CHAPTER IX. The Strange Career of Count Zeppelin
In Berlin, on March 8, 1917, there passed away a man whose name will be remembered as long as the English language is spoken. For Count Zeppelin belongs to that little band of men who giving birth to a work of genius have also given their names to the christening of it; and so the patronymic will pass down the ages.
In the most sinister sense of the expression Count Zeppelin may be said to have left his mark deep down upon the British race. In course of time many old scores are forgiven and forgotten, but the Zeppelin raids on England will survive, if only as a curious failure. Their failure was both material and moral. Anti-aircraft guns and our intrepid airmen brought one after another of these destructive monsters blazing to the ground, and their work of "frightfulness" was taken up by the aeroplane; while more lamentable still was the failure of the Zeppelin as an instrument of terror to the civil population. In the long list of German miscalculations must be included that which pictured the victims of bombardment from the air crying out in terror for peace at any price.
Before the war Count Zeppelin was regarded by the British public as rather a picturesque personality. He appeared in the romantic guise of the inventor struggling against difficulties and disasters which would soon have overwhelmed a man of less resolute character. Even old age was included in his handicap, for he was verging on seventy when still arming against a sea of troubles.
The ebb and flow of his fortunes were followed with intense interest in this country, and it is not too much to say that the many disasters which overtook his air-ships in their experimental stages were regarded as world-wide calamities.
When, finally, the Count stood on the brink of ruin and the Kaiser stepped forward as his saviour, something like a cheer went up from the British public at this theatrical episode. Little did the audience realize what was to be the outcome of the association between these callous and masterful minds.
And now for a brief sketch of Count Zeppelin's life-story. He was born in 1838, in a monastery on an island in Lake Constance. His love of adventure took him to America, and when he was about twenty-five years of age he took part in the American Civil War. Here he made his first aerial ascent in a balloon belonging to the Federal army, and in this way made that acquaintance with aeronautics which became the ruling passion of his life.
After the war was over he returned to Germany, only to find another war awaiting him - the Austro-Prussian campaign. Later on he took part in the Franco-Prussian War, and in both campaigns he emerged unscathed.
But his heart was not in the profession of soldiering. He had the restless mind of the inventor, and when he retired, a general, after twenty years' military service, he was free to give his whole attention to his dreams of aerial navigation. His greatest ambition was to make his country pre-eminent in aerial greatness.
Friends to whom he revealed his inmost thoughts laughed at him behind his back, and considered that he was "a little bit wrong in his head". Certainly his ideas of a huge aerial fleet appeared most extravagant, for it must be remembered that the motor-engine had not then arrived, and there appeared no reasonable prospect of its invention.
Perseverance, however, was the dominant feature of Count Zeppelin's character; he refused to be beaten. His difficulties were formidable. In the first place, he had to master the whole science of aeronautics, which implies some knowledge of mechanics, meteorology, and electricity. This in itself was no small task for a man of over fifty years of age, for it was not until Count Zeppelin had retired from the army that he began to study these subjects at all deeply.
The next step was to construct a large shed for the housing of his air-ship, and also for the purpose of carrying out numerous costly experiments. The Count selected Friedrichshafen, on the shores of Lake Constance, as his head-quarters. He decided to conduct his experiments over the calm waters of the lake, in order to lessen the effects of a fall. The original shed was constructed on pontoons, and it could be turned round as desired, so that the air-ship could be brought out in the lee of any wind from whatsoever quarter it came.
It is said that the Count's private fortune of about L25,000 was soon expended in the cost of these works and the necessary experiments. To continue his work he had to appeal for funds to all his friends, and also to all patriotic Germans, from the Kaiser downwards.
At length, in 1908, there came a turning-point in his fortunes. The German Government, which had watched the Count's progress with great interest, offered to buy his invention outright if he succeeded in remaining aloft in one of his dirigibles for twenty-four hours. The Count did not quite succeed in his task, but he aroused the great interest of the whole German nation, and a Zeppelin fund was established, under the patronage of the Kaiser, in every town and city in the Fatherland. In about a month the fund amounted to over L300,000. With this sum the veteran inventor was able to extend his works, and produce air-ship after air-ship with remarkable rapidity.
When, war broke out it is probable that Germany possessed at least thirteen air-ships which had fulfilled very difficult tests. One had flown 1800 miles in a single journey. Thus the East Coast of England, representing a return journey of less than 600 miles was well within their range of action.