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  First public demonstration of balloon
  flight.4 June 1783. Annonay.

An excellent outline of the the early days of balloon flight can be found in The Age of Wonder. Richard Holmes. 2009.

The dropping of bombs from balloons had been outlawed by the Hague Convention of 1899



In 1783 the Montgolfier brothers launched their hot air balloon in France to the amazement of the crowds. The word of this amazing sight spread across Europe. In Britain Horace Walpole, MP, historian and novelist viewed balloons in a slightly more sinister light.

‘Well I hope these new mechanic meteors will prove only playthings for the learned and idle, and not be converted into new engines of destruction to the human race – as is so often the case of refinements or discoveries in Science. The wicked wit of man always studies to apply the results of talents to enslaving, destroying, or cheating his fellow creatures.’

The 18th century was a time of wars and power struggles across Europe and so it is little wonder that new inventions were viewed (rightly in this case as it turned out) with deep suspicion by thoughtful people.

Some considered that there might be an arms race in balloon technology. Benjamin Franklin could see that balloons might easily be adapted for military purposes, most worryingly however, especially for the British Isles, was the possibility that they could support an airborne invasion army from France. 'Five thousand balloons capable of raising two men each, Franklin calculated, could carry a force of 10,000 troops rapidly into the field, crossing rivers, hills or even seas with speed and impunity.’

The threat of Napoleon’s invasion by balloon or any other means never materialised. The decaying remains of state of the art ‘defences’ against this eventuality are scatters around the South coast. Originally built at huge expense today at even greater expense some are ‘preserved’ for the weekend visitors and the rise and rise of the heritage industry.

Few visitors are likely to seriously reflect at the folly of these structures and the politics behind their construction and even less at the folly or the politics of present day ‘defence’ which will absorb in excess of £43.5 billion in 2012 while expenditure on, for example, the health services is drastically cut.

Military use of balloons was initially for observation of the battlefields by Napoleon’s army at the end of the 18th century.

In the summer of 1849, Austrian forces besieging Venice launched the first aerial attack using small balloons carrying 30lb bombs. The expectation was that the balloons would be carried on the wind and when over the city a fuse would release the bomb. But winds are unreliable and the balloon drifts cross the city and fell on the Austrian forces instead. Today this might be called 'friendly bombing'.

A few years later balloon were used for observation in the American Civil War where a young German, Ferdinand von Zeppelin, served as a volunteer in the Union army. Fascinated by balloons he made it his business to find out all he could about them and became preoccupied with the idea of guidable balloons. Years later after he retired from the Army he began designing dirigible airships. Originally financed by donation and the lottery in 1907 one of his airships was finally bought by the German military association.

By the start of WW1 the German military had seven airships. In January 1915 two Zeppelin dropped bombs on King’s Lynn and Great Yarmouth and others continued bombing Britain for the next two years.

By the summer of 1917 when Zeppelin attack over England cease some 550 people had been killed.

Publicity Department, Central Recruiting Depot, London. 1915.
The army recruiters dishonesty knew no bounds.