A Zeppelin.

January 19th is not necessarily a date that makes it into many people’s diaries. It’s an ominous anniversary, however- whether we’re thinking about the First World War or beyond. On this day in 1915, 96 years ago,  the quiet of a Norfolk evening was smashed apart by bombs: high-explosive bombs and burning incendiaries dropped from two cigar-shaped aircraft, vast rigid balloons filled with hydrogen, known as Zeppelins.

It must have been a strange but not entirely unexpected moment for the inhabitants of the towns and villages beneath the Zeppelins’ paths. The indiscriminate wartime killing of civilians from the air had been predicted for seven years and more. The coming of the war made phantasmal dream reality: it took no longer than the end of August 1914 for a Paris train station to be bombed by Zeppelins. Yet the arrival of two Zeppelins above the English coast on January 19th, 1915 could not have been anticipated.

The Routes of Zepellins L3 and L4 over Norfolk.

That evening two aircraft, prosaically called L3 and L4, propelled themselves over the undulating darkness of the North Sea. They had left Hamburg only that morning and had run into bad weather- so bad, in fact, that a third zeppelin, L6, was forced to abort its westward mission. L3 and L4, however, continued to force themselves on through driving wind and snow until they finally reached the line of land below.

At this point, on the very edge of England, the two Zeppelins split up. L3 made its way south-east along the coast, around and down to the town of Yarmouth. There it dropped its bombs on and around the harbour. L4 drove north-west to the village of Sheringham, swiftly getting lost. In a meandering way it travelled west, dropping incendiaries on the villages it passed below, until it finally found Kings Lynn. The bombs that L4 dropped there, at 10.50pm, like the bombs dropped on Yarmouth by L3 two and a half hours before, caused death and destruction. As the Zeppelins left England behind they also left four people killed and nineteen injured.

Given the large and gruesome canvas of the First World War, the four lives lost in Norfolk that evening might seem insignificant. Yet with the visit of those Zeppelins to England on a dark night in January there also arrived a new age of strategic bombing and modern, total warfare- obscured by the quiet anonymity of the first victims. In Yarmouth a shoemaker named Sam Smith and an elderly lady called Martha Taylor were killed instantly by a bomb that fell in St. Peter’s Plain, a working class district of the town. In Bentinck Street, Kings Lynn, bombs blew open several terraced houses, resulting in the death of a 26 year old woman, Alice Glazely, and a 14 year old boy, Percy Goate.

These were no military men. They were an old man, an elderly and young woman, and, most horrifying of all, a child. And they all were dead, killed at home, in Great Britain. From these small, murderous beginnings, greater horrors were to grow in the twentieth century. It is possible to trace a line across time from Great Yarmouth to the Japanese cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, where the first atom bombs fell: and beyond, to the “shock and awe” city bombardments of today. It is a frightening thought that in war today, nearly everyone is a fair target: even civilians. This grim journey towards military modernity began on January 19th 1915.

More feared than bullets: a British propaganda poster from World War One.

The Zeppelin played a minor but significant role in the First World War. You can read about the use of Zeppelins during the war on a number of sites on the web: but one of the most interesting stories you can read is about that first night over England. Steve Snelling has written a fascinating account of the January 19th bombing that fully recounts the actions of that day. Sean Palmer has also written a concise account of January 19th 1915, snappily called ‘Dirigibles from Deutschland‘, citing newspaper articles from the time.

If you want to know more about the growing use of Zeppelins as the war went on– and the first ‘blitz’ of London– there are articles across the web. There’s a decent, comprehensive history of the use of Zeppelins during the war at FirstWorldWar.com written by Ari Unikoski (though unfortunately he gets the amount of dead and injured in the January 19th raid wrong). If you’re interested in the history of the dirigible check out the articles at Airship.net (Count von Zeppelin was a man who made dirigibles- his name simply became the most popular moniker for the aircraft, just like we call vacuum cleaners Hoovers or ask for Coke when we want Cola). There’s some nice pictures and posters over at Trenches on the Web too. For a more contemporary spin, check out this Guardian article that looks at the possible return of dirigibles to our skies- this time with environmental concerns in mind, finding the cloudy heights without that pesky, highly flammable hydrogen gas.

More on Zeppelins in literature later on this week, I hope: with a book from HG Wells, a short passage from Rebecca West, and a poem by Nancy Cunard from the home front, among others.

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