First strike?

No. But let me explain ...

One of the nice things about tutoring is that you're getting paid to learn things (unless you happen to know everything about whatever it is that you are tutoring already, which I don't). And one thing I've learned recently is that the First World War started because French aircraft bombed western Germany. That was the German claim, anyway. Here's the relevant part of the German declaration of war on France on 3 August 1914, a letter from the German ambassador, Baron Wilhelm von Schoen, to Raymond Poincaré, the President of France:

The German administrative and military authorities have established a certain number of flagrantly hostile acts committed on German territory by French military aviators.

Several of these have openly violated the neutrality of Belgium by flying over the territory of that country; one has attempted to destroy buildings near Wesel; others have been seen in the district of the Eifel; one has thrown bombs on the railway near Carlsruhe and Nuremberg.

I am instructed, and I have the honour to inform your Excellency, that in the presence of these acts of aggression the German Empire considers itself in a state of war with France in consequence of the acts of this latter Power.

I don't think there is any doubt now that these aerial incidents never happened, and were invented by Germany to excuse its preplanned and unprovoked invasion of France and Belgium. The French government immediately denied the charges -- though it would, wouldn't it?

But that denial didn't put the question to rest. There was some discussion in the letters columns of the New York Times in 1916, and in 1917 a Liberal MP, J. M. Robertson, published a pamphlet called German Truth and a Matter of Fact. This last seems reasonably convincing, as it is based on some unofficial German investigations which found no evidence for any prewar aerial incursions. And at the Paris Peace Conference in 1919, the (Allied) commission on war guilt dismissed the charges as 'entirely false'. As late as 1929, though, the inimitable Harry Elmer Barnes questioned this narrative of falsification (JSTOR, see also transcript at eccentric revisionist website). While Barnes didn't claim that the air raids had happened, he did argue that the French had tampered with the telegrams sent by Berlin to Schoen so as to mutilate the portions relating to claims of ground incursions by the French. Schoen was therefore unable to mention these in his declaration of war and had to rely on the (admittedly mistaken, though not falsified) bombing stories. The French denied that any such 'mutilation' took place.

Why air raids anyway? I was thinking that they were plausible claims which were difficult to disprove, since aeroplanes come and go without leaving much trace (other than the odd bomb crater), unlike, say, a fully-fledged cavalry incursion across the frontier. But if Barnes/Schoen are to be believed, Germany did claim that France violated its terra firma too. It may have been intended to tar France with the brush of frightfulness, though bombs falling harmlessly near a railway track don't really do much in that direction. Again, if the reports were mistakes and not simply made up, it could be that they were phantom-airship type reports made by members of the public, which would not be at all surprising given the German mobilisation and the expectation that war would soon begin. Though actual explosions are harder to explain, admittedly.

Anyway, it's an interesting sidelight on the July Crisis, and perhaps an anticipation of the later belief that the next war would begin in the air.

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2 thoughts on “First strike?

  1. Forgive me if you've written about this before, and coming from a position of total ignorance... but when were the standards of aerial territoriality established? Are there pre 1914 examples of aviators accidentally violating national boundaries?

  2. Post author

    That's a good question. I don't think the extension of territoriality to the air was formally established until just after the war, but it had been recognised in an international convention drafted at Paris in 1910 (see Flight's account). That wasn't ratified, but some countries nonetheless started making laws restricting entry into their airspace, including Britain in 1911 and 1913. I think most legal experts agreed that sovereignty of the air was implied by precedent; though Spaight in Aircraft in War (1914) notes that some jurists argued in favour of freedom of the air or an internationally-regulated commons.

    There was at least one famous example of an accidental violation -- in June 1913 the Germany military Zeppelin LZ16 crossed the border near Lunéville in fog, and landed in a French army training ground! This wasn't used as a pretext for war; but the airship was only returned after experts spent a day crawling all over it, measuring everything in sight.

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