1. Fired 81 Miles Into Paris, Via Edge of Outer Space
The Paris Gun, or Kaiser Cannon, was a unique weapon of technical brilliance and psychological effect. It would inspire a reign of terror in the French capital in the last year of the Great War, the War to End All Wars. Understanding the Paris Gun means understanding much about World War I. As always, we will understand not only the immediate moment, but the history that created it.
We'll track progress through a century of interesting milestones, and the people surrounding them, leading up to the Paris Gun of 1918.
We'll start with the wars of Napoleon to understand how the Industrial Revolution created industrial wars. Napoleon, who appreciated artillery like few before him, standardized the manufacturing of cannon, and the sizes of cannonballs. This would lead to many wonder weapons a century later, including a gun that could, in an age of canvas aeroplanes, shoot a projectile to the edge of outer space.
The American Civil War, often called the first modern war, which captured the world's interest and led to Jules Verne's story of a cannon that fired people to the moon. We'll see how the Franco-Prussian War of 1871 wrote the playbook that World War I German generals badly bungled, starting in 1914, which led to the need for a Paris Gun.
In March 1918, explosions began to happen at odd intervals across Paris. At first, the French army thought the City of Lights was being targeted by some secret aircraft--perhaps a Zeppelin, miles up in the stratosphere, like those that had terrorized London. There had been a few raids on Paris by a dozen or more canvas-and-wood airplanes dropping bombs not much larger than hand grenades. Was this a phantom airplane, operating high above the clouds where it could not be seen? That didn't add up, given the facts on the ground. Something was different about this bombardment that instantly began to terrorize the entire population of Paris. The fragments found at the scene of these killer bombings looked more like artillery rounds than anything else.
It took a French astronomer to figure out that the artillery shells exploding in Paris every few hours were coming from the edge of outer space. Ironically, it was the first weapon ever designed by astronomers--German scientists and mathematicians consulting for Krupp steelworks, who had to account for the effects of a shell traveling through a near-vacuum, and the Coriolis effect of the earth rotating as the shell flew for nearly four minutes on its long journey.
World War I was characterized by the incompetence of its field marshals, bestial conditions for the average troop on either side, and ingenious ways devised to kill more people--the tank, the zeppelin, the war plane, poison gas, enormous new rail artillery, radio-telephones in the sky. It's been said that the system of trenches, often dozens of miles wide, and stretching like an upside-down letter L over a thousand miles from the Atlantic coast into the Swiss Alps, was the largest manmade object ever created, bigger than the Great Wall of China, and still visible from outer space by today's orbiters. Millions of men fought and died on the stalemated line. World War I was, in other words, a clash of unenviable but darkly fascinating superlatives. The Paris Gun was one of those superlatives.
The Paris gun stood out in its class or any other class. Firing on Paris from a secret location more than 80 miles (about 130 kilometers) away behind German trenches, the Kaisergeschuetz (Kaiser Cannon) was not so much a weapon of war as much as one of terror. As a weapon of war, it killed several hundred civilians, but had negligible military effect compared with the expense and engineering brilliance that went into its manufacture and use. As a weapon of terror, it was supremely effective during its short lifespan of not quite four months (23 March to 18 July 1918). Its range has, by far, never been equaled by tube artillery in actual warfare. There is little doubt that a revenge-crazed Adolf Hitler, a quarter century later, would remember it as he devised his own weapons of aerial vengeance.
The factors shaping the first critical month of World War I can be traced back at least as far as the Napoleonic Wars. Europe had no major wars through most of the century following the Congress of Vienna (1815). There were plenty of smaller wars, especially involving German unification. The world's imagination was captured by what many consider to be the first modern war: the American Civil War, with its technical innovations and its lessons for closely observing European officers from all major powers.
Jules Verne's exciting science fiction was inspired in part by the Civil War, especially From Earth To The Moon and Back, published right after the Civil War, in which a giant cannon in Florida fires three men into lunar orbit.
More directly, the Franco-Prussian War of 1870 decisively set German and French plans in motion for the coming War To End All Wars (1914-1918). The famous Schlieffen Plan of the German General Staff was put into action in 1914, with catastrophic consequences. Four years of horrific trench warfare, terrifying new weapons, and the astounding Paris Gun were the results.
There are also many human factors in this great story--the tragic romance of the Mayerling Affair in Austria-Hungary, and the touching love story of Archduke Franz Ferdinand and Duchess Sophie that ended in a hail of bullets on June 28, 1914 at Sarajevo.
There are the machinations of the Iron Chancellor, whose victims included the bombastic Emperor of France (Napoleon III). We read about the efforts of Kaiser Frederick III and his British wife the Princess Royal Victoria to change the German Empire from a Prussian military dictatorship to a British-style constitutional monarchy, but Frederick only reigns 99 days. We learn about the heroic and devastating fate of the emperor who never ruled France, Napoleon IV.
The road we travel in this long, complex, and penetrating true story leads to one of the world's unrivaled weapons of wonder and terror, the Paris Gun. World War I was a cataclysm, with over 70 million men at arms, which swept three great empires off the face of the earth, and set in motion regimes of terror in Germany and Russia that would ravage the world for generations to come. The Paris Gun is a token of dark fascination, a pushpin in the map, at the nexus of world history.