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Weapons of World War One:
The Hague Conference of 1899 produced an agreement that forbid its signers from allowing their military to drop explosives of any type from aircraft. This was easily accepted by all at the time because the airplane and zeppelin were more dreams than reality, and the balloons that did exist had already proved themselves unreliable as weapons of war. After technology allowed far more dangerous aircraft to be developed, a new conference was held in 1907 to regulate them. Even though the new rules that emerged were too vague to be effective, many participating nations still refused to sign. While military planners did not yet have much confidence in aircraft, some thought that extending warfare into the sky just had too many potential advantages to give up. When the first bombing raids began, they would largely be portrayed by their victims as a crime.
Sensing the French military only saw a role for aircraft in recognizance, André and Edouard Michelin of the Michelin Tire Company, became tireless boosters of aerial bombing around 1911. Insisting that bombing was the essential roll of aircraft, they sponsored a competition with aiming prizes for pilots who successfully dropped bombs on targets. The brothers would also found the National Committee of Military Aviation to lobby the government to build both bombers and airfields. To help publicize these efforts they published a series of illustrated postcards depicting the many uses for bombers. When World War One broke out they began manufacturing bombers but their production was so slow that these planes were obsolete by the time they were completed. After being accused of self promotion and profiteering they agreed to switch production to the Breguet 14 bomber in 1917. Once the War ended, Michelins returned to tire production.
There were no bombs specifically designed to be dropped from the air at the beginning of the War, and so everything from bags of explosives to artillery shells were used. Until fins were added to the back of areal bombs to stabilize their motion, they tended to drift and rarely hit their intended target unless it was very big.
Some of the first bombs specifically designed to be dropped from aircraft were incendiary devices. Those who used them rarely pictured them because they knew public sentiment was generally against their deployment. Any weapon used indiscriminately against civilians crossed a moral line, especially where fire was involved. For this very reason unexploded bombs sometimes appear on postcards to show the barbarity of the enemy.
Dropping bombs from a low altitude increased the chances of hitting a target but it was always a compromise as it also increased the chances of being shot down. The payloads of these small planes were also very light and they rarely caused serious damage. Despite all this, planes had been sent out on bombing missions deep into enemy territory since the War began. In early 1915 Germany became the first to send out planes on bombing missions in large squadrons to maximize their effect. The Italians were the first to combine fighters and bombers on missions to minimize casualties.
While air raids on large cities drew the most attention, there were countless smaller actions along the front. Those singled out for postcard production seem to have been done so for no other reason than some facts were known of the event. Even when specifying a specific place, these cards almost functioned as a generic as they were primarily meant to show the fear these new weapons instilled in the enemy. Even if the engagement was of no strategic importance, the card depicting the raid helped to satisfy the public’s need for revenge.
Views from the air can be rather anonymous, which often made it difficult for artists to illustrate aerial postcards that needed to show their planes over enemy territory. The Eiffel Tower in Paris appears on many German cards for just this reason. Where most local landmarks are not outstanding from the air, the colossal size and unique design of this structure made it stand out. It was so recognizable that regardless of whether it was drawn realistically or exaggerated it would still be read as a symbol of France. At first the postcards depicting German planes flying over the Eiffel Tower were meant to say that even those well behind the front line were not safe from our reach. Then in March 1915 German planes actually began dropping bombs on Paris.
The Italian general staff initially saw little potential on aircraft, but production dramatically increased once they entered the War. They began engaging in large bombing missions during the summer of 1916, and when larger planes like the Caproni Ca.1 specifically designed to be used as bombers were introduced in 1917, air raids grew far more destructive. Germany introduced its own Gotha bombers, and in September 1917 the Riesenflugzeuge began night bombing raids over London. While the Gothas suffered substantial casualties, these new high flying giants carried highly destructive two ton payloads and were so durable that none were ever shot down.
More common than postcards of these large bombers were depictions of damage directly attributable to them. This might be nothing more than publishers having easy access to the damage being caused around them while photographs of military hardware were more difficult to come by.
While the Germans could launch air raids against England from their bases in captured territory, the British had no means of attacking far off Germany. When it was clear that the War was not coming to an early end, a long range bomber was planned capable of flying at high altitudes and at night. It was thought that this would force Germany to allocate its already dwindling air squadrons away from the Western Front to protect their homeland. The result was the massive Vickers-Vimy bomber, but the first craft did not reach France until October 1918 and they never saw military service.
The French also developed their own night bomber, the Farman F.50. While these large aircraft could be deployed closer to Germany to cause real damage, their production was so slow that they were not deployed into squadrons until the War was almost over. Its design proved more useful as an early passenger carrier in the postwar years. Publishers were fond of placing depictions of many of these large Allied bombers on postcards after the War. The production of these mighty tools of war was a matter of pride, even if they never saw military service. In this way they became not just a depiction of equipment sought by military card collectors, they were part of the postwar propaganda effort to define the Great War on Allied terms.
Even though the British never managed to garner their resources in time to bomb Germany before the War ended, German propagandists used statements made by British Parliamentarians against them, claiming that they decried German air raids while planning the same. A set of postcards were then published depicting British air raids on Germany that never occurred.
Bombs were not the only weapon dropped by planes. Early in the War the French developed the flechette (little arrow), a six inch long steel blade that were dropped 500 at a time out of cartons. They could penetrate a man, even with a helmet, from head to foot and were very deadly against bigger targets like horses. By the end of the war all the belligerents were using this weapon.
There were relatively few airfields in Europe before World War One, individual pilots and flying clubs just used flat grassy fields. Without runways, planes would take off and land according to the most favorable wind conditions. While in some ways this allowed planes to be extremely mobile during the War, but aircraft were still attached to large back service units as they had to be kept supplied with fuel and ammunition as well receive constant maintenance and repairs. Many of these facilities were makeshift and planes were more likely to be sheltered under tents than hangers. As planes grew larger and heavier actual runways were built to better accommodate them. Even so it is rare to find airfields pictured on postcards. When postcards do appear they are most likely to be as real photos taken for personal mementos. Those that are printed usually depict training fields or air stations built for coastal defense.
While the more glamorous aspects of aircraft such as the dogfights they engaged in and the bombing raids they made were the prime subjects for postcards, few aspects of their existence went totally unnoticed. Cards are to be found of them being transported on wagons, resting in hangers, and being worked on in repair shops.
Before the development of heavy bombers the inability of light planes to deliver large payloads just made them too inefficient to cause widespread destruction. This problem would be circumnavigated by the Zeppelin, an even earlier invention dating back to 1900. A Zeppelin was a large long airship whose light metal frame gave it a distinct rigid shape. Inside were multiple airtight bags that contained hydrogen; made from the intestinal lining of cattle (gold beater’s skin) attached to a cotton mesh. These bags were all held in place by a fabric covering placed over the frame. A quarter-million cows were needed to create the bags that filled one Zeppelin, which caused restrictions to be placed on the manufacture of sausage. By the beginning of the Great War, Zeppelins found their way into the arsenals of both the German army and navy.
Ferdinand von Zeppelin, the world’s foremost designer and manufacturer of airships was widely depicted on postcards, usually in a scene with one of his famous craft. Most of these cards are of German origin, which depict him as a great hero. There was even a set of cards published by Hans Kohler & Co. before the War depicting episodes from his early life. He is also sometimes shown on cards from the Allied nations, only there he is presented as a war criminal.
Schulte-Lanz began manufacturing airships in 1909 and grew to become Zeppelins largest competitor. Because these wood framed craft were susceptible to damage from moisture, most were used by the German army. Despite the variety of airships, they all became to be called Zeppelins due to the fame of their inventor. It is the rare postcard that distinguishes between airship types.
Design of a more maneuverable engine propelled observation balloon began in 1901 by Parseval and Sigsfeld, and by 1905 they perfected their craft. These Parseval dirigibles were distinguishable by their pointy ends, though a semi-rigid model was made with a keel added to one end. While primarily a German airship, the design was licensed to the Vickers Company in Great Britain before the War, and the Royal Navy began putting them into service in 1914. Britain primarily used them as Sea Scouts patrolling for German U-boats but they had limited range. Larger rigid Coastal airships were then put into production with bases built for them at Pulham, Howden, East Fortune and Longside. The Royal Navy want airships that would rival the German Zeppelins in size but the War would end before they saw them.
Japan who had experimented with airships for some time, bought a large ship from the Berlin manufacturer Luft-Fahrzeug-Gesellschaft in 1912 for their army. Their inability to get spare parts from Germany once war was declared hampered its operations, and it would not take part in the war effort. Despite this, Japanese publishers, as well as the public were fascinated by these craft and they are often pictured on postcards as generics or in scenes depicting the fighting in Europe. The Japanese navy would find a renewed interest in airships in the 1920’s, when they are most likely to be found on postcards.
The first military postcards to depict Zeppelins show them bombing Liege and Antwerp in August 1914. They exist in great number because of the uniqueness of these events. More cards would quickly follow as subsequent attacks were made on Calais, Warsaw, Paris, and Bucharest as well as their use in battles such as Tannenberg. The public’s fascination with airships had caused many postcards to capture them before the War, and now the demand for them only grew stronger. Considering how hard it was to fathom these craft in action, many artists rendered them in very abstract or fanciful ways that often made them look awkward. Other artists however managed to depict them very realistically even when in dramatic wartime settings.
For as many postcards there are showing Zeppelins as horrific weapons of terror, there are just as many that simply use them as a generic symbol of modern warfare. They are often drawn or photo montaged into the background of compositions where they play no active roll in the cardŐs primary narrative. In these circumstances it is difficult to know if they were meant to just represent modern war or if publishers though their inclusions might increase sales. As Zeppelins came to be presented in less horrific ways, it was easy to turn them into a meaningful symbol without evoking a strong emotional response. In this way they could be used on postcards with more light hearted themes.
The public’s fascination with airships is also demonstrated through the props a photographer might use in his studio. While all portrait photographers had to at have a variety of backdrops, some employed elaborate props to entice more customers to come in. These were not simple or inexpensive to make so their presence on a postcard is evidence of its ability to fulfill public desires. Tanks and planes also became popular props but the wildest were those made to simulate airships. Photo paper with preprinted postcard backs was the most widely available at this time so customers usually received their studio portraits in this format whether they intended to mail them or not.
The Zeppelin used to bomb the Belgium defenses at Liege flew in much too low and was seriously damaged by small arms fire before crashing while attempting to land. Another would be brought down on the Eastern Front during the Battle of Tannenberg. Although Zeppelins were armed with an array of machine guns, they were large craft to protect. The preferred way of eluding the enemy was to drop the ballast they carried in the form of water filled rubber bags, and rise as quickly as possible. Eventually all Zeppelins would routinely fly at high altitudes for protection, but this reduced the effectiveness of their aim when bombing. While technological advances would eventually allow them to fly even higher, the cold and thin air adversely affected both mechanical operations and the crewŐs ability to perform their tasks. There was always the temptation to come in closer to targets but this often ended in disaster when the airships received catastrophic damage.
While bombing raids targeted many nations, the greatest focus of Zeppelin raids was on Great Britain. One reason for this was that the raiding airships did not have to travel over militarized zones from where they might be shot at to reach their targets. The first launched in January of 1915 were strictly directed over military targets but that is not always where the bombs fell. It was difficult to aim from high altitude and bombing at night made matters worse especially after a policy of blackouts were instituted. By the summer of 1915 civilians were being targeted as well. Many in Germany thought this no worse than Britain’s attempt to starve out Germany through its naval blockade. Many air raid cards produced in Germany express public sentiment with the words Gott Strase England! (God Punish England!), taken from a popular nationalist poem by Ernst Lissauer. As the front lines on the Western front became static, this alternative seemed more appealing.
It is always difficult to hit a target from the air as there a so many factors that can effect a falling objects trajectory as well as the target’s siting. The earliest bombs were not even bombs at all but artillery shells that had more of a tendency to drift as they fell. Zeppelins also carried larger ordinance such as torpedoes. Not all of these detonated on impact, and they became the subject of postcards. If dropped on soft or muddy ground, a large unexploded bomb might disappear into the earth leaving a noticeable crater behind. These curiosities were also captured on postcards. They are more often than not found on real photo cards because they tended to be of more local interest than national interest.
While early Zeppelin raids generated a lot of fear, they caused very little damage. By 1916 raids were being conducted by a multitude of craft that began to have a real effect on Britain’s industrial capacity. The worst of these raids took place over London in September 1916. Germany had hoped that the terror caused by these types of raids might knock Britain out of the War. Britain remained resolved but terror was struck. These craft appearing silently and unobserved in the darkness of night were a very effective weapon as of terror. No one felt safe as a bomb could just fall from the sky and explode anyplace anytime without warning. A great sense of personal violation was created. War had rules, it was to be conducted between soldiers on a battlefield, not against civilians asleep in their homes; and now this long standing social contract had been violated. This hatred gave airships a new name, Baby Killers. Fighter aircraft had to be removed from the front lines and repositioned to defend Britain’s coast to satisfy public outcry. Military necessity spoke against this move but politicians bowed to their constituents who felt they were left undefended.
Although Zeppelins were kept aloft by massive bags of highly flammable hydrogen, they were still not very easy to destroy. Anti-aircraft artillery proved ineffective against high altitude craft, and bullets fired at them from planes passed right through them. Bullet holes were nothing more than pinpricks relative to their size. Eventually incendiary ammunition was used against them but this too had little effect because too little gas leaked out of a small bullet hole to mix with the oxygen needed to ignite it. The first Zeppelin to be brought down by a plane on the Western Front occurred in June 1915 when bombs were dropped atop it as it descended. These circumstances however were very unusual as planes could not generally fly higher than airships.
Things had changed by September 1916 when the Germans launched 16 Zeppelins in a raid against London. The British were waiting for them and William Leefe-Robinson managed to shoot down a Zeppelin by using a combination of explosive and incendiary bullets that ripped open larger holes that would allow the gas to ignite. The raid was a huge disaster for Germany, and Leefe-Robertson became an instant celebrity with his portrait placed on many postcards.
While many early British postcards depicted Zeppelins ominously caught in the night sky by searchlights, this would change to cards showing these craft coming down in flames after Leefe-RobertsonŐs feat. The German’s remained undeterred but they continued to lose more airships at an increasingly alarming rate. Of the 115 Zeppelins built, almost half were lost during the war, though many of these were through accidents. Once the Zeppelins began to fall, many British publishers began producing postcards documenting actual raids. Some of the most prolific publishers were T. Mathews & Co. of Leicester, C-C, and the Photochrom Co. both of London.
To enhance their chances of survival, Zeppelins began flying at higher altitudes during raids, which usually put them out of range of enemy anti-aircraft guns that were not very effective to begin with. Airplane engines also became starved for oxygen at these heights and they could not properly engage Zeppelins in combat. Low oxygen levels and the extreme cold that came with it also adversely affected the performance of Zeppelin crews. Not only did they need to wear cumbersome uniforms, these conditions also had the effect of slowing brain activity, which led to accidents. Inaccurate targeting became even more inaccurate, though this did not diminish its value as a weapon of terror.
Despite the growing losses, large Zeppelin raids over England continued until October 1917. An explosion that destroyed the Zeppelin base at Ahlhorn in early 1918 greatly diminished Germany’s offensive capacity and only a few minor raids were launched afterwards. Weather had proved to be a bigger obstacle than anticipated with many missions never reaching their destination. Improved British defenses were also bringing down more aircraft and the cost benefit ratio of these attacks no longer made them worthwhile.
Although fifty-one raids had been launched against England, most Zeppelins were deployed for naval recognizance over the North and Baltic Seas. Not only were they instrumental in tracking enemy movements and guarding against raids, they often were able to discover mine laying activities and direct minesweepers in to neutralize them. These Zeppelins also came increasingly under attack as the British began deploying seaplanes to down them.
Towards the end of the War the British public had gotten somewhat used to Zeppelin attacks though they still saw air raids as an unfair way of engaging in combat. Though they never inspired the type of fear that would cause enough public to demand an end to the War, they did cause damage. When Zeppelin raids were suspended in 1918, the Gotha G.V. bomber took their place to ensure the destruction would continue. As these new bombers began to show marked results, they were included in strategic military planning.
Italy made extensive use of airships during the Great War, having twenty in service by War’s end. These however were not Zeppelins but semi-rigid dirigibles with a framed keel. While they were deployed from their bases at Jesi and Ferrara for reconnaissance and submarine watch, they entered the War to attack Sebenico in May 1915. They continued to be used aggressively to bomb Austro-Hungarian naval bases on the Adriatic as well as strategic rail lines and yards.
Italy managed to retained air superiority over their front with Austria-Hungry for most of the War. While this made it much safer for them to launch raids with airships, they still lost a number of craft. In June of 1915 an Austrian seaplane shot down the very first airship, an act that was captured on both Austrian and German postcards. Other seaplane attacks were made directly against their bases.
Zeppelins first saw service on the Balkan Front in the fall of 1915, but these were all German craft. They were first based in Bulgaria at Szentandras so that they could raid the Allies occupying Salonika. After Romania entered the War they were redeployed closer to that border to attack Bucharest.
Many airships were shot down during the War, and their burnt out frames were captured on Allied postcards when they fell behind the lines. Though the wreckage of these huge craft was massive, it often seemed pitifully small in comparison to a fully operational ship. Even so, wreckage postcards not only showed success in the air war, it humbled these behemoths. This was important to help counter all the fear they generated.
Zeppelin wreckage usually appears on postcards as an incomprehensible mass of twisted metal. On a rare occasion the metal frame was salvaged and reconstructed so it could be put on public display, as the one at Solonika pictured above. While it was very common to create public displays of war trophies to prove victories and raise morale, some of these efforts might have also involved fund raising.
Not all airships came down in a massive ball of flames; some were destroyed by nothing more than the weather. On these occasions some or all of the crew might survive. This type of drama was good subject matter for postcards, and the plight of stranded crews on land and in the sea were pictured. Since there was only a limited number of these incidents, cards capturing them are also fairly limited in number despite their marketability. While most of these cards present artist drawn rescue narratives, there are also photo-based cards that just document damaged airships.
After the signing the Treaty of Versailles, Germany was forced to destroy what remained of its military aircraft, and freeze all production for six months. By 1920 further restrictions would be imposed by the Military Inter-Allied Commission of Control. Existing Zeppelins were to be divided up between Britain, Belgium, France, and Italy as war reparations but many of their German crews destroyed their craft rather than surrender them.
A number of illustrated journals and pictorial weeklies were printed during the War years due to the decreasing costs in reproducing pictures. Though this trend dated back into the 19th century, illustrations in periodicals was not yet the norm in 1914, and so images on postcards were coveted. Many of these publications took the pictures from their own covers and pages and reproduced them in postcards form, especially when the subject matter generated much public interest as with aircraft. Many other illustration were never place on cards during the War, but they eventually made their way onto modern continentals but this time as curiosities, not news.