The airship panic of 1915 — V

One of the advantages of studying wartime airship panics, like the one in January 1915, is the relative abundance of private archives, diaries, letters and interviews for the 1914-1918 period which have been collected and catalogued. This makes it theoretically possible to compare the press view and the official view with the view from below, a rare combination in this line of work. Actually finding relevant private sources is rather hit and miss, partly because of the general lack of digitisation, partly because of the vagaries of memory and experience, of what seemed important to record or query. But because of the writer (or interviewer) is by definition concerned with wartime experiences, they are rather more likely to discuss scares and panics, spies and Zeppelins than would be the case for a purely peacetime context.

So what is there? Actually, let's start with what there isn't. One of the best-known civilian diarists of the First World War is the Reverend Andrew Clark, who was the parish priest at Great Leighs in Essex. He recorded a vivid account of how the war affected his village, and in particular took a keen interest in rumours of all kinds. As it happens, Great Leighs is only about 7 or 8 miles from Chelmsford, which was the centre of the 'Day of Dupes' rumours on 3 January 1915. And what did the Reverend Clark have to say about this? Nothing whatsoever! There is no entry for that date, and the following day has only some unrelated comments about Territorials and HMS Formidable. This is surprising, to say the least; the Chelmsford rumours reached London within an hour or so at the most, so it's hard to understand why they wouldn't have made it to neighbouring Great Leighs as well, at least within a day or two. However, on 5 January Clark does mention that he was 'still in grip of influenza', and it seems to have struck him on 3 January or so, so perhaps that explains it.1 But it could also be that the Day of Dupes was a victim of Clark's editor, who after all had to cut a lot: there are 92 volumes, 12 by March 1915, with 3 million words in total, compared with less than 300 pages in the published edition. So maybe a trip to the Bodleian is in order.

Turning to more positive evidence, the first is from the diary of Ada Reece (b. 1867), a Londoner and a doctor's wife. On 24 December 1914 she recorded that

Mother came up with a rather thrilling account of a letter Mrs Graham's brother had had from his wife who is in German 'For God's sake keep out of London on Christmas Day' -- she was very nervous and infected me sufficiently to make me sleep with my small jewellry & ready money in a neat parcel under my pillow. The air is full of rumours of coming invasion, Zeppelin raids on London etc -- Dr Dobson declares this part of the German plan to put them about.2

After that, the rest of the rumours she discusses for this period involve invasion rather than bombardment. This account is interesting because of the way it illustrates the friend-of-a-friend style transmission of one particular rumour -- from a German woman to her husband to her husband's sister to Reece's mother to Reece, who uses the word 'infected' to describe the process. In this case, the rumour of an impending attack (it could be either invasion or Zeppelins) was plausible enough to make Reece's mother 'nervous' and for Reece herelf to make some preparations for a sudden evacuation. She notes Dr Dobson's reassuring belief that the rumours themselves are the enemy's weapon, but neither accepts it or rejects it.

It's nearly a month until the next relevant item. This is a letter written on 22 January 1915 by Nell Balfour to her mother, Betty Balfour (wife of Gerald Balfour, a former Conservative minister who was the nephew of Lord Salisbury and brother of Arthur Balfour). Nell Balfour was at the family seat at Whittingehame in East Lothian, where someone called 'Shortie' (perhaps a family member or family friend -- another letter in the Balfour Papers is a letter addressed to a man named Short) saw a phantom airship:

Our latest excitement occurred last night. Shortie at about 1 a.m looked out of his window & saw a cigar shaped thing high [unclear] lighted flying rapidly over Traprain in the direction of Edinbro'. It at once occurred to him that this Zeppelin (wh. he was sure it was) wd. return the same way & if a light was seen at Whitt house might v. well drop a bomb on to it. He therefore ran over to the house in such haste that he banged his head against the stable gate posts, woke up Baker to let him in, rushed to Nunkie's [?] bedroom where he knocked. Nunkie was on his way to bed & v. scantily attired but he sd 'come in' & Shortie unfolded his fears. Nunkie comforted him as best he could. Shortie left him & went & telephoned to Edinbro' to all the military authorities. In fact round the whole countryside. Nunky told us about it at lunch with peals of laughter, saying Shortie had quite gone off his head. We have hd. nothing of it except that the Portman sd. he saw two aeroplanes which were probably ours!3

There were definitely no Zeppelins over Scotland before 1916, so this is a phantom airship sighting. There's nothing here which indicates its context, whether it was inspired by some specific rumour or news, or whether Shortie simply had an active imagination. Clearly he felt confident enought to warn the authorities and his friends; equally, those friends thought his account ridiculous. So it is framed as a farcical episode, which reveals Shortie's nervousness; but if a Zeppelin had been overhead (and Edinburgh was bombed the following year) he perhaps would have been portrayed as heroic, or at least more alert than everyone else.

Next is the diary of Lady Annette Matthews, of Tunbridge Wells, a suffragist and the wife of Sir John Bromhead Matthews KC. On 26 January, she wrote that

Tomorrow is the birthday of the German Emperor; in direct consequence of this fact, all the blinds, & shutters are closed in houses in Surrey, Sussex & Kent. The towns are not lighted, & it is quite likely that the Police may cut off the electric-light & gas any time.

We are closed in carefully before lighting up. We have candles ready in every room, but we are all very calm. The weather is still & foggy, & it is evidently officially anticipated that the Germans will try to give their warlord the birthday gift of a sensation. What sentimentalitists [sic] human creatures are!

The Germans are doubly energetic just now because we have just had a naval victory. Sir David Beatty caught sight of a fleet of German battleships setting off apparently to bombard Newcastle. He attacked them in a running fight & sank the "Blücher", (one of those who bombarded Scarboro') & injured two others. The Germans declare that the one of our cruisers was sunk, but our Admiralty contradicts that.4

This is clearly part of the Kaiser's birthday scare which shows up clearly in the government archives as well as, to much lesser extent, in the press. The account given here is consistent with the alarm being caused by the government's own precautions in ordering a black-out, rather than in any popular rumours then current; though there is also a possible folk explanation for the impending raid in the form of the supposed German need to strike back after a British naval victory. Lady Matthews seems to accept both theories, though she is rather scornful of the apparently sentimental factors involved. Either way, she displays no hint of disquiet at the prospect of an imminent attack, even in the privacy of her own diary.

From the Balfour Papers comes another letter, one of a group of accounts of the Scarborough bombardment in December 1914 as well as the later Zeppelin raids, collected by one of the Balfours ('Miss Balfour') but mostly not written directly to her. This one, for example, was written a week after the first Zeppelin raid by a T. Cook of Sandringham to his grandparents. After giving his experiences of the raid and his later visit to the bomb sites, he says:

I think there is little doubt that they [the Zeppelins] mistook Heacham for Hunstanton and Snettisham for Sandringham, and there are scores of absolutely ridiculous and groundless rumours that motors with strong lights preceeded, and directed the airship on its way. Mr. N.P. Jodrell, our Tory candidate, is (groundlessly, I think) accused of guiding the craft with his car. Authorities, however, deny any such rumours.5

I'm not sure what the reference to Jodrell as 'our Tory candidate' means, as he did not stand for election until 1918. The local MP (since 1910) would have been Holcombe Ingleby, who in fact was the chief promoter of the idea that spies in motor-cars were guiding Zeppelins with their lights, going so far as to write a pamphlet about it.

The Reverend Clark may not have had anything to say about the Day of Dupes, but he did have a fair bit to say about the defensive preparations for the Kaiser's birthday. On 27 January he recorded that two special constables had set up a road block (well, a rope stretched across the road). The following day, he noted that

Last evening [27 February] PC Cole was sent round the village to stick up posters, at all principal places, that no lights should be visible from houses from 5 p.m. till 7.30 a.m. next day. Last night also under special instructions, the Special Constables then on duty visited all places from which lights were shown and refused to depart till the lights were put out or effectively concealed.6

In Tunbridge Wells that same day, Lady Matthews expressed satisfaction that 'The Kaiser's birthday has come, and gone, but in spite of favorable weather conditions there has been no air raid'.7 Nevertheless, she was still ready for a raid:

We go to bed leaving our shoes set out, & garments handy, ready for a vigil in the cellar, should we hear the looming of an aeroplane's machinery. But we all sleep quite soundly.

The motor buses in the locality were commandeered to take our men to the coast to be ready in case of invasion.

The streets are all in darkness.8

By contrast, Great Leighs seems to have been less sanguine about the blackout. On 29 January, Clark wrote that

The parishioners are much exercised as to whether to the no-lights order will be so construed as to forbid Evening Service on Sundays. The younger people are much attached to the music of the evening service. If the service were put back to 3 p.m., as it used to be, members of the choir, owing to distance, could not attend at that hour, and the service would have to be read.9

This certainly suggests that the threatened air raid was not being taken very seriously, possibly because the Kaiser's birthday, the stated reason for the precautions, was now a couple of days past. There was indeed some resistance to the black-out. Clark's entry for 30 January:

Several people in Leighs are most unreasonable about the no-lights order, and will require to be summonned. Mrs Louis Wright, e.g., refuses to darken her windows, on the plea that she is 'not afraid of Zeppelins'.10

Finally (after a spy scare, not obviously Zeppelin-related) on 31 January, the Kaiser's birthday precautions seem to have come to an end in Great Leighs, and presumably elsewhere:

PC Cole called to say that the lights-out order was withdrawn.11

So, this private version is obviously a much patchier view of the airship panic than is available either from the press or from the government. Partly, that's due to the limited research I've carried out with these sources; there's bound to be more out there. But there's certainly no evidence here of widespread concern about or even interest in the multiple phantom airship reports of January. In fact the closest to a panic reaction comes from the very start of the period, on Christmas Eve. Interestingly, these sources suggest that it was the government's own precautions for the supposed Kaiser's birthday attack which caused the most alarm and disruption to people's lives rather than the rumours which were were circulating. Authority still mattered, when it was available.

I'll probably write one more post in this series, to try to sum it up.


  1. James Munson (ed.), Echoes of the Great War: The Diary of the Reverend Andrew Clark, 1914-19 (Oxford, Oxford University Press: 1985), 41. 

  2. [Leeds University Library, Liddle Collection, LIDDLE/WW1/DF/109, Ada Reece diary.] 

  3. National Records of Scotland [NRS], GD433/2/350, Nell Balfour, letter, 22 January 1915. 

  4. Imperial War Museum [IWM], Documents.17087, diary, Lady Matthews, 26 January 1915. 

  5. NRS, GD433/2/251, T. Cook, letter, 26 January 1915. 

  6. Munson, Echoes of the Great War, 46. 

  7. IWM, Documents.17087, diary, Lady Matthews, 28 January 1915. 

  8. Ibid. 

  9. Munson, Echoes of the Great War, 46. 

  10. Ibid., 47. 

  11. Ibid., 47. 

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