The ‘First Blitz’ – Terror Comes To The Home Front

220px-It_is_far_better_to_face_the_bulletsHow many people know anything of the ‘First Blitz’ – war waged by Germany from the air between 1915 and 1918?

As I researched Shell Shocked Britain : the First World Wars’s Legacy for Britain’s Mental Health I was surprised that so few of the stories from that time were well-known. I discussed the subject with a number of people and they had little or no knowledge of the horrors perpetrated by first the Zeppelin airships and then enormous fixed wing aircraft.

By 1914 Germany had several Zeppelins at the disposal of the armed forces. They could fly at speeds up to 85 m.p.h. with the capacity to carry approximately two tons of bombs. The first raid was on Great Yarmouth and King’s Lynn in January 1915 and continued across areas in the Midlands and along the East coast, including Hull where raids in June 1915 caused devastation.  I was lucky to discover letters describing these raids in the Liddle Collection held by Leeds University Library, and those from Mrs Nell Hague to her husband George, who had remained in London whilst she visited her mother, offer a fascinating insight into the mix of horror and excitement many felt:

“The Zeps are here! And from mother’s bedroom window the whole town seems on
fire…..

It is no exaggeration to say that there were thousands of people in and around the fields and houses… the dear little children -the cripples, the aged – oh my dear it must be seen to be realised…”

The raids became a tool to boost recruitment; many men so disgusted  that the enemy had brought war to the homes of Britain that they felt compelled to join up in response to official posters, such as the one illustrating this post, above.

Gotha_RG_im_FlugBy 1917 Zeppelins had been replaced by fixed wing aircraft – the Gotha, and, shortly afterwards, the ‘Giant’, with a wing span of 42 metres (138 feet) and tail roughly the same size as a Sopwith Pup. It is hardly surprising that British planes had such difficulty countering these fearsome attacks.

In his recent series Britain’s Great War Jeremy Paxman briefly touched on the physical and emotional trauma experienced by the populations of towns along the East and South East coasts of England and in London, the target of many of the raids. He focused on the first daylight raid of June 1917 during which (amongst a total of 162 people) eighteen pupils of Upper North Street School, Poplar, in East London were killed. Sixteen of them were aged from 4 to 6 years old. In Shell Shocked Britain I develop the story of that day, and others, to consider some of the lasting mental scars of the air raids.

In total, around 1,500 civilians were killed by air raids over the period of the war.

My Great Uncle Alfred Hardiman was a conscript into the 31st Battalion Middlesex Regiment, a works battalion, and spent his short service in the army in London. At some point in 1917 he was involved in the aftermath of one of the Gotha raids on London and his experience marked him so deeply that he spent several months in hospital. He was eventually discharged ‘unfit for service’ due to enuresis – he had become,at the age of 27, incontinent. In 1922 he would finally break down, killing his ex-girlfriend and himself. By all accounts a previously gentle man, he was not alone in finding the terrible sights of war on the Home Front impossible to forget.

wwi-british-policeAs always, one has to be wary of imposing present day values and responses on those living 100 years ago. When the bombs of July 2005 went off in London we were given minute by minute accounts of the situation by all media outlets. In the First World War, coverage of raids was actively suppressed, ostensibly to avoid panic. When we look back just the few years to the terrorist attacks, we can recall fears of further attacks, utterly unpredictable and our lives endangered simply by virtue of the train or bus we boarded. In the war, the suppression of news reports had the undesired consequence of heightening rumour and suspicion. No accurate reports resulted in a population constantly on the alert and the continued official resistance to proper air raid warnings (even to the point where policemen could only warn people by wearing a placard around their necks) resulted in more disruption rather than less.

In Shell Shocked Britain I discuss the ensuing ‘collective trauma’ in more detail, looking behind the reports of calm responses and stoical public at the deeper, personal terrors. On the Kent coast, particularly in the town of Folkestone, severely battered by Gotha raids in 1917, doctors had already begun to describe a form of shell shock amongst the families involved. I found reports of suicides both during and after the war due at least in part to continuing air raid shock.

Of course many were left unmarked by such events; some even found them exciting. But others, such as Alfred Hardiman, were left so traumatised that the anxiety became impossible to bear.

I have not yet been made aware of many planned events to mark those lost in the air raids of the First World War. Discussions on twitter suggest that thus far these horrors have so far been neglected. I hope that, in the next four years, places affected will take time to remember the horrors of the days when death first came from the skies..

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