I’m slowly working my way through, A Brief History of WW1: The First World War-Eyewitness Accounts of the War to End all Wars, 1914-18, edited by Jon E. Lewis.
The book is a compilation of diary entries and personal letters written by combatants and non-combatants during World War One. It really should not be read as one might read a novel or a history since every entry is a short story in own’s right and in my opinion needs to be digested and thought about.
The entries are organized by year and I’m partially through 1915 (pg. 131 of 500+ pages). The bulk of entries thus far come from the English-speaking countries involved in the war but the Serbians, Germans, Austrians and Russians are also represented. (Italy, the USA and India all get entries.)
In my opinion it’s one of the best human interest books I’ve ever read on the subject of war. It’s all there; love and hate; mercy and brutality; blood and healing; artillery and machine guns; trench warfare and the folks back home; the death of comrades and survivors guilt as well as horror and art times a bit of humor. The selections are so good you almost get the feeling of being there with the writer. Here’s a link to Amazon where the book can purchased rather cheaply used.
Some entries cause a smile; like the one from Beatrice Webb, a civilian in London on October 8th, 1915. On that date there was a Zeppelin raid on London that killed 38 people, a relatively low casualty rate that pales in comparison to the carnage on the Western Front.
What struck me about Beatrice’s observations was her apparent fascination with Zeppelins. I get that. While I’ve never studied in-depth the lighter-than-air balloons called Zeppelins after their inventor German Count Ferdinand von Zeppelin, I too find them fascinating ever since a saw a movie as a young person starring Michael York (Zeppelin, 1971.)
I really need to purchase a DVD of the movie although I probably remember it as being better than it actually was. I digress.
Back to Beatrice. Consider her prose as she records her first sighting of a Zeppelin:
“In another few minutes a long sinuous airship appeared high up in the blue-black sky, lit up faintly by the search lights. It seemed to come over the houses just behind us-we thought along Victoria Street-but it was actually passing along the Strand. It moved slowly, seemingly across the river, the shells bursting far below it-then there were two bursts that seemed nearly to hit it and it disappeared-I imagine it bounded upwards.”
“It was a gruesome reflection afterwards that while we were pleasantly excited, men, women, and children were being maimed and killed.”
Beatrice goes on the say that her desire was to get a peek inside the Zeppelin and speak with the German officers commanding the craft. She adds that her fellow Londoners (including herself) take the raids as a form of risky entertainment and that nearly everyone was asking everyone else the following day, “did you see the Zeppelins?”
Was Beatrice a cold, uncaring person along with thousands of other Londoners? I think not for she herself noted the irony of being fascinated even as her fellow countrymen were being killed by the very thing she was fascinated with.
World War One saw many advances if you could call them that of how human beings kill one another in war.
By 1915 submarines were common place and civilian ships were not immune to being the victim of a sub. In the trenches poison gas had been used with horrible results while in the sky, the “knights of the air” dueled with one another in their bi-plane and tri-plane novelties.
In 1915 airplanes were no doubt a rare enough sight so spotting a huge Zeppelin in the night sky must have been akin to a modern UFO sighting; a possible cause for alarm but also a reason to be fascinated, even entertained.