As The Times wrote, ‘It takes little to throw civilians into a panic in peace; it was natural, therefore, to expect that bomb dropping would throw them into a panic in war.’
Less than two decades before these airship raids began, aerial warfare was a terrifying prospect people could only visualise. Having, however, a very real and serious nature, it led to the 1898 Hague Declaration which prevented belligerent countries from launching projectiles or explosives from aerial vessels. Due to remain valid until 1907, over the following decade aviation advanced: the first German Zeppelin was flown in 1900, and the first free flight in a power-driven airplane followed in 1903. The 1907 Hague Conference aimed to reflect this advancement. Forbidding world powers from bombing undefended areas by any means, its outcome was Article 25 of the Land War Convention, the only international rule referring to aerial bombardment. Specifically phrased to imply attack from the air, twenty-seven representative countries out of forty-four pledged their support. Of the powers involved in the war only four gave theirs: Britain agreed, largely because the Anglo-German Naval Arms Race was at its peak and she feared Germany would add marine reconnaissance and bombing to the list of airship capabilities; and Germany declined, largely because it was not clear what constituted an undefended area and, despite Article 2 of the Naval Convention attempting to clarify, it was felt that, if applied too literally with regards to aerial bombers, certain problems were insurmountable. For all practical purposes it was therefore recognised that expediency would decide aircraft uses in war. In the following year H.G. Wells published The War in the Air - a fiction about a catastrophic aerial war when German airships destroyed New York. Little did Wells know then that by July the subsequent year, following the first aeroplane flight across the English Channel by Frenchman Louis Blériot, this fiction would be closer to reality.
By 1914 German airships had flown over 100,000 miles and carried 37,000 civilian passengers without incident. In the years which preceded this however, the German military became interested in airships and it was not before long that her Army operated mostly Schütte-Lanz airships and her Navy operated Zeppelin airships. Originally content to employ airships for scouting missions, the Army soon joined the likes of the Navy who had the proactive mission of bombing England. Envisaging that they could take any war to the enemy, they visualised that airships would be at the forefront of any offensive in the expected conflict with the Triple Entente, the alliance between Britain, France and Russia. When war broke out in August 1914 the Chief of the German Naval Airship Division, Peter Strasser, expressed the utmost belief that Germany ‘…should leave no means untried to crush England and that successful air raids on London… would prove a valuable means to this end.’ German civilians also expressed this sentiment as they believed airship raids would be their retribution for Britain’s declaration of war. This desire to use airships became evident throughout Europe four months into the war: ‘Fly, Zeppelin, Help us in the war, Fly to England, England will be destroyed by fire, Fly, Zeppelin!’ Composed by a relative of Germany’s Supreme War Lord, Kaiser Wilhelm II, the origin of this children’s song was to boost German morale and popularise the notion that the war would be over by Christmas when England would be brought to her knees.
Despite this eagerness to begin airships raids on England, the Kaiser prevaricated, just as he did in late 1915 when German submarine warfare increased its attacks on all enemy ships, and also in early 1916 when renewed pressure mounted upon him to sanction immediate unrestricted submarine warfare against enemy ships and neutral vessels. Fearing the effect that this unprecedented warfare might have on neutral countries opinions, principally America, he also believed, as many did, that the war would quickly culminate and that strategic bombing would thus be unnecessary. Following the realisation however that the war would not be over by Christmas, the Kaiser experienced mounting military and public pressure to sanction raids on England. Succumbing on 9 January 1915 he agreed that these were to be ‘…expressly restricted… London itself was not to be bombed.’ Admiral Hugo von Pohl, Chief of the Naval Staff, confirmed in a telegram the following day: ‘Air attacks on England approved by Supreme War Lord. Targets [are] docks and military establishments in the Lower Thames and on the English Coast.’
Although many agreed with Strasser that London was a highly important target for she had significant military establishments, and also with von Pohl who believed that the effects of the latter would deteriorate morale, in early 1915 no airship had enough range to reach London. Other British cities of military value were therefore targeted and only ten days after the Kaiser’s approval Navy airships L3 and L4 were ordered to bomb military establishments on the River Humber, whilst airship L6 was to attempt to reach London. The latter endured crankshaft failure and returned to Germany, but L3 and L4 reached Norfolk and the former bombed Great Yarmouth whilst the latter bombed Sheringham and Snettisham. Their intended military establishments, including a gasworks and a hall packed with National Reserve men, were in the proximity of their bombs although they instead hit residential areas. Four were killed and sixteen were injured. All but one injured soldier were civilians. Despite hitting these alleged unintended targets the Kölnische Zeitung announced, ‘A triumph of German inventiveness… has shown itself capable of… carrying the war to… England! An eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth.’ The following month an Imperial Order extended January’s telegram: ‘No attack is to be made on the residential areas of London…’ Both this order and the earlier telegram were futile in their efforts to avoid civilian casualties (accurate bombing was not possible and their targets were located within densely populated areas), yet rivalry grew between the Army and the Navy to bomb London first. The latter had the advantage for at the start of 1915 it had begun to build airships which could undertake short hauls to the Capital.
This desire to attack London was fuelled further when it was documented in early 1915 by the German General Staff and the Admiralty that ‘…there is nothing in International Law or… international agreements against it… London is a defended city… Its bombardment by Zeppelins would constitute no violation of the laws of war…’ Furthermore, the German official view also believed that because the 1898 Hague Declaration had expired, and because Germany did not completely ratify its newer form in 1907, ‘The Hague Declaration… does not hold good.’ Regardless of this however, with no airship able to reach London, six airship raids (four Army and two Navy) commenced elsewhere in England in April and May. During one of these raids Army airship LZ38 attempted to reach the Capital yet only succeeded in raiding Southend. Confirming Germany’s intentions Captain Hauptmann Linnarz dropped a card overboard threatening, ‘You English. We have come and will come again. Kill or cure. German.’
During May the German military pressed the Kaiser for a free hand over London for they believed it would be a mistake to spare the Capital, would not be understood by the German nation and would be regarded by England as weakness. The Kaiser failed to yield to this pressure, yet on 31 May Linnarz - allegedly believing he had stuck to the Kaiser’s original conditions regarding the bombing of London - showed he was true to his earlier threat when he successfully bombed the Capital. Dropping 119 bombs on civilian populated areas in the north-east of London, including Stoke Newington, Leytonstone and Shoreditch, there were no intentional military targets. Seven were killed and thirty-five injured, all but two injured soldiers were civilians. The Germans, including the Kaiser, were overjoyed: ‘The City of London, the heart which pumps the life-blood into the arteries of the brutal huckster nation…’ read the Neueste Nachrichten of Leipzig, ‘…has been sown with bombs by German airships.’
Four further raids on London followed in 1915 and again there were generally no intentional military targets, more just an ethos of bomb what you see fit on the night. Furthermore, military targets were rarely hit and most bombs fell on residential areas. London’s second raid on 17 August saw Navy airships drop 107 bombs on East London, including Walthamstow, Leyton and Leytonstone. Ten civilians were killed and forty-eight were injured. The Army followed on 7 September by dropping 97 bombs on the east and south-east of London, including the Docklands and Deptford. Although one airship bombed the Millwall Docks, a section of South Eastern and Chatham Railway track and an area near to the Royal Dockyard,40 eighteen were killed and thirty-eight were injured, all but one injured soldier were civilians. Spurred on by this success, Navy airships targeted London the subsequent night. Dropping 152 bombs over Central London, including Bloomsbury, Holborn and the City,43 whilst some warehouses north of St Paul’s bore the main brunt of this attack and an area of Liverpool Street Station had a few yards of track ripped up, residential areas were again hit. Twenty-six were killed and ninety-four were injured, all but two of both the latter and the former were soldiers. London’s, and England’s, final airship raid in 1915 came on 13 October. Causing the greatest casualties of all airship raids during the war, 189 bombs were dropped on mainly Central London, including the Strand and Aldwych, although Woolwich was also hit. Whilst some bombs slightly damaged Woolwich Arsenal, the majority, although aimed at the Admiralty near Trafalgar Square, fell half a mile off target. Striking the heart of London’s Theatre Land, seventy-one were killed and one-hundred and twenty-eight were injured. Seventeen of the dead and twenty-one of the injured were soldiers.
Whilst these raids would have been significant for any country, their significance upon England was greater for it meant that ‘Britain was no longer protected… by the mightiest fleet which had ever ridden the seas.’ Although no country had experienced aerial warfare, many countries were conscious that they could be subject to invasion. Not however vulnerable to this as long as the Royal Navy maintained its naval supremacy, no successful invasion of England had commenced since 1066. Furthermore, not only was it the first time in centuries that England had experienced major conflict at home (the last being the major Jacobite rebellions in 1715 and 1745), but it was generally the first time that English civilians en masse were targeted by their enemy at home. Unlike their European neighbours for example, English civilians had not experienced great conflicts with foreigners which either involved civilians or were fought in civilian populated areas. This thus brought about ‘…the realisation that they were no longer immune from war… they too, like their soldiers, were in the firing line’; as The Times wrote, ‘…while armed airships might be the proper means of attacking armies and navies, it was an entirely new and barbarous practice to use them as weapons of aggression against defenceless civilians.’ The publication of the following cartoon demonstrates this.
Britain knew little about what to expect from these raids and little preparation was thus made for them. When the war broke out the Board of Admiralty was granted the task of defending London and in September Winston Churchill, the only man in the government convinced of the air threat potential, undertook this responsibility. There was however no independent British air service (air power was divided between the Army’s Royal Flying Corps (RFC) and the Navy’s Royal Navy Air Service (RNAS)), and only thirty-three anti-aircraft guns existed in the whole of England. The significance of these raids is therefore huge and it is interesting to understand how London’s civilians responded to the first year of them. Unfortunately however, because these raids occurred in a decade when no social research organisation existed in Britain (Mass Observation was not established until 1937), it has not been possible to consult official material written during the year of these raids which refers directly to London’s civilian’s responses. Furthermore, although two sources used in this dissertation refer to the recent comments of adults who were young children in 1915, because these raids commenced over ninety years ago it has not been possible to speak to other survivors who would have been able to provide me with detailed accounts of what they believed civilian responses to have been.
Because of the above, and also the fact that only a few letters, diaries extracts and other primary sources have been available for me to use in writing this dissertation, I have primarily had to research newspapers which have provided both details of the raids and also what journalists viewed and reported civilian responses to have been. Although I have also been able to use books and other publications which have been written about these raids (many of which were originally written over thirty years ago, although have been re-published within recent years), none of these publications record a comprehensive account from the viewpoint of the ordinary civilian. Furthermore, when looking at these publication’s bibliographies it is evident that they generally have not included the unpublished primary sources and serial publications which I believe have been so essential in writing this dissertation. I would therefore argue that a publication about this little-known topic is missing and that, by using the many archives which appear to have been previously untouched, a dissertation regarding this subject is required. Although aware that the newspapers that I have used can not be guaranteed to be the totally accurate responses of London’s civilians, particularly due to the fact that these raids commenced during war and therefore journalists would have been likely to have emphasised the high-spirit of London civilians as opposed to the contrary, these newspaper, along with all the other sources, have enabled me to answer this question to the best of ones ability.
Both the death and material damage caused by these Baby Killers were thankfully not huge. The same cannot be said for the psychological impact: as historian Michael Praed argues, and historian Thomas Fegan agrees, ‘The psychological effect was every bit as powerful as that of the blitz of the Second World War.’ Causing various responses amongst London’s civilians, these raids increased civilian determination to win the war, caused anger in many, and fear amongst others. This was in addition to other lesser responses. Whilst it is necessary to stress that few individuals expressed one singular response to these raids, this dissertation studies these responses within these self-titled chapters before concluding how London’s civilians responded to the German airship raids of 1915.
(1) H. G. Wells, The War in the Air (Middlesex, 1973), p. 140.
(2) The Times, 10 September 1915, p. 9.
(3) Michael Paris, ‘Fear of Flying: The Fiction of War 1886-1916’ in History Today, Volume 43, Number 6, June 1993, p. 29.
(4) Raymond L. Rimell, Zeppelin! A Battle for Air Supremacy in World War One (London, 1984), p. 30.
(5) Joseph Morris, German Air Raids on Britain 1914-1918 (Sussex, 1993), pp. 3-4.
(6) Rimell, op,cit., p. 30.
(7) Morris, op,cit., p. 4.
(8) Michael Praed, quoted in BBC Timewatch, ‘Zeppelin: The First Blitz’ on BBC 2, 2 February 2007.
(9) Thomas Fegan, The ‘Baby Killers’: German Air Raids on Britain in the First World War (South Yorkshire, 2002), p. 11.
(11) Morris, op,cit., p. 11.
(12) Rimell, op,cit., p. 31.
(13) ‘Fly, Zeppelin: A Children’s Song’, cited in Robert Hedin (ed.), The Zeppelin Reader: Stories, Poems, and Songs from the Age of Airships (Iowa City, 1998), p. 81.
(14) Wilbur Cross, Zeppelins of World War One (Lincoln, 2001), p. 9.
(15) Robert K. Massie, Castles of Steel (London, 2004), p. 542.
(16) ibid., pp. 685-689.
(17) Fegan, op,cit., p. 15.
(18) Morris, op,cit., p. 11.
(19) Rimell, op,cit., pp. 31-33.
(20) Kenneth Poolman, Zeppelins over England (London, 1975), p. 39.
(21) ibid., p. 41.
(22) Rimell, op,cit., pp. 33-34.
(23) J. A. Hammerton (ed.), The Concise Universal Encyclopedia (London, 1929), p. 38.
(24) ‘Kölnische Zeitung’, cited in Douglas Robinson, The Zeppelin in Combat: History of the German Naval Airship Division, 1912-1918, (England, 1966) p. 64.
(25) ibid., p. 67.
(26) Fegan, op,cit., p. 16.
(27) Arthur Banks, A Military Atlas of the First World War, (London, 1989), p. 286.
(28) Poolman, op,cit., p. 41.
(29) The Times, 2 April 1915, p. 6.
(31) Rimell, op,cit., p. 35.
(32) Poolman, op,cit., pp. 41-42.
(33) Morris, op,cit., pp. 28-29.
(34) ibid., p. 265.
(35) Hammerton (ed.), op,cit., p. 38.
(36) ‘Neueste Nachrichten of Leipzig’, cited in Poolman, op,cit., p. 42.
(37) Morris, op,cit., p. 266.
(38) Hammerton (ed.), op,cit., p. 38.
(39) Morris, op,cit., p. 266.
(40) Rimell, op,cit., p. 41.
(41) Hammerton (ed.), op,cit., p. 38.
(42) Rimell, op,cit., pp. 41-42.
(43) Morris, op,cit., p. 266.
(44) Rimell, op,cit., p. 42.
(45) Hammerton (ed.), op,cit., p. 38.
(46) Morris, op,cit., p. 266.
(47) Rimell, op,cit., p. 44.
(48) Hammerton (ed.), op,cit., p. 38.
(49) ‘Dusseldorfer General Anzeiger’, cited in Westminster Gazette, 14 August 1916, p. 8.
(50) J. P. Kenyon, The Wordsworth Dictionary of British History, (Hertfordshire, 1994), p. 196.
(51) John Williams, The Home Fronts 1914-1918 (London, 1972), p. 67.
(52) The Times, 3 June 1915, p. 6.
(53) Michael Wynn Jones, The Cartoon History of Britain (London, 1971), p. 222.
(54) Rimell, op,cit., p. 12
(55) Cross, op,cit., p. 26
(56) Morris, op,cit., p. 7
(57) Ian Beckett, quoted in BBC Timewatch, op,cit., 2007.
(58) Mass-Observation Archive, ‘A brief history of Mass-Observation’, https://www.massobs.org.uk/history.html.
(59) Fegan, op,cit., p. 9.
(60) Praed, quoted in BBC Timewatch, op,cit., 2007.
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