The First World War began in August 1914. Despite the German aim of a swift victory, their plans were thwarted. By the end of the year, the German army and its opponents, on both Western and Eastern Fronts, were stuck in trenches and the war seemed to have reached a stalemate. Given allied naval superiority and victories in the world outside Europe, matters looked unpromising for Germany. Therefore, in May 1915, the Germans decided to attack London from the air, in order to destroy the nerve centre of the British economy. It was thought that if the City — the financial heart of the country, replete with the Stock Exchange, the Bank of England and numerous warehouses — could be knocked out, then a victory for Germany would be all the closer. Initially, on 5 May 1915, the decision was taken to restrict bombing to the part of London east of the Tower. But lobbying from the High Command persuaded the Kaiser to sign an order in July for unrestricted aerial attacks anywhere on London, apart from the royal palaces and historic buildings — though how the latter were to avoid being damaged was unclear.
At first, the Germans attacked London with zeppelins — sausage-shaped airships capable of dropping bombs on the city. Zeppelins had been anticipated by the British as a potential threat at the outset of war. Aerial gun defences and aircraft squadrons were placed in readiness on the Thames estuary. The latter carried men armed with rifles, which fired incendiary bullets, causing the German airships to explode. From autumn 1914, however, zeppelin bases were attacked by British aircraft. Nevertheless, in 1916 there was Parliamentary criticism of the inadequacy of London’s air defences. In all, there were eleven zeppelin raids on London, in which a total of 522 people were killed in the bombing, and treble that number injured. Material losses were limited, except in a few raids, and in one case the damage amounted to £1.5 million (around £90 million in modern terms).
It is worth noting that air-raids took place against other English towns and cities (as well as Allied cities like Antwerp, Paris and Warsaw), though it was London that bore the brunt of the attacks.
Apart from the zeppelins, there were raids by aircraft, but compared with the Second World War, on a relatively small scale: two attacks by single aircraft in 1916 and several in 1917—1918, involving about twenty aircraft (Gothas). These raids killed 670 people and injured 1,960 others, mostly in the City and the East End. Yet contemporaries were not to know that these attacks would be dwarfed by those of the later conflict, so this new style of warfare was an unpleasant novelty.
Perversely, however, many were struck by the splendour of the spectacle these flying machines presented and were eager to view their progress. John Buchan’s fictional hero, Richard Hannay, describes such a raid in the novel, Mr Standfast, set in 1918:
Then I realized that something very odd was happening. There was a dull sound like the popping of corks of flat soda water bottles. There was a humming, too, from very far up in the skies [. . .] The drone grew louder, and, looking up, I could see the enemy planes flying in a beautiful formation, very leisurely as it seemed, with all London at their mercy.
The writer Arnold Bennett (1867—1931) recalled accompanying friends to the top of the Waldorf Hotel on 11 September 1915 to watch the progress of two zeppelins. He wrote that the machines were ‘Fairy-like [. . .] [the] spectacle agreed to be superb. Noise of bombs agreed to be absolutely intimidating. And noise of our guns merely noise of pop-guns’. One raid was described by Vera Brittain’s aunt, who wrote: ‘the noise of the bombs & the aerial guns was terrific, past imagining unless heard’. A patient in a hospital described one thus:
one of the zeppelins, which looked like a great silver cigar in a luminous cloud, which was the smoke of the shrapnel from our anti-aircraft guns bursting underneath it. One of the guns was only about a mile away from the hospital, and that and the bombs made a terrific noise.
Many of the hospital patients were ‘afflicted with nerves’.
Meanwhile, Lady Cynthia Asquith saw the raids as an amusing diversion. On 1 June 1915 she wrote in her diary: ‘I was horrified at the idea of having slept through it [the zeppelin attack]’, and three months later: ‘I shall never get over having missed it — it makes me furious’. However, on 13 October that year, her wish was almost granted and she wrote:
we heard the magic word ‘zeppelin’. We rushed out and found people in dramatic groups, gazing skywards. Some men there said they saw the zeppelin. Alas. I didn’t! But our guns were popping away and shells bursting in the air. I felt excited pleasurably, but not the faintest tremor and I longed and longed for more to happen. Bibs was the only member of the family who had sufficient imagination to be frightened and Letty’s fun was spoilt by the thought of the children.
Miss Mary Coules described a similar scene in September 1915:
bombs dropping — it makes a steady boom like cannon [. . .] I could hear the ack-ack shells bursting over the City. True enough, there were bright flashes all over the sky, & sharp bangs whenever a shell burst — quite a different sound from the bombs. We watched them chase the zeppelin from the west to the north-west, shells bursting around it [. . .] It only lasted 15 minutes, so far as we were concerned. Still, it was thrilling while it lasted.
Michael MacDonagh, a journalist, described his first sight of a zeppelin on 9 September 1915:
I saw an amazing spectacle. High in the sky was a zeppelin, picked out of the darkness by searchlights — a long, narrow object of a silvery hue. I felt like what a watcher of the skies must feel when a new planet swims into his ken, for it was my first sight of an enemy airship.
Yet, as he noted in the following month, while he and others were looking upwards at the zeppelin, ‘The thing of beauty had transformed herself into a hellish monster, and was pouring fire and death upon the crowded streets.’
The young Evelyn Waugh recorded in his schoolboy diary in 1915:
Alec [his elder brother] woke me up in the night at about 11 o‘clock saying the zeps had come. We came downstairs and the special constable was rushing about yelling ‘Lights out’ and telling us the zeppelin was right overhead. We heard two bombs and then the Parliament Hill guns were going and the zep went away in their smoke cloud to do some baby-killing elsewhere.
Recalling these events almost fifty years later, the now famous author recalled that the raids did not seem dangerous:
No bomb fell within a mile of us, but the alarms were agreeable occasions when I was brought down from bed and regaled with an uncovenanted picnic. I was quite unconscious of danger, which was indeed negligible. On summer nights we sat in the garden [. . .] On a splendid occasion I saw one brought down, sinking very slowly in brilliant flame, and joined those who were cheering in the road outside.
John Buchan describes the initial effect of the bombing:
People in the streets were either staring at the heavens or running wildly for shelter. A motor-bus in front of me emptied its contents in a twinkling; a taxi pulled up with a jar and the driver and his fare dived into a second-hand bookshop [. . .] The man who says he doesn’t mind being bombed or shelled is either a liar or a maniac. The London air-raid seemed to me a singularly unpleasant business.
Once the novelty had worn off, and people had satisfied their curiosity regarding the appearance of the enemy aircraft, they began to react — in other words, they sought protective cover. Lady Asquith observed that ‘all the traffic ceases, and the streets magically empty — the whole population swallowed up in houses.’ Nevertheless, some enthusiastic spectators remained, for another contemporary account refers to ‘The streets were full of excited semi-dressed people’.11 Generally speaking, however, Londoners were learning how to react to aerial attack. Arnold Bennett described how, during a raid on 3 October 1917, ‘Piccadilly emptied very fast. All the people ran out of the Park.’ A few days earlier, a raid began just after he left his club, ‘The buses seemed to quicken, the streets appreciably emptied. Most people hurried; I did, but a few strolled along. I was glad when I got to the Albany.’ On another occasion he wrote: ‘Everybody ran. Girls ran [. . .] However, I found that after a Turkish bath I couldn’t run much in a heavy overcoat. So I walked. It seemed a long way.’ It was also bad for business. Bennett recalled a proprietor of a restaurant telling him that: ‘although his place was always full of a night, he had only four people on Monday night, and not a single customer on Tuesday night (fear of the raids)’.
Many were terrified, Lady Asquith recording several examples. On one occasion, she wrote: ‘Parlour maid came in quaking with fear, the potatoes rattling in the dish and informed us that the postman had told her the worst raid yet known was then in progress over London.’ And a month later: ‘poor little Martin was very frightened and refused, quite rationally, to be reassured, saying “But when they come with bombs they do kill people. They killed my papa.”’ There was also a rumour that the premier, Lloyd George (1860—1945), was so shaken with terror that two typists fainted at the sight, thinking some disaster had occurred.
Others made money from the raids. Miss Tower wrote: ‘one big wine dealer was reported to have let several of his cellars’. During the bigger air-raids of late September 1917, sandbags were on sale, ranging from a shilling to twopence each, depending on which part of London they were being sold in. Some people charged up to five shillings for a night’s shelter in their property, depending on how wealthy the ‘clients’. Taxi-drivers are reputed to have demanded exorbitant fares.
Precautions were taken by some. Miss Tower wrote:
People began to make preparations for zeppelin raids […] people we knew had furnished theirs [cellars] and slept with big coats and handbags for valuables by the bedside. Most people had water or buckets of sand or fire extinguishers on every landing. We rather laughed at this at first but by degrees everyone came round to taking certain precautions.
Poorer people could not take the same precautions as their social superiors. Many left the factories earlier in order to find shelter somewhere. Public parks and fields outside London were chosen as places to shelter, as well as the London Underground. But officials were scandalised: parks were supposed to be clear of the public and closed at dusk and, as for the Underground platforms, as one sign read: ‘At no time must the platforms be used except by persons alighting from, entering in or waiting for trains.’ Yet there was little officialdom could do. One park-keeper was shocked that people were still in his park after closing time. He complained to a constable, who explained that he could hardly arrest them all. Sensibly, he told the park-keeper to simply lock the park gates and go home. Elsewhere, ugly confrontations between police and squatters erupted, especially in the East End.16 The Underground, however, remained the main option for shelterers. Lloyd George claimed that, following the raid of 7 July 1917:
At the slightest rumour of approaching aeroplanes, Tubes and tunnels were packed with panic-stricken men, women and children. Every clear night the commons around London were black with refugees from the threatened metropolis.
In October 1917, a quarter of a million Londoners sheltered in the Underground stations. Some clambered aboard the carriages of the Tube trains. Two such were William Bignell (1890—1970), a soldier on leave, and Alice Howard, his girlfriend. They sought sanctuary on a Tube train during a raid in 1917, when sheltering at Finsbury Park station. Unfortunately for them, the train set off and they found themselves at Hammersmith: they could only return home the following morning after paying the appropriate fare.
In two instances there was panic, leading to stampedes and deaths. One of these happened at Bishopsgate on 28 January 1918, when a rush to the shelter resulted in one man falling and others being suffocated or being pushed against the walls. Fourteen died in a similar incident at Mile End Underground station. John Buchan recorded:
I found the Tube entrance filled with excited humanity. One stout lady had fainted, and a girl had become hysterical, but on the whole people were behaving well. Oddly enough they did not seem inclined to go down the stairs to the complete security of the Underground; but preferred rather to collect where they could still get a glimpse of the upper world, as if they were torn between fear of their lives and interest in the spectacle. That crowd gave me a good deal of respect for my countrymen. But several were badly rattled.
As in the case of the parks, there was hostility towards the shelterers. One instance of this was recorded by Arnold Bennett. He recounted how:
Very poor women and children sitting on stairs [of the Underground] (fear of raids). Also travellers in lift and lift man grumbling at them because no fear of raid, and they answering him back, and middle-class women saying to each other that if the poor couldn’t keep to the regulations they ought to be forbidden the Tube as a shelter from the raid.
It should be noted that no air-raid shelters were constructed during this period. Yet the public demanded that precautions be taken. In 1915, the police commissioner noted that: ‘manifestations of popular opinion have occurred in favour of the total extinction of the street lighting when warning is received of an impending attack by hostile aircraft’. There were meetings of local government officials to discuss measures to be taken. It was decided that, when enemy airships or aircraft were seen, lighting in the capital would be dimmed but not wholly extinguished, for fear that utter darkness would cause panic and hinder the emergency services.