On the Paris Gun Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

The Paris Gun was a German long-range siege gun of unprecedented size and range. It was the largest gun employed during World War I, but its primary purpose was as a psychological weapon because it could reach Paris from behind German lines, but without much accuracy. This weapon, officially named the Kaiser Wilhelm Geschütz (“Emperor William gun”), was highly inaccurate and required frequent repair and parts replacement. However, though casualties as a direct result of the gun’s shells were relatively small, the fact that Paris was being hit by artillery fire caused widespread fear. The first shell hit Paris in March 1918, and strikes continued through August of that year. The Paris Gun killed more than 250 people, wounded 620, and caused widespread damage. On March 29, 1918, a shell destroyed the roof of the St-Gervais-et-St-Protais Church during the Good Friday service. Debris rained down on the congregation, killing 88 worshippers and wounding 68. William G. Sharp, the US ambassador to Paris, toured the church hours after it was hit, and this document is a synopsis of his report to US Secretary of State Robert Lansing.

Summary Overview

The Paris Gun was a German long-range siege gun of unprecedented size and range. It was the largest gun employed during World War I, but its primary purpose was as a psychological weapon because it could reach Paris from behind German lines, but without much accuracy. This weapon, officially named the Kaiser Wilhelm Geschütz (“Emperor William gun”), was highly inaccurate and required frequent repair and parts replacement. However, though casualties as a direct result of the gun’s shells were relatively small, the fact that Paris was being hit by artillery fire caused widespread fear. The first shell hit Paris in March 1918, and strikes continued through August of that year. The Paris Gun killed more than 250 people, wounded 620, and caused widespread damage. On March 29, 1918, a shell destroyed the roof of the St-Gervais-et-St-Protais Church during the Good Friday service. Debris rained down on the congregation, killing 88 worshippers and wounding 68. William G. Sharp, the US ambassador to Paris, toured the church hours after it was hit, and this document is a synopsis of his report to US Secretary of State Robert Lansing.

Defining Moment

In the spring of 1918, the German high command initiated an offensive they hoped would finally break the stalemate in France and win the war. The so-called Spring Offensive began on March 21 with a German attack on British forces at Amiens that resulted in a significant German advance of thirty-seven miles. The most forward position of the German Army was within seventy-five miles of Paris, and on March 23, Paris was attacked by shells from a gun fired behind the German lines. The attack was so unexpected that Parisians believed they were being bombed by a high-flying plane or Zeppelin. Shells continued to fall at a rate of around four per hour, with twenty-one shells landing on the first day. By the end of the first day, French agents determined that they had not been attacked with bombs and discredited reports of enemy agents leading attacks inside Paris. Several days later, and despite German attempts at diversion and camouflage, a French reconnaissance pilot located the gun, mounted on steel rails on a concrete pad. After the shelling of the St. Gervais Church, some Parisians fled the city, while others avoided large gatherings to minimize casualties.

Manufactured by Krupp and based on naval gun design, the Paris Gun (in reality three guns fired in turn) was the longest piece of artillery used during the war. It measured more than 111 feet long, weighed 138 tons, and could hit a target more than eighty miles away. The shells from the Paris Gun were the first man-made objects to enter the stratosphere, as it fired shells weighing more than 200 pounds at a speed of 5,260 feet per second. It took nearly three minutes for the shells to reach Paris, and other German artillery fired simultaneously to mask the sound of the discharge. The gun was of limited military use, however, as it delivered a relatively small payload and was highly inaccurate. Around one-third of all shells fired failed to land inside Paris. Also, the charge required to fire the shells was so great that the barrels needed to be rebored after about twenty firings, and the shell size had to be increased with each firing to accommodate changes to the barrel.

After more than four months of shelling, the Paris Gun had killed 256 and wounded 620–about a third of those deaths as a result of the attack at St. Gervais. The Paris Gun served as a successful propaganda tool in Germany, however, where the gun was believed to be the key to ultimate German victory. The tide of war turned against Germany later in 1918, and the country’s retreating army obliterated all evidence of the Paris Gun, leaving the world to guess at the details of its construction.

Author Biography

William Graves Sharp was the US ambassador to France for the duration of World War I, but he also had a long career as a congressman from Ohio. He was born in Mount Gilead, Ohio, on March 14, 1859. He graduated with a law degree from the University of Michigan at Ann Arbor in 1881 and passed the bar the same year. After a career in law, Sharp was elected to Congress as a Democrat and served from March 4, 1909, to July 23, 1914, when he resigned and was appointed ambassador by President Woodrow Wilson. Sharp served as ambassador until April 14, 1919, when he returned to Ohio to compile his war memoirs. He died in November 17, 1922, and is buried in Ohio.

Document Analysis

This State Department report recounts the shelling of St-Gervais-et-St-Protais Church, as relayed to Secretary of State Lansing by Sharp. The report voices the particular outrage felt by the international community about the death and destruction visited on a church, particularly at a time when women and children were gathered on a holy day. The poignancy of the deaths occurring on Good Friday, the day that commemorates the crucifixion of Jesus Christ, was not lost on contemporary writers. Current History, the New York Times’ monthly magazine, reported that the shell had struck “at the moment of the elevation of the Host.” Upon viewing the scene, the archbishop of Paris exclaimed “The beasts! To have chosen the day of our Lord’s death for committing such a crime!”

Sharp’s report also soundly condemns the attack, calling it a “cruelty,” a “horrible tragedy,” and noting the “appalling destruction” caused by the shell. By killing civilians, particularly in a safe haven, such as a church, Germany had violated the “laws of civilization and humanity.” The report references religious language, noting the “devoted worshipers,” and that it was only through a “miracle” that any lives were saved. The text mentions the “sacred character of the day and the place” at which the attack occurred.

The report also mentions (though not by name) the loss of one of Sharp’s close personal friends, M. Stroething, the secretary of the Swiss Legation. Stroething had served in Washington, D.C., from 1902 to 1904 and was one of several well-known and well-respected people lost in the tragedy. According to numerous newspaper reports, on April 5, Kaiser Wilhelm issued an apology to the Swiss president on behalf of Germany.

The report is careful not only to mention the attack but also to describe it in a way that makes clear the extent of the destruction. There are “mangled corpses,” and “the blood of the victims” still pooled on the floor. Also noted is that the church was hit in the “high, vaulted arches,” using language that, while precise, is also evocative.

While focused on the destruction wrought by the shell, Sharp’s report also emphasizes the attack’s galvanizing effect on the spirit of the French people. The “indignation” of the citizens of Paris only served to strengthen their resistance and their will to fight on, “to the last man.”

Essential Themes

The primary theme of this report is the outrage that Sharp felt at the killing of civilians, made worse by the time and place of the attack. To Sharp, the shelling of a church full of civilians, on a holy day, during a service, highlighted the cruelty and savagery of the Germans. In fact, there was no way for the Germans to accurately target the church, as the Paris Gun was extremely difficult to aim. Reports from British and American sources at the time accused Germany of deliberately shelling during times when people would gather for religious services, pointing out that the German Army had shelled on Palm Sunday and Good Friday. While Germany did shell during these times, the Paris Gun fired on Paris for months, and at all hours of the day. Still, the deaths caused by this one shell were interpreted by Sharp and many others as evidence that the Germans were savages who operated outside the boundaries of internationally accepted rules of war. Whether the Paris Gun served to strengthen or weaken Parisian citizens’ resolve could be debated, but its destruction of St. Gervais was reported as an example of Germany’s disrespect for the laws of war and the sanctity of life.

Bibliography and Additional Reading
  • Gurstelle, William. Adventures from the Technology Underground: Catapults, Pulsejets, Rail Guns, Flamethrowers, Tesla Coils, Air Cannons, and the Garage Warriors Who Love Them. New York: Random, 2009. Print.
  • Horne, Charles Francis. The Great Events of the Great War: A.D. 1918. Indianapolis: U of Indiana Alumni P, 1920. Digital file.
  • Miller, Henry W. Paris Gun: The Bombardment of Paris by the German Long-Range Guns and the Great German Offensives of 1918. London: Harrap, 1930. Print.
  • Neiberg, Michael S. Fighting the Great War: A Global History. Cambridge: Harvard UP, 2005. Print.
  • Palmer, Alan. Victory 1918. New York: Grove, 1998. Print.
Categories: History Content