Queer letters and alien hands

Thanet Advertiser, 29 April 1916, 5

The above facsimile letter was published in the Ramsgate Thanet Advertiser on 29 April 1916. It reads:

April 7th. The writer of the first 'German messages' has been absent from Ramsgate some time now, so the 'Alien’s post-card' is by another hand. If I did not fear prosecution for "failing to register an alien," I could give the police his address to find him, as he is due to return this Wedy. here. The enclosed I found in his overcoat pocket the night before the raid (after he left here on 18th ult.)
To the Editor.((Thanet Advertiser (Ramsgate), 29 April 1916, 5.))

The enclosure referred to was a second letter, 'another foreign missive, addressed to “Herr Chaney, Burgomeister von Ramsgate.” It states that the Zeppelins have a nightly victory and contains some abusive epithets'.((Ibid., 22 April 1916, 2.))

This story began a few months earlier, when 'In a South-east Coast town' (which I think has to be Ramsgate) 'mysterious chalkings in Prussian blue have been discovered' on the outside of buildings, including German phrases for 'Beware, Aircraft Murder', 'Prussian Eagle over all', 'Long Live the Kaiser', and 'William, King of England'.((Northern Daily Mail (Hartlepool), 3 March 1916, 3.))

On 5 March (I assume), the phrase 'ZEPPELIN ATTACK – MARCH 5!!' was found chalked on Ramsgate Public Library, while on the day after the following was written in front St. George's Church 'in gigantic letters over the space of one hundred yards' (presumably on the ground):


And to top it off, the 'now familiar scrawl' was found on 'municipal buildings': 'WILLIAM, KING OF ENGLAND'.((Liverpool Echo, 7 March 1916, 4.))

A day or so later the mayor of Ramsgate returned from a 'busy' trip to London 'to interview the authorities concerning air-raid defensive measures', only to find in his in-tray a postcard (without a stamp but bearing a Ramsgate postmark) 'containing a message written in German script'. It carried the message

William King of England.
His birthplace must be the place for him.
William the Emperor of England.

This was said to be 'in keeping with the German writings which have recently defaced the walls of public buildings and the streets of Ramsgate'.((Thanet Advertiser (Ramsgate), 8 March 1916, 5.)) These kinds of messages were still being found late in April, now spreading to the Town Hall itself.((Ibid., 22 April 1916, 2.))

There then followed the letters to the Thanet Advertiser above. While the non-reproduced letter, was in German and so presumed to be written by a German, the one by Veritas was in handwriting which 'indicates that the the writer is evidently a foreigner, the crossing of the figure 7 being characteristic of Continental penmanship'. But whether it was 'French, Belgian, German or Austrian' was unclear. While the graffiti artist or artists were said to be practical jokers, the mayor assured Veritas, through the press and posters, that if they came forward to report what they knew they would not fall foul of any laws regarding the reporting of enemy aliens.((Ibid., 22 April 1916, 2.)) The only response seems to have been another German letter stating 'WILLIAM, KING OF ENGLAND. HIS EMPIRE MUST BE LARGER!'((Evening Despatch, 2 May 1916, 3.)) Several weeks later a final letter by, or at least about, Veritas, was received, claiming that 'Veritas is silenced for all', along with a dubious story about having passed on information about enemy aliens in Ramsgate in a covert meeting with a police officer (which the police denied had taken place).((Thanet Advertiser, 15 May 1916, 3.))

So what's all this about? Ramsgate was relatively exposed to air raids, sitting as it does on the tip of Kent jutting out into the North Sea. In fact, it was close enough to the Continent to be easily reachable by German bombers without the need for Zeppelins. After a Zeppelin raid in May the previous year, it had a very near miss from a daylight aeroplane raid on 9 February 1916 (so near that people in Ramsgate could see the crosses on the wings), and then another daytime raid on 19 March killed six people, including four children on their way to Sunday school. The graffiti writer's warning of a Zeppelin raid on 5 March was therefore incorrect, if it was meant to be for Ramsgate specifically. But there was a raid that night, and a Zeppelin did cross Kent on its way back to base, dropping bombs harmlessly near Minster-in-Sheppey.

Nevertheless, as the Advertiser suggested, 'The queer letters in an alien hand which are circulating in Ramsgate are irritating, but it is unlikely that they bear any more important significance [...] Possibly it is a case of the practical joker in his worst guise, for no moment could be worse chosen than the anxious time which most people are now experiencing'.((Ibid., 29 April 1916, 2.)) I think it's pretty likely that it was not an actual German who was responsible, or at least, if it was, it was one with a sense of humour. The last 'German' letter received – now said to be in handwriting 'not at all characteristic of Teutonic origin' – told 'the stupid English to go on sleeping until The Day'.((Ibid., 29 April 1916, 5.)) That is, der Tag of the fevered dreams of Le Queux and his fellow scaremongers who were forever warning that every German man in Britain was waiting for their Emperor to launch the invasion that would bring every Englishman's home under the heel of Prussian jackboot (I can do this all day, but perhaps shouldn't). More likely it was somebody trying to fan the flames of Germanophobia, and/or perhaps increase fear of air raids. Either way, we can see some undermining of British pluck going on here.

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