When World War I began, the planet was only 12 years into its romance with aircraft. It was still a novelty for the people of Europe to look up to the sky and see anything but birds.
In a scene from my novel, Albion’s Millennium, eight-year-old May is staying with her sister who is in service at a house in Sussex. It is early summer in 1914, and there have been rumored sightings of German airships above the British coast:
May looked upwards, shielding her eyes from the light pouring from the open French windows. She could see there were gradations of darkness up there, different layers of night like overlapping curtains, some denser than others, and behind these shifting layers an occasional gleam of glassy, star-pocked sky.
She heard a lady guest say, “How exciting. The Times said they’ve been taking civilian passengers up. I can’t see anything, can you?”
The second she stopped speaking, her husband shouted, “Look!” and pointed to the sky. Something had moved out from behind a cloud - a long slim shadow, barely visible against the greyness. A sinister, looming presence, so indistinct it could almost have been an illusion of the retina, an image left behind on a closed eyelid. But as May craned her neck, she saw it steal very slowly across a gap between two night clouds, so high that she could hear no engine noise. Beside her, she heard Tessie’s awestruck whisper, “How can there be people up there in that thing?”
During the war, aerial bombing was in its infancy, but there were several raids by German airships and fighter planes on the mainland UK, particularly from 1916 onwards. The British government instituted a rudimentary warning system consisting of maroons and whistles and (absurdly) policemen cycling round the streets wearing sandwich boards, while the end of a raid was signaled by boy scouts playing bugles.
Here is an extract from Virginia Woolf’s diary describing a night raid near her home in Richmond, west of London:
Thursday December 6, 1917: Last night... nothing was further from our minds than air raids; a bitter night, no moon up till eleven. At 5 however, I was wakened by L. [her husband Leonard Woolf] to a most instant sense of guns [anti-aircraft guns firing from nearby]: as if one’s faculties jumped up fully dressed. We took clothes, quilts, a watch & a torch, the guns sounding nearer as we went down stairs to sit with the servants [Lottie the maid and Nellie the cook] on the black horsehair chest wrapped in quilts in the kitchen passage. Lottie having said she felt bad passed on to a general rattle of jokes & comments which almost silenced the guns. They fired quickly, apparently towards Barnes. Slowly the sounds got more distant, & finally ceased; we unwrapped ourselves & went back to bed. In ten minutes there could be no more question of staying there: guns apparently up at Kew. Up we jumped, more hastily this time, since I remember leaving my watch, & trailing cloak & stockings behind me. Servants apparently calm & even jocose. In fact one talks through the noise, rather bored by having to talk at 5am than anything else. Guns at one point so loud that the whistle of the shell going up followed the explosion. One window did, I think, rattle. Then silence. Cocoa was brewed for us, & off we went again. Having trained one’s ears to listen one can’t get them not to for a time; & as it was after 6, carts were rolling out of stables, motor cars throbbing, & then prolonged ghostly whistlings, which meant, I suppose, Belgian work people being recalled to the munitions factory. At last in the distance I heard bugles; L. was by this time asleep, but the dutiful boy scouts came down our road [blowing the bugles] & wakened him carefully; it struck me how sentimental the suggestion of the sound was, & how thousands of old ladies were offering up their thanksgivings at the sound, & connecting him (a boy scout with small angel wings) with some joyful vision – And then I too went to sleep: but the servants sat up with their heads out of the window in the bitter cold-frost white on the roofs-until the bugle sounded, when they went back to the kitchen and sat there till breakfast.”
Twenty-two years later when German flying machines once again dropped bombs on Britain, this was no longer something new and inconceivable. This time the British people were all too prepared for the fire that rained down from the sky.