From the end of the 19th century, the progress made by aviation in the field of lighter than air vessels (rigid or flexible dirigibles) made it possible to envisage the bombardment of land-based targets from the air. It is for this reason that the 1899 Hague Conference considers this topic: the outcome is a ban on any aerial bombardment for a period of five years. The same ban is unfortunately not renewed during the second conference in 1907. In the meantime, the technological advances made by the heavier than air vessels (airplanes) appear very promising to the military. The second Hague Convention therefore only includes a ban on bombarding undefended communities.
Four years later, it is Italy that has the sad privilege of becoming the first nation to use aerial bombardment. The first bombs – projectiles weighing 2 kg – are dropped near Tripoli in November 1911, during the Italian-Turkish war This is quickly followed by the whole series of other "firsts": daytime and nighttime bombardments, first guidance of naval artillery fire, first photographs taken from an airplane, first airplane lost while on operations.
France and Spain are quick to follow Italy's example, respectively in 1912 and 1913, as part of their colonial operations in Morocco. Simultaneously, the Greeks and Bulgarians do the same during the Balkan wars. Even before the Great War, aviation has therefore become a weapon of war. Belgium contributes as well: in 1912, two Belgian pilots are the first in history to fire a machine gun at a land-based target from their aircraft, above the Brasschaat firing ground.
Previously, aviation had only dropped projectiles on the Turkish army or "indigenous people", as part of what would now be referred to as "asymmetrical" wars.Even though they take place in Europe, the conflicts in the Balkans are also seen to be wars between not very "civilized" people.And if all that were to happen in Western Europe?
German raids on Belgium (1914)
In the night of 5 to 6 August 1914, a shadow 140 m long floats slowly above the city of Liège. It becomes the first European city to be bombarded, the first in a list that is much too long. The Belgian defence manages to damage the zeppelin, which crashes near Bonn. But the giant dirigible killed 9 civilians before withdrawing: the first civilian victims of the aerial Great War. In the night of 24 to 25 August, Antwerp is next to be bombarded by a German dirigible: approximately 10 people are regrettably killed, including women and children. Other Belgian cities follow in keeping with the German advance, notably Bruges and Ostend.
From a purely legal viewpoint, such bombardment does not necessarily violate all of the Hague Conventions. Aerial bombardment is in fact prohibited only against cities said to be "free", i.e. not protected. Given that Liège and Antwerp are held by the Belgians and surrounded by a ring of forts, the Germans can claim that they are military targets. But the forts aren't targeted: the projectiles are thrown at random in the middle of two cities, they can therefore only hit civilians. It is striking to note that even German postcards don't attempt to convince anyone of the contrary. They don't hesitate to show the dirigibles floating above residences, and even exaggerate their destructive effect by showing the cities in flames. At the very most, on the cards illustrating the effects of the explosions, German artists take care to show military victims along with the inhabitants. Just like Germany, all of the major powers quickly consider that article 25 of the 1907 Hague Convention is outdated, and call for the application to aerial warfare of the 1907 International Naval Convention. For the latter, it isn't important whether or not the city is defended, but simply whether it has a "military purpose"… bombarding civilians has become legal.
For certain number of Belgians, and quickly for other Europeans, the first contact with the violence of war is therefore behind the front, upon seeing the civilians killed from the air. This is the case of young Edouard Froidure. He's 15 years old in January 1915, when a German airplane drops a bomb in Coxyde, near the family garden: "I did my best to help people pick up a woman who had been showered with bursts, and to lay her on a makeshift stretcher. My heart was beating: for the first time, I encountered the horror of war: blood everywhere, screaming and panic. I couldn't turn my eyes away from the motionless body, broken and bleeding, with life ebbing away from second to second. That day, death came for non-combatants; I understood the full drama" .
For certain number of Belgians, and quickly for other Europeans, the first contact with the violence of war is therefore behind the front, upon seeing the civilians killed from the air.
The German raids on the Belgian front and its rear (1915-1918)
Like every other part of the front, the Yser is patrolled for the entire war by German bombers targeting the trench system, the communication arteries leading to it and the traffic circulating on them, as well as communities behind the lines. In addition to the concerns about artillery bombardments, there is now a new enemy, that strikes more rarely but every bit as slyly. On the front, combatants grow accustomed, more or less quickly, to the sound made by shells as they travel through the air, which makes it possible – to a certain degree – to have an idea where they will fall. Bombs, on the other hand, seem to fall vertically, right on top of you. This impression is even stronger when the bomber flies above its target for a few minutes before deciding to attack, which give the soldier the idea that he is being personally targeted.
Less murderous than shells, bombs nevertheless cause more fear. This is not always unreasonable, as Gustave Groleau confirms in February 1915. On the 26th, in La Panne and Furnes, he witnesses no fewer than three bombardments. The second of the day kills several civilians:
"In the afternoon, having nothing to do, I went for a walk with some fellows from Bracquegnies. But the German planes are still passing overhead and dropping bombs. One of them explodes 100 m from me, and kills an old man. Another, that blows up 20 m from me, kills a recruit from Montebourg and wounds another; it also kills a doctor and his daughter, and destroys a wall section".
It is therefore hardly surprising, when Groleau indicates, with regard to a German bombardment of Poperinghe in March 1915 by two aircraft: "As they fly over, everyone quickly hides" . In the coming years, these modest incursions become raids involving a growing number of enemy aircraft, like the one on 15 October 1917 on Belgian trenches: "Twenty or so German planes are flying over our lines. They're dropping bombs on our defences. Others, flying lower, strafe our trenches and galleries". The development of antiaircraft defences increases with the threat: fighter planes, antiaircraft cannon, machine guns and, at night, spotlights: "At around 8 PM, Hun planes were dropping bombs on our camps over by the Gapaard […]. Fourteen spotlights were following them and artillery was firing without a break", Groleau writes again on 9 November 1917.
It should finally be noted that, in 1918, the German aviation bombards not only the unoccupied zone but also… a community in occupied Belgium. It was the village of Havay, in Hainaut, that was chosen by the Germans as a training ground for their heavy bombers, so that they could train in a real situation. Havay was evacuated and then blown to pieces by very large calibre bombs, that were tested before being used in operations. From Mons, in August 1918, Adolphe Hambye expresses his anger at this destruction: "Some friends who visited Havay, the place chosen as the training ground for German aviators and miners, report that this destroyed village looks like Pompeii. The church, the town hall, the houses and farms are all in ruins. The roofs have been thrown off, walls knocked down. Anything not knocked over by the bombs collapsed after the explosion of the mines or the fire that finished off the extermination efforts of our dear occupiers. Visiting the ruins of this cheerful and prosperous village, your chest tightens and you can't help but feel an inordinate desire for vengeance" .
Visiting the ruins of this cheerful and prosperous village, your chest tightens and you can't help but feel an inordinate desire for vengeance.
Allied raids on Belgium
At the start of the war, Belgian territory was briefly the base for several English bombers. During the siege of Antwerp, British aircraft therefore made several sorties from the city in order to bombard the zeppelin hangars in the Rhineland. One of them finally succeeded on 8 October 1914, when a German dirigible is hit by a bomb in Düsseldorf.
Another sortie of the same type is carried out in Belgium, leaving from Dunkirk on 7 June 1915. English airplanes bombard Evere and destroy another zeppelin there. Belgian territory is now a target for the allies, just as much an enemy territory. Since the French aviation is concentrating more on targets close to the front or located in Germany, the bulk of the aerial bombardments of Belgium are carried out by two British aviation corps: the "Royal Flying Corps" (part of the army) and the "Royal Naval Service" (branch of the navy). Both go after their objectives without too much consultation, until their merger in April 1918 under the name of the Royal Air Force.
The British primarily target the German navy and port installations on the Belgian coast (Zeebrugge, Ostend), munitions warehouses, railway stations and tracks as well as airbases, notably (but not exclusively) the ones accommodating the units attacking English cities. German raids on British territory – that caused 1400 victims – are initially carried out by zeppelins, and later by heavy bombers: the famous Gothas but also the very impressive Zeppelin-Staaken, often called Riesenflugzeuge (giant planes), some of which will drop the first one tonne bombs on London. The aircraft bombard England from Belgium, notably from five bases around Ghent: Gontrode, Mariakerke, Oostakker, Scheldewindeke and St-Denijs-Westrem. Gontrode also accommodated zeppelins, just like Evere, Berchem-Sainte-Agathe and Namur. These are all priority targets for Allied pilots.
The problem is that while certain targets are fairly far from homes, others, on the contrary (ports of Ostend and Bruges, train stations throughout the country), require great accuracy in order to avoid what is now known as "collateral damage". However, as clearly shown by historian George K. Williams, aerial bombardments during the Great War are totally devoid of any accuracy, despite what it says in certain reports that end up on the desks of the general staffs and in the archives. It is true that the equipment is improving: the Short Bombers are succeeded by the much more modern Sopwith 1 ½ Strutters and then, until the end of the war, the fast two-seat De Havilland DH-4 and DH-9 aircraft, as well as the three-seat Handley-Page heavy bombers, 0/100 then 0/400. But aerial bombardment is not just a question of equipment, much of which is often fragile and suffering from growing pains and various technical problems. Poorly trained crews, non-existent or non-used aiming equipment, underdeveloped tactics, unpredictable weather and finally enemy fighter planes and antiaircraft artillery make any accuracy very hypothetical, even by day. Just imagine the situation during the many night bombing runs! In this case, sometimes even getting close to the target is a genuine exploit, even when the moon cooperates. The most famous memoirs by a British bombardier pilot, Charles P.O. Bartlett, make no reflection whatsoever on the risks facing civilians as a result of such bombardments. And yet, Bartlett remains on the front for a very long time, from the autumn of 1916 until the spring of 1918. He therefore accumulates more experience than most of his colleagues: indeed, they have slim chances of avoiding a physical or mental breakdown for long, or even death at the hands of the enemy or an accident.
In the best case, attacks on targets too close to Belgian communities resulted in property damage. This is the case, for example, during the night of 9 to 10 October 1918, when an airplane wishing to attack the Marche-en-Famenne train station drops its bombs on residential neighbourhoods. No human victims, even though six homes are heavily damaged and more than 30 being hit to varying degrees: more fear than harm.
But luck only goes so far, especially in the case of communities that are frequently targeted. There are no figures regarding human losses for the entire Belgian territory, but certain communities are well documented, such as Ostend. One inhabitant dies during the first raid on the city in January 1915. The first massive bombardment occurs the following year, on 15 November: it involves approximately 20 Short, Caudron and Sopwith bombers, including the one flown by Bartlett. After this mission, he writes: "It was the biggest attack up to now in terms of the tonnage of bombs dropped, and it seems likely that heavy damage was inflicted. I saw a big fire to the west of the docks. All in all, an inestimable show of force that I really appreciated" . He is nevertheless honest enough to acknowledge that he can't be certain about having dropped his 12 bombs on the navy workshops, "given an inability to observe the impacts". In reality, the British bombers primarily damaged no fewer than 137 homes, with 5 civilians killed and 33 other inhabitants wounded. Other examples are known: the city of Bruges laments at least 49 deaths in 1917 (including 7 children killed in front of a popular soup site), and more than 67 killed in 1918. For its part, Mouscron loses 33 habitants due to Allied raids, including two entire families (5 and 6 persons) and a group of 4 children, unlucky enough to be playing too close to the railway.
The list could be extended, but these statistics nevertheless have their limits. By excessively concentrating on the number of deaths, we forget the trauma of the wounded and survivors, and more generally the fear of the population. At the start of the war, air raids were something of a novelty, attracting the attention of passersby in the street. But curiosity quickly gives way to fear. Several air raid alarms can come one after another during the same day or at night, plunging families into a state of anxiety, even though the morning light may show that no bombs had actually fallen nearby. Even in the absence of victims, the destruction of homes is particularly damaging during wartime: the destruction of the countryside in 1914, the requisitions of buildings by the Germans and the need to accommodate Belgian and French refugees are already seriously limiting the accommodation capacity of communities.
Painful and irritating bombardments
The damages and especially the killed and wounded caused by Allied bombardments are a gift to the German authorities, who wish to publicize them as much as possible. They do not hesitate to attempt to benefit, often shamelessly, from the distress of the families of the victims, such as to depict the Allies as killers of women and children. The community authorities often have to fight strongly in order to oppose any exploitation of funeral services, such as in Lichtervelde in September 1915, after a raid that killed 13 civilians including several children. The occupying authorities fully grasp the interest value of the event and reproduce photos of the destruction and burial of the victims in the form of postcards. The censored press complacently reports all of the numbers provided by the occupier, as Jean Schaeger in Huy notes in August 1917 : "Each day, the censored newspapers list the names of Belgians killed or wounded by aerial attacks carried out by the Allies!!!" . Our year later, in late July 1918, L. Picon makes the same observation in Brussels: "The Germans posted a list of Belgians killed and wounded by Allied aircraft in the regions of Ypres, Bruges and Ostend" . That same week, the same author points out that the occupation authorities don't hesitate to exaggerate in order to persuade civilians that Allied bombardments in Germany are fatal for many Belgian workers: "A total of 800 Belgians were killed in the explosion at the Krupp factory. This operation cost the Allies 18 planes". Over the months, the Belgians discover the measures that will be needed again in 25 years: blackout, i.e. covering the windows with paper in order to make them opaque and to limit the risks caused by broken glass, the installation of sirens for alarms, the usage of cellars and air raid shelters. The German occupier likes to present the measures that it imposes as a reflection of its desire to protect the population, even though these precautions are primarily intended so that the enemy won't be able to use landmarks in order to reach military targets.
Not surprisingly, Belgian civilians don't see the situation through the eyes of the Germans. A convenient way of turning the fault back on the occupier is to accuse the antiaircraft artillery of being responsible for part or all of the damage resulting from a raid. This method is not as much of a caricature as one would think: the defence often fires without worrying about consequences, whether shells that only explode once they fall back to the ground or shell bursts flying in every direction. The resulting damages and even deaths are quite real, though the Belgians are often guilty of bad faith in the way that they exaggerate them. They certainly have a need to do so: the greater the number of raids and victims, the more the Belgian civilians find it difficult to tolerate the fear of being killed not by the enemy, but by the Allies. The air attacks accompanying the final offensives, starting in the summer of 1918, attract the growing disapproval of the inhabitants. They fear being killed just before the end of the conflict, in raids that are of debatable utility.
You could tell from the droning that the planes were flying very low, throwing bombs here and there, with the always incorrect aim that would only serve to cause regrettable damage, without any military utility.
Mons and the Borinage are bombed several times in October 1918. One raid, on Quaregnon, lands on farmers and breeders complying with a requisition for horses for the German army: the spectacle is frightening, dozens of cadavers of men and horses lying here and there in the midst of the wounded. Another raid, on Mons, spreads destruction in the town centre and kills eight people. The honorary notary Adolphe Hambye, who had previously applauded Allied bombardments, then vents his exasperation after these murderous episodes: "The Allied aviators haven't come today. They've probably recognised that their visits are more harmful to us than useful. In fact, each time that they come to drop bombs on us, they only cause more victims and regrettable damage" . But the break is only brief, and the strikes resume with renewed vigour until the armistice. On 5 November, Hambye writes again: "The visits from Allied aircraft caused a truly frightening thunder of artillery. The one at 11 PM, that lasted for at least 3 quarters of an hour, spread alarm throughout our horrified population. You could tell from the droning that the planes were flying very low, throwing bombs here and there, with the always incorrect aim that would only serve to cause regrettable damage, without any military utility." . Just like Mons, every community for which the front is getting closer is therefore visited in October and/or November 1918 : Chimay, for example, has its train station bombed. The city of Châtelet, for its part, is bombed three times from the air in November 1918, including twice just on the 4th. The result is the deaths of 10 or so civilians and an equal number of wounded, for only two or three German victims. The neighbouring community of Châtelineau laments several wounded, one of whom later dies. Certain more distant railway hubs suffer the same fate: this is the case of the city of Namur, bombed several times in the last week of the war. Once again, the raids targeting bridges and railways kill civilians.
The liberation will temporarily remove these images from the collective memory of the Belgians. Between the joy of being liberated and the deserved gratitude for Allied soldiers, little room is left for bad memories. Such memories are therefore totally absent from the war diaries touched up after the conflict, and can only be uncovered in the newspapers from each day that have not been altered. One really has to wonder if the Belgian families who lost loved ones during Allied bombardments were able to share in the joy of the victory with their neighbours. Moreover, the experiences of civilians during bombardments in the Great War raise a number of questions that are every bit as current 100 years later. During the First Gulf War, the aerial strikes were only "surgical" on television screens. One hundred years after history's first aerial bombardment, Tripoli was again bombed in 2011. These days, drones fly day and night and, from time to time, spread death in the name of the battle against terrorism. How many civilian victims can be killed in order to reach one target? Is the destruction of this target legally or morally justifiable? It is useful both from a tactical and strategic viewpoint? There isn't only one right answer to these questions, but asking them isn't useless.