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Pre-War Literature and Attitudes Toward Aerial Bombardment

In the decades preceding the First World War, future war fiction brought the concept of war in the air to the forefront of public imagination. The stories focused on the possibilities of weaponised flying machines, and the danger of failing to acknowledge their potential.
Top of an Australian poster. A German Zeppelin is caught in the
beams of two searchlights © IWM (Art.IWM PST 12259).
The art of posters around the war in the air often drew upon the
images depicted – in word and in image -in the pre-war novels.

Jules Verne was an early contributor to the fiction of air warfare. In 1886 he published ‘The Clipper of the Clouds’, introducing the anarchic inventor Robur and his electric-powered helicopter-type vessel, the Albatross. After convincing fellow aeronauts of the merits of heavier than air flying machines, Robur disappears at the end of the story. He refuses to share his invention with the world, claiming it would only be abused.

In 1904 Verne published a sequel, ‘The Master of the World’. This time, reflecting Verne’s growing suspicion of technology, a far less benevolent Robur pilots a submarine-like flying machine with wings called the Terrible. After looming menacingly over the world’s cities, he and his machine are outlawed and he dies in an electrical storm. Verne only hints at the destructive power of the Terrible but the threat it poses to the public, and their vulnerability to it, are implicit.
Many novels saw flying machines used as part of traditional military practice. In W. Graham Moffat and John White’s ‘What’s the World Coming To?’ published in 1893, a great European war of the 21stcentury opens with the French using airships to bomb the other European armies. They cite the military functions of flying machines as “not only to reconnoitre the enemy’s position but also for carrying and dropping into enemy lines and country large bombs charged with high explosive”. But gradually a new idea took hold in future war fiction – that rather than fighting one another or attacking military targets, flying machines might be used to destroy enemy cities in order to spread panic and disorder.
Two novels of 1895, ‘The Outlaws of the Air’ by George Griffiths, and ‘Hartmann and the Anarchist’ by E. Douglas Fawcett, both end with the attempted destruction of London by aerial attack.
Air war fiction also existed in the boys’ magazines of the early 20th century. In the 1902 story, ‘To Save the King’ by Maxwell Scott, two would-be assassins attempt to kill the royal family by bombing Sandringham using a balloon. And in the 1903 story ‘A World at Stake’ by Reginald Wray, Germany tries to cripple Britain’s armaments industry by bombing Woolwich Arsenal.
National War Savings Committee Poster 
No. 115.(1918) © IWM (Art.IWM PST 10424)

However, the majority of future war literature about air warfare held the common assumption that the aerial bombardment, or the threat of such action, against civilian populations would only be carried out by madmen or anarchists like Robur or the fanatics of the Griffiths and Fawcett novels.

‘The War in the Air’ by H G Wells, published in 1908, stepped away from this assumption. In ‘The War in the Air’, New York is destroyed by a German air fleet, manned not by lunatics but by professional soldiers. Wells recognised that there were no moral limitations in an age of total war. Any means were justified by the end.
In this view, Wells showed a greater level of understanding than the nations attending the Second Peace Conference at the Hague in 1907, who signed a declaration prohibiting aerial bombardment. Notably Germany did not sign. (See an earlier post around that here).
Germany took heed of the events of the American Civil War. Sherman’s destruction of Atlanta raised morale in the North and crushed defiance in the Confederacy. After the war, Chancellor Bismarck took advice from American general Philip Sheridan, who urged the need to cause the people ‘so much suffering that they must long for peace, and force their governments to demand it’. This approach would heavily influence German strategy in the First World War.
Written by Cassie Pope, Project Volunteer

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