Zeppelin Nights: London in the First World War by Jerry White

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Zeppelin Nights: London in the First World War by Jerry White

Category: History
Rating: 5/5
Reviewer: John Van der Kiste
Reviewed by John Van der Kiste
Summary: A vivid social history of the capital during the 1914-18 conflict, with particular emphasis on the German bombing raids, the devastation they brought, and the general effect of war on the city's population.
Buy? Yes Borrow? Yes
Pages: 356 Date: February 2014
Publisher: Vintage
External links: Author's website
ISBN: 9780099556046

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It seems that only recently, with the centenary of the outbreak of the First World War upon us, that historians have really looked thoroughly at the social history aspect and the effect it had on the population at home. Jerry White, who has already made a study of London over the last three centuries or so in previous titles, now turns his attention to life in the capital during those momentous four years.

In the opening pages of this book, he paints a vivid picture of the uncertainty that pervaded the capital in those first days of August 1914. Day by day, war gradually became more inevitable, while anti-war protesters gathered around Trafalgar Square and patriotic crowds flocked outside Buckingham Palace, with an enthusiastic crowd greeting the declaration of hostilities on the evening of the 4th.

Throughout the first few weeks, as soldiers left for the western front, patriotic fervour and a feeling that the war would soon be over gave way to anxiety as everyone realised that the conflict could last far longer than anticipated. German and Austrian nationals who had lived in London for many years were ostracised, their businesses were attacked and many were either repatriated or interned as ‘aliens’. Pubs called the King of Prussia, and streets such as Wiesbaden or Bismarck Road, were all swiftly renamed.

But the main theme which runs throughout much of the book, as the title suggests, is the series of bombing raids launched on the capital from 1915 onwards. At the end of the previous year the Zeppelins initially targeted the east coast of England, but from early summer London was repeatedly attacked, with devastating effect. On the first raid 89 bombs and 30 grenades were dropped in the East End and seven people were killed. Four were children, two of them sheltering in a doorway as they came back from the cinema. After a lull and everyone hoped it might be over, two years later a convoy of fourteen German airships appeared above the capital, keeping out of range of anti-aircraft fire as they dropped high-explosive bombs on schools and railway stations, again mostly in the East End. Eighteen children were killed in a single attack on a school in Poplar. The effect on morale was incalculable, with Londoners’ sense of inviolability almost destroyed at a stroke.

London felt the strain of the war years in other ways. People became hardened to the harrowing sight of maimed, hideously disfigured soldiers returning from the front to the hospitals, many soon to find a merciful release from their wounds. Shortages and sudden price rises became a regular way of life. Nobody greeted the new year with any joy, only a listless feeling that there was simply more misery on the way. Above all, moralists and campaigners had a field day against vice of every kind. The Bishop of London welcomed the incidence of venereal disease as ‘God’s judgment on an immoral life’, and delivered a sermon that appeared to welcome the war as a cure for decadence in a nation which had become soft, always thirsting for amusement and luxury. To him it was no longer the nation which had made the empire and driven back the Spanish Armada. When a soldier returned to his wife who had gone on the game and she told him she might have contracted a contagious disease, he shot her dead. When tried for murder he said that he was only doing his duty ‘as he did in France’, he was found guilty of manslaughter, and bound over to keep the peace for two years.

Maybe there was one law for men and another for women, but the demands for greater equality for which the suffragettes had been agitating in peacetime could no longer be disregarded. As conscription became compulsory and more young men left to go and fight on the western front, women took their place as taxi drivers, ticket collectors and waitresses, as well as in the new women’s police force. One young lady was heard to explain that she did not want the war to end, as when it did she and her sister would surely lose their jobs and soon be starving again.

However, when the armistice was signed, news spread fast. People were torn between a desire to celebrate and a sense of weary resignation, unsure if there was anything for them to rejoice about. A further killer, just as deadly as the zeppelin, had wrought a bitter harvest by then – the deadly Spanish influenza which claimed several thousand lives, even those of the young and previously healthy.

White has a very impressive eye for detail. He paints the broad picture of a people at war vividly, of communities having to live with steep price rises and sudden shortages, of the sight of hideously disfigured soldiers being admitted to hospitals, many soon to be granted a merciful release from their wounds. He also enlivens his narrative with a wealth of detail and anecdotes, disturbing though they may be. Moreover, in his closing paragraphs he underlines the point that before the war broke out, British society had been on the verge of major change. For the most part, people coped with the years 1914-18 with astonishing resilience – but sometimes even their pugnacious spirit would be found wanting.

In the brave new world which dawned in 1914, for London and the Londoners nothing would ever be the same again. When it comes to a choice of social histories covering Britain during the war years, this one will surely rank highly.

For further reading on the experiences of soldiers and civilians alike during the First World War, we also recommend The Reluctant Tommy: An Extraordinary Memoir of the First World War by Ronald Skirth and Duncan Barrett, and The Beauty and the Sorrow: An intimate history of the first world war by Peter Englund

Buy Zeppelin Nights: London in the First World War by Jerry White at Amazon You can read more book reviews or buy Zeppelin Nights: London in the First World War by Jerry White at Amazon.co.uk.


Buy Zeppelin Nights: London in the First World War by Jerry White at Amazon You can read more book reviews or buy Zeppelin Nights: London in the First World War by Jerry White at Amazon.com.


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