By the time World War I ended on November 1, 1918, the airplane was universally recognized as a weapon that no modern nation could afford to be without. It has since been largely forgotten, however, that when the war began four years earlier, the airplane was still considered little more than a toy. One particular unarmed reconnaissance flight, performed on September 3, 1914, may have done more than any other incident to change that perception. The information obtained from that sortie set the stage for a battle that altered the course of the war, and arguably the development of aviation and the history of the 20th century. Neither the attack on Pearl Harbor nor the atomic bombing of Hiroshima was more significant, for had it not been for the success of that obscure mission in 1914, none of those subsequent flights might ever have taken place.
Things looked bleak for the Allies at the beginning of September 1914. The initial Russian advance toward Germany had been shattered in the Battle of Tannenberg, releasing tens of thousands of additional German troops for service in the West. Having already overrun Luxembourg and Belgium, the German army on the Western Front was only 30 miles from Paris and seemed ready to occupy the city again, as it had in 1871. France’s Fifth Army and the British Expeditionary Force (BEF) were retreating to the south and east of Paris. Marshal Joseph Joffre, the French commander in chief, was hastily organizing the Sixth Army for a last-ditch defense of the capital. The government had announced its intention to evacuate to Bordeaux, along with half a million other refugees. Myro Herrick, the U.S. ambassador to France, had offered to protect the city’s major museums and monuments from German looters.
The campaign that General Alfred von Schlieffen had conceived nine years earlier seemed to be proceeding right on schedule. Assuming that it would take Russia much longer to mobilize than France, Schlieffen had proposed to knock France out of the war first with a total of seven armies. With the German left wing anchored on the Swiss border, the right wing would invade France via neutral Luxembourg and Belgium, encircling the French army and Paris. France would be compelled to capitulate, and Germany could then deal with the Russians.
The Schlieffen Plan had two fundamental flaws. It was predicated upon a strict six-week timetable—the longer the German advance could be delayed, the greater became France’s chances of countering it. Second, the plan completely disregarded the possibility of British intervention. It was Germany’s ruthless violation of Belgian neutrality that brought the small but highly professional British Expeditionary Force into the conflict on the Allied side.
As September 1914 began, French and British troops were exhausted after weeks of alternately fighting and retreating. At that critical juncture, however, the German general staff made a fateful change in its hitherto successful invasion plan. Instead of enveloping Paris from the west as originally prescribed, the First Army turned eastward. The intention was apparently to support the right flank of the Second Army, which was advancing to the southeast to finish off the retreating French Fifth Army and the BEF. That change in direction exposed the First Army’s flank to a counterattack from the south by the French Sixth Army.
On September 2, a French patrol captured a set of German documents, along with a map delineating the enemy’s new line of march. The First Army’s exposed right flank offered Joffre the opportunity he’d been waiting for to counterattack, and he was prepared to take advantage of it—provided the information could be verified. There wasn’t time to send out a cavalry patrol, so he asked for an aviator to volunteer for a hazardous reconnaissance mission behind enemy lines. That request was answered by aircraft designer and manufacturer Louis Breguet, then a sergeant attached to the Paris garrison.
Born in 1880, Louis Breguet studied electrical engineering prior to joining his father’s electrical firm at Douai in 1900. Bitten by the aviation bug, he constructed his own wind tunnel in 1905 and began developing rotary-wing aircraft. He flew the first manned rotary-wing prototype successfully—albeit tethered to the ground—in 1907. After a hurricane destroyed his second rotary-wing prototype before it could be test flown in 1909, Breguet turned his attention to fixed-wing aircraft. In addition to founding an airplane factory at Douai, he established a flying school at Villacoublay, on the outskirts of Paris.
In September 1910, Breguet participated in the first French army maneuvers in which airplanes took an active part, flying as an army reserve pilot in a plane he had designed. The aircraft were employed primarily for artillery observation, reconnaissance and liaison work. The results were so positive that General Pierre Roques, head of the Aviation Militaire, concluded that “airplanes are as indispensable to an army as guns and those to whom this is not to their liking risk one day having to admit it by force.”
Among the first airplanes constructed with tubular steel frames, Breguet’s machines quickly established a reputation for sturdiness and good performance. On March 23, 1911, Breguet set a load-carrying record by flying one of his planes with 12 people on board. The weight of the occupants was said to have equaled that of the aircraft itself.
By 1911, the Aviation Militaire felt it had enough experience to issue specific design and performance parameters for military aircraft. In October of that year it invited the leading manufacturers to participate in its first officially sponsored aircraft trials, called the Concours Militaire. All competing airplanes were to be French-built; had to accommodate a pilot, an observer and a mechanic; and had to be able to operate from unimproved fields. Minimum performance included the ability to complete a round trip of 300 kilometers (186 miles) at a cruising speed in excess of 60 km per hour (37 mph) while carrying a useful load of 300 kilograms (661 pounds), not including fuel and oil. Out of 140 aircraft built by 43 different manufacturers, Breguet’s won second and fourth places, resulting in an order for six additional planes.
In spite of those achievements, in 1914 many in the French army high command remained unconvinced of the airplane’s usefulness in a real war. Many still believed that reconnaissance was a task best performed by the cavalry. General Ferdinand Foch, who would one day become marshal of France, dismissed the airplane with the remark, “For sport OK, for war zero!” One major on the staff of General Joseph Gallieni, Paris’ military commander in September 1914, angrily repudiated an aerial reconnaissance report, declaring that “aviators never see anything, they just make something up.”
In addition, most members of the French general staff, like their German counterparts, believed that the war would be over quickly. Among them was the head of the Aviation Militaire at the time war broke out. Convinced that no further pilots or aircraft would be required, he ordered all military personnel currently engaged in flight training to return to their former nonflying units. He also authorized the mobilization of all civilian reservists employed in the aviation industry, sending hundreds of experienced workers and even the heads of aircraft firms, such as Reserve Sergeant Louis Breguet, into the infantry. Thus at a critical time in its history the French aircraft industry almost ceased to exist.
When the German Army invaded northern France in August 1914, Douai, where Breguet’s factory was situated, lay directly in its path—and would remain in German hands through most of the war. On August 10, Breguet had the aircraft in his factory dismantled and transported by road to his training field at Villacoublay. He himself flew out at the controls of the prototype of a new plane he had designed, called the AG 4 and given serial No. BR52.
The AG 4 was a two-seat tractor (“pulling” propeller in front) biplane of steel tube construction. The fuselage was suspended midway between the wings, with the lower wing center section left uncovered to improve the downward view. The elevators were hinged to a horizontal steel tube at the extremity of the fuselage. The plane’s rudder projected well below the fuselage, so the aircraft was supported on an extraordinarily tall tailskid beneath the middle of the fuselage. The aircraft’s designation reflected an early French military system of aircraft nomenclature, the “A” denoting a two-seat tractor reconnaissance aircraft and the “G” referring to its 160-hp Gnome rotary engine. It had a wingspan of 50 feet, 4 inches and was 27 feet, 3 inches long. Its maximum speed was 62 mph, it took 12 minutes to climb to 1,600 feet and the service ceiling was a mere 4,900 feet.
Breguet’s flight to Paris was difficult. Neither the airplane nor its engine had been flight-tested. The plane was subsequently fitted with a fixed tail fin and an enlarged rudder, suggesting that the original prototype was directionally unstable. In addition, one of the engine’s rocker arms broke during the flight, and Breguet barely limped into the capital.
Upon his arrival in Paris, Breguet attached himself and his AG 4 to a squadron hurriedly organized for the city’s defense. Designated the Camp Retranché Paris, or CRP, on August 30 it was a catch-all unit made up of whatever aircraft and pilots happened to be available in the metropolitan area.
The CRP had a total of nine planes on the morning of September 3 when Breguet, with Lieutenant André Wateau as his observer, took off to reconnoiter the German First Army. The 60-mile round trip would be a small matter today, but it was regarded as a long and dangerous flight in 1914. The two airmen were flying over enemy territory, where they were subjected to heavy groundfire, in an untested experimental prototype. In fact, the AG 4 had not been officially accepted by the Aviation Militaire, and was still Breguet’s personal property.
In spite of all those factors, Breguet and Wateau successfully completed their mission and confirmed that columns of German troops were “gliding from west to east.” More important, his information was accepted, and he was subsequently awarded the Croix de Guerre for his actions that day. Follow-up flights by R.E.P. and Maurice Farman aircraft of Escadrilles REP.15 and M.F.16 provided more details of the First Army’s location and movements. Based upon that intelligence, Joffre initiated a massive counterattack on September 6 that became France’s finest hour. Even the Paris taxis were mobilized to transport thousands of critically needed troops to the front. The six-day First Battle of the Marne cost the Allies and the Germans a quarter of a million casualties each. When it ended, the French and British had not only stopped the Germans but had driven them back 40 miles.
The results of what became known as the “Miracle of the Marne” went beyond the salvation of Paris. Exhausted by their efforts, both sides dug in where they stopped. Opposing trenches soon stretched in an unbroken line from the Swiss border to the English Channel, and the war was to remain more or less static for the next four years.
The history of the 20th century might have been very different if WWI had ended in 1914. The Russian Revolution, the rise of communism and fascism and the economic depression of the 1930s might never have taken place or might have transpired differently. Aviation would have developed at a much more leisurely pace without the impetus of four more years of war.
Breguet’s flight marked the first time that the airplane made a significant contribution to a decisive battle. Henceforth, military aviation was taken seriously, and its use by both sides increased exponentially. Military flight training was not only reinstated, it was expanded. The French army released thousands of skilled technicians, including Louis Breguet, to reestablish the airplane industry.
Rebuilding his company, Breguet constructed only one other AG 4 before moving on to more advanced designs. The two AG 4s were each armed with a machine gun in the rear cockpit and a box of flechettes— steel darts designed for dropping on the heads of ground troops.
Although Breguet favored the tractor layout for airplanes, he switched to designing pushers because that was what the military preferred in 1915. During that same year, rubber millionaires André and Edouard Michelin bought 100 Breguet pusher-engine bombers for the air service. Dissatisfied with their performance, Breguet returned to the tractor format in 1916. The result was the Breguet 14, among the first planes with an aluminum frame and one of the best aircraft of the war. More than 8,000 Breguet 14s were built, seeing extensive use as bombing and reconnaissance aircraft with the French, Belgian and U.S. armies.
Louis Breguet remained active in aviation after the war. In 1919 he established a commercial airline called the Compagnie des Messageries Aériennes, which later became Air France. Avions Breguet continued developing new aircraft after its founder’s death in 1955, until it finally merged with Dassault in 1971.
Very few original aircraft remain from the pre–World War I era. One of those is a tractor biplane with a steel-tube frame that Breguet sold to Sweden in 1912. Variously identified as a Type J, U.1 or C.U.1, but designated B1 by the Swedes, it is a predecessor of the AG 4. Powered by a 110-hp Salmson Canton-Unné water-cooled radial engine, the Breguet B1 has been meticulously restored and is currently on display at the Swedish Air Force Museum in Linköping.
Originally published in the July 2006 issue of Aviation History. To subscribe, click here.