In my last post on Zeppelins, I promised some pointers to texts about dirigibles and the First World War. Today I’ve got two texts to look at: a passage from HG Wells’ novel, ‘The War in the Air’, describing an imagined air attack on New York and a poem entitled ‘Zeppelins’, written by Nancy Cunard in 1918.
HG Wells first. ‘The War in the Air’ isn’t strictly a First World War text at all: it was written in 1907. It’s worth posting here, however, because it so cleverly anticipated the nature of aerial warfare– and it captures a set of common anxieties about Germany in the years leading up to the war. It’s interesting to read Wells’ foreword to the book when it was republished after the First World War in 1921. Wells reminds the reader of the central idea of his novel: that “with the flying machine war alters in its character; it ceases to be an affair of “fronts” and becomes an affair of “areas”; neither side, victor or loser, remains immune from the gravest injuries.” Wells was horrified that his warnings about the First World War had been ignored. “Seven years before the Great War, its shadow stood out upon our sunny world as plainly as all that… the great catastrophe marched upon us in the daylight. But everybody thought that somebody else would stop it before it really arrived.”
If you haven’t heard of HG Wells, you will have certainly heard of the books he wrote: Science fiction classics such as ‘The Time Machine’, ‘The War of the Worlds’, ’The Invisible Man’ and ‘The Island of Doctor Moreau’. Wells called these novels ‘Scientific Romances’, and he wrote them as he started out as a writer, in the last years of the nineteenth century. Through them, Wells became one of the most famous writers in the world.
As the nineteenth century turned into the twentieth, Wells started penning stories that struggled to predict what the future would bring. He called these stories his ‘fantasies of possibility’. ‘The War in the Air’ predicted a world massively transformed by science, technology– and air travel.
The full name of Wells’ story is ‘The War in the Air: and particularly how Mr. Bert Smallways fared as it lasted’. Bert Smallways is Wells’ hero. He’s just an average Londoner, living in Bun Hill, somewhere near Bromley. One weekend Bert goes on a cycling tour with a friend. When he gets to the coast, as the two pals rest near a beach, a balloon drops out of the sky containing a famous British aeronautical inventor. A mishap occurs, and Bert and the inventor swap places; Bert rises up into the yonder in the balloon, with the inventor’s plans for a new aircraft. When his balloon finds land again, Bert is captured by Germans, mistaken for the inventor and is taken across the Atlantic in a fleet of dirigibles. He witnesses the new war in the air first-hand, and is horrified by it.
In this extract, the Germans, led by the Crown Prince Karl, are about to attack the USA. The German airship, the Vaterland, hovers over Manhattan. Bert, trapped on board, looks out the window. The attack begins:
“Something had dropped from the aeroplane, something that looked small and flimsy. It hit the pavement near a big archway just underneath Bert. A little man was sprinting along the sidewalk within half a dozen yards, and two or three others and one woman were bolting across the roadway. They were odd little figures, so very small were they about the heads, so very active about the elbows and legs. It was really funny to see their legs going. Foreshortened, humanity has no dignity. The little man on the pavement jumped comically–no doubt with terror, as the bomb fell beside him.
Then blinding flames squirted out in all directions from the point of impact, and the little man who had jumped became, for an instant, a flash of fire and vanished–vanished absolutely. The people running out into the road took preposterous clumsy leaps, then flopped down and lay still, with their torn clothes smouldering into flame.”
Wells, remember, was writing in 1907- his description of watching bombs falling from above onto poor civilians below was still stuff of the purest imagination (the Wright brothers, after all, had only invented the first working powered airplane in 1903). What is remarkable here is Wells’ realisation that the real distance that flight gives you from humans on the ground also translates to an emotional distance- hence the “really funny” little people below, seen as they desperately attempt to run in panic to safety. The narrator continues:
“In this manner the massacre of New York began. She was the first of the great cities of the Scientific Age to suffer by the enormous powers and grotesque limitations of aerial warfare. She was wrecked as in the previous century endless barbaric cities had been bombarded, because she was at once too strong to be occupied and too undisciplined and proud to surrender in order to escape destruction. Given the circumstances, the thing had to be done. It was impossible for the Prince to desist, and own himself defeated, and it was impossible to subdue the city except by largely destroying it. The catastrophe was the logical outcome of the situation, created by the application of science to warfare. It was unavoidable that great cities should be destroyed. In spite of his intense exasperation with his dilemma, the Prince sought to be moderate even in massacre. He tried to give a memorable lesson with the minimum waste of life and the minimum expenditure of explosives. For that night he proposed only the wrecking of Broadway. He directed the air-fleet to move in column over the route of this thoroughfare, dropping bombs, the Vaterland leading. And so our Bert Smallways became a participant in one of the most cold-blooded slaughters in the world’s history, in which men who were neither excited nor, except for the remotest chance of a bullet, in any danger, poured death and destruction upon homes and crowds below.
He clung to the frame of the porthole as the airship tossed and swayed, and stared down through the light rain that now drove before the wind, into the twilight streets, watching people running out of the houses, watching buildings collapse and fires begin. As the airships sailed along they smashed up the city as a child will shatter its cities of brick and card. Below, they left ruins and blazing conflagrations and heaped and scattered dead; men, women, and children mixed together as though they had been no more than Moors, or Zulus, or Chinese. Lower New York was soon a furnace of crimson flames, from which there was no escape. Cars, railways, ferries, all had ceased, and never a light lit the way of the distracted fugitives in that dusky confusion but the light of burning. He had glimpses of what,it must mean to be down there–glimpses. And it came to him suddenly as an incredible discovery, that such disasters were not only possible now in this strange, gigantic, foreign New York, but also in London–in Bun Hill! that the little island in the silver seas was at the end of its immunity, that nowhere in the world any more was there a place left where a Smallways might lift his head proudly and vote for war and a spirited foreign policy, and go secure from such horrible things.”
Twenty years after his 1921 foreword, Wells’ mood had darkened even more. Britain was at war with Nazi Germany and death from the skies in war was commonplace: the Blitz had begun. Wells rewrote his introduction, concluding furiously: “I told you so. You damned fools.”
The second of our texts today is a poem, written by Nancy Cunard. In 1914 Cunard was an 18 year-old heiress to the Cunard Shipping firm. As the Zeppelins flew over London, she witnessed the bombing of the city. Late at night during the air raids, searchlights would light up the sky and the crump of bombs could be heard across the town. Policemen would ride around on bicycles, ringing their bells in warning. Londoners would stay in their homes, or if caught out, flee to the tube stops and safety underground. Anti-aircraft guns fired at the Zeppelins overhead as the bombs and incendiaries fell. Some Londoners died of fright: no-one had experienced war this close to home.
Cunard was a fascinating woman. She was born into privilege but rejected convention. During the war she married an injured army officer, but this relationship ended after two years. Cunard would go on to live in Paris, helping to support writers and artists with her fortune. Later she would become an anti-fascist campaigner involved in the French Resistance; later again she became a civil liberties protester in the US. ‘Zeppelins’ however, a poem written during the bombings of London, is the mourning voice of a young on the Home Front during the First World War.
I saw the people climbing up the street
Maddened with war and strength and thoughts to kill;
And after followed Death, who held with skill
His torn rags royally, and stamped his feet.
The fires flamed up and burnt the serried town,
Most where the sadder, poorer houses were;
Death followed with proud feet and smiling stare,
And the mad crowds ran madly up and down.
And many died and hid in unfounded places
In the black ruins of the frenzied night;
And death still followed in his surplice, white
And streaked in imitation of their faces.
But in the morning men began again
To mock Death following in bitter pain.
You can watch a BBC animation of the poem here. If you’re interested in the air raids of the First World War, an excellent book to get hold of is Neil Hanson’s ‘First Blitz’. You may well be able to get this at your local library. The air-raids of the Second World War– ‘the Blitz’– were so massive that today they crowd out our imaginings of the earlier Zeppelin raids. Yet it’s worth learning something about the first war in the air– and its effect on the civilians who endured the German bombings of British villages, towns and cities in 1914-18.