A History of the First World War in 100 Moments: Terror from the sky marked the start of total war

Even a quiet Suffolk seaside town was not safe. Charlie Cooper on the night it rained bombs

The Suffolk coast was barely 80 miles from the Allied front-line in Belgium. Nonetheless, it came as a terrible, barely comprehensible shock when, one quiet spring night, the deadly machinery of modern warfare made itself felt in the seaside town of Southwold.

The attack came from the sky. "A Zeppelin passed over the town about twenty to twelve without dropping bombs and either this or another come back from London an hour later," wrote the author Ernest Read Cooper, who lived in the town. "We were awoken by a terrific explosion and immediately heard the loud whirring of the engines apparently over the west part of the Town, very quickly another explosion occurred and shook the whole place."

The Zeppelin was a war weapon of terrifying modernity. The first commercial Zeppelin flights had taken place as recently as 1909, and now the Kaiser was using them to rain death from the skies. Southwold was among the first places in Britain to witness Zeppelin attack. To most townsfolk, a Zeppelin suspended in the sky, shaped like a giant cigar as long as a battleship, would have been an unearthly sight.

"Some amusing yarns went about," Read Cooper continues. "One of our fishermen was said to have looked out of his window and seen the Zeppelin so close that he was going to knock it down with a stick, only his wife said, 'For God's sake don't do that, think of the children.'"

The Zeppelin dropped several bombs in and around Southwold that night, startling villagers, as well as convalescents at nearby Henham Hall, which had been converted into a hospital for men coming back from the front. It returned to Germany having caused just a single injury and a few thousands pounds of damage.

The fact that it was bombing such innocuous rural targets at all betrayed a key drawback of the German bombing campaign. The airships were hard to navigate and very vulnerable to strong winds. The Zeppelin that bombed Southwold that night had probably been bound for London, but had aborted the raid on account of bad weather.

Other unlikely targets would fall prey to Zeppelins during the war: Sevenoaks, Swanley, East Dereham. Few neighbourhoods on the flight paths to and from major urban targets could count themselves safe.

Despite their vulnerabilities, the Zeppelins were a powerful weapon. By the end of the war, more than 550 British civilians had been killed in bombing raids, which mainly targeted London and the northern cities. Damage to buildings and infrastructure cost in excess of £1.5m. But perhaps the greatest damage was psychological. More than any other weapon of war, Zeppelins made the British people feel afraid.

D H Lawrence described their impact in typically apocalyptic terms. "It was like Milton – then there was a war in heaven," he wrote in a letter of September 1915, having seen a Zeppelin over London. "It seemed as if the cosmic order were gone, as if there had come a new world order, a new heavens above us...."

This was precisely the effect that Peter Strasser, commander of the German Imperial Navy's Zeppelins and a fanatical advocate of the new aerial war against civilians, had desired. "We who strike the enemy where his heart beats have been slandered as 'baby killers' and 'murderers of women'," he wrote (to, of all people, his mother).

"What we do is repugnant to us too, but necessary, very necessary. Nowadays there is no such animal as a non-combatant. Modern warfare is total warfare."

The Government quickly woke to the threat. Home defence forces were organised, and by mid-1916 hundreds of searchlights and anti-aircraft guns had been deployed to protect key targets. British planes began using incendiary bullets which could ignite the hydrogen inside an airship ("like an enormous Chinese lantern", one pilot wrote) and, gradually the airships were superseded by aeroplanes.

Southwold even had its revenge, when in June 1917 the townsfolk witnessed a Zeppelin shot down, crashing near the village of Theberton 10 miles away. Southwold's museum keeps a piece of the aluminium framework to this day.

Strasser himself was killed in the final Zeppelin raid on Britain on 5 August 1918. But his vision of total war, in which modern machines could make civilians at home as vulnerable as soldiers at the front, endured.

Tomorrow: The first gas attack

The '100 Moments' already published can be seen at: independent.co.uk/greatwar