19 January 1915: The first aerial bombardment of civilian targets

The German blitz on cities during the Battle of Britain is well documented but the first aerial bombardment of Britain took place 25 years previously and according to some historians was the first ‘modern’ military attack which breeched the traditional boundary between soldiers on the battlefield by targeting civilians.

On the morning of 19 January 1915 two Zeppelins, L3 and L4, took off from their base in Hamburg and headed towards Yorkshire in northern England but due to bad weather over Norfolk L3 turned towards Great Yarmouth and L4 headed towards Kings Lynn.

Whilst flying over what newspapers called “the working-class district of St Peters Plain in Great Yarmouth,” L3 dropped its bombs and two civilians were killed:  Samuel Smith, a 53-year-old shoemaker, became the first British civilian to be killed during a German air raid and the subsequent enquiry said he was standing on the street when the bombs were dropped.  Martha Taylor, 72, was the next to be killed after her home was hit and the area was extensively damaged.

Martha Taylor and Samuel Smith

Meanwhile, whilst L3 was bombing St Peters Plain L4 was dropping incendiary bombs over Sheringham, Brancaster, Dersingham, Grimston before arriving over Kings Lynn at 10.50 pm where it released its bombs.

There was no air raid warning before 26-year-old Alice Gazeley whose husband had been killed three months earlier whilst fighting in France, and Percy Goate aged 14 were killed in their homes.

The mother of Percy Goate later told the inquest, “I saw a bomb drop through the skylight and strike the pillow where Percy was lying… I tried to wake him but he was dead… The house fell in. I don’t remember anymore”

St Peters Plain

13 others were also injured during this raid which was the start of a twelve-month bombing campaign mainly against civilian targets consisting of 52 raids across the country.

On 13 June 1917 during a daylight raid a bomb hit Upper North Street School in Poplar London. The school building was full of children when a bomb fell through the roof, crashed through the top floor classroom which was being used by girls, then crashed through the second floor which was a boy’s classroom before exploding on the ground floor which was a classroom full of infants.   

Eighteen children were killed, sixteen of which were aged between 4 and six and 15 children who could not be identified were later buried in a mass grave at the East End Cemetery, the other three had private graves and national newspapers called the German Air Force the baby killers.

During 1917, 163 civilians were killed and 432 injured

According to official statistics this first strategic bombing campaign caused 5,000 civilian casualties of which1, 413 were killed.

On 7 March 1918, 4 houses were destroyed in Warrington Crescent London W9 during which 12 were killed and 33 injured.

Wartime Radio: The Secret Listeners BBC (1979) Radio Amateurs

Radio Amateurs Voluntary Interceptors (VI’s)

Illustrated with archival film and photographs, as well as interviews with those involved, the documentary traces the evolution of civilian involvement in radio-based intelligence during both world wars. It was the tireless work of amateur radio enthusiasts during World War I, that initially convinced the Admiralty to establish a radio intercept station at Hunstanton. Playing an integral role during the war, technological advances meant that radio operators could pinpoint signals, thus uncovering the movement of German boats, leading to the decisive Battle of Jutland in 1916. Wireless espionage was to play an even more important role during World War II, with the Secret Intelligence Service setting up the Radio Security Service, which was staffed by Voluntary Interceptors, a band of amateur radio enthusiasts scattered across Britain. The information they collected was interpreted by some of the brightest minds in the country, who also had a large hand in deceiving German forces by feeding false intelligence. (BBC 1979)

Albert Ball VC, DSO (and two bars), MC, Legion d’honneur, Order of St. George

After war was declared in 1914 Albert Ball enlisted into the army and served with several units including the Sherwood Foresters and was soon promoted to sergeant and gained his commission as second lieutenant on 20 October. Ball was eager to see action but was assigned to training recruits  in England so in the  hope of being sent to France he transferred  to the North Midlands Cyclist Company, but the company remained in England and he expressed his frustration in a letter to his parents dated 25 February, he wrote, “I have just sent six boys to France and I hear they will be in the firing line on Monday. It is just my luck to be unable to go”.

In March 1915  Ball started taking private flying lessons at Hendon Aerodrome and after qualifying for the Royal Aero Club Certificate, on 15 March 1915 he transferred to the Royal Flying Corp (RFC) and trained at Mousehold Heath Aerodrome near Norwich. He completed his training at the Central Flying School Upavon and was awarded his wings on 22 January 1916 and a week later was officially transferred from the North Midland Cycle Company to the RFC as a pilot.

At the age of 20 Captain Albert Ball became the first celebrity fighter pilot after shooting down 44  enemy aircraft in just one year. He was also the first man during the war to be awarded three DSO’s.

After his first dog fight Ball wrote in one of his letters to his parents:

“I like this job, but nerves do not last long and you soon want a rest…” and in a later letter to his father he discouraged the idea of his youngest brother following him into the RFC.

Albert Ball was described as a ‘lone wolf’ because he mostly flew solo missions and stalked enemy aircraft from below and used an adapted Lewis machine gun to fire upwards into the enemy’s fuselage.

Gun adapted to fire upwards

Although he quickly became a fighter ace  and enjoyed aerial combat Ball had no hatred for the enemy and in a letter to his parents he explained, “I only scrap because it is my duty … nothing makes me feel more rotten than to see them go down, but you see it is either them or me, so I must do my duty….”

On his 20th birthday Ball was promoted to temporary Captain.

In another letter to his father Ball wrote, “I get tired of always living to kill and beginning to feel like a murderer…  I shall be so glad when I have finished.”

The last fight of Captain Ball, VC, DSO and 2 bars, MC, 7May  1917 by Norman Arnold 1919

On the evening of 7 May 1917 near Douai, 11 aircraft of No. 56 Squadron RFC led by Albert Ball encountered German fighters from Jasta 11 (Red Baron’s flight). A violent dogfight in deteriorating visibility resulted in all the aircraft being scattered. Cecil Arthur Lewis who took part in the battle described the mass dog fight in his memoir ‘Sagittarius Rising.’ 

Lewis recalled Ball pursuing a red Albatros D.111 belonging to the ‘Red Barons’ younger brother Lothar von Richthofen who eventually landed near Annoeullin with a punctured fuel tank and Lewis said he last saw Ball flying into a dark thundercloud before disappearing.

In keeping with the propaganda of the period British newspapers claimed after being shot down 20-year-old Albert Ball dyed in the arms of a French girl who had pulled him from the wreckage of his machine and  only  after the war did several eyewitnesses described what really happened when Ball crashed behind the German lines.

A  German pilot on the ground, Lieutenant Hailer saw Ball’s plane falling upside down with a dead propeller from the bottom of a dark cloud at an altitude of 2000 feet.

Brothers Franz and Carl Hailer and two other men in their party were from a German reconnaissance unit and Franz later noted, “it was leaving a cloud of black smoke… caused by oil leaking into the cylinders… The  engine had to be inverted for this to happen… The Hispano engine was known to flood its inlet manifold with fuel when upside down and then stop running…”

Franz Hailer and his three companions ran to the crash site and Ball was already dead when they arrived. The three German soldiers said the crashed aircraft had suffered no battle damage and no bullet wounds were found on Ball’s body and a German doctor at a field hospital later said Albert Ball died from a broken neck and a crushed chest. His limbs were also fractured, and his injuries suggest he was killed due to impact with the ground.

Based on these eyewitness accounts It is now considered probable Ball was not shot down but had become disorientated and lost control.  This has been described as temporary vertigo which had claimed other pilots. A  month after Ball crashed the Germans dropped a message over the British lines announcing he was dead and had been buried in Annoeullin with full military honours.

 In 1918 Walter Briscioe and H Russell Stannard published a seminal biography, Captain Ball VC and reprinted many of his letters. They quote Ball’s most notable opponent Manfred von Richthofen (the Red Baron)  saying  “he considered Ball by far the best English flying man.”  The authors also quote an unidentified RFC pilot who fought with Ball during his last battle as saying, “I see they have given him a VC . Of course, he won it a  dozen times over; the whole squadron know that.

After the war

After the war British  authorities discovered Ball’s grave which had been behind the German lines and the Imperial War Graves Commission (now called the Commonwealth War Graves Commission)  moved 23 British bodies from graves in the location where Ball was buried to Cabaret Rough British Cemetery, but at his father’s request Ball’s grave was allowed to remain and Ball is the  only British grave from WW1 the rest are German soldiers. Ball’s father also bought the French field where his son died and erected a memorial on the crash site.

Award citation Victoria Cross

Lt (temp Captain) Albert Ball, DSO, MC, late Notts and Derby. R. and RFC

For most conspicuous and consistent bravery from 25 of April to the 6th May 1917, during which period Capt. Ball took part in twenty-six combats in the air and destroyed eleven hostile aeroplanes, drove down two out of control and forced seven others to land.

In these combats Capt. Ball, flying alone, on one occasion fought six hostile machines, twice he fought five and once four. When leading two other British aeroplanes he attacked an enemy formation of eight. On each of these occasions he brought down at least one enemy.

Several times his aeroplane was badly damaged, once so seriously that but for the most delicate handling his machine would have collapsed, as nearly all the control wires had been shot away. On returning with a damaged machine he had always to be restrained from immediately going out on another.

In all Capt. Ball has destroyed forty-three German aeroplanes and one balloon and has always displayed most excellent courage, determination and skill.

Distinguished Service Order (DSO)

For conspicuous gallantry and skill. Observing seven enemy machines flying in formation, he immediately attacked one of them and shot it down at 15 yards range. The remaining machines retired. Immediately afterwards, seeing five more hostile machines, he attacked one at about ten yards range and shot it down, flames coming out of the fuselage. He then attacked another of the machines which had been firing at him and shot it down into a village, where it landed on the top of a house. He then went to the nearest aerodrome for more ammunition and returned to attack three more machines, causing them to dive under control. Being then short of petrol he came home. His own machine was badly shot about in these fights.

Distinguished Service Order (DSO)Bar

For conspicuous skill and gallantry. When on escort duty to a bombing raid he saw four enemy machines in formation. He dived on them and broke up their formation and then shot down the nearest one, which fell on its nose. He came down to about 500 feet to make certain it was wrecked. On another occasion, observing twelve enemy machines in formation, he dived in among them, and fired a drum into the nearest machine which went down out of control. Several more hostile machines then approached, and he fired three more drums at them, driving down another out of control. He then returned, crossing the lines at a low altitude, with his machine very much damaged.

Distinguished Service Order (DSO) Bar

For conspicuous gallantry in action. He attacked three hostile machines and brought one down, displaying great courage and skill. He has brought down eight hostile machines in a short period and has forced many others to land.

Military Cross (MC)

For conspicuous skill and gallantry on many occasions, notably when, after failing to destroy an enemy kite balloon with bombs, he returned for a fresh supply, went back and brought it down in flames. He also completed great execution among enemy aeroplanes. On one occasion he attacked six in one flight, forced down two and drove the others off. This occurred several miles over the enemy’s lines. 

Pte George Peachment one of the youngest recipients of the VC during WW1

George Peachment was the son of a barber and  lived with his parents in Bury Lancashire. He wanted  to join the army and fight in the war but was aware the minimum age for overseas service was 19 so  decided to lie about his age. According to figures compiled by the British Legion George Peachment was one of 250,000 young men under the age of 19 who served in the Great War after claiming to be over 19 years of age.

On 19 April 1915, at the age of 17, he told the recruiting sergeant he was 19 years old  and one month and wore his father’s bowler hat to make him look older and successfully enlisted into the Rifle Corp, but his military service got off to a bad start.

Private Peachment was charged for being absent without leave from 0700 hrs on 2 July 1915 until 0810 hrs 5 July and was fined seven days loss of pay. Two months later he was confined to barracks for three days for having a dirty bayonet whilst on parade. Six days later he was fighting during the opening Battle of Loos, the largest British offensive on the western front during 1915.

After four-days of artillery bombardments against German lines at 0630 hrs on 25 September 1915 George Peachment took part in this major offensive but the preliminary artillery bombardment had not silenced the German machine guns, barbed wire defences were still intact and once in no man’s land many British soldiers were cut down by machine gun and rifle fire from the German trenches creating a scene of mass slaughter common throughout the Great War.

Due to the large number of dead and dying caught up in barbed wire defences and scattered across the battlefield,  the line was retiring so it could be reorganised when private George Peachment saw his company commander, Captain Dubs lying wounded near the German trenches. Instead of falling back or taking cover with other men in a shell hole, Peachment whilst under intense machine gun fire crawled towards Captain Dubs.

In 1996 Lord Ashcroft bought Peachment’s Victoria Cross at auction along with a remarkable letter from Peachment’s company commander to his mother which tells the story of how her son died saving his life. Captain Dubs wrote:

“I cannot tell you how sorry I am that your brave son was killed, but I hope it may be some consolation to you to know how bravely he behaved and how he met his end…

When we reached the {barbed} wire we found it absolutely untouched by our artillery fire and an almost impossible obstacle as a result. However, we had to push on and I gave the order to try and get through it and over it. Your son followed me over the wire and advanced with me about 20 yards through it till we were only about 15 yards from the German trenches. None of the other men of the line were able to get as far and he was the only man with me. As a matter of fact, I had not noticed your son with me, but at this point a bomb hit me in the eye blowing it and part of my face away.

I fell to the ground, but on sitting up found your son kneeling beside me. The German fire at this time was very intense but your son was perfectly cool. He asked me for my field dressing and started bandaging my head quite oblivious to the fire. His first thought was to help me, and although there was a shell hole nearby where he might have got cover, he never thought of doing so.

Of course, the Germans were bound to see us sitting up, and one of them threw a bomb which hit your son in the chest whilst at the same time I received a bullet in the chest. Your son was beyond feeling any pain though still alive. I tried to drag him into the shell hole and at the same time keep him from moving, but at that moment a bullet hit him in the head and killed him.

After his first wound he was bound to die, in fact he was already, immediately after he received it unconscious of any pain. I lay beside him there all day, and eventually we were picked up in the late afternoon when the trench was taken by a flank attack.

I can’t tell you how much I admired your son’s bravery and pluck. He lost his life in trying to help me and no man could have been braver than he was… I have recommended him for the Victoria Cross and have heard the commanding officer has seen the recommendation.

If he gets it, it is sad to think he is not in this world to receive all the congratulations he would get, but perhaps it may be of comfort to you… Your son died the finest death that man can die, he showed the greatest gallantry a man could show, and I hope these facts help you in your sad loss together with the fact he was spared all pain and suffering.”


Official Citation published in the London Gazette 18 November 1915

“During heavy fighting when our front line was compelled to retire to reorganise, Private Peachment, seeing his company commander Captain Dubs lying wounded crawled to assist him. The enemy fire was intense but though there was a shell hole quite close in which men had taken cover, Private Peachment never thought of saving himself.

He knelt in the open by his officer and tried to help him but while doing this he was first wounded by a bomb and a minute later mortally wounded by a rifle bullet.

He was one of the youngest men in his battalion and gave this splendid example of courage and sacrifice. “

Pte Peachment’s medals (Ashcroft Collection)

On 29 November 1916 the Victoria Cross was awarded to his mother by King George V at Buckingham Palace. His body was never recovered but he is commemorated on the Loos memorial which lists the names of more than 20,000 British and Commonwealth soldiers who died during the battle.

Third Supplement to The London Gazette of 16 November 1915. 18 November 1915, Numb. 29371, p. 11450

Name: George Stanley PEACHMENT

D.O.B: 5th May, 1897

D.O.A: 25th September, 1915

D.O.D: 25th September, 1915

Award: Victoria Cross

Occupation at time of action: Private, 2nd Battalion The King’s Royal Rifle Corps, 2nd Brigade, 1st Division

Loos, France 25 September 1915

(Primary source Lord Ashcroft Collection)

Source http://www.lordashcroft.com/wp-content/uploads/2015/09/LORDASHCROFT_NOV2013.pdf