The thunderclaps of August

Sketch (London), 12 August 1914, 8

Shortly after the declaration of war Londoners lifted fearful eyes to the skies, as it seemed that bombs might be about to rain down on them from the skies...

This happened in 1939, as is fairly well known, but it also happened in 1914, as the above cartoon by the Sketch's Tony Sarg shows. It was published just over a week after the declaration of war and is headlined

WAR NERVES: TERRIBLE EFFECT OF A CLAP OF THUNDER

and captioned

A RESULT OF UNDIGESTED WAR NEWS: IS IT A ZEPPELIN BOMB? 1

Below is a paragraph which explains further:

During the first few days of the war London was somewhat afflicted with nerves, and all sorts of ''orrible rumers' were spread about On Wednesday, Aug. 5 [1914; the day after the declaration of war], there was a very loud clap of thunder which was not preceded by the usual warnings of rain or lightning. Immediately stories of air-ships dropping bombs and alien spies blowing up public buildings spread like wild-fire in the Strand, and even one of our most staid penny evening papers was bitten by the scare, and solemnly printed an announcement that its reporters, after careful investigation, could find no basis for the report. 2

The Sketch clearly blamed the press for the scare (excluding itself, no doubt):

Sketch (London), 12 August 1914, 8

The snipe seems to be aimed at the Globe, which had reported in its 'stop press' column that

Considerable excitement was caused in the Strand shortly before noon today [5 August 1914] by a loud report of something like a sharp clap of thunder. There was some impression that the report was that of a bomb, and a rumour to this effect was speedily in circulation. 'Globe' reporters, however, made searching inquiries, but could find no trace or gain no details of the explosion. 3

But it wasn't just the Globe. The Islington Daily Gazette reported (in a 'They Say' column) that 'when the great clap of thunder burst over North Londonat 11.30 yesterday many people thought that a German bomb had been dropped from an aeroplane', which suggests that the alarm wasn't localised to central London. 4 The Leeds Mercury's London correspondent gave some more details:

The state of the people's nerves was demonstrated, this forenoon [5 August 1914], when a terrific clap of thunder reverberated over London. In Trafalgar-square many women screamed, and rushed into the shops in a semi-fainting condition, whilst people in the shops came rushing out. It was some time before the fear that a bomb had been dropped from an airship was dispelled, and people realised that it was only the artillery of heaven. 5

There's nothing to suggest that Sarg even witnessed the scene he drew, and his purpose was obviously satirical anyway, but his figures do seem to reproduce the likely range of emotions, from surprise:

The Sketch (London), 12 August 1914, 8

To shock and fear:

The Sketch (London), 12 August 1914, 8

To excitement, and defensiveness (at the loud sound):

The Sketch (London), 12 August 1914, 8

Why did people react like this to a perfectly normal natural phenomenon? There was, of course, considerable prewar speculation about the possibility of Zeppelin raids on London on the outbreak of war, but as of the phantom airship panic of 1913 this did not seem to be a major concern for much of the public or the press. 6 The war had supposedly begun because of French aerial attacks on German towns, and some early war reports claimed that 'three Zeppelins [are] on their way to Brussels; another Zeppelin dropped bombs in the French town of Luneville'. 7 More specifically, the Standard referred to a 'rumour' that 'a German Zeppelin was in the neighbourhood of the Metropolis', though it doesn't actually mention the thunderclap and the fact that it's explained with reference to 'the fact that the rays of a searchlight have been noticed playing over London' suggests that it is referring to a nighttime incident. 8 But then, the thunderclap may have come on the morning after the searchlight (though the Standard's report seems to have been published on the day after the thunderclap, the wrong way around, so perhaps the causality went the other way).

Another account, in the Hull Daily Mail, does describe the thunderclap and the reactions to it, but doesn't link it to airships. Instead it says that 'London's evening papers yesterday [5 August 1914] contained reports of heavy gun firing in progress in various localities, from the Straits of Dover northward up the East Coast':

The explanation is a very simple one. At 11.20 a.m. Londoners were startled by the sudden boom of thunder, in a torrent of rain from a gloomy sky. Not a few of the more timid ones, not realising that it was thunder, hastily assumed that it must have been the crash of gun firing, but this was soon dispelled by the reflection that there was lightning flashing about. After mid-day there was more thunder and lightning, the storm travelling eastward and north-eastward, bursting over the Thames Estuary, and subsequently visiting Clacton, Lowestoft, Yarmouth, Cromer, and as far north as Carnoustie [in Scotland]. 9

Indeed, the same edition of the Leeds Mercury that reported the thunderclap over central London also claimed that 'Gun firing was distinctly heard was distinctly heard at Dunbar and other places along the Firth of Forth yesterday [5 August 1914]', and that (citing the Standard) 'a Naval [sic] action is now in progress in the North Sea' (though not a major one). 10 A North Sea battle between the British and German fleets, of course, was much more expected at the outbreak of war than a Zeppelin raid on London. But note also the Sketch's reference to rumours of 'alien spies blowing up public buildings' spreading after the thunderclap. 11 There was an immediate spy scare when war was declared, and the newspapers were filled with stories of the arrest of suspicious foreigners and the seizure of arms caches. 12 The lampooned Globe report doesn't even speculate as to the cause of the 'bomb'. We probably shouldn't see the Trafalgar thunderclap as evidence of a particularly intense fear of aerial bombardment at the start of the war; rather it was just one aspect of an intersection of fears as people suddenly realised that they were in it, and wondered when, where and how the Germans would strike.

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  1. The Sketch (London), 12 August 1914, 8.[]
  2. Ibid.[]
  3. Globe (London), 5 August 1914, 5.[]
  4. Islington Daily Gazette, 6 August 1914, 3; quoted in Adrian Gregory, The Last Great War: British Society and the First World War (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2008), 36 (which is where I came across this episode).[]
  5. Leeds Mercury, 6 August 1914, 2.[]
  6. Brett Holman, 'The phantom airship panic of 1913: imagining aerial warfare in Britain before the Great War', Journal of British Studies 55, no. 1 (2016), 99-119, doi:10.1017/jbr.2015.173 (free: accepted version, after peer review).[]
  7. Mid-Sussex Times (Haywards Heath), 4 August 1914, 1.[]
  8. Standard (London); quoted in Evening News (Portsmouth), 7 August 1914, 3.[]
  9. Daily Mail (Hull), 6 August 1914, 1.[]
  10. Leeds Mercury, 6 August 1914, 1.[]
  11. The Sketch (London), 12 August 1914, 8.[]
  12. Brett Holman, ‘Constructing the enemy within: rumours of secret gun platforms and Zeppelin bases in Britain, August-October 1914’, British Journal for Military History 3, no. 2 (2017), 22-42, at 27, http://bjmh.gold.ac.uk/article/view/743.[]

2 thoughts on “The thunderclaps of August

  1. Great post! There's something to say about knowing and not knowing what an expected (bombing) event would actually sound and seem like. At this point few would have any real idea, so the range of 'possible' sounds and actions would be much greater than people seasoned to the effects after having experienced it would know about.

    There's also perhaps something else related about the false expectations created by media; notable today that shootings usually have witnesses surprised at how much the shots were 'pops' rather than the bangs we expect thanks to film and TV overselling on gun noises. In 1914, the media wasn't film, of course, but nevertheless the (print) media are part of this story's belief and transmission - maybe an aspect to consider further?

  2. Post author

    That's a very good point about the lack of knowledge of what a bomb would sound like. Perhaps theatre sound effects might have shaped expectations, or fireworks displays, or just literary descriptions?

    There was a close parallel taking place at exactly this point in time time in Belgium: German troops entering urban environments found it very difficult to determine the direction of gunshots due to echoes from buildings (possibly also mistaking unrelated sounds, but I could be wrong about that), with the tragic consequence that they believed that Belgian civilians were firing upon them, leading to reprisals -- summary executions and the like. So everybody was having to learn what war sounded like.

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