French Strategic and Tactical Bombardment Forces of World War I.
On 3 August 1914, the German ambassador to Paris declared his nation's reason for commencing offensive military operations: simply to retaliate for the French aerial bombardment of Nurnberg. By that evening, however, the Germans had changed their tune: aerial bombing of unidentified targets in Baden had set the cataclysm into motion! Of course, neither assertion was true, but the fact that aviation was even mentioned in the realpolitik of the day perhaps foretold its impending military importance in the war to end all wars.
Originally published as LAviation Francaise de Bombardement (Des Origines au 11 Novembre 1918) on the eve of the second Great War, Rene Martel's classic work remains the definitive assessment of what had been the world's largest aerial-bombardment force. A respected interwar historian, Martel had also served as an observer-bombardier in obsolete Voisin aircraft during the conflict. As such, he writes from the perspective of combat experience; he also does so with academic rigor, utilizing memory, published memoirs, and a thorough examination of official French war records.
Chapters chronologically review the development of French aerial bombardment throughout the war years 1914-18. An opening snapshot of prewar experimentation in aerial bombardment helps set the context for what follows. Martel closes with topical discussion of the specific challenges faced by the French navy's use of bombardment aviation as well as joint Anglo-French efforts along the Eastern Front and over the Dardanelles. There is no summary or conclusion. The editor has added limited but useful photographs of bomber variants flown by the French, and the translator has provided parenthetical information that clarifies or expands upon the text.
Within weeks of the near catastrophe on the Marne, Commanding Gen Joseph Joffre signed headquarters note S23 authorizing aerial bombardment, with escadrilles (squadrons) V14 and V21 becoming the first bomber units. Martel observes that throughout October 1914, on average, the French were dropping daily by airplane 50,000 antipersonnel flechettes (steel darts)--the only suitable airborne projectiles available in large numbers. By April 1915, there were 12 dedicated bomber squadrons organized into four groups, all flying the Voisin Pusher. Although quickly outclassed, the Voisin, with various modifications and the ability to fly at night, was a "robust and solid machine" (p. 28) that remained an integral part of French bomber operations until the armistice. The author well chronicles subsequent evolutions in bomber aircraft, ordnance, organization, and operations. Not surprisingly, the rapid incorporation of aviation into the order of battle was not without human cost. Martel recalls that "nervous fatigue" (p. 41) had appeared in even the best aviators by the end of 1915 as Fokker's synchronized, forward-firing machine gun significantly changed air-war dynamics to favor the nimbler pursuer.
Martel writes from what he calls a "scientific" perspective, seeking to provide readers with only the "incontestable facts" (p. 306) of French bombardment operations. Because he regularly avoids areas where personal bias as a wartime participant might skew objectivity, Martel at times leaves readers frustrated. Although the author lauds, among others, Commandant Joseph Vuillemin's prudence, Lieutenant Dagnaux's bravery, and the indomitable spirit of Commandant Louis de Goys (the "father of French bombardment aviation"), he does not allow personal reflection on controversial topics such as the bombing of civilian targets. Perhaps because Martel's "sole pre-occupation is to study and to understand" (p. 308) French aerial bombardment in order to "sift out lessons and information" (p. 308), he sees no need to offer a conclusion at the end of the book--the facts stand on their own. Even Martel's attacks against German general Ernst von Hoppner's memoir accounts of aerial operations appear based primarily on academic challenges to their authenticity rather than on issues of personality.
World War I aviation buffs know well the exploits of the fighter pilots, regardless of nationality. Although Georges Guynemer, Roland Garros, and Rene Fonck are regaled alongside Manfred von Richthofen, Eddie Rickenbacker, Oswald Bolcke, Albert Ball, and Billy Bishop, those who flew less glamorous but equally dangerous missions in those heady days of aviation's infancy have earned their place in the Great War pantheon of heroes. Rene Martel offers such recognition. Although a participant, the author does not offer a personal memoir and does not write for the casual reader. French Strategic and Tactical Bombardment Forces of World War I is a dense, well-written, and well-researched book that should be on the shelves of serious World War I aviation scholars. As such, the Suddabys have done a great service, long overdue, in opening Martel's classic tome to an English-speaking audience.
Maj William E. Fischer Jr., USAF, Retired
Westland High School, Galloway, Ohio
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|Author:||Fischer, William E., Jr.|
|Publication:||Air & Space Power Journal|
|Article Type:||Book review|
|Date:||Mar 22, 2010|
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