On the morning of Tuesday, the 9th of March 1904, the Times published the following telegram at the head of its Foreign Intelligence:—
ASTOUNDING OCCURRENCE IN RUSSIA.
Destruction of Kronstadt by an unknown Air–Ship.
(From our own Correspondent.)
St. Petersburg, March 8th, 4 P.M.
Between six and seven this morning, the fortress of Kronstadt was partially destroyed by an unknown air-ship, which was first sighted approaching from the westward at a tremendous speed.
Four shots in all were fired upon the fortress, and produced the most appalling destruction. There was no smoke or flame visible from the guns of the air-ship, and the explosives with which the missiles were charged must have been far more powerful than anything hitherto used in warfare, as in the focus of the explosion masses of iron and steel and solid masonry were instantly reduced to powder.
Two shots were fired as the strange vessel approached, and two as she left the fortress. The two latter exploded over one of the powder magazines, dissolved the steel roof to dust, and ignited the whole contents of the magazine, blowing that portion of the fortification bodily into the sea. At least half the garrison has disappeared, most of the unfortunate men having been practically annihilated by the terrific force of the explosions.
The air-ship was not of the navigable balloon type, and is described by the survivors as looking more like a flying torpedo-boat than anything else. She flew no flag, and there is no clue to her origin.
After destroying the fortress, she ascended several thousand feet, and continued her eastward course at such a prodigious speed, that in less than five minutes she was lost to sight.
The excitement in St. Petersburg almost reaches the point of panic. All efforts to keep the news of the disaster secret have completely failed, and I have therefore received permission to send this telegram, which has been revised by the Censorship, and may therefore be accepted as authentic.
Within an hour of the appearance of this telegram, which appeared only in the Times, the Russian Censorship having refused to allow any more to be despatched, the astounding news was flying over the wires to every corner of the world.
The Times had a lengthy and very able article on the subject, which, although by no means alarmist in tone, told the world, in grave and weighty sentences, that there could now be no doubt but that the problem of aërial navigation had been completely solved, and that therefore mankind stood confronted by a power that was practically irresistible, and which changed the whole aspect of warfare by land and sea.
In the face of this power, the fortresses, armies, and fleets of the world were useless and helpless. The destruction of Kronstadt had proved that to demonstration. From a height of several thousand feet, and a distance of nearly seven miles, the unknown air-vessel had practically destroyed, with four shots from her mysterious, smokeless, and flameless guns, the strongest fortress in Europe. If it could do that, and there was not the slightest doubt but that it had done so, it could destroy armies wholesale without a chance of reprisals, sink fleets, and lay cities in ruins, at the leisure of those who commanded it.
And here arose the supreme question of the hour — a question beside which all other questions of national or international policy sank instantly into insignificance — Who were those who held this new and appalling power in their hands? It was hardly to be believed that they were representatives of any regularly-constituted national Power, for, although the air was full of rumours of war, there was at present unbroken peace all over the world.
Even in the hands of a recognised Power, the possession of such a frightful engine of destruction could not be viewed by the rest of the world with anything but the gravest apprehension, for that Power, however insignificant otherwise, would now be in a position to terrorise any other nation, or league of nations, however great. Manifestly those who had built the one air-vessel that had been seen, and had given such conclusive proof of her terrible powers, could construct a fleet if they chose to do so, and then the world would be at their mercy.
If, however, as seemed only too probable, the machine was in the hands of a few irresponsible individuals, or, still worse, in those of such enemies of humanity as the Nihilists, or that yet more mysterious and terrible society who were popularly known as the Terrorists, then indeed the outlook was serious beyond forecast or description. At any moment the forces of destruction and anarchy might be let loose upon the world, in such fashion that little less than the collapse of the whole fabric of Society might be expected as the result.
The above necessarily brief and imperfect digest gives only the headings of an article which filled nearly two columns of the Times, and it is needless to say that such an article in the leading columns of the most serious and respectable newspaper in the world produced an intense impression wherever it was read.
Of course the telegram was instantly copied by the evening papers, which ran out special editions for the sole purpose of reproducing it, with their own comments upon it, which, after all, were not much more original than the telegram. Meanwhile the Berliner Tageblatt, the Newe Freie Presse, the Kölnische Zeitung, and the Journal des Débats had received later and somewhat similar telegrams, and had given their respective views of the catastrophe to the world.
By noon all the capitals of Europe were in a fever of expectation and apprehension. The cables had carried the news to America and India; and when the evening of the same day brought the telegraphic account of the extraordinary occurrence at Tiumen in the grey dusk of the early morning, proving almost conclusively that the rescue had been effected by the same agency that had destroyed Kronstadt, and that, worse than all, the air-vessel was at the command of Natas, the unknown Chief of the mysterious Terrorists, excitement rose almost to frenzy, and everywhere the wildest rumours were accepted as truth.
In a word, the “psychological moment” had come all over Europe, the moment in which all men were thinking of the same thing, discussing the same event, and dreading the same results. To have found a parallel state of affairs, it would have been necessary to go back more than a hundred years, to the hour when the head of Louis XVI. fell into the basket of the guillotine, and the monarchies of Europe sprang to arms to avenge his death.
Meanwhile other and not less momentous events had, unknown to the newspapers or the public, been taking place in three very different parts of the world.
On the evening of Saturday, the 6th, Lord Alanmere had called upon Mr. Balfour in Downing Street, and laid the duplicates of the secret treaty between France and Russia, and copies of all the memoranda appertaining to it, before him, and had convinced him of their authenticity. At the same time he showed him plans of the war-balloons, of which a fleet of fifty would within a few days be at the command of the Tsar.
The result of this interview was a meeting of a Cabinet Council, and the immediate despatch of secret orders to mobilise the fleet and the army, to put every available ship into commission, and to double the strength of the Mediterranean Squadron at once. That evening three Queen’s messengers left Charing Cross by the night mail, one for Berlin, one for Vienna, and one for Rome, each of them bearing a copy of the secret treaty.
On Monday morning a Council of Ministers was held at the Peterhof Palace in St. Petersburg, presided over by the Tsar, and convened to discuss the destruction of Kronstadt.
At this Council it was announced that the fleet of war-balloons would be ready to take the air in a week’s time from then, and that the concentration of troops on the Afghan frontier was as complete as it could be without provoking immediate hostilities with Britain. In fact, so close were the Cossacks and the Indian troops to each other, both on the Pamirs and on the western slopes of the Hindu Kush, that a collision might be expected at any moment.
The Council of the Tsar decided to let matters take their course in the East, and to make all arrangements with France to simultaneously attack the Triple Alliance as soon as the war-balloons had been satisfactorily tested.
Soon after daybreak on Wednesday, the 10th, an affair of outposts took place near the northern end of the Sir Ulang Pass of the Hindu Kush, between two considerable bodies of Cossacks and Ghoorkhas, in which, after a stubborn fight, the Russians gave way before the magazine fire of the Indian troops, and fled, leaving nearly a fourth of their number on the field.
The news of this encounter reached London on Wednesday night, and was published in the papers on Thursday morning, together with the intelligence that the fight had been watched from a height of nearly three thousand feet by a small party of men and women in an air-ship, evidently a vessel of war, from the fact that she carried four long guns. She took no part in the fight, and as soon as it was over went off to the south-west at a speed which carried her out of sight in a few minutes.
Last updated Sunday, March 27, 2016 at 11:54