The First World War was an unprecedented catastrophe that shaped our modern world. Erik Sass is covering the events of the war exactly 100 years after they happened. This is the 164th installment in the series.
January 19, 1915: Zeppelins Bomb English Towns
“He had seen airships flying low and swift over darkened and groaning streets; watched great buildings, suddenly red-lit amidst the shadows, crumple at the smashing impact of bombs; witnessed for the first time in his life the grotesque, swift onset of insatiable conflagrations.” Science fiction when H.G. Wells wrote his serial novel “The War in the Air” in 1907, just a few years later these words proved all too prophetic, as the Great War brought the first aerial bombardment of civilian targets, including the first raid on Britain on January 19, 1915.
When the war started Germany had a fleet of 18 zeppelins, which grew to over 100 by 1918. Although their large size and relatively low speed might seem to make them an easy target, zeppelins were difficult to destroy before the invention of tracer bullets containing burning magnesium that could set the hydrogen alight, and they could carry a much larger bomb payload for longer distances than any airplane then in operation (the largest payload carried by a zeppelin during the war was seven tons). Eventually both sides would build larger planes as heavy bombers, but at the beginning of the war zeppelins were the best option for long-range bombing raids.
Strategic bombing became a more attractive option as the war on the Western Front settled into stalemate and the Allied blockade began to squeeze German civilians, prompting calls for retaliation against the enemy’s home front. In November 1914 Grand Admiral Alfred von Tirpitz, Germany’s most successful prewar politician, demanded firebomb raids against London, but Kaiser Wilhelm II balked at this, supposedly for fear his relatives in the British royal family might suffer (King George V was his cousin) so the first raids targeted British coastal towns, which were also easier to reach.
After an unsuccessful raid on December 21, 1914, the Germans tried again with better (or worse) results on the night of January 19-20, 1915, when the zeppelins L-3 and L-4 bombed the towns of Great Yarmouth and King’s Lynn in Norfolk in northeastern England; a third zeppelin, L-6, was forced to turn back by engine trouble. The zeppelins dropped a total of eight bombs as well as dozens of incendiary devices on the towns and surrounding villages, killing four people and injuring 16.
The zeppelin raids succeeded in spreading fear in the British civilian population. One young Englishwoman, Hallie Miles, wrote in her diary:
It is a specially anxious time just now. Last night there was a German raid on the East Coast by Zeppelins and Aeroplanes… There have been several killed by the cruel bombs. So we are on the tip-toe of expectancy that they will continue these visits, and try hard to get London. Such awful things are being prophesied: it makes one’s heart stand still to hear of all that may be going to happen to our beloved England.
Although these casualties were relatively light in comparison to the continuing carnage on the Western Front, the aerial attack on civilian populations, coming close on the heels of the naval bombardment of Scarborough, Hartlepool and Whitby, shocked the British public and (like the naval raid) soon became fodder for British propaganda and recruiting efforts (above, a recruiting poster). Subsequent raids over the course of the war, including zeppelin and plane attacks on London, sparked more outrage as well as fierce criticism of the British military for failing to protect civilians. As Miles noted: “It is strange to read of trenches being made in England, and full of soldiers too, all ready and on the watch. And yet with all the watchfulness from air, land, and sea, the Germans seem able to slip in and take us unawares… We have to be prepared to fly to our basements, and have candles ready, and ‘lamps trimmed’…” Mounting criticism eventually led to expansion of the Royal Flying Corps, which received responsibility for home defense in February 1916.
However it’s worth noting that there was never any mass hysteria, as the Germans hoped, and some people were positively blasé. Another Englishwoman, Helen Franklin, was more curious than fearful: “Some people take [them] awfully seriously, and go about with respirators in their pockets for poisoned gases. I do wish I could see one, it would be so thrilling, and so awfully nice to swank about after. I can’t get up any panic about it…”