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

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooksA special investigation by Andy McSmith
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Web Application Developer / Software Developer

£21000 - £23000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This software development compa...

Neil Pavier: Commercial Finance Manager

£65,000 - £75,000: Neil Pavier: Have you every dreamt of working for a global ...

Neil Pavier: Commercial Analyst

£50,000 - £55,000: Neil Pavier: Are you a professionally qualified commercial ...

Neil Pavier: Commercial Finance Manager

£55,000 - £65,000: Neil Pavier: Do you want to work for an impressive digital ...

Day In a Page

HIV pill: Scientists hail discovery of 'game-changer' that cuts the risk of infection among gay men by 86%

Scientists hail daily pill that protects against HIV infection

Breakthrough in battle against global scourge – but will the NHS pay for it?
How we must adjust our lifestyles to nature: Welcome to the 'Anthropocene', the human epoch

Time to play God

Welcome to the 'Anthropocene', the human epoch where we may need to redefine nature itself
MacGyver returns, but with a difference: Handyman hero of classic 1980s TV series to be recast as a woman

MacGyver returns, but with a difference

Handyman hero of classic 1980s TV series to be recast as a woman
Tunnel renaissance: Why cities are hiding roads down in the ground

Tunnel renaissance

Why cities are hiding roads underground
'Backstreet Boys - Show 'Em What You're Made Of': An affectionate look at five middle-aged men

Boys to men

The Backstreet Boys might be middle-aged, married and have dodgy knees, but a heartfelt documentary reveals they’re not going gently into pop’s good night
Crufts 2015: Should foreign dogs be allowed to compete?

Crufts 2015

Should foreign dogs be allowed to compete?
10 best projectors

How to make your home cinema more cinematic: 10 best projectors

Want to recreate the big-screen experience in your sitting room? IndyBest sizes up gadgets to form your film-watching
Manchester City 1 Barcelona 2 player ratings: Luis Suarez? Lionel Messi? Joe Hart? Who was the star man?

Manchester City vs Barcelona player ratings

Luis Suarez? Lionel Messi? Joe Hart? Who was the star man at the Etihad?
Arsenal vs Monaco: Monaco - the making of Gunners' manager Arsene Wenger

Monaco: the making of Wenger

Jack Pitt-Brooke speaks to former players and learns the Frenchman’s man-management has always been one of his best skills
Cricket World Cup 2015: Chris Gayle - the West Indies' enigma lives up to his reputation

Chris Gayle: The West Indies' enigma

Some said the game's eternal rebel was washed up. As ever, he proved he writes the scripts by producing a blistering World Cup innings
In Ukraine a dark world of hybrid warfare and murky loyalties prevails

In Ukraine a dark world of hybrid warfare

This war in the shadows has been going on since the fall of Mr Yanukovych
'Birdman' and 'Bullets Over Broadway': Homage or plagiarism?

Homage or plagiarism?

'Birdman' shares much DNA with Woody Allen's 'Bullets Over Broadway'
Broadchurch ends as damp squib not even David Tennant can revive

A damp squib not even David Tennant can revive

Broadchurch, Series 2 finale, review
A Koi carp breeding pond, wall-mounted iPads and a bathroom with a 'wellness' shower: inside the mansion of Germany's 'Bishop of Bling'

Inside the mansion of Germany's 'Bishop of Bling'

A Koi carp breeding pond, wall-mounted iPads and a bathroom with a 'wellness' shower