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THE FIRST LEAFLET OF THE FIRST WORLD WAR

By R.G. Auckland

On the Western Front during the latter part of August 1914, the German 1st Army was advancing to cross the River Marne and on to Paris. Attached to the Army was the 11th Military Group of aeroplanes stationed on a field near St. Quentin.

One of the flying personnel was a young, good looking officer. He was a fully qualified and expert pilot having taken part in pre-war air meets at Darmstadt, Frankfurt, Mainz, and Worms. In 1912 he participated in the Aerial Post of the Rhine.

During the evening of August 29, this capable airman was called before his commanding officer and briefed for the flight he was to take the following day. His superior explained that the sortie about to be made was of no great military significance but he was, as far as able, to locate and register possible movements of French troops around his objective area. Officer Hiddessen was chosen to carry out this flight for his skill and ability which put him among the top class in his squadron. In addition, he was an ardent Nationalist and his unshaken belief that Germany would undoubtedly win the war was a spur to the success of the mission he had been given.

The commander went on to explain that the object of the flight was to influence the morale of the civilian population to a downward trend and to do this it was proposed to make it a bombing raid. But the bombs would weigh only 5lb. each and the attack would be but a nuisance value. Small bombs were to be used not for their power of damage but for the exceedingly loud noise they made for their size. There was always the prospect, the commanding officer said hopefully, that the population might even be so scared as to declare their city 'open'. The pilot singled out for this operation asked, "Where is this place I am to bomb?". "Paris" was the unsmiling answer.

Early the following morning the airfield was covered by dense fog which threatened to cancel the projected flight. But the weather officer promised that it would clear quite quickly and good flying conditions would be available before noon. On the strength of this accepted information, the Taube reconnaissance aeroplane which the pilot, Leutnant Ernst von Hiddessen, was to fly was prepared. Its petrol tanks filled, oil checked and all the necessary pre-flight routine carried out. On to the racks on the outside of the fuselage specially built for the purpose hung four bombs.

An oriflamme was put in the cockpit to the staff of which was securely tied a rubber bag full of sand. To the bag was firmly attached a pouch containing a number of printed notices.

By 11 a.m. the morning mist began to clear slowly as the sun forced its way through. An hour later there was no lack of visibility and the pilot and his observer boarded the Taube in their respective cockpits. Within minutes the two-seater was airborne and after circling the airfield once it flew off in a south-westerly direction.

Climbing to a height to avoid rifle fire from the enemy, the frail monoplane crossed the Somme and very soon afterwards the Oise. Flying in a steady direction below the maximum speed of 62.5 mph and at about 5500 ft, the two airmen reached the outskirts of Paris and its belt of fortifications about midday after a flight of some seventy minutes. Beneath them was a memorable view of Paris as the bright sunshine made sharp contrast of light and dark. Its many famous buildings were easily identifiable to both men who had visited two air exhibitions in the capital before the war. The large streets and squares soon became full of people who stood curiously around with their necks craned upwards turning and twisting looking for the noise of the aeroplane. There was no panic, no desertion of the streets. There was no air-raid alarm or thunder of anti-aircraft fire. Who could imagine that the plane was anything but a French one? It must be a French plane said the white sea of faces as they spotted a small dot in the sky approaching them. As soon as this was decided there were wagers among the crowd as to what type of monoplane it was.

Unaware of the people below looking upon it as a friendly plane, the Taube's (German for 'pigeon' or 'dove' and so named after the shape of its wings) occupants crossed and recrossed the city for about thirty minutes. The observer then touched von Hiddessen on the shoulder as a signal to release the first bomb. On the instruction, the pilot unhooked the bomb and let it go over the side. He watched it tumble out of sight. He then released the other three at short intervals from a height of about 6000 feet.

The first bomb to be dropped on Paris in the war fell at exactly 12.45 p.m. The second fell minutes later in the courtyard of 107 quai Valmy, a home for the aged and the third landed on the pavement outside 66 rue des Marais, not far from the Boulevard Magenta. The final explosive crashed through the skylight of 5 and 7 rue des Récollets and failed to explode. All the bombs landed within a few hundred metres of each other in the 10th arrondissement of Paris, the target probably being, despite the observer's stated concern for public safety, the two railway stations which were situated in this district of the capital, and which served, significantly, the north and east of France.

As soon as the bombs had been released, von Hiddessen threw overboard the oriflamme which lengthened into a six-feet banner in the German national colours. As soon as this object was found in the street by pedestrians who had watched its quick descent to earth, it was taken to the Prefecture of Police where the contents of the pouch were examined. A report accompanied the find to the Prefecture in which a local policeman had written about 'corrupt information thrown on to the streets by strangers in an aeroplane,' in contradiction to the Prefect's orders. The bag of sand was also examined but it was concluded that this was merely to give the oriflamme weight to extend itself through the air. To the surprise of everyone present at the opening, the pouch was found to contain a number of printed three-line leaflets. It said briefly and to the point: 'The German Army is at the gates of Paris; it only remains for you to surrender … Leutnant von Hiddessen.'

The first propaganda leaflet of WWI

It would appear that Hiddessen misunderstood or could not carry out his instructions about distributing the leaflets. He should have taken them from the pouch and thrown them overboard at convenient intervals so that the German note was spread far and wide over Paris, and then finally drop the oriflamme overboard as a final gesture of German supremacy and arrogance. To retain the leaflets in the pouch and throw them out of the cockpit still attached to the oriflamme was pointless from the literal view of spreading propaganda.

While the leaflets were still being studied by French officials and the raid being excitedly discussed among the Parisians, the Taube was on its way back to base and safely reached the airfield after about two and a half hours in the air.

The Falling Leaf. no. 49. June 1970


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