Book Review: “Zeppelin Nights: London in the First World War,” by Jerry White
Published by Vintage Books, 358 pp. $21.99
Review by 12570 Mike Kennedy
The global coronavirus pandemic of 2020 has changed our world in ways that none of us have ever before experienced in our lifetimes. Much as it seems like an eternity, it is hard to believe that in reality it has only been a few short weeks since the crisis began.
During the Great War that erupted in August 1914, the people of London experienced many similar trials. No one realized it when war was first declared, but their ordeal was destined to eventually last for four grueling years. In Zeppelin Nights, social historian Jerry White provides a fascinating look at that period in London’s history, highlighting both the blessings and curses that were bestowed on residents of the city by a war that was unlike any other that had been previously seen in recorded history.
London traces its roots to ancient Roman times, and ever since the Middle Ages it has been one of the world’s great global cities. Arguably at no point in history was this more true than in 1914, at which time London was the preeminent global metropolis. With a population of 7.25 million, equivalent to that of New York and Chicago combined, London was the jewel in the crown of Britain’s great global empire. As Zeppelin Nights points out, it had also become a surprisingly multicultural city, with ethnic communities drawn from all over Europe, including a sizeable German-speaking population.
In addition to its ethnic diversity, London was also a city that was sharply divided along class lines. The wealthy elite enjoyed lives of unprecedented opulence, dining in the city’s finest private clubs and enjoying its vibrant social and cultural scene. For many thousands of other Londoners, however, their daily lives involved a grim subsistence in abject poverty, surviving as best they could on low wages and intermittent work. Relations between the city’s socioeconomic classes were tense, and the months leading up to war were punctuated by frequent periods of labour strife.
When hostilities first broke out in the late summer of 1914, many believed that the war would be a short-lived affair that would be over by Christmas of that year. Recruiting offices were quickly swamped by thousands of young men eager to fight for King and Country, and desperate not to miss out on what they envisioned would be a glorious adventure. No one in their wildest dreams imagined that the conflict would eventually be remembered as the “Great War” that would devour the lives of nearly 900,000 Britons, and leave millions more irreparably wounded in body and spirit.
As is inevitably the case with most wars, the conflict of 1914-18 did bring some benefits that were unevenly distributed throughout society. The most immediate beneficiaries were the members of London’s working class, who suddenly had steady work and much better wages than they had ever before been accustomed to. But this newfound prosperity came at a price, specifically in the form of rapidly escalating costs of living. It also soon compelled the authorities to wage another kind of war, this one focusing the social evils that had long plagued the city’s lower classes. The most important demon that had to be tamed was Londoners’ proclivity for drink, something that eventually caused the sale and consumption of liquor to be every more tightly regulated as the fighting dragged on.
The war also served to dramatically change the status of women in British society. Prior to 1914, women had been distinctly second-class citizens with exceedingly limited career prospects and political influence. The efforts of the Suffragette movement to extend the right to vote had as yet been unsuccessful, and the relatively few women who did work out of the home were employed mainly as office typists and stenographers or as domestic servants.
The onset of the war, and the huge accompanying need for wartime labour, changed that situation dramatically. By early 1916 nearly 500,000 British women were laboring in factories producing desperately needed munitions. Working conditions were far from ideal, as many were continuously exposed to toxic chemicals and the threat of accidents was ever present. In addition to the “munitionettes”, other women rapidly began to take on roles that had previously been exclusively male preserves, such as tram conductors, delivery drivers, and gas fitters. Their newfound sense of purpose and economic independence imbued many with a never-before known degree of assertiveness and self-confidence that proved critical in enabling women to finally gain the right to vote in 1918.
For many Londoners, the year 1917 was undoubtedly the most difficult of the war. By that time, the carnage on the Western Front had continued for well over two years, with casualties that far exceeded what anyone had expected, and no end to the fighting readily in sight. The year itself started off, literally, with a bang of the most unwelcome kind. On a dark Friday night in late January a massive explosion destroyed a munitions plant in the Silvertown district. Forty people died, and another 120 were seriously injured.
As the year wore on, Londoners were compelled to suffer other privations. The winter of 1917 was unusually cold, and a shortage of coal obliged many to shiver through the frigid weather. In February, the Germans decided to implement a policy of unrestricted submarine warfare against Allied shipping, with the result that losses skyrocketed, and food became available in increasingly short supply. It was not until the Allies decided to implement a convoy system in the summer of 1917 that the impact of the German U-boats began to be curbed, but even so, the damage had been done. By the middle of 1917, food prices in Britain were approximately double what they had been just three years earlier.
The title of the book alludes to another menace that raised its ugly head over London during the Great War. In the spring of 1915, for the first time in their history, residents were subjected to aerial bombardment. Initially, the messengers of death were Zeppelin airships, which made their first appearance over London on the last night in May, and would continue to mount periodic raids up until the spring of 1918. Militarily, the raids accomplished little, as the airships were slow and ungainly, vulnerable to high winds and bad weather, and sometimes had difficulty reaching their targets. Nonetheless, the psychological impact of the Zeppelin raids was significant. The huge 500-foot airships were undoubtedly a terrifying sight, and many residents of London lived in continual fear of their return.
The spring of 1917 saw a new and much more deadly threat make its debut in the skies. This came in the form of the Germans’ newly developed Gotha bombers, products of the rapid advances in aircraft design that took place over the course of the war. The first raid on London was made in early May by a lone aircraft, which caused minimal damage. But less than six weeks later, on June 13, the Germans launched their first daylight attack of the war, with devastating results. Shortly before noon on that fateful day, a force of fourteen Gothas arrived over London and bombed the city with seeming impunity before withdrawing without the loss of a single aircraft. By the time the raid was over 145 people had been killed, including, most tragically, eighteen children who perished when a bomb struck their school.
There can be no doubt that in many ways the Great War years were a long and painful ordeal for many Londoners. But even so, residents of the city were often able to derive some small measure of consolation from the many attractions of the city’s flourishing cultural scene. The well-to-do could enjoy distractions such as command performances at the Royal Albert Hall; for their less affluent fellow citizens, London’s many music halls and cinemas offered a measure of temporary respite from the war’s hardships.
And, of course, no small number of the hundreds of thousands of soldiers who passed through London during the war years availed themselves of the abundant opportunities to enjoy the guilty pleasures of the city’s enormous vice trade. For a great many soldiers, their forays into London’s dens of iniquity undoubtedly provided a much-needed respite from the unremitting stress of combat in the trenches. But for an unlucky few, the decision to yield to temptation was one that would have tragic consequences. A case in point was that of Canadian Private Oliver Imlay, a florist from London, Ontario who was serving with the 87th Battalion. While searching for whisky and female companionship one November night in 1917, he was brutally murdered in a backstreet alley. His assailant, a British dock labourer named Joseph Jones, was later charged and convicted, and received his just desserts when he was hanged in February 1918.
Indeed, the perceived moral decay of London during the war years so enraged Canadian Prime Minister Sir Robert Borden that he publicly declared at an Imperial Conference he would never again send Canadian soldiers to Britain in time of war. Borden made it plain that the enemy he feared was not the Kaiser’s Army that had already killed tens of thousands of Canadians, but rather “the women on the London streets who are the real cause of the downfall of their men.”
Eventually, though it took far longer and came at vastly greater cost than anyone had ever imagined, the Allies prevailed and peace returned to London. But by that time, the city had profoundly changed, its socioeconomic fabric having been irrevocably transformed by the events of a few short years. Londoners had proven their mettle by surviving bombing raids, food shortages, and the pandemic of the “Spanish Flu” that killed 50 million people worldwide, including over 200,000 in Britain alone. No one realized it at the time, but the end of the Great War marked the death knell of Britain’s stature as a global power, the beginning of the long, protracted demise of its magnificent global empire.
And, of course, no one in 1918 could have foreseen that a little more than twenty years later, the vanquished German foes would once again wage war on London, this time with much more devastating effects, and far greater loss of life.
As an overall assessment, I thoroughly enjoyed Zeppelin Nights. It’s a cracking good read that offers up a thoroughly engrossing account of both landmark events and daily life in London during a pivotal time in the city’s history. Author Jerry White does a masterful job of describing the many different aspects of London’s transformation during the Great War years, and recounts these events in a way that is both enjoyable and easy to read. It’s worth remembering that remembering that the ranks of the millions of Allied soldiers that passed through London on their way to the trenches included just about every graduate of RMC who would have served in that conflict. For that reason alone this is a book that deserves to be read – and that needs to be read – by Ex-Cadets of the College.