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100 Years Ago This Month - The First Bombing Raid on Britain

02/01/2015 16:06 GMT | Updated 04/03/2015 10:59 GMT

Britain declared war on Germany on 4 August 1914. The subsequent fierce fighting in the trenches of the Western Front halted over Christmas that year when British and German troops greeted each other in no-man's-land, exchanged gifts, and famously played football. The outbreak of war and the Christmas truce were widely commemorated in centenary events and media reports in Britain last year.

So what are the Great War events of note in 1915 that might receive centenary attention in 2015? First up, almost certainly, will be the first-ever aerial bombing raid on mainland Britain. On the morning of 19 January 1915, three German naval Zeppelins, the L3, L4, and L6, set off from Germany to attack targets on the east coast of England. L6 had to turn back with engine problems. Overnight, Zeppelins L3 and L4 dropped high explosive bombs and incendiaries on Great Yarmouth, King's Lynn and other locations in Norfolk. The Zeppelin L3 bombs dropped on Great Yarmouth killed Samuel Smith and Martha Taylor, the first British civilians in history to be killed by aerial bombs.

Zeppelins were rigid airships invented and developed by German Army officer Count Ferdinand von Zeppelin between 1897 and 1900. The first Zeppelin made its maiden flight from Lake Constance in Germany on 2 July 1900. It carried just five passengers. The airship had a lightweight frame made of aluminium and contained sixteen gas cells filled with hydrogen to give the aircraft buoyancy.

The first Zeppelin bombing mission was carried out in August 1914 when one of the airships in the German fleet dropped artillery shells on Liege in Belgium. The Zeppelins continued to carry out bombing raids on the east coast of England in the early months of 1915 following the first attack on the night of 19/20 January. The raids were intended not only to reap havoc, death, and destruction in Britain but also to strike terror and lower morale among the British population and thus propel Britain to an early defeat in the war.

The first attack on London, which occurred on 31 May 1915, killed seven people and injured 35 others. In that raid and three subsequent raids on London in 1915, the Zeppelins dropped a total of 278 bombs on the city of which 198 were incendiary bombs. The incendiaries contained thermite - a mixture of aluminium powder and iron oxide that burns ferociously at very high temperatures when ignited.

By mid-1916, British fighter planes were scrambling to attack Zeppelins caught in powerful searchlights. On the night of 2/3 September 1916, British pilot William Leefe Robinson became the first person to shoot down a Zeppelin over Britain. Flying at 11,500 ft, he used a machine gun to fire high explosive and incendiary bullets alternately at the airship. The airship burst into flames and fell blazing to the ground. Robinson was awarded the Victoria Cross for his bravery.

The Zeppelin raids had been widely anticipated in Britain soon after the outbreak of war and well before the first attack on mainland Britain in January 1915. In a letter to The Times about "the Zeppelin scare," published on 24 October 1914, Scottish chemist Sir William Ramsay discussed the use of hydrogen and other light-weight gases to fill airships. Ramsay knew a thing or two about these gases. He had carried out research on helium, a gas that was used to fill airships decades later. Unlike hydrogen, helium is non-flammable. In 1904, Ramsay had won the Nobel Prize in Chemistry for his discovery of inert gaseous elements such as neon.

In the final paragraph of his letter, Ramsay referred to the "small danger" of bombs dropped from Zeppelin and recommended that "short shrift" should be given to captured Zeppelin crews after they had dropped bombs. Killing civilians is not war, it is murder, he observed, adding that the statutory penalty for murder was death by hanging.

Michael Freemantle's recently published book The Chemists' War: 1914 -1918, is available for purchase here. His earlier book on the chemistry of World War I, Gas! GAS! Quick, boys! How Chemistry Changed the First World War, is available for purchase here.