World War I was a war, unlike any war the world had seen before. Terrifying new weapons made their debut. The machine gun, the tank, and the airplane brought wholesale slaughter to a new level. For the first time, nowhere was safe as civilians became targets for the new bombers.
The New Kind of War
Germany bombed Paris from the air for the first time on 30 August 1914. A German two-seater Taube dropped four bombs on the city, inflicting little physical damage. This sort of attack was a novelty at first. But as the war progressed, these bombing raids increased in intensity. Naturally, this led to an increase in the damage and the terror these raids inflicted.
Paris became a primary target for the German bombers for a couple of reasons. First, Paris was the closest capital to the frontlines of the war, making it the easiest to attack. The German bombers had to fly as little as 30 km to strike at the city. Secondly, the objective of the German offensive into France was Paris.
The fate of France rested on the security of Paris. If Paris fell, France would fall. If Paris surrendered, France surrendered. What started as a single bombing attack on the city soon escalated into an everyday occurrence. Surprisingly, this early stage of bombing had little impact on daily life in Paris.
Enter the Zeppelins
In September 1914, the Germans added night time attacks to their routine bombing of Paris. They again escalated their bombing offensive, using Zeppelins in March 1915. The addition of the Zeppelins proved to be the tipping point for the French. The city imposed a black-out to protect against the increased volume of night attacks.
The Zeppelins would continue to attack well into 1917. Paris experienced a brief reprieve as Germany shifted its focus to attacking England. Paris, suffering from mounting casualties and witnessing the aftermath of the attacks on England, sought a new solution to their problem.
An Elaborate Solution
It was difficult to stop the bombing raids in Paris. The development of air doctrine was in its infancy. Air supremacy shifted back and forth between the Allies and Germany. Protecting Paris with airplanes and anti-aircraft guns was unreliable. To counter this problem, the French authorities launched an unorthodox and ambitious plan. Build a fake Paris.
The key to this plan lay in the unsophisticated technology of World War I aircraft. The bombers used a rudimentary bombing method, simple in its execution. They flew to what looked like the target from the air, dropped the bombs, and went home. This lack of technology meant the pilots might have difficulty in telling the difference between a real Paris and a fake one while flying at night.
The plan employed by the French was rather elaborate. They started construction of the city in 1917. The site selected was on a section of the River Seine that closely resembled Paris. The location was 15 miles north of Paris in the town of Maisons-Laffitte.
They constructed life-size replicas of well-known landmarks the Arc de Triomphe, Champs Elysées, Gard du Nord, and the Gard de l’Est. They also added working street lamps, a train, and simulated housing.
The most elaborate part of the ruse was in the lighting. Without proper lighting, the plan had no chance of success. The French hired Italian electrical engineer Fernand Jacopozzi to bring the city to life.
Jacopozzi put his creative talent on display, using a series of moving lights, he made the train appear to move. He used lights and translucent fabrics to mimic the effect of light shining through glass. The soft glow of homes, machinery, and factory furnaces were all painstakingly recreated. But was it enough to fool the German pilots?
The Underwhelming Finale
How effective this fake Paris would be, is left forever to speculation. Before the city was completed the war ended. The Germans sought an armistice on 11 November 1918.
For his work on Faux Paris, Fernand Jacopozzi received France’s highest decoration, the Legion d’Honneur. Jacopozzi went on to earn greater fame when he installed the first lights in the Eiffel Tower.
For France, Germany, and the rest of the world, a war far worse than the one they had just endured lurked over the horizon.