World War I saw the first, widespread, extensive use of bombers in combat. Prior to the war, most aircraft were used in the reconnaissance role. Intuitive pilots would later drop small explosives from the aircraft, performing the origins of strategic bombing. When World War I began most nations did not have a bomber fleet. As the war progressed, military and political leaders saw the need for bombers and by the time the war ended all major belligerents had fleets of bombers in their inventory.
Germany was the first nation of World War I to adopt the concept of strategic bombing. On 6 August 1914, the Belgian city of Liege was attacked by a German Zeppelin. The lighter-than-air Zeppelins were rigid airships, capable of loitering over cities for long periods of time, as well as having the ability to carry much larger ordnance than their airplane counterparts. Zeppelins would target cities on the Eastern and Western Fronts. Because of their high cost, Zeppelins would be phased out from strategic bombing in 1916. By September 1914, German airplanes joined in on the bombing campaign, targeting troops and cities during the First Battle of the Marne. With the transition over to airplanes to conduct strategic bombing, the Germans built thousands of bombers by wars end.
The British and French also fielded a sizeable bomber fleet during the war. Unlike the Germans, the Anglo-French forces used aircraft for their strategic bombing campaign, lacking lighter-than-air dirigibles. On 22 September 1914, Royal Navy bombers struck the Zeppelin bases in Cologne and Dusseldorf in the first Allied strategic bombing mission of the war. In 1916, a French Nieuport bomber flew over Berlin, dropping leaflets on the city proclaiming “Paris does not make war on women and children.” Though the mission did not deter further bombing attacks by Germany, it did send a clear message to the people of Berlin their bombing campaign was viewed as “unchivalric” in the eyes of the Allies.
One of the most successful strategic bombing campaigns during the war occurred on the Italian-Austrian front. Italy was one of the few nations that possessed a bomber fleet prior to the war. In 1911, an Italian pilot carried out the first aerial bombardment in Libya during the Italo-Turkish War. Convinced of the importance of bombers, the Italians continued to use them to target Austrian and German positions in the Alps. Italian bombers struck Austrian railroads, supply depots, and cities during the war. When the war ended, Italian air power theorist, Giulio Douhet, proposed using strategic bombing to target opponent cities and drive them to sue for peace. These theories helped implement the strategic bombing campaigns of World War II.
Look for more information regarding strategic bombing in World War I in the upcoming Strategy & Tactics issue #299 article “Wings over the Alps: The World War I Caproni Bomber” and join the conversation on Facebook!