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on 5 September 2016
an okay account put into social context
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I’ve read another book by this author on London in the Eighteenth Century. This book follows a similar format, telling the life of London and its people during a particular period, in this case from 1914 through to 1918, the time of the First World War. It’s fascinating to learn how Londoners coped first with the shock of the news of the War, and then how people reacted to the War itself. There is much to learn for the reader from a book like this; I didn’t know, for example, how troops from the Western Front were shipped back to London for hospital treatment and were picked up to be taken to hospital in cars donated by wealthy patrons. Interestingly the logistics of shipping men back and forth was something that had to be thought of as though for the first time – something we take very much for granted in this modern world of ours one hundred years on.

The book moves chronologically, but also through chapters that are broken down in general ways into subjects or themes – for instance, the idea of women in the workforce, of banning “indecent” entertainments for the duration, of the breakdown or interruption to services to homeowners and businesses, food shortages, coping with the harrowing effect of zeppelin raids or threats of invasion, managing without the menfolk at home; so many things that had to be dealt with on a daily basis that are hard to imagine from our distance now.

As with the author’s other books, this is a lively mixture of fact and anecdote; interesting, enlightening and entertaining all at once. It is a book I felt best read in chunks – one chapter at a time, and a bit of time to digest the dense amount of information in each chapter before moving on to the next. Wonderful, and highly recommended.
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on 19 September 2014
When one thinks of London and war, one inevitably thinks of the Blitz. But acclaimed London historian Jerry White has written an account of London in the First World War. It is a fascinating account and all the more so for being a less well-known history.

White explores the impact of the Defence of the Realm Act (DORA) on Londoners, with highly amusing anecdotes such as the investigation into ‘Tippling Among Women.’ Morally lax theatres were also the bane of the establishment: the Lord Chamberlain was charged by the King himself to investigate a picture of a scantily-clad music hall performer in an illustrated paper.

Women came under further attack due to their perceived loose sexual conduct. Arthur Conan-Doyle described the city as ‘harlot-haunted’, a view not shared by Sylvia Pankhurst. Pankhurst’s account of the sights she witnessed reads far more credibly and charitably. Dancing was of course condemned too, as ‘enjoying the war’. Interestingly, the first female police officers began to appear on the streets at time.

While these aspects of social history are absorbing as well as at times highly entertaining, White also unflinchingly explores the harshest realities of the war. London with its many hospitals treated thousands of injured, maimed and disfigured men who arrived in daily waves. Children heard the names of the dead at their school assemblies and lists appeared in every town hall.

And of course, it wasn’t just soldiers. Civilians also died in the terrible Zeppelin incendiary raids. On 31 May 1915, Elsie Leggatt, not even four, was the first to lose her life. Her sister May died from her burns a few days later.

No wonder Londoners sought consolation where they could. Recommended.

Note: I received a free review copy of this book via the Historical Novel Society. This review (or an edited version) has appeared in the Historical Novels Review. My review is my independent opinion.
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TOP 500 REVIEWERon 18 December 2014
This year - 2014 - is the 100th anniversary of the beginning of the Great War. Many excellent histories have been published in the past few years, and one of the best is British historian Jerry White's book, "Zeppelin Nights", which focuses on London during the war years. Professor White teaches at Birbeck College at the University of London. He is the author of three previous histories of London and its people.

The Great War is best looked at in smaller, more manageable portions than in its entirety. In examining London and the part its citizens played in the war effort, Jerry White has captured how most Britons carried on during the war. London was a microcosm of English society at large. It was an incredibly cosmopolitan city; immigrants from all over Europe and the British colonies made the population very diverse. In particular, Germans and Austrians were over-employed in the restaurants and hotels. When war was declared in August, 1914, those German and Austrian residents - called "aliens" - were sent back to their native countries and the service industries suffered. Restaurants and hotels lost their staffs. This was just one way that residents and businesses began to "make do". Not only were service industries affected by the "aliens" leaving, businesses lost British male employees who had signed up for military service. Houses lost staff when former ladies maids went off to do "war work". Women began taking the places in factories, stores, and transportation, which caused problems when these same men returned home in 1918 and 1919.

But how many Londoners who had marched gaily off to war in 1914 actually returned at war's end? How any soldiers were either killed or badly injured? The population of soldiers - both officers and men - was a fairly large percentage of the male population of London. White examines the London "home front", where hospitals were filled with wounded soldiers from the fighting in France. How did people "make-do" when food was rationed, the German zeppelins were bombing the city, and loved ones were dying both in the streets and on the battlefields? Using primary sources like diaries and interviews transcribed both during the war and soon after, Jerry White has written a lively history of both a city and its people. This was a tough four year period, which ended both in victory for the Allies but also in the calamitous Spanish flu epidemic. It's a great history book.
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on 13 August 2014
Excellent book. From the title I had expected a book about warfare and London bombing, but it was far wider than that. It is an excellent account of what life was like in London before and during the First World War, from the entertainments, to the rise of the munitions industry with it's Canary Girls. There are the prostitutes and good time girls alongside the newly formed Women's Police Service who sought to control them. Class is a big issue with the upper classes feeling less of the shortages than the poorer classes did. And of course the persecution of all aliens living in London city. It is a microcosm of life during wartime, and although it only considers London, it reflects what life must have been like throughout Britain. I would heartily recommend this book if you are interested in life on the Home front during the First World War
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on 10 January 2017
Zeppelin Nights depicts London in 1914 as a city at a crossroads - despite the Industrial Revolution and the end of the Victorian era, the streets of London were still littered with manure from horse-drawn carriages and its values were very much drawn from the nineteenth century. In this rich and expansive book, Jerry White underlines that the Great War altered the feel of London irrevocably and that the city we know today is still feeling the after-effects. London had to move on past the age of 'The Season', and the droit de seigneur, to recognise the poor as more than simply a depressing menace to be avoided at all costs (or mown down in a motor car as one upper class socialite did in a moment of temper). The greater part of the action of the war may have been confined to the Front, but Zeppelin Nights describes how the people London battled to keep the home fires burning.

White describes pre-war London as very much the metropolitan capital of Europe, it was huge in contrast to its continental counterparts and very much where society 'happened'. It was the centre of the Industrial Revolution, Victoria's children had married into the major royal families of Europe and of course, the sun never set on the British Empire. However, White points out that culturally London was very German - since the arrival of the Hanoverians, there had been a strong bond between the two nations with areas of the city housing several generations of German families. It is strange to contrast that time with now, all those years after the last conflict and yet the German nation remains a punchline, a caricatured war-like people capable of dark deeds, the natural enemy of the trueborn Englishman.

It was truly tragic to read in this book of the stories of the naturalised Germans who remained in London after war broke out, who were almost universally condemned to five years of enormous suffering. Many, indeed most, were interned in horrible conditions - it was particularly horrible to read about those who chose to take their own lives, particularly one who left a note explaining their admiration for Britain. These were people who had chosen to make their home in London, who had felt a part of their community and who were suddenly turned on. They may have been regarded as potential spies, but it is the British people who seem traitors here. White expresses his own astonishment at the sermon preached by the Bishop of London in 1915, who urged people to kill Germans 'not for the sake of killing, but to save the world.' This was a direct departure from his words the year before which had spoken on charity and that the Germans of London ought to 'receive the same kind of treatment which they had learnt to expect.' War had made London a far more brutal place.

Indeed, it was surprising for me to read about the terrors of London life in World War One. The story of the Blitz is part of our national identity but the zeppelin attacks of World War One are far less well-known, despite being far more prolonged. The first raid came on May 31 1915, killing seven including four children and by the time of the last attack three years later, the death toll was 668 as well as around 2000 injuries. The lake in St James' Palace was drained to prevent any reflective surface helping the bombers and 'a lighted cigarette' was apparently enough to earn someone a slap at night time. Much like September 11 for America, these attacked destroyed Londoners' long-standing sense of inviolability - for the first time, the war had come right to their door. The aerial threat was so new and terrifying, there is a sense of confidence irreparably shaken. It was in this climate that the notorious Defence of the Realm Act was rushed through, which granted powers to the government and was responsible for some rather questionable acts in the name of security.

Indeed, by contrast with this war fought with the new technologies of the Industrial Revolution, the morals of Victorian England were still very much in evidence. While one battle raged on the continent, another was being fought for purity at home. General Haig was disgusted by drinking, as was David Lloyd George - temperance was very much in vogue and if it were not for the fact that Herbert Asquith was at the time both Prime Minister and alcoholic, prohibition might very well have been passed. Lord Kitchener refused to allow soldiers to be equipped with prophylactics lest they be encouraged to fornicate, thus allowing venereal disease to run rampant. There seemed to have been a frustrated feeling that Britain would not deserve victory if their morals were not repaired.

London in the Great War was a crossing-place for soldiers and White conjures up convincingly a city abuzz with the activity of war. There was practically universal employment and White notes the irony that the rise in earnings led to an improvement in living conditions which led to an increased life expectancy - as long as one was not in France of course. There were widespread fears however about the new freedoms afforded to women. Hysteria broke out and then abruptly died again over women drinkers, believing that without their husbands to supervise them, women were in danger of running wild. Additionally, with a shortage of men to form an effective police force, some women seemed to be becoming rather too big for their boots. They were taking on jobs that had previously only ever been done by men. Furthermore, the suffragettes had been the national enemy but now they appeared to have put their cause aside to assist in the war effort. Troops of them patrolled the streets as a kind of unofficial police force, shining their torches upon any people they suspected of being up to no good.

As in World War Two, there was a rise in prostitution although White points out these were often just young girls 'out on a lark' and indeed it was the 'amateur prostitutes' who caused all the trouble. 'Harlot-haunted' London was a dangerous place, there were innumerable instances of young soldiers being lured to secluded corners by pretty girls and then robbed of all their money. The Canadian and Anzac soldiers seem to have been particularly vulnerable and White regretfully lists the names of several who met their end not on a field in Flanders but rather under Waterloo Bridge. The epidemic of sexually transmitted diseases amongst the military was such a problem that a law was passed making it an offence to infect a soldier with venereal disease. Women were detained if they were suspected of carrying disease and forced to undergo physical examinations. More disturbingly, several men who murdered their wives upon being told that they had contracted an infection were not punished for the crime. There was a certain sense of 'all bets being off' and that normal rules did not apply - society's strictures were unbuttoning.

White has written a number of books on London's history and he clearly wears the mantle of authority on the subject. White's voice as author breaks through with a surprising frequency, expressing his personal disapproval over the way that London treated its 'alien' population during the conflict and indeed its own young men who were not yet in uniform. There were moments during the book when the tone appeared reminiscent of Lady Bracknell; understandably after all of his research, White takes a very proprietorial tone over his city, he has obvious passion for the place but he is not afraid to take it to task when it falls short of the standards he expects.

He is briskly mocking of the countless 'flag days' and socialite fund-raisers for the Front, quietly denouncing the useless upper classes whilst also taking the time to note those who really did open up their homes and their wallets to wounded servicemen. Those who handed out white feathers were 'a nuisance' and he is ready to highlight the many instances of pointless public hysteria. White tuts at the rules of DORA (Defence of the Real Act) which made it an offence to whistle in the street, lest one disturb a convalescing soldier. Zeppelin Nights may describe London a century ago but it feels hugely topical in its description of a tabloid-driven society, poisoned with the words of The Daily Mail, fuelled by the fears of the Enemy getting in. Even the politicians who played on the city's nationalistic sensibilities bear an alarming resemblance to certain far-right group which already receives far more press coverage than it deserves. White's London is not so very far removed from our own.

There were so many stories of tragedy in this book - of particular poignancy was the story of Barbara and Captain Jack Wootton. They were newly-weds whose honeymoon had been postponed due to him being called to France. They had one single night together in a hotel near Victoria Station before he departed. Five weeks later Barbara received a telegram telling her that he had died of his wounds in the Somme, 'in due course his blood-stained kit was punctiliously returned to me.' White's book is a true piece of art, capturing London's feat of survival in broad strokes that give us a perspective on the city as a whole, but then also he provides these stunning moments of detail which help us to imagine the daily lives of these brave people who lived through this awful, harrowing conflict. The London we have now is the one shaped by these events and White's wonderful book illustrates exactly how it came to be.
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on 11 June 2014
Engrossing history of how the capital fared during the 1914-1918 conflict. London wasn't the only place on the UK mainland that was raided by German airships and bomber aircraft during the First World War, but it was obviously a prestige target for the enemy, and its population density meant that the psychological impact of bombs being dropped on British mainland for the first time - with the British authorities seemingly powerless to stop them, at first - was intensified. When airships first appeared in the skies over London - picked out by searchlights - people used to stand out in the streets and watch, and were more likely to be killed or injured by falling shrapnel from their anti-aircraft guns than from enemy bombs. When the casualities from bombing started to rack-up - and unrestricted submarine warfare resulting in the sinking of the liner RMS Lusitania in May 1915, leaving 1,198 passengers and crew dead - German and other foreign nationals, many of who had been domiciled in London for years before the outbreak of hostilities, where cruelly targeted for reprisals by angry local populaces, driven from their homes and businesses, and often interned. Jerry White gives an insightful, fact-driven account, compellingly written; much of his evidence is based on contemporary testimony from diaries written at the time. This book is highly recommended.
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on 11 August 2014
An excellent, well-researched read which satisfied a lot of my curiosity about what was happening at home during WW1. I have only deducted one star because of a curious proof-reading defect in the Kindle edition, whereby a lot of terms have been (unintentionally?) hyphenised.
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on 16 June 2014
This provides an excellent, comprehensive and coherent narrative account of London during the First World War. Up to a few years ago it was so difficult to find material about the home front 1914-18 that you had mainly to rely on Sylvia Pankhurst’s book, which is of course an important primary source but not really acceptable as a balanced overview. I hadn’t expected Zeppelin Nights to be solely about the zeppelin campaign, but surprisingly I felt that in some places its coverage of specific particularly serious air raids was more informative than I could find in some of the works around that focus on the aerial warfare aspect. This is going into my permanent collection for future reference.
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on 6 September 2014
Enjoyable social history. A tad academic in style, but clearly very well researched. The resilience of London and Londoners shines through this work.
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