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The Great War: the conflict that transformed London

This post was contributed by Guy Collender, Communications Manager at Birkbeck.

Front cover of Zeppelin Nights: London in the First World War by Professor Jerry White

War is a complicated phenomenon invariably associated with new experiences. It is often accompanied by novel methods of killing, widespread social and economic change, and can be the catalyst for progressive trends as well as death and destruction.

All of these factors were part of the Great War, and they were described in vivid detail at the book launch of Zeppelin Nights: London in the First World War by award-winning historian Professor Jerry White.

The lecture at Queen Mary, University of London, on 8 May was the first event in London at War – a month-long series of talks, walks and workshops organised by the Raphael Samuel History Centre.

Positive developments

White, of Birkbeck’s Department of History, Classics and Archaeology, explained how life in the capital changed for ever, including for the better, because of the war. He referred to the economic boom linked to the war effort, the “unprecedented” demand for labour, “revolutionary opportunities” for women in the labour market, the end of Victorian levels of poverty, and the shift towards manufacturing in the capital’s western suburbs.

White emphasised that the war was an “important transformative moment” for London. Advances made at this time, such as the role of women in the workplace, were never reversed.

He said: “London, almost overnight, became a different place. Its day-to-day life was transformed by entering into the war. Many of these impacts on the Londoners of the First World War were transient, but some of the effects of it, I think, were deep-seated and some of them we are living with still.”

The militarisation of London

The outbreak of war on 4 August 1914 was met, as White described, by enthusiasm on the streets with throngs of people in Whitehall, and outside Buckingham Palace and town halls in the capital.

Although not on the frontline, the war, as White showed,  permeated public consciousness in London. The capital, being both the heart of the British Empire and the centre of an extensive rail network, was “part of the killing machine of war.” Soldiers passed through London en route to, and from, the Western Front, munitions were manufactured in the capital’s factories, and wounded soldiers were treated in its hospitals – both at recognised hospitals and houses of the rich that became officers’ hospitals. Following the outbreak of the battle of the Somme on 1 July 1916, the number of casualties arriving in London increased markedly.

White read from his new book and shared many captivating accounts about the Great War written by contemporary Londoners, including the nurse and writer Vera Brittain. She wrote:

“Day after day I had to fight the queer, frightening sensation – to which, throughout my years of nursing, I never became accustomed – of seeing the covered stretchers come in, one after another, without knowing, until I ran with pounding heart to look, what fearful sight or sound or stench, what problem of agony or imminent death, each brown blanket contained.”

First air raids

For the first time, during the Great War, London came under attack from Zeppelins (referred to in the book’s title) and German bombers.

The first bombs were dropped on the capital by Zeppelins in May 1915, and by 1917, German aeroplanes, including the Gotha and Giant, were launching destructive raids. The worst disaster to befall London during the war was the bombing of Odhams Printing Press in Long Acre, which led to 38 deaths. Such raids presaged the greater destruction of the Blitz in the Second World War.

White then ended his presentation where he began, with accounts of jubilant people in the streets, but now he was talking about the celebration of the armistice on 11 November 1918 rather than the pro-war feeling of summer 1914.