Academic journal article Air & Space Power Journal

Expectation and Reality: The Great War in the Air

Academic journal article Air & Space Power Journal

Expectation and Reality: The Great War in the Air

Article excerpt

In 1883, one year before the invention of the dirigible, Albert Robida's book War in the Twentieth Century envisaged a sudden, crushing air strike, while Ivan S. Bloch's 1898 treatise on warfare expected bombardment from airships in the near future. With the evolution of airships-in particular, the flights of Count Ferdinand von Zeppelin's dirigibles toward the end of the first decade of the twentieth century-speculation increased about the prospects for their military usage. In England, flight portended a new avenue of assault on an island nation hitherto immune to the land invasion that threatened continental European powers. Press magnate Alfred Harmsworth, Lord Northcliffe, had recognized that "England was no longer an island" when Alberto Santos-Dumont flew in France in 1906, although his conception of the threat as "aerial chariots of a foe descending upon England" indicated a more classical and less realistic appraisal of its nature.

Writers speculated on the potential effect of powered flight on war, and perhaps the most famous of these was H. G. Wells's work The War in the Air, inspired by zeppelin flights in Germany and published in 1908. In the story, the Germans launch an attack with huge airships and flying machines called Drachenflieger against the United States. This aerial armada first decides a battle in the North Atlantic between German and American naval dreadnoughts by bombing the American battleships to destruction. It then soars on to New York and bombs the city to ruin and conflagration, leaving the dead in heaps and New York a "furnace of crimson flames, from which there was no escape." This lurid picture prefigured the fire raids of World War II.

Yet, Wells predicted that airships could not conclude wars because they could not transport occupation forces. Wars would consequently become "interminable" and worldwide, ultimately leading to the collapse of civilization. In the course of the world conflagration, the best airplanes and airships belonged not to Western powers but to the Asiatic Confederation; and Japanese pilots, carrying swords, sliced their German adversaries like sausages on the ground after blowing them out of the air.

In two books published in 1907, German prognosticator Rudolf Martin proclaimed that Germany's future lay in the air. In a monstrous aerial struggle between Germany and a ruthless Russian dictator, a Greater German Confederation would conquer the West and particularly the East into Asia Minor. Martin differed from Wells in that Germany's fleet of airships could transport entire armies of a half-million men to the attack and conquest of foreign lands. Like Wells, Martin deemed airships vastly superior to airplanes as military vehicles, in particular because they could carry much larger payloads of bombs and men.

In France, Emile Driant-infantry officer, parliamentary deputy, and novelist-foresaw an era of terrible wars enabled by the new technologies. Like most Frenchmen, he preferred the airplane to the airship and foresaw far greater possibilities for it as a troop carrier and an instrument of attack. In February 1916, in such a terrible war as he had predicted, Colonel Driant would fall leading his chasseurs against the initial German attack on the French fortress of Verdun.

Artists invariably depicted the airplanes in these fantasies as similar to the Wright brothers' invention or occasionally as multiwinged insect-like machines, so prediction did not necessarily entail a realistic image of what heavier-than-air machines would become. The predictions in general did envisage aviators of the future in heroic terms, as a new warrior elite.

Other cultural effects predicted by these soothsayers ranged from German engineer N. Stern's proclamations in his book Die Eroberung der Luft (1909) that the airplane would help avoid war and bind nations together and unify diverse peoples, to German author Paul Scheerbart's observations in his work Die Entwicklung der Luftmilitarismus und die Au flisung der Europiischen LandHeere, Festungen, und Seeflotten (1909) that aerial militarism would lead to the dissolution of armies and navies through fears of aerial war. …

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