Zeppelin Nights: London in the First World War, by Jerry White, Bodley Head, RRP£25, 356 pages

Few had reckoned on such a long, drawn-out saga of futility and wasted human lives. Through poison gas, starvation and shell fire, the first world war killed and wounded more than 35m people, both military and civilian. In London, as elsewhere in Britain, the young men who enlisted so eagerly in 1914 were swiftly disillusioned. Day after day, the dead remained unburied in Flanders and on the Somme while blinded and disabled servicemen arrived at Waterloo by hospital train. With the mud still caked on their boots, these survivors brought the battlefield into the heart of the metropolis.

In Zeppelin Nights, Jerry White provides a superbly detailed account of everyday life in London from 1914 to the conflict’s end in 1918. A history professor at the University of London (and author of numerous acclaimed books on the British capital), White deploys sources ranging from unpublished memoirs to diaries and interviews as he shows how London became the “hub of an ever-enlarging leviathan of total war”. Whether they liked it or not, says White, Londoners of all backgrounds were to be implicated in the carnage of the trenches.

Operating on the murky rim of London society were call girls, draft-dodgers and racketeers. Their “crimes” were a consequence of the wartime austerity. Under the cover of blackouts, rapes and murder were not uncommon; in the prostitute-haunted backstreets around Waterloo Station and the Old Vic Theatre, gangs were able to rob passers-by, pimp and peddle morphine. Meanwhile, in the East End, bored society women frequented Chinese opium dens and a few turned into morphineuses.

In straitened circumstances, anything went. London was beset by anti-German riots after Kaiser Wilhelm engulfed defenceless Belgium at the start of the war. In long-established German enclaves off Tottenham Court Road, shop windows were smashed and arrests made of suspect German “spies”. Nearly 3,000 Germans were interned in Alexandra Palace in north London, while the spies were executed by firing squad in the Tower of London. Partly because of pervasive anti-German feeling, in 1919 the novelist Ford Hermann Hueffer anglicised his name to Ford Madox Ford.

White’s book takes its title from the fantasy novel Zeppelin Nights, which Madox Ford co-authored in 1915 with the literary hostess and author Violet Hunt. The Zeppelin raids of 1915-1917 conjured a science fiction-like spectacle of destruction from the air as giant airships unleashed incendiaries on Thameside areas from Woolwich to the London Docks. The lake in St James’s Park beside Buckingham Palace was drained to prevent surface glitter attracting attention from the skies. Over three years, 668 Londoners died and about 2,000 were injured in the air attacks.

Spiritualism and other low church cults flourished as a consequence of the bereavements, says White. The Anglican church scorned spiritualism as an unsavoury hybrid of mysticism and necromancy. (Trumpery psychics were known to cheat the grief-stricken with messages from the war dead.) Arthur Conan Doyle, however, believed that he had communed with his son Kingsley after his disappearance on the western front. The writer’s two-volume History of Spiritualism, published in 1926, called for a new science of the paranormal in post-Somme Britain.

White’s combination of testimony from housewives, black marketeers and shopkeepers with vivid authorial description lends the book a rare immediacy. Industrialists grew fat on munitions but ordinary Londoners also benefited financially from the factories flourishing in Brixton, Woolwich and Enfield. As one Lambeth magistrate marvelled: “The war seemed to have abolished poverty.” Such sentiments offered little comfort to the men at the front, where by the war’s end most would have done anything to go home to Britain.

Professor White has written a fine social history that portrays London as a teeming nerve centre of the Allied war effort. The “war to end all wars” would change London for good, as it changed mankind.

Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2022. All rights reserved.
Reuse this content (opens in new window) CommentsJump to comments section

Follow the topics in this article