Book Review – French Strategic and Tactical Bombardment Forces of World War 1

French Strategic and Tactical Bombardment Forces of World War 1. Translated from the original ‘L’Aviation Francaise de Bombardement (Des Origines au 11 Novembre 1918)’ of René Martel (published by Paul Hartmann, Paris, 1939), by Allen Suddaby, edited by Steven Suddaby. Lanham MD. Scarecrow Press, 2007. 461pp.

As the publishers tell us, this the first English language version of a classic French work originally published in 1939, which, judging from a fairly cursory Web search, is still cited as a standard reference by French historians. Given Anglophone historiography’s at times seeming indifference to the French view of the French part in a war ultimately global in scope but fought primarily on French soil, and at its heart another round in the great Franco-Prussian conflict that lasted from – at least – 1792 to 1945, it is therefore to be welcomed. It deserves a double welcome for its concentration on the development of the bomber arm, at least in intent, as a strategic rather than a purely battlefield force where the skies are already fairly crowded with stories of Ball, Guynemer, Richthofen and so on.

It is a book that can be read at a number of levels, and from various perspectives, not limited to the 1914-1918 conflict, although its immediate appeal is likely to be to the hard core First World War aviation specialist, who will find, as promised by the title, the comprehensive chronicle of the activities of French bomber forces. ‘Chronicle’ seems an appropriate term for those substantial sections of text which comprise a largely raid by raid account of the doings of the aviators-although hindsight in the light of the experience of later wars may leave one wondering whether the relative effectiveness claimed for Allied and German raids might not reflect a degree of wishful thinking concerning a set of campaigns where both sides seem all too often to have been engaged in an elaborate and potentially lethal- to the immediate participants-version of ‘Are you there Moriarty?’. There are a number of references to the operations of British ‘strategic’ bomber squadrons based in Eastern France from the early days of the Avro 504Ks raiding the Zeppelin bases in southern Germany through to the HP1500s which we last encounter planning a move from French to Czech bases for a campaign against Berlin that was aborted by the signing of the Armistice. And there is a section devoted to French bombing efforts away from the Western Front in Salonika, and in support of the ultimate campaign up through Macedonia and Bulgaria, offering parallels with the RAF’s efforts against the Turkish retreat through Palestine- or with 2TAF in the Falaise Gap, or, for that matter, with Allied Air forces over the highway out of Kuwait in 1991.

But its value reaches further than that. The roots of French Military Aviation are traced to the colonial wars in Morocco in 1912, where the technical edge that might be provided by powered heavier than air flying machines was being explored more or less contemporaneously by Italian and Turkish aviators further to the east of the Mediterranean basin in Tripolitania. Ironists of the application of air power in such conflicts may particularly appreciate the pioneering role reported here of a Vietnamese aviator in French service less than 40 years before the decisive defeat of French air power at Dien Bhien Phu opened the final chapter of direct French rule beyond her essentially Jacobin boundaries of today. The description of the opening months of the Great War is a reminder of the rapidity with which the parameters of air warfare prior to the acquisition of thermo-nuclear ordnance were established on the Western Front, from reconnaissance and artillery spotting via individual air to ground and air to air intervention to the gradual escalation of the size of the forces engaged in these various roles, with the technological advantage see-sawing from side to side over the course of the war, and the – largely unrewarded – search for a decisive role for air power in the land war that would put an end to ‘unproductive slogging in the mud’. For, for the ‘strategic’ forces which are the focus of this work, technology seems to have tended to work to their disadvantage, limiting the scope of their operations for long periods of the war to tactical intervention in the general area of the battle front, where they could be escorted, and to relatively short distance penetration of enemy air space in the Saar and near Rhineland, mostly undertaken at night, and with the navigational and airmanship difficulties that accompanied such undertakings, both in finding their targets and in finding safe landings on return. Daylight raids were undertaken, with emphasis placed by a handful of pioneer thinkers on formation flying and the formation’s ability to defend itself against enemy air defences, but- shades of 1939-40 or 1943- once beyond the range of escorting ‘Scouts’ such adventures tended to work to the general disadvantage of the attacking formations both in casualties sustained and in damage inflicted on the nominal targets. Allowing for the state of contemporary technology in areas such as navigation aids, bomb load per aircraft and per operation, and other than in the development of a precursor of the P51, the parallels with the air war of 1939-45 are substantial, and one has to remind oneself that the crews of 1914-1918 really were exploring and developing techniques in hitherto unknown areas of warfare- on a slightly personal note the BASF factories at Mannheim here described as a high priority target for the bombers of 1916-1918 very nearly did for my father and his crew in 1942 There is some examination of the parallel German strategic bombing efforts against both Britain and France- the relative accessibility of valuable Allied targets such as Paris and London, compared with the extreme inaccessibility of Berlin is clearly identified. The particular problems of the bombing of civilians, both moral and realpolitik, and the issues then arising in respect of their efficacy and the risk of reprisal, are examined as much with an eye to their place in the war which by 1939 must have seemed more or less inevitable. But perhaps the most poignant parallels are in the accounts of late May and June 1918, a breakthrough across the Aisne threatened, the roads crowded with a retreating army mixed in with refugees terrified of enemy air attack, and the bomber force committed to an ‘all out effort’ to deny the Aisne bridges to the advancing German forces. Perhaps air did have the decisive role Martel seems to ascribe to it on that occasion, but – scarcely twelve months after this work was published – another generation of Allied aviators were to be lost in the attacks against the bridges at Maastricht and Sedan.

The text can be rather heavy going at times. I suspect for many this will not be a work to be read at a single sitting. The editors, for reasons of accuracy and fidelity to the original, which are well explained in their introduction, have opted for a fairly ‘tight’ translation of the original text. This does leave one having to cope with French style and idiom of nearly seventy years ago mediated through current US idiom, which – at times – can lead one to speculate as to the thrust of the original French. To allow that to be an insurmountable obstacle would be a shame. One could not accuse the likes of Alan Brooke or Edward Spears of monoglottism. Perhaps now is the time for we Anglophones to disprove the assertion that we ‘don’t do other languages’, and to follow the pioneers like Clayton, Duffy, Zabecki et al into the archives of Paris and beyond in search of the riches that they may contain?!

By Geoffrey Clarke, PhD Candidate, Centre for War Studies, University of Birmingham

Printable version can be downloaded here.

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One response to “Book Review – French Strategic and Tactical Bombardment Forces of World War 1

  1. Pingback: Get your Book Reviewed! « Birmingham "On War"·

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