Reported in Scientific American—This Week in World War I: September 19, 1914

Antwerp bombing

German Zeppelins dropped bombs on Antwerp in September 1914, which may have been the first time civilians were targeted by aircraft.

The Belgian field army retreated into the fortified city of Antwerp only 16 days after the Germans had invaded. During the German assault on the city, they dropped several bombs from a Zeppelin. Aiming was really nonexistent and the results were useless from a military standpoint, but the few civilian deaths caused an outcry (not only from genuine outrage but also because of propaganda efforts to decry German “frightfulness”). The comment from this issue should be seen in the context of the genuine fears, dating from before the war, that massive numbers of aircraft could rain death from the sky, turning a city into a “mass of flames” [October 28, 1911, p. 388]

“Terrible as the destruction was to property, the loss in human life was comparatively small. On the first attempt eight bombs were thrown down and twelve people killed. On the second attempt no one was killed, but several people were injured. In a densely populated city this can hardly be called slaughter.

“No technical accounts have reached this side [the U.S.] of the Zeppelins' exploits, but according to William G. Shepherd, a United Press staff correspondent who writes in the New York Sun, an attempt was made to fight off the Zeppelin which sailed over Antwerp on September 2nd. He assures us that 30,000 soldiers were in the streets of Antwerp at the time and that all of them were shooting with their rifles directly at the Zeppelins which menaced their city. Whether this rifle fire drove off the Zeppelin or whether it had exhausted its supply of explosives does not appear, but the ship slowly drew away.

“It seems that the wireless telegraph station was the object of this second attack, although two of the eight bombs which were dropped fell within thirty yards of the Red Cross hospitals. On this second attempt, two children, three women, and five men were injured, though not seriously, chiefly because all the terrified families of the city had taken refuge in cellars; the week before, the same Zeppelin had killed twelve people.”