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

Conflict changed London, says A. W. Purdue, for both ill and better

May 8, 2014

Memories and images of London during the Second World War are still vital, kept alive by an unending stream of books and documentaries, but what of London during that Great War whose anniversaries are approaching? Jerry White is a leading authority on the history of London, and in this timely book he describes the way in which London became “an ever-enlarging Leviathan of total war” and was by 1918 transformed in terms of its population, living standards and residential and economic geography.

The book’s title is well chosen, for not only does it highlight the bombing of London during the First World War but it relates to another theme of the book, the demise of the capital’s once-flourishing German community, and the conscious eradication of German connections.

Zeppelin Nights was the title of a book published in 1916 by Ford Hermann Hueffer, who later followed the example of the Royal Family and many Londoners and anglicised his name to Ford Madox Ford. Bombing raids on London by Zeppelins and giant Gotha bombers, which killed 668 people and injured nearly 2,000, may seem minor in comparison with the Blitz, but were met with what White calls “an unpredictable mixture of sangfroid and blind terror”. One result was an increase in sporadic violence against London’s Germans and Austrians, already subject to restrictions and internment.

The fighting might have been taking place across the Channel, but it pervaded London. The percentage of Londoners in the army had been high from the start, but it was not only London regiments that were ubiquitous. Troops from all over Britain and the Empire passed through London on their way to the front; they came back, if they did, on leave or as wounded, through London’s railway stations. Londoners could feel the pulse of the war at Victoria, Euston and Waterloo (or “Whoreterloo” as it became known for the number of prostitutes the troops attracted). They could sense when a major offensive was imminent from the “incessant muffled roar of the trains all night”, and knew it had begun when trains full of wounded were met by lines of ambulances.

The war brought out the best in people as volunteers queued up to nurse and care, aristocratic townhouses became hospitals, ordinary households gave shelter to refugees from Belgium and donations to war charities multiplied.

But it also gave platforms to mountebanks, super-patriots and rogues, and opportunities to the busybodies and purity campaigners (including the Bishop of London, “who embodied the alliance between puritan and patriot”) determined to stop people doing things they disapproved of, whether it was drinking, going to the variety theatre or simply enjoying themselves. The suspension of the FA Cup finals and the closure of the British Museum to the public demonstrate the range of the resultant restrictions.

The ill effects of war are obvious enough and in London, as in the UK as a whole, many had to live with the pain of bereavement, but White argues that it did have some positive effects. The demands of the national war economy gave a massive stimulus to London as an industrial boom impelled a permanent “western shift to the economic energy of the metropolis” as the armaments industry expanded into new suburbs such as Park Royal and Hendon, and small firms that diversified into the production of aircraft parts and the components of scientific warfare were able to adapt their skills to peaceful purposes in the post-war years.

Post-war London was very different from the London of 1914, less colourful and less effervescent in its search for excitement, and until the next war, no longer so cosmopolitan, for there was little left of the German community and even the French and the Italians did not return in pre-war numbers. However, wages were higher and, even when unemployment returned, it was mitigated by improvements in social welfare, the new industries created opportunities for women as well as men, and there was less of the poverty that had previously characterised parts of the metropolis. The conclusion of this fascinating book is that “the First World War changed London and the Londoner for the rest of the twentieth century and beyond”.

Zeppelin Nights: London in the First World War

By Jerry White
Bodley Head, 400pp, £25.00 and £13.99
ISBN 9781847921659 and 9781448191932 (e-book)
Published 1 May 2014

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