Witley, July 7, 1917

Saturday          Nothing much doing today usual Sat’s work Great air raid on London the largest yet Am writing J & Alice Am feeling good

That air raid by Gotha bombers was one of the first on London in daylight, and thus significantly different from previous night-time Zeppelin raids.  It killed 57 civilians, (1) fewer than the first such raid last month, in which 162 civilians died — the highest death toll in a German air raid of the whole war. (2)  The intent, beyond the human casualties and material damage, was to sap British morale. Instead, today’s raid provoked great outrage at the perceived inadequacies of the capital’s defences.

air raid July 7 1917.JPG  The alarm was sounded just as Archie Wills was finishing rifle drill at Woolwich; the men were ushered into the basement, he said, but he “managed to creep out … to see the fun. We did too. Hovering over London was a huge fleet of Hun planes and the shells were bursting all around them, but never a hit.” (3) Another eye-witness described the aircraft as “apparently undisturbed by the impatient bombardment from below,” and also, from his perspective on the heights of Hampstead, saw no sign of British aircraft engaging the raiders. (4) When the Germans left central London and flew over Woolwich, Archie saw that “our little machines were right after them and we witnessed several duels.” (3) Writing much later, however, he said there was “an absence of RFC planes and the Germans had no trouble in maintaining formation.” (5)

Eye-witness accounts vary, of course, and eye-witnesses bring their own biases to the tale. The watcher in Hampstead was Hall Caine, a novelist and former associate of Dante Gabriel Rossetti, whose “graphic account” will be featured in the Globe the day after tomorrow. Caine put aside his literary endeavours during the Great War to be a propagandist, (6) and this report is a fine example of his efforts. Though others, like Archie, were reporting that the German bombers flew in precise and unshaken formation, Caine insisted that they flew in no “recognizable formation, close together in patches, and fraying off at various orderless angles.  … They looked precisely and exactly like a collection of cholera germs on a glass disc.”  Here was none of “the majesty, the unison, the terror and the splendor of war.” (4) Could Caine have refused to read any of the reports of trench warfare? War on the ground — in the mud of France — had pitifully little of majesty and splendor, and his idea of troops moving in disciplined unison to strike terror upon the foe is far from the reality of terrified individual soldiers trying not to be tangled in barbed wire and shot to pieces.

The image above bears the caption “Enemy aeroplanes as they approached London in battle formation for the daylight raid in July last. The bombing machines were in the centre, protective battle-planes being on either flank.”  Archie included the cutting from the London Magazine of February 1918 in his typescript autobiography. (5)

(1) Hallifax, Stuart. “A flock of Gothas – 7 July 1917.Great War London: London and Londoners in the First World War. Blog. nd
(2) Castle, Ian. “Bombing of London.” 1914-1918 online. International Encyclopedia of the First World War. 2016.
(3) Wills, Archie. Diary. 4: 97-98. July 7, 1917. Archie Wills Fonds, University of Victoria Archives. Copyright 2007, University of Victoria.
(4) “London Women Angered by German Air Raids,” The Globe (1844-1936). July 9, 1917. 1. Archive available from ProQuest Historical Newspapers.
(5) Wills, Archie. All in a Lifetime. Autobiography. n.d. 12. Archie Wills Fonds, University of Victoria Archives. Copyright 2007, University of Victoria.
(6) Allen, Vivien. “Caine, Sir (Thomas Henry) Hall (1853–1931).” Oxford Dictionary of National Biography. 2004.

Copyright 2017. See “More about this project.”

 

 

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