This photo purportedly shows a British military aeroplane dropping leaflets on the streets of Coventry in early December 1917. I suspect it's a fake, a composite, or else it's a bit odd that nobody seems to have noticed all that horsepower roaring just overhead.1 But the event it shows did happen. According to the Daily Mirror,
A considerable number of aeroplanes flew over Coventry yesterday [2 December 1917] at low altitudes, distributing a quantity of literature pointing out the necessity for an increase in aeroplane production.2
A local paper, the Midland Daily Telegraph, provided more detail:
Throughout Sunday a fleet of aeroplanes hovered the city distributing profuse showers of handbills pointing out the vital need for an increase in aeroplane production [...] The doings of the aviators were watched with great interest, and there were frequently exciting scrambles amongst the crowds for the messages which came floating into the streets and gardens of the city.3
So, what was going on?
Propaganda from the air began surprisingly early. The first time seems to have been in 1870 during the siege of Paris, when French balloons carrying mail out of the city took the opportunity to drop defiant messages onto the Prussian lines below. Leaflets were dropped in the First World War too, of course, the most famous example probably being during D'Annunzio's flight over Vienna in August 1918.
But there was also something of a wartime vogue for leaflet drops in more civilian contexts. In July 1917, for example, at a National Baby Week event in Grimsby, 'a naval airman circled over [People's Park] repeatedly, "bombing" the cheering crowds with showers of leaflets and pamphlets upon baby-rearing'.4 On 22 December, 'the Countess of Drogheda flew an aeroplane over Dublin [...] and dropped leaflets in the steets referring to the opening of an air service exhibition in aid of the Red Cross'.5 In January 1918, the war artist C. R. W. Nevinson mused that 'If I could fly over London on the opening morning of my show chucking out handbills on the heads of “men in the street” this would start great publicity in the press', although in the event he was unable to do so.6
While in one sense, dropping leaflets from the air was just a quick (if dirty) way of distributing printed propaganda over a large area, it also involved an element of aerial theatre: the spectacular nature of the delivery system drew attention to itself, and was part of the point. You can see the propaganda coming down, you know that it's being dropped from an aeroplane. Moreover, the Countess was using aerial propaganda to promote an aerial exhibition; and Nevinson had produced some notable paintings on aerial subjects. So there was an aerial connection in those cases, which perhaps suggested or justified the use of aircraft for domestic propaganda.
That was true at Coventry, too, because it was a key centre for Britain's aircraft industry. On 26 November 1917, about 50,000 industrial workers across the city went out on strike, affecting most importantly of all the aircraft industry. The origin was White and Poppe, a successful engine manufacturer before 1914 which expanded into munitions but also aircraft wing production during the war, with a workforce of 13,500 by November 1918. At issue was management's refusal to recognise and negotiate with shop stewards. This in itself was an aftershock of the national wave of industrial action in May 1917 which involved 200,000 workers and which led to the formation of stop steward committees around Britain.
Six days into the strike, after a failed mediation attempt by the mayor of Coventry, and while representatives of both sides were meeting with senior government figures in London, the leaflets came fluttering down from the sky. There seem to have been two different messages. The shortest and most straightforward said:
Make the Machines! We will Fly them!
Aeroplanes are going to Win the War!
The other was much more elaborate, being a reprint of an article from The Times, 'What the Coventry strike means', written by Boyd Cable. This was the nom-de-plume of a RFC officer, Captain Edward Andrew Ewart, lately returned from the Ypres salient, and he saw the meaning of the strike purely in terms of its effects on the battlefield:8
We know that the Germans are straining every nerve to equal or exceed our aeroplane production this winter. If they can beat us in this, next year their machines will be able fly constantly over our lines, reconnoitre, photograph, gain full knowledge of troop movements, locate battery positions, and by air observation direct the fire of their guns on our trenches, our communications, our batteries, and our ammunition dumps [...] it will mean that we in the line next year must expect find flights of Germans regularly patrolling for anything up to 50 miles behind our lines (as we now do behind theirs), reconnoitring, swooping down and pouring machine-gun fire on men in billets or rest-camps or marching on the roads, bombing day after day towns and villages and railheads and ammunition dumps (as we now bomb theirs). Our attacks will have to be made without the enormous advantage we have held all this year of superior counter-battery work; our infantry will go over the top in the face of a tornado of shell-fire because our airmen will have lost the power to fly over the enemy batteries and direct our guns' fire on them and silence them, will have to fight through in the teeth of the murderous fire of thousands of machine-guns secure in their concrete pill-boxes because of the same loss of our artillery, observation and destroying power [...] All this must happen if we lose our present air superiority, and we must lose our air superiority if the present strike continues.9
Ultimately, in Cable's view, the strike could mean the failure of next year's offensives, and 'another year to be spent in the trenches instead of the conclusive victory next summer which most of us out there fully and confidently expect'.10
On 4 December, the day after the second leaflet drop, the Coventry aircraft workers did go back to work. How much the propaganda directed at them influenced this is impossible to say, but their stewards seemed to have been satisfied with the high-level promises of negotiation on all their grievances, as a gesture of recognition. But someone, somewhere, must have thought dropping leaflets on them might have an effect on the strikers, and I'll discuss this in a later post.
Image source: clipping, source unknown but originally Coventry Graphic.
The 'spectators' include some Australian soldiers, judging from the slouch hats. ↩
Quoted in Michael J. K. Walsh, '"This Tumult in the Clouds": C. R. W. Nevinson and the Development of the "Airscape"', British Art Journal 5 (2004): 85. Thanks to Michael for bringing his article to my attention. ↩
At least, as printed in The Times and dropped from the air; a version appearing in the Midland Daily Telegraph covered much more ground, including the argument that losing air superiority would mean that next year's Gotha raids would make 'this year's look like mere child's play': 30 November 1917, 2. Nearly two decades later Cable wrote a series of magazine articles on the dangers of a knock-out blow from the air. ↩
The Times, 30 November 1917, 6. ↩
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