Christmas 1914 set precedents for a sustained breach of international law.
Sentimentalists and supermarkets will celebrate the centenary of Christmas 1914 as a symbol of hope and humanity against the madness of war. But while truces may sell chocolate bars, this month marks a more important and less politically palatable anniversary: 100 years of nations - including civilised democracies - defying international conventions against the bombardment of civilians from the air.
Sorry to be undiplomatic, but the Germans started it. In August 1914 Paris became the first national capital to come under sustained attack from aircraft when the German army began sending Taube monoplanes daily to scatter small bombs on crowds invariably gazing upwards at the spectacle. The French retaliated in November, with attacks aimed at targets such as railway junctions.
Both belligerents could claim right on their side: Paris was at least pretending to be a fortified city and was thus a legitimate target and the French bombers were aiming for (though not often hitting) sites of military utility. And neither party had ratified the 1907 Hague declaration which extended a visionary 1899 prohibition on ‘the discharge of projectiles or explosives from balloons or by other new methods of a similar nature’.
The Hague convention also prohibited ‘the attack or bombardment by whatever means of towns, villages, habitations or buildings which are not defended’. This was supposed to be a declaration of ‘existing laws and customs of war’ and thus binding on all nations.
It failed. A century ago this Christmas, humankind began on a slippery slope that was to lead to Guernica, Coventry, Hamburg, Dresden, Tokyo and Hiroshima. At 1045 on Christmas Eve, a German seaplane dropped two 2kg bombs on a vegetable patch where Dover auctioneer Tommy Terson was picking sprouts for his Christmas lunch.
Terson suffered only minor injuries; I don't know what happened to the sprouts. The German pilot was probably aiming for Dover Castle or the harbour, but the following day another plane dumped its bombs on the 13th-century village church at Cliffe, north Kent, where a Christmas wedding was in progress.
From then, partly out of necessity - the difficulty of hitting military installations - and partly in keeping with the German General Staff's doctrine of Schrecklichkeit (‘frightfulness’ - or ‘shock and awe’) the bombing campaign became increasingly targeted at civilians. Raids by airships (technically they were not all ‘Zeppelins’) began in January 1915. Famously, Kaiser Wilhelm at first ordered no bombs to be dropped west of Charing Cross, to spare his cousins in Buckingham Palace, but attempts at discriminatory targeting went out of the window when daylight raids became too dangerous. Indeed one night-time raider aiming for London managed to hit Hull.
By the end of 1916, hydrogen-filled airships had proved vulnerable to explosive bullets (themselves banned under the Hague convention) and were replaced by twin-engined ‘Gotha’ and later four-engined ‘Giant’ bombers. Some pretence was made that these were attacking docks and railway stations, but the reality was indiscriminate bombing, for example of Upper North Street School, Poplar, where 18 children were killed.
In the final resort, a plan to destroy London by comprehensive firebombing was thwarted only by a lack of aircraft and the 1918 armistice. (For an authoritative account, see The First Blitz by Neil Hanson, Doubleday.) Meanwhile, the newly formed Royal Air Force was preparing its own strategic bombing offensive against Berlin, which would become a terrible reality 25 years hence.
Looking back through the telescope of history, the birth of strategic bombing in the Great War appears a feeble, almost comedic, effort. Just a few yards from where I’m sitting, a monument in Stone Buildings, off Chancery Lane, marks the site of a bomb dropped in December 1917: to victims of the next war, the idea of memorialising individual bombs would seem impossibly quaint. When I walk by, my main emotion is invariably admiration for the airmanship and courage of the Gotha crews in reaching London that freezing December night. Raiders frequently suffered 50% casualties, mainy due to mechanical failure and bad weather rather than British bullets and the bombers had no capacity for parachutes.
But at least 1,400 civilians were killed in the 1914-18 air raids and their families and friends would not have regarded the bombardment as feeble. Neither did the British government, which concluded that the next war would be won by strategic bombing.
Of course it’s pleasant to celebrate the Christmas truces of 1914, which undoubtedly took place even if the Anglo-German football match probably didn’t. But, historically speaking, there was nothing unusual about the ceasefires.
European armies finding themselves in proximity over Christmas have observed truces since time immemorial – largely because of the practical difficulty of fighting in winter. In that respect, the truces of 1914 were not some harbinger of international solidarity but the last gasp of pre-industrial warfare. One reason they were not repeated - except in the most fleeting local circumstances - was that after 1914 warfare could be prosecuted directly from the air, where there is no fellow-feeling for the man in the opposite trench and where the only effective constraint against barbarism is the threat of massive retaliation.
We’re still in that world today.
Michael Cross is Gazette news editor