Paris under bombardment: 'I was in Paris during the first days of the bombardment, and I know something about the morale of the city under circumstances of acute unpleasantness. Air raids are horrible enough but they have their time limit. There is no "all clear" in an attack by the mystery gun. I remember that on Good Friday it began early in the morning, and the explosions continued throughout the day, occurring precisely at every quarter of an hour. That is a form of irritation which the Huns thought would empty Paris in a week. Some people left the city as some people have left London to escape the raid. But the greater number of Parisians went quietly about their work and did not even leave the business at hand to seek shelter from the approach of the next expected attack. Paris is so close to the war and has lived for so long beneath its shadow that it would take more than a long range-gun to disturb the normal course of its way of living.' And in this short film, shot outside the Printemps department store, it does look like business as usual.

Pictures: Mildred Aldrich; a contemporary novel - they seem to be enduring Aldrich's 'worst nuisance of all', and are certainly not singing this naughty little ditty of the time, by the music-hall star Dranem; a map showing all the bombs and shells that fell on Paris; Alain d'Aubigny (from Wikipedia); de Kérillis in the 1930s (also from Wikipedia). There is a short newsreel film showing some of the destruction in Paris here, and some photos of the damage are here.

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