Jerry White is a social historian and Visiting Professor of London History at Birkbeck College, University of London. He is perhaps best known for his trilogy of histories of London in the eighteenth to twentieth centuries. His latest book, Zeppelin Nights: London in the First World War was published by Bodley Head on 1st May this year.
There have already been several recent additions to the literature of WW1 on the “Home Front”; Jeremy Paxman’s Great Britain’s Great War and Kate Adie’s Fighting on the Home Front, having been particularly widely reviewed. It is difficult to envisage that White’s exploration of the life of the capital city in wartime will be bettered, for its scope, detail, insight, narrative pace, and punctilious referencing. White’s particular skill is as an orchestrator of a multitude of sources, and Zeppelin Nights maintains the high standard of his previous social histories of London. The book serves well as a revelatory overview, but the Notes and Bibliography sections are especially valuable as entry points to research into the many aspects of London life the reader might wish to pursue.
The air raids of May 1915 to May 1918, at first by Zeppelins and later by the more deadly Gotha and Giant bombers, form a recurring theme on which the book hinges. Other topics are also familiar: spy scares and anti-German sentiment; munitions work; prostitution; food and fuel shortages; conscription and appeal tribunals; anti-war dissent. However, the fresh facts that White reveals continually surprised me. For example, what proportion of the 750,000 British enlisted men killed or 1.7 million injured, were Londoners, is still unknown.
The factual detail does not get in the way of some memorable scene drawing of the fear, deprivation and resilience of wartime civilian life in the capital.
Particularly vivid, for me, were the descriptions of the London railway termini. Here, thousands of soldiers massed for embarkation, thousands more returned wounded to be transferred by stretcher from railway carriages to queues of waiting ambulances. Throughout the War, families congregated, at first to cheer and later to desperately scan faces with anxiety and tears. Meanwhile, the surrounding streets and lodging houses were peopled by men in uniform, a swollen community of male and female prostitutes, and girls with money in their pockets for the first time and “out for a lark.”
However, the lasting impression I shall take from Zeppelin Nights is how badly served London was by the Government and other authorities, including their response to the air raids. To quote:
“The raids had also exposed some fatal weaknesses in the competence of London’s governors, whether politician or bureaucrat or professional…Few things demonstrate this better than the egregious reluctance to issue public air raid warnings lest Londoners should panic, riot or use them as an excuse to bunk off work…The reluctance to respond, the painful process by which warnings of any sort were dragged out of the authorities, the loss of life that might, shamefully, have been mitigated by public warnings, were some of the bleakest tales of official incompetence exposed by the war on London’s home front.”