In early January 1918, the Bernese village of Kallnach was bombed. This postcard from 1915 shows the station close to where the bombs exploded.
In early January 1918, the Bernese village of Kallnach was bombed. This postcard from 1915 shows the station close to where the bombs exploded. memreg.ch

When bombs fell on Kallnach

On 6 January 1918, five bombs were dropped near the station in Kallnach, sending shock waves through the ‘Grand Marais’ in Bern’s Seeland region. Fortunately, there was only some damage to property but no casualties. It quickly became clear that the bombs were French-made. But the question of who dropped them remains a mystery...

Juri Jaquemet

Juri Jaquemet

Dr. phil., Curator of the Information and Communication Technology Collection, Museum of Communication, Berne

Picture the scene: it is the fourth winter of the First World War. The time is 6.30 a.m. on Sunday 6 January 1918, and it is still dark in Kallnach. The village on the edge of the ‘Grand Marais’ marshland is shrouded in fog, which is typical for the Seeland region, and there is a light dusting of snow on the ground.  A packed train carrying soldiers from the Swiss Army has just left the station, heading for Aarberg. Then the silence is broken by the sound of several bombs being dropped from an aircraft. The government official from Aarberg who rushed to the scene counted three bomb craters measuring two to three metres in diameter and two smaller impact sites in the immediate vicinity of the station.
Kallnach station in a photograph from 1938.
Kallnach station in a photograph from 1938. SBB Historic
Map of the bombings in Kallnach. The bombs fell immediately to the east of Kallnach station. ‘Explosive bombs’ cause parts of buildings to explode, thereby increasing the effectiveness of subsequent fire bombs.
Map of the bombings in Kallnach. The bombs fell immediately to the east of Kallnach station. ‘Explosive bombs’ cause parts of buildings to explode, thereby increasing the effectiveness of subsequent fire bombs. Swiss Federal Archives
No one was killed or injured – the station staff and the soldiers on the train leaving the station were extremely lucky. In terms of material damage, the government official noted: “some damage can be observed on the telegraph line leading to the station building, where three wire cables have been severed. A window pane on the Köhli mechanics' building has also been shattered, probably due to the force of the blast. Otherwise, there is no detectable damage.” The Bern Cantonal Government later put a figure of CHF 242.50 on the overall damage, which at today’s prices equates to around CHF 1,300.
Article in the Schweizer Illustrierte of 1918. The only known photograph of the incident in Kallnach is from the Schweizer Illustrierte. Three boys are standing in one of the bomb craters holding a piece of earth that has been blasted away.
Article in the Schweizer Illustrierte of 1918. The only known photograph of the incident in Kallnach is from the Schweizer Illustrierte. Three boys are standing in one of the bomb craters holding a piece of earth that has been blasted away. Schweizer Illustrierte
On the day of the bombing, officers from Murten fortification command seized the bomb fragments from the site and sent them off to Bern. It was not long before journalists arrived at the scene. The Bieler Tagblatt and Der Bund reported extensively from Kallnach. As visibility was poor, no one was able to see the attacking aircraft, but the sound of planes was heard in Biel, Aarberg and above the Frienisberg. The Bieler Tagblatt reported that the plane then flew away “over the marshland”. According to press reports, some residents suspected a targeted attack on the train carrying soldiers, on the carbide factory, which was already lit up in the early hours of the morning, or on the nearby power station. By 8 January, it had been established that the bombs were French-made. The Gazette de Lausanne reported: “A number of fragments collected from the site bore the inscription SFA (services français d’aviation)”. The fragments matched the bomb shrapnel secured the previous year from the bombings in Porrentruy in April 1917 and in Muttenz and Menziken in December 1917. In these cases, too, there had only been some damage to property.
Damaged house in Porrentruy after the bombing in April 1917.
Damaged house in Porrentruy after the bombing in April 1917. ETH Library Zurich
As in the other cases, diplomatic to-ing and fro-ing between Paris and Bern ensued. According to Der Bund newspaper, on 11 January, the French foreign minister expressed the “deep regret of the French government” to the Swiss ambassador in Paris. Meanwhile, the French ambassador, Jean Baptiste Paul Beau, conveyed a similar message to the Swiss president. The French promised a rigorous investigation of the incident and payment of compensation. The lengthy article in the Bieler Tagblatt the day after the bombing ended with the following: “It seems, then, that this is a case of an errant pilot who decided to offload some of the weight of his aircraft just as he was flying over Kallnach. In any case, that seems the most likely version in our view.” This conclusion seems plausible as Freiburg im Breisgau and the Breisach region were bombed by the French on the night of the bombing in Kallnach. Did one of the aircraft commandeered for these attacks lose its way? Did the pilot not want to risk landing with bombs on board? Was he lacking experience? That said, many experienced pilots have lost their lives in shootdowns and accidents.
The French armed forces used Voisin aircraft in the First World War. YouTube
One thing is certain: the bomber aircraft at the time were unsophisticated. Navigation was mainly done by sight and the planes were not yet equipped with elaborate visual displays. Navigation was done in the open cockpit using a map plotting board, a compass, a speedometer and a watch. After 1916, the French Army deployed bombers of the type Voisin III or Voisin V for night attacks under moonlight, as these slow biplanes had become easy targets for enemy fighter pilots during daytime operations towards the end of the war. A Voisin bomber flies at a maximum altitude of 3,500 metres (11,500 feet), travels at 100–120 km/h and can stay in the air for around three hours. As the crow flies, Kallnach is only around 35 kilometres from the French border in Jura – which for a Voisin bomber means flight time of just 17–20 minutes.
A look inside the cockpit of a Voisin aircraft (photo taken in 1916).
A look inside the cockpit of a Voisin aircraft (photo taken in 1916). Wikimedia
Despite the apologetic noises coming from the French, the Kallnach case was still far from closed. In the same month as the attack, French-speaking Swiss media carried reports speculating that the German Empire was behind the bombings. On 14 January, the Feuille d’avis de Lausanne newspaper published its theory of a revenge attack on the carbide factory in Kallnach, which until the end of 1917 had supplied the Germans with ammunition, and had started supplying the French in January 1918. As documents from the Swiss Federal Archives in Bern show, the Imperial German Legation in Bern consequently complained to the Swiss Political Department about the French-speaking press, pointing out that the French ambassador had already apologised for the incident. As we know now, however, Swiss newspaper articles from the First World War period should be viewed with great scepticism. The country was divided by its opposing sympathies in the war, with the French-speaking cantons supporting France and the Allied Powers and the German-speaking ones tending to favour the Central Powers. This rift became an integral part of the political discourse, with both warring parties encouraging the power struggle within Switzerland. Foreign groups set up over 30 press agencies in Switzerland and some newspapers were covertly taken over. If nothing else, a fierce war of words and propaganda was therefore raging on Swiss soil.
Letter of protest from the Imperial German Legation to the Federal Political Department, January 1918.
Letter of protest from the Imperial German Legation to the Federal Political Department, January 1918. Swiss Federal Archives
Despite the commotion, the story of the bombing in Kallnach had disappeared from the news by the end of January 1918. But away from the public eye, the case had not been put to bed. As the thick file on the Kallnach case shows, on 5 March, the federal government and Swiss Armed Forces again received diplomatic mail from France, containing the results of the investigation. In the extensive report, the French Air Force clearly concluded that the bombs were not dropped by a French aircraft. Instead, it assumed that a German plane was responsible for the attack using bombs acquired from the French in “a treacherous manoeuvre to turn Swiss public opinion against France”. In a nutshell, then, the German side was accused of using the attack to attempt to sabotage Switzerland’s good relations with France. If we consider the various propaganda operations led by the German Empire on Swiss soil, the French conspiracy theory is not entirely improbable. However, Chief of the General Staff Theophil Sprecher von Bernegg was sceptical about the French line of argument.  A letter to the then Federal Political Department which was classified as secret challenges various details from the French report, such as information on the wind and weather conditions. “It seems that the French are determined to convince us that its bombs were dropped by a German aircraft, which is a highly unlikely scenario. They need to provide much more conclusive evidence...”
Portrait of Chief of General Staff Theophil Sprecher von Bernegg, taken between 1914 and 1918.
Portrait of Chief of General Staff Theophil Sprecher von Bernegg, taken between 1914 and 1918. Swiss Federal Archives
The incident has never been fully clarified. A few months after the end of the war, in May 1919, a Federal Council report to the Swiss parliament was published on its management in 1918. On the Kallnach case, it says: “as the nationality of the offending aircraft cannot be established with any certainty, it has not been possible to claim compensation from the warring countries.” The aforementioned CHF 242.50 of damage in Kallnach was eventually covered by the Federal Political Department. As the ancient Greek poet Aeschylus wrote, ‘truth is the first casualty of war’. The events in Kallnach are a perfect illustration of this.  Further evidence could be found in the French and German archives if need be. Today, the 1918 incident in Kallnach has largely been forgotten. Whether the event still had an impact on the collective consciousness 67 years later is another question. In any case, in 1985, as part of the ‘Dachs’ civil defence exercises, the village underwent a drill operation for a bomb attack scenario. The Bieler Tagblatt newspaper reported that the operation proceeded in an “exemplary” fashion.

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