It was 10:00pm on a warm June night when a shrill blast from a steam whistle shattered the evening calm. Immediately hundreds of special constables issued into the streets of Hull—a northeastern English port-town—to extinguish all the lights and enforce a blackout among the houses. No one panicked. The same steam whistle had blown five times since January, and each time it had signaled nothing more than a false-alarm. After months of anticlimax, the citizens of Hull had begun to treat the early-warning system with a certain degree of cavalier disregard. The lights still went out, as ordered, but no-one seriously expected anything to happen.
However, about an hour after the whistle blast, people began to hear the distinctive drone of engines. It was the sound of an approaching German Zeppelin. Flying at an estimated height of 3,000 feet, the lighter-than-aircraft began to drop bombs and incendiaries on the darkened city. The explosives fell randomly about the town destroying streets, houses, and places of business. After thirty minutes the Zeppelin, having expended all its ammunition, turned back towards the sea and vanished into darkness. Parts of Hull burned for hours afterward, and as the sun rose the next day, 24 townspeople lay dead with another 40 wounded.
Decades later, this kind of raid would become known as “strategic bombing” or “terror bombing”—an unpalatable but supposedly necessary part of war. However, in 1915 these words had yet to enter the European lexicon, and the British press simply called such tactics “murder”. This was not the first raid of its kind, nor was it to be the last. At the beginning of the war, the Germans had the largest fleet of Zeppelins in the world, and had been looking for a way to employ them. In January of 1915, with the situation on the Western Front deadlocked, the German Emperor authorized his Zeppelin fleet to bring the war to the British population.
Ostensibly, the destruction was to be directed on targets of military value. In practice this was a difficult goal to achieve, and the bombs fell almost exclusively on civilians. Margaret McMillian, a socialist of some repute, described a typical raid in London:
“Looking out from my bedroom window, we saw something bright and sparkling in the sky.
‘What can it be?’ I said to Rachel.
She looked at it steadily. ‘A Zeppelin’
Two or three of our friends ran upstairs to warn us. ‘It’s a Zeppelin dropping bombs, or going to.’ We all gazed at it if fascinated.
A terrific blast struck the house as we went downstairs. I looked up and saw that Rachel had not followed us. In the same moment, an awful explosion shook the little house to its foundations. I called, and she appeared on the last landing carrying blankets. She had just time to join us when a third crash sent all our windows in, and the ironwork along the outer wall, which served as a ventilator for the lower room.” (1)
The German Zeppelin crews were not unaware that their bombs caused death and suffering among civilians, but they were unmoved. The British press would claim this was because they were uniquely violent and callous. Peter Strasser, the commander of the German Zeppelin fleet, rejected such a characterization. In a letter to his mother he justified his actions:
“We who strike the enemy where his heart beats have been slandered as ‘baby-killers’ and ‘murderers of women,’ … what we do is repugnant to us too, but necessary. Very necessary. Nowadays there is no such animal as a non-combatant; modern warfare is total warfare. A soldier cannot function at the front without the factory worker, the farmer, and all the other providers behind him… My men are brave and honourable. Their cause is holy, so how can they sin while doing their duty. If what we do is frightful, then let frightfulness be Germany’s salvation.” (2)
Far from being a by-product of uniquely German beastliness, the Zeppelin raids against British civilians were simply the latest manifestation of a new phenomenon in warfare—total war. Strasser’s logic was a canary in the coal-mine of Europe’s moral fabric. The raids may have been horrific for the civilians on the ground, but Strasser justified them on the grounds that anything less than total commitment to victory would end in defeat, which was unthinkable. He could also take justifiable pride in the courage of his men; the raids may have been repugnant, but they were far from risk-free. William Brooks, a soldier on leave from the Western Front, witnessed the destruction of a Zeppelin as it bombed London:
One night, we watched a Zeppelin raid on the Woolwich Arsenal. The German Zeppelin was sort of hovering over the building dropping bombs and they scored a couple of direct hits, causing massive explosions. We felt the blast two to three miles away. A few small bi-planes of ours went up to attack it but the Zeppelin had heavy machine-guns mounted in the cabin slung beneath it and, being almost stationary, could take careful aim on a plane. So our brave airman stood no chance. But one little plane went up, one of those double wing ones with all the struts holding the wings together. Well, this pilot flew above the Zeppelin and dropped bombs onto it. One hit it square on – flames started to light up the night sky. She was on fire all right. Everyone in the street started to cheer.
My dad was watching through a small telescope he had and said he could see the men on the Zeppelin inside the cabin rushing about throwing ropes over the side, and other things, trying to lighten the ship. Anyway, its main engines started up with a roar and she slowly began to move away with smoke pouring out of her. Well, dad said they knew they were done for, but were going to try and make it home. As it pulled away it looked like a huge wounded animal… It crashed in flames over Essex before it made the Channel. I know they were our enemies but I couldn’t feel sorry for them. (3)
The Zeppelin raids over Britain brought the war right to the “home-front”. The war was acted out in front of and upon the citizens of London, Hull, and other British towns. Strasser called modern war “total war”, and the label has stuck. In total war, all the energies of a nation are directed towards victory. In such a struggle, civilians disappear; they are inextricably bound up in the sinews of war and thus become legitimate targets. They are transformed from non-combatants into vital cogs in the machinery of war. The massive scope of the Great War, and the necessity of manufacture to its successful prosecution, blurred the lines between soldier and civilian. Thirty years later, in the midst of a new World War, the line would disappear entirely.
1. Margaret McMillian, “Zeppelin Raids.” Spartacus Educational, last modified August, 2014.
2. Captain Peter Strasser, in a letter quoted in Gwynne Dyer, War.
3. William Brooks, “Zeppelin Raids.” Spartacus Educational, last modified August, 2014.
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