Previously, I identified a comparison between the reprisals debate in the First World War and the reprisals debate during the Blitz as something I could do that previous writers have not (except in passing, or implicitly). I won't have time in my AAEH paper for a full-blown comparative approach, or for that matter time before then to do the research; though perhaps I could for a version for publication. But it's something I can do briefly, and it helps that I already covered this in my thesis, where I looked at the British press reactions to the Gotha summer in 1917.1
Schrecklichkeit is the German word for 'frightfulness'; both words were used by English-language speakers during the war to refer to the perceived German propensity for barbarous acts of war. In terms of British public opinion, the 'Rape of Belgium' was easily the most influential and inflammatory of these early in the war; later came the introduction of gas warfare; the execution of Edith Cavell; unrestricted submarine warfare; and of course the Zeppelin and Gotha raids on Allied cities, including London. Propaganda, mostly unofficial, kept this baleful view of the 'Hun' in the public eye. The photographs above, for example, were published in the Daily Mail after the first Gotha raid. The accompanying caption reads:
Four of the little sufferers in an East End hospital yesterday. Three are only five years of age; the fourth is ten. All were badly injured in the head, arms and legs while in a London County Council school in a densely populated district. All that was left of their classroom was a mass of blood-spattered debris.2
(These are victims of the tragic bombing of the Poplar infants school.) Another example is a letter published in an Australian newspaper, but relaying information from the London Chemist and Druggist:
The "Chemist and Druggist" of London, of February 23 , informs us that the German blackguards had, during that month, been dropping poisoned sweets from aeroplanes in the London area. It is quite inconceivable that any British general would issue a similar order for the poisoning of little German children, or, if it were given, of any British airman obeying it. An occurrence like this brings home to one, more than many of their acts, what a degraded being a German can be.3
This sounds more like an urban legend than an actual tactic (and indeed, the only reference I can find to anything like this in The Times at this time is a rumour that strangers were giving children poisoned sweets in Kent), but it illustrates the depths to which it was believed Germans had sunk, and the essential difference between them and 'civilised' peoples like the British.
Though it was not the only response, the demand for reprisals in June and July 1917 was quite loud, and it did not just come from the press. Large public meetings held at Tower Hill and at the London Opera House endorsed resolutions such as one calling on 'the Government to 'pay back the enemy in the same way as he has treated this country'.4 Others went further. William Joynson-Hicks, a Conservative London MP, told the House of Commons that it was clear that Germany 'has declared deliberate war on the nation, the men, women and children of our country':
I submit to the House and the Government that the time is very rapidly approaching when, whether we like it or not, we shall be forced to declare war in the same way on the German people. Not that I have any desire whatever for the exercise of cruelty, or to slay Germans because they have slain our people. I say this because I believe it is the only possible way of bringing home to the German nation the enormity of what they have done -- that is, the adoption of the policy on their part of destroying the English civilian population in the way they have done. I ask the Government to state, not that there will be a small and insufficient raid on a town like Cologne or any similar German town, but that as soon as a raid of this sort, involving, as it has done, 500 casualties, takes place, stern and swift reprisals will take place on German towns.5
Joyson-Hicks was not alone. Robert Bell MD, for example, wrote to the Daily Mail to insist that the Germans be told 'that for every air raid they make upon an innocent community we shall do our best to destroy one of their cities'.6 The Mail helpfully published this 'reprisal map of Germany', placed on the same page as the above photographs of child victims of the Gotha raid:
A REPRISAL MAP. -- The shaded parts of this map show those parts of Germany within reach of Allied aeroplanes similar to those used against London. All the large towns shown could be attacked.7
We can classify opinions in the debate about reprisals for German frightfulness along two axes: morality and effectiveness. People -- at least those writing letters and leading articles -- asked (and then answered) two questions: are reprisals moral? and are reprisals effective? Actually, that's not quite true: they usually considered one or the other of these alone; the answer to the other was simply assumed to support their conclusion. Perhaps surprisingly, my impression is that those with moral concerns tended to be in favour of reprisal bombing, while those worried about effectiveness were more evenly split. Let's look at some examples.
Joynson-Hicks, in his speech quoted above, went on to explain that
the only certain way of stopping these raids, in spite of the defence we may make by means of our aeroplanes and anti-aircraft guns, is that we shall punish, and punish severely, raids of this kind by inflicting similar raids with certainty -- because they are useless without certainty -- on German towns.
So his was an argument based on effectiveness: by bombing German cities you will make them stop bombing ours. (Deterrence, in other words. Others put forward versions of the knock-out blow theory, believing that heavy air raids into Germany would make its people clamour for peace.) Some, however, did not accept this logic. 'Watchman', in a letter to The Times, argued that
The best reprisal is the heaviest military blow. I can conceive of nothing weaker or more contemptible than to send our airmen off on long and hazardous expeditions without any military object, either direct or indirect, but merely to kill a certain number of children, women, and old men in the vain hope that the Germans will then cease from murdering our own civilian population [...] Say we succeeded in killing two or three hundred civilians in Cologne, and lost, as we very well might, 25 aeroplanes out of 50 in achieving this result, how the Prussian High Command would chuckle and slap their thighs at having succeeded in inducing "these English madmen" to play the German game!8
In essence such arguments boiled down to the belief that these bombers and their pilots would be better employed on the Western Front, supporting the Allied armies there. (This of course is a major difference with the situation in the Second World War, at least after Dunkirk, where one argument for strategic bombing was that there was no other way to strike at Germany.) But note the bleedthrough of moralising language here: British airmen would 'kill' German civilians to stop German airmen from 'murdering' British civilians. And the cunning 'Prussian High Command', laughing as the foolish Britishers fall into the trap of tit-for-tat reprisals to no military purpose.
The moral arguments against reprisal bombing was straightforward enough: if it was wrong for Germany to bomb civilians then it was wrong for Britain to do so too. One bereaved mother expressed this as follows:
I have given two sons to the war (my only two) and they will never come back to me. I gave them willingly, and I have no regrets; I gave them to help to free the world from tyranny and barbaric savagery, and I believe that by giving up their young lives they have "done their bit" towards that end. But should I live to see Englishmen sent to murder in cold blood German women and children and harmless civilians, then indeed I should begin to ask, "Have my sons died in vain?"9
Another correspondent had no such qualms:
After the recent experience of German frightfulness, what other course is open to us but that of fighting the enemy with his own weapons? When the Germans used liquid fire against our brave fellows, were we not justified in resorting to the same method in order to protect our men from the most horrible of deaths, and to "bring home" to "the apostles of culture" the barbarity of their methods? [...] To advocate the policy of "turning the other cheek" under present conditions, seems to me a misuse of Our Lord's teaching. If a man hit me once, I should probably turn the other cheek and let him hit me again; and if that method failed to make him ashamed of himself, I should be compelled to "go for" him in self-defence. But if a man attacked my children, I should knock the brute down without the slightest hesitation.10
The author of this letter was J. Stephens Roose, president of the Metropolitan Free Church Association.
I could go on, but won't. Hmm... maybe this is not something I can do briefly after all.
The best published source for this is Barry D. Powers, Strategy Without Slide-rule: British Air Strategy 1914-1939 (London: Croom Helm, 1976), 81ff. ↩
Daily Mail, 15 June 1917, 6. ↩
The Times, 15 June 1917, 3. ↩
Daily Mail, 15 June 1917, 2. ↩
Ibid., 6. ↩
The Times, 9 July 1917, 6. ↩
Ibid., 18 June 1917, 10. ↩
Ibid., 19 June 1917, 7. ↩
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