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 200th installment in the series.
September 8, 1915: London Bombed, Lenin Calls for Revolution
Compared to the carnage on the Western Front, where the British body count was already approaching 100,000 by the beginning of September 1915, the German bombing campaign against England was a pinprick: over the course of the whole war Zeppelins carried out 52 raids, killing 577 people, and in the later part of the war German planes including the giant Gotha bombers carried out another 52 raids, killing 836, for a total death toll of 1,413.
But the raids had a disproportionate psychological impact, as most of the dead and injured were civilians; above all, they violated the British public’s longstanding sense of security, rooted in their collective identity as an island nation insulated from the turmoil on the Continent, even when Britain was at war.
The most successful Zeppelin raid of the war (in terms of economic damage) was the fourth, which took place on the night of September 8-9, 1915. Four giant airships – L9, L11, L13, and L14 – set out to bomb targets across England, but L11 and L14 were forced to turn back by engine trouble, so only L9 and L13 made it to their targets. As it happened only L13 (below), piloted by the legendary Heinrich Mathy, managed to get its bombs on target – a direct hit on central London (top, London lit up by searchlights on the evening of September 8).
Flying at an altitude of 11,000 feet, with its crewmembers bundled up in thick leather uniforms and wool long underwear against temperatures as low as -22°F in their non-insulated cabin, L13 dropped 15 high explosive bombs and 55 incendiary bombs on the Aldersgate area of London, setting fire to textile warehouses and hitting several buses, resulting in major casualties. Altogether L13’s raid killed 22 people, all civilians, and caused over £500,000 in damage – more than all the other Zeppelin raids over the course of the war combined.
Together with the three previous raids, the attack of September 8-9, 1915 provoked harsh criticism of the British Admiralty, which was at this time responsible for air defense through the Royal Naval Air Service, and spurred calls for stronger defenses, including more antiaircraft guns on the ground and new weapons for fighter planes to combat them in the air. Immediately following the September 8-9 raid, the Admiralty responded by appointing Admiral Sir Percy Scott to coordinate all these measures. However continued attacks resulted in all air defense responsibilities being transferred to the British Army’s Royal Flying Corps in February 1916.
The attacks brought the war home to British civilians in a way newspaper reports and stories from wounded soldiers and men on home leave simply couldn’t. This included British children, who in addition to losing fathers and older brothers now found themselves exposed to the nighttime menace of the strange silver shapes hovering in the darkness, even if the chances of actually being hit were quite slim (below, British children wounded in a Zeppelin raid in 1915).
Even when not directly affected, children still witnessed traumatic events and tried to understand their importance, if only by observing adult reactions. One girl, J. Marriage, described the raid on September 8-9 in a report for school:
On Wednesday night at quarter to eleven I was woke up by my mother who said, ‘Dont be frightened, the Germans are here’. I jumped out of bed (and my brother fell out) and ran into the front room where my mother was dressing. She said to me go and get your clothes on, but as I was a big light like lighting rose before my eyes and before I knew where I was a mighty explosion and a huge flame lept in front of me. As I expected this I ran into the street and saw many people pointing towards the sky. I ran to see what was the matter and in the sky there was a silvery coloured thing in the shape of a cigar. Two powerful searchlights shone on it from end to end. It stood there for about five minutes dropping bombs and going in a circle for about two times and suddenly disapeared into the air. The searchlights looked for it but in vain it could not be found… A fireman named Green saved seventeen people. He went up again but there were no more people left and was cut off from retreat. The poor man was at the top of the house. To save himself from being burnt to death he jumped to the ground and died a few days afterwards… In Leather Lane there were a wife and two childen killed of a policeman and he has gone silly.
A boy, J. Littenstein, recalled the surprising interruption of his family’s Jewish New Year’s Eve celebration:
Baa-ang! There was another crash. “Bomb’s and zeppelins” said my aunt. She was cool but the other women were panic-stricken. They gave vent to shrieks and screams that would have done credit to a hyena. I was shivering like a jelly but I soon got over it… My aunt had snatched the baby from the bed in a blanket and had put all the lights but one. “The basement” she said putting out the last light, and we all ran downstairs… Clang! Clang! Clang! Clang! The incessant ringing of the fire bell came to my ears and a moment later the fire engine came clattering along… Although it was midnight it was as light as day. There were a great many searchlights flitting about now.
Children At War
As these accounts demonstrate, British children were hardly insulated from the war – and their peers on the Continent were even more exposed, especially when they lived in or near the combat zones. Indeed, children who lived near the front witnessed death so regularly it became familiar and unremarkable. Edward Lyell Fox, an American war correspondent with the German armies on the Eastern Front, recalled seeing boys playing in a village after the Winter Battle of the Masurian Lakes in February 1915:
They seemed to be playing a game. A little fellow, whose round fur hat and brown pea jacket was typical of his chums, was poking at something with a stick. Greatly excited, he called the boys, who seemed to be looking for something across the road in the snow… And we saw that the youngster was poking the snow away from a big bearded man in a sheepskin coat. The game the boys of Suwalki were playing was hunting the dead.
Other observers recounted similar scenes on the Western Front, sometimes with an additional ghoulish detail, the search for souvenirs. Another American journalist, Albert Rhys Williamsm described encountering a gang of entrepreneurial Belgian boys:
Three boys who had somehow managed to crawl across the bridge were prodding about in the canals with bamboo poles. “What are you doing?” we inquired. “Fishing,” they responded. “What for?” we asked. “Dead Germans,” they replied. “What do you do with them--bury them?” “No!” they shouted derisively. “We just strip them of what they’ve got and shove ‘em back in.” Their search for these hapless victims was not motivated by any sentimental reasons, but simply by their business interest as local dealers in helmets, buttons and other German mementos.
Although French and Belgian authorities evacuated civilians from the frontlines and strongly encouraged others living nearby to leave voluntarily, with customary stubbornness many peasants refused to abandon their property and possessions, and kept their children with them too (below, a French family equipped with gas masks). As the war dragged on this resulted in some alarming juxtapositions, like the scenes described by J.A. Currie in northern France in February 1915: “It is wonderful how careless of danger people become… The German high explosive shells, or ‘Hiex’ as they were called there, were falling five or six hundred yards off, still the children were playing in the street and a bunch of little girls were skipping with a rope.”
The war also exposed children to large numbers of foreigners, especially in the German-occupied areas of northern France and Russia, and along the British sector of the Western Front, where the British Expeditionary Force was a de facto occupation army (although a friendly one). In the latter case most French children seemed to like the foreign troops, if only because they were sources of food, candy, toys, and money. James Hall, an American soldier who joined the British Army, recalled some of the children’s strategies for extracting gifts from them:
Tommy was a great favorite with the French children. They climbed on his lap and rifled his pockets; and they delighted him by talking in his own vernacular, for they were quick to pick up English words and phrases. They sang “Tipperary” and “Rule Britannia,” and “God Save the King,” so quaintly and prettily that the men kept them at it for hours at a time.
But the children’s acquisitive impulses weren’t limited to sweets and knickknacks. Several foreign observers recorded their shock on discovering that working class children in France started smoking at a very young age. Thus Sarah Macnaughtan, a British nurse, noted in her diary in March 1915 that, “every child begs for cigarettes, and they begin smoking at five years old.” A Canadian soldier, Jack O’Brien, confirmed this habit in a letter home: “While we were at breakfast a lot of little French kids crowded around, and we were all amused at the little beggars. Their speech, half French and half English, was very funny. But say, you should have seen them smoke! Little kids hardly able to walk were smoking just like old men.”
The situation could be quite different – and dangerous – when children came into contact with unwelcome occupiers, for example when enemy troops were billeted with their families. Laura Blackwell de Gozdawa Turczynowicz, an American married to a Polish aristocrat, described her young son’s response to a German officer who celebrated a recent Russian defeat by shouting “Russki kaput!” (though it would be hard to say which was behaving more childishly):
I tried to teach the children something I did not myself believe, but a childish mind is not easily convinced. I told them they must be polite to the Germans or else Mammy would get shot too… but Wladek could not be made to feel the necessity of hiding his feelings… Wladek could at last stand it no longer. He went right up to the officer with his brother and sister by the hand, saying, “Nein, nein – German kaput!” The officer started after him furiously. Wladek tried to run still calling out, “German kaput.”
Children absorbed the resentment and hatred for the enemy expressed by adults, and drew their own conclusions based on personal observations of enemy soldiers. Yves Congar, a French boy living in occupied Sedan, vented his violent dislike of the Germans in a diary entry in December 1914: “Another poster has been put up: anyone caught trying to get food or other supplies from Belgium will be fined 1,200 marks or 1,500 francs. Very well, if they want to starve us then they’ll see when, in the next war, the next generation goes to Germany and starves them… I have never hated them so much.”
Even far away from the front, children found their daily lives turned upside down. In some places school was canceled or shortened when teachers were drafted or school buildings taken over for military uses; other times regular classes were canceled so children could help out with various war-related activities like agriculture, preserving food, collecting scrap metal and other materials, or raising funds for charitable causes like hospitals or groups sending soldiers extra food and clothes (below, British schoolgirls gardening).
In their zeal to help the war effort children sometimes clashed with their elders, whose patriotism was moderated by practical considerations. In March 1915, 12-year-old Piete Kuhr wrote in her diary about her efforts to help with her school’s metal collection: “I turned the whole house over from top to bottom. Grandma cried, ‘The wench will bankrupt me! Why don’t you give them your lead soldiers instead of cleaning me out!’ So my little army had to meet their deaths.”
Although children suffered from the same woes as civilian adults throughout Europe, including shortages of food, clothing, and fuel, life was particularly hard for tens of thousands of orphans who were left to the care of the state or private charities – never a pleasant existence, and even less so during a time of upheaval, when helpless children were low on the list of official priorities. Mary Waddington, a British woman living in France, recorded one situation related to her by friends in July 17, 1915: “They had been to see a colony of French and Belgian children, orphans. It seems there are thirty or forty babies of two years of whom no one – not even the two Belgian nuns who brought them – knows anything – neither their names nor parents” (below, French orphans and refugee children receiving chocolate in 1918).
Some orphans lost their parents to fighting, while in the Ottoman Empire huge numbers of children were orphaned by the Armenian Genocide, many of whom were later adopted as raised as Muslims by Turkish families (often at a young age and without their knowledge). Others were orphaned by starvation or diseases like typhus, which killed millions of people in the Balkans and Russia during the First World War and Russian Civil War; according to one account Serbia alone had 200,000 orphans by the end of the war (below, Serbian orphans in 1919).
Lenin Calls for Revolution
As real war raged across Europe, a war of words was being waged on neutral ground. From September 5-8, 1915, dozens of European anti-war socialists (as opposed to mainstream socialists, who ended up supporting the war in 1914) met at the International Socialist Conference in Zimmerwald, Switzerland, where they debated the meaning of the war for their movement and the appropriate response. One of the most radical speakers was a Russian Marxist named Vladimir Ilyich Ulyanov, better known by his nom de guerre Lenin, who advocated revolution by the European working classes to end the war and overthrow the bourgeois order as soon as possible.
This put Lenin at odds with moderate socialists who wanted the peoples of Europe to bring domestic political pressure on their own governments to make peace. The moderates were skeptical whether the revolutionary movement could overcome the nationalist hatreds then dividing Europe: would the ordinary soldiers really abandon patriotism to rise out of their trenches and fraternize with their former enemies? Would civilians really welcome massive strikes that paralyzed the war effort at home? Wouldn’t they just be trading war on the borders for civil war at home?
Lenin shrugged off these concerns – the soldiers and civilians would come around when the time was right. As for civil war, there was no question that the revolution would be violent; the only question was whether the circumstances were favorable for it. An opportunist first and last, he advocated watchful waiting and readiness to move: “For the present it is our task to jointly propagandize the correct tactics and leave it to events to indicate the tempo of the movement…” He also urged the assembled delegates to combat rival ideologies that threatened to undermine socialist efforts to organize workers, especially anarchism.
As the leader of the militant Bolsheviks, Lenin was eager to overthrow the Tsarist regime in the hope that it would spark the wider revolution across Europe – even though the Russian proletariat (industrial working class) remained small and Russia still didn’t have a liberal bourgeois government, two factors Marx had identified as preconditions for a communist revolution. To overcome these obstacles, Lenin theorized the need for a “vanguard party” that could, through its grasp of historical forces, lead Russia from a backwards, feudal society into the utopian future in one giant leap.
Lenin’s call for immediate revolution and his advocacy of a vanguard party also put the Bolsheviks at odds with Julius Martov’s Mensheviks, a rival socialist outfit which had split with the Bolsheviks in 1903 over the role of the party in organizing revolution. Now Lenin’s willingness to overthrow the Russian government without necessarily waiting for revolution in other countries brought him to the attention of German spies.
In September 1915 an Estonian revolutionary named Alexander Kesküla (codenamed “Kiwi”) met with the German consul in Berne, Count von Romberg, and urged German intelligence to shift their support from the Mensheviks to Lenin’s Bolsheviks. Romberg passed along Kesküla’s advice to Berlin, and in the meantime gave him 10,000 marks to pass along discreetly.
Separately another socialist secretly working for German, Alexander Helphand (“Parvus”), who met Lenin in Berne in May 1915, was also encouraging Berlin to support the Bolsheviks covertly. Although he doesn’t appear to have supported the revolutionaries directly at this time, Helphand was accused of funneling German money to Lenin during the later part of the war.