Airplane vs. Zeppelin in 1917

With one raid, the Allies demonstrated the airplane’s superiority over the airship.

In October 1917, eight German zeppelins lost their way above French territory. The L-49 landed in Bourbonne-les-Bains. (©ECPAD/France/Albert Moreau SPA230M4573. Courtesy The University of Chicago Press)
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On the night of October 19, 1917, eleven German zeppelins slowly ascended from their depots and headed toward the English coast on what was expected to be a 25-hour raid. Although hampered by British anti-aircraft guns, they managed to drop all of their bombs, killing 34 people and wounding 56 others.

When the zeppelins attempted to return to base, they ran into headwinds and fog; eight of the 11 accidentally crossed the Alsatian border into Central France. Four were lost: two were destroyed by Allied gunfire, and two were forced to descend by French aviators of the “Crocodile” Squadron.

Zeppelin L-49, shown here, was forced to land at Bourbonne-les-Baines, and so became the first German airship captured intact. This spectacular image, taken by French army photographer Albert Moreau (click here to see a larger version), is from the recently published The First World War: Unseen Glass Plate Photographs of the Western Front (University of Chicago Press, 2015) and also was featured in the exhibit “14-18: The War in Pictures: Bruges at War.” Unlike many World War I photographs—grainy and monochrome—the images in The First World War and the exhibit are startling in their clarity. For the book, photojournalist Carl De Keyzer selected 100 images from a pool of more than 10,000. (Some of the glass plates are even in color: autochromes with thin coatings of potato starch dyed orange, violet, or green.) 

Joseph Whitney Ganson, an American officer in a French battery at the Western Front, gave an account of this particular zeppelin’s capture to Air Service Journal. Fifteen minutes after the unit was alerted, a patrol of five airplanes was able to identify the position of the airship, which was at 5,000 meters. In an attempt to outrun the airplanes, the airship descended sharply. (While airships were about 50 mph slower than airplanes of the day, they could rise and sink much more rapidly.) The French pilots began firing, said Ganson, and “when the Germans saw luminous balls whizzing past they knew they were lost, and hung out a white flag.” The French pilots directed the airship to land, which it did. While the French were still in the air, the German commander destroyed the wireless, and tried to set the airship on fire; he was stopped by a local man. Twenty-one Germans were taken prisoner, some with serious frostbite. The commander seemed especially downcast, reported the New-York Tribune, “for the loss of a complete Zeppelin to the enemy is a serious offence.” The commander was right to be worried; the Allies were so impressed with L-49’s design that they reverse-engineered it to build the U.S. Navy’s USS Shenandoah, constructed after the war in 1922-1923.

What became of L-49? Shortly after it was downed, Parisians waited in long lines to buy war bonds sold from the zeppelin’s gondola. Parts of the airship—including the altimeter, small portions of the outer envelope, the gas bag, and the ship’s battle flag—were presented to the headquarters of the Marine Corps by the French officer who brought it down. The artifacts were given to the Smithsonian Institution in 1918.

Photograph reprinted with the permission of the publisher.

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