Read Extraordinary Essays By Children Describing World War I Zeppelin Attacks

In January 2014 the British Library made newly digitised material from World War I available online. We explore some of the collection’s eye-opening essays written by children about Zeppelin attacks in 1915.

During World War I the Germans carried out 12 airship raids on London and many aeroplane attacks, killing some 530 people.

Circa 1915: A German Zeppelin ascending from its base for a raid on London. Hulton Archive / Getty

The boys of Princeton Street Elementary School, London, were aged between 5 and 14 when the Zeppelin attacks took place. Some of the boys recorded their recollections of the airship raids.

Their accounts reveal how unexpected the raids were and how unprepared Britain was to deal with the new threat. Most of the boys were getting ready for bed or playing out on the street when the Zeppelins arrived - Londoners had no prior warning of either of the attacks on 8 September or 13 October 1915.

Read the transcripts from this unique collection of essays, revealing the terror of a German Zeppelin attack through a child’s eyes.

‘The air raid of Sep 8th’, by J Marriage.

The British Library

The British Library

The British Library

 

On Wednesday night at quarter to eleven I was woke up by my mother who said, ‘Dont be frightened, the Germans are here’.

I jumped out of bed (and my brother fell out) and ran into the front room where my mother was dressing. She said to me go and get your clothes on, but as I was a big light like lighting rose before my eyes and before I knew where I was a mighty explosion and a huge flame lept in front of me.

As I expected this I ran into the street and saw many people pointing towards the sky. I ran to see what was the matter and in the sky there was a silvery coloured thing in the shape of a cigar. Two powerful searchlights shone on it from end to end. It stood there for about five minutes dropping bombs and going in a circle for about two times and suddenly disapeared into the air. The searchlights looked for it but in vain it could not be found.

I then ran in and put my boots on and dare not strike a light as all the lights in street were out expect one. We then walked to East St but their were no firemen there as they had to attend to a bigger fire. We then went to see what this bigger fire was. It happened to be the National Penny bank.

The fire soon spread and three shops were alight before the firemen arrived. The flames were terrible and the terrific and as soon as one fire was under control another burst out undone all the firemens work which they worked hard to do. The flames lept across the road and done much damage to George Carters. When the fire was put out they went round to the small fire in East St.

A fireman named Green saved seventeen people. He went up again but there were no more people left and was cut off from retreat. The poor man was at the top of the house. To save himself from being burnt to death he jumped to the ground and died a few days afterwards.

In Queen’s Square the was a hole five feet deep. The National hospital for children with parilysis were screaming with fright for every window was broke I would not have liked to be one of those nurses for the whole world.

In Leather Lane there were a wife and two childen killed of a policeman and he has gone silly. A drill hall in Faringdon Road was damaged. The only news we had in the paper was “an air raid one hundred and six casulties.

One of the Zeppelins was hit as it rocked like a rocking horse for some time and then disappeared in the air.

A wrecked house in Shoreditch, London, after a Zeppelin raid on the area, July 1915. Central Press/Hulton Archive / Getty

‘The Air Raid of September 8th 1915’, by J. Littenstein.

The British Library

The British Library

 

It was our Jewish New Year and I was sitting in my aunt’s house reading the Boy’s Friends. My sister and my cousin were talking politics. One said the German Navy was afraid to come out, and the other said that Our fleet ought to go and fetch them. This she said with some emphasis on the “our”. “And all went merry as a marriage bell.”

Suddenly Bang! Crash! Tinkle! Tinkle! The was a splintering of wood and a crash of falling glass. We all sprang to our feet with surprising alacrity.

At other times wild horses could not drag me from the paper I was reading. As it was I was dragged away from it this time. Baa-ang! There was another crash. “Bomb’s and zeppelins” said my aunt.

She was cool but the other women were panic-stricken. They gave vent to shrieks and screams that would have done credit to a hyena. I was shivering like a jelly but I soon got over it.

There was a pattering of feet and a knock and the boy from upstairs came down. He was a boy scout Edgar Brown by name. My aunt had snatched the baby from the bed in a blanket and had put all the lights but one. “The basement” she said putting out the last light, and we all ran downstairs.

Boom! Boom! Boom! The short sharp bark of anti-aircraft guns smote upon our ears. “Those are our guns” said Edgar. “Coming up to have a look” said I. “Righto” said Edgar. We went up to the door and a sight that I shall never forget met my eyes.

The “National Penny Bank” was blazing like a bonfire. “Look! Look!” said Edgar “The Bank is afire.” Clang! Clang! Clang! Clang! The incessant ringing of the fire bell came to my ears and a moment later the fire engine came clattering along.

The escape was reared against the wall and a fireman ran up the rungs like a monkey running up a tree. The hose was trained on the bank.

The orders of the captain of the brigade came faintly to me. There was a dense crowd in front of the blazing mass, and the flames licked up the sides of the bank.

Whir-rrrrrr! There was a hum of engines, and looking up we saw the Zeppelin. It was the shape of a huge cigar. The searchlights focussed itself on the monster.

Boom! Whiz! a shell went screaming by on its errand of death. The airship darted up into the air and disappeared in the darkness. The firemen meanwhile were doing their level best to quell the blaze.

The lurid flames were licking up the sides of the bank hungrily. In vain the little brigade wrestled and fought the flames. Gradually the firemen retreated across to Carter’s Stores.

The fortune of the firemen was bad. The reason they retreated was apparently the great heat. Although it was midnight it was as light as day. There were a great many searchlights flitting about now.

Another hose was trained on the blaze, and the firemen made a superhuman effort to quell the fire.

Sizzle! Sizzle! Siz – zzzzzz! Sizzle! The firemen had trained one of the hoses on the worst part of the blaze. They seemed to have quelled it. There was a roar and the flames blazed up again. The escape had been taken away from the wall by this time.

The crowd had by this time reached Richbell Place. My cousin now came to the window. “Look Jack” she said pointing to the Pole Star “isn’t that a Zeppelin’s light. “Silly” said I “that is a star”.

The firemen now made another effort and got the fire under hand. The crowd soon dispersed and all was dark and silent as the tomb.

“Nice beginning for our new year” I remarked. Next morning I learnt that the casualties were 106.

July 1915: People gathered in the streets of Shoreditch after a zeppelin raid on the area. Topical Press Agency / Getty

‘Second London Air Raid, October 13th’, by E. Brown.

The British Library

The British Library

 

At half-past nine pm, my a uncle who had only been home from France five hours, and my aunt were talking to my mother. At twenty five minutes to ten my uncle and aunt left, and I sat talking with my mother. After a while I fell asleep.

All of a sudden I was awakened by a reverberating roar, like lions when they are hungry.

I leapt out of bed like a slice of greased lightning and slipped into my clothes. I then heard a sound like a tattoo on a kettle-drum.

I lil [sic] looked out of a window and saw a searchlight flitting about. Someone shouts, ‘Put your lights out” and I obeyed. My mother and sisters were in the parlour. I went downstairs and looking up I saw an elongated shape not unlike a cigar and of a silver grey in colour.

There were little splashes of flame around it but none appeared to hit it. After a while I thought I’d like to have a look at a gun … We were looking up to the sky to see if we could see her. All of a sudden we heard a buzzing noise. We looked up and saw her she came from a nothernly [sic] do direction … she went over our roof she was hit in the tail after that she died out of site.

July 1915: A group of women and children looking at a damaged building in Shoreditch in east London which was hit during a zeppelin raid during World War I. Topical Press Agency / Getty

‘The second London air raid’, October the 13th [1915].

The British Library

The British Library

 

Last night about twenty minutes too nine, I was astonished to see crowds of women and children going into the Tube in Holborn. They looked like Belgian refugees, and then I guessed what it was for they were expecting an air raid, so they were sending the women and children down there for safety.

I then ran as fast as I could to tell my mother, but she did not take any notice. I then went up-stairs, and commenced, to read a book. In a couple of minutes I was so interested in the book, that all thoughts of zeppelins had vanished.

I had not been reading more than half an hour when I heard a terrible bang, and the word zeps came back to my mind quicker than it had gone out. I dropped the book, rushed to the window opened it and jumped out into the parrapet. All this was the work of a few seconds.

No sooner had I got out when bang – bang two more bombs followed in quick succesion, and then all was silent for a few seconds. Boom – crash – boom, came the answer from our guns, and a hail of lead went sailing skywards, but I am sorry to say that they did not find their destination.

I could see gun flashes coming from the British Museum and from the Kingsway, I only just caught a glimpse of the zeppelin in the city direction the search-lights were shining on it, and the shells were bursting underneath it. Whether it was hit I do not know but all of a sudden It disappeared and fled.

I then went down-stairs to see if my mother and the children were alright. I found them In a safe place so I stayed there. After we had been there about one hour a policeman came and told us that we could go up to bed.

So we went up-stairs, and stayed up till twelve o’clock. they did did not visit us again like they did some places so we spent the rest of the night in peace.

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Matt Tucker is the UK picture editor for BuzzFeed and is based in London.
 
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