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Book Review: The First Blitz in 100 Objects by Ian Castle.

first-blitz-in-100-objectsI took the below picture a few days ago. it’s an unremarkable terraced house in Whitestile Road, Brentford, not 150 yards from my own home of three decades. I’ve walked past it hundreds of times without having a clue as to its significance. Notice the different style from its neigbours either side. That’s because it’s a rebuild following the total destruction of its predecessor by a German bomb on 29 January 1918. The wife, four children and niece of George Kerley were all killed along with their elderly lodger. At seven, this was the second largest casualty count for a single family through the entire war. Poor Kerley, a sergeant-major in the Middlesex Regiment, wasn’t home at the time.

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The Kerley’s family gravestone in nearby South Ealing Cemetery is one of the 100 objects featured in this new book by Ian Castle. Germany’s vicious bombing campaign against Britain during WW1 has been very largely overshadowed by the Blitz of WW2. Understandably, perhaps. Nonetheless, it was a terrifying business which Castle has made it his business to bring to our attention. This is his third book on the subject in recent years.

This time, he has written 100 short chapters featuring a diverse collection of objects, large and small. As you would expect, the book is richly and beautifully illustrated, as these random spreads demonstrate.
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Although this book covers the whole of Britain, having taken the brunt of the raids, the London content is the most prominent. First there are the more well-known sites with which most London historians would be familiar and can be viewed today: the pitted plinth of Cleopatra’s Needle; the plaque in Queen Square marking the spot of the first Zeppelin bombs. Noted historic buildings were hit, among them Lincoln’s Inn and the Royal Hospital, Chelsea.

Severndroog Castle in Shooters Hill – where London Historians had a group visit last year –  was used as a Zeppelin look-out post.

The author has here assembled an impressive array and variety of objects, from aircraft, bombs and weapons – both intact or fragments – to personal items and ephemera: matchbox holders, commemorative napkins, postcards, ‘in memoriam‘ cards, a mawkish survivor from the Victorian age.

We have the damaged registration plate of the No 68 bus which was hit by shrapnel near at Aldwych; air raid insurance documents; and one of my favourites: the Dolphin Tavern clock, frozen in time at twenty to eleven – you can see it in that pub to this day.

The most poignant reminders of the WW1 Blitz are gravestones and memorials, which are probably the most common feature here. My favourite – if that’s the right word – is the grave of Reginald Warneford, VC, the first pilot successfully to destroy a Zeppelin in flight, LZ 37 on 7 June 1915. Unfortunately, the 23 year old was killed in a flying accident just 10 days later. A lovely monument, it features a relief portrait of a smiling Warneford above a carved image of a fatally listing Zeppelin in flames and smoke while the young pilot’s plane veers away almost vertically. You can find it in Brompton Cemetery.

The first Zeppelin raid actually to drop bombs on London was on 31 May 1915. Thereafter, raids were continuous, first by Zeppelins and later by Gotha bombers and ‘Giants’ (enormous bi-plane bombers with three or more engines). Casualties were almost always substantial, usually in the dozens and sometimes over a hundred. The largest raid of the conflict on London involved 41 bombers on 19 May 1918.

This lovely book is the perfect introduction to the topic which will – if you haven’t already read them – lead you to the author’s other books on this subject. You might like also to look out for Jerry White’s Zeppelin Nights (2014).


The First Blitz in 100 Objects by Ian Castle (268pp) is published by Frontline Books with a cover price of £25 but available for less.

Ian Castles’s previous books on related topics are:
The First Blitz: Bombing London in the First World War (2015).
and
Zeppelin Onslaught: The Forgotten Blitz 1914 1915 (2018)

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