Between 1914 and 1918 thousands of British men trooped off to join a multinational force locked in battle against Germany and its allies. The scale of this First World War was greater than any previously known. But what was life like at home, far away from the battle lines? Was the civilian population united body and soul against the enemy?
We are often presented with the national story of War, the military struggles, the war effort at home or what happened in the capital, London. But it must be remembered that most people had to get on with their ordinary everyday lives as best they could, and that most people didn’t live in London. They just had to hope that their husband or father or brother of boyfriend would come back home alive. But at the same time many men were on protected duties (coal miners) whilst others were unfit to serve.
The Effect on the People
In 1916, when a zeppelin strayed over Bolton, a number of bombs were dropped on the town, killing and injuring and causing destruction. You might expect this to galvanise the population into hating the German enemy. But the evidence is inconclusive on this point. The zeppelin raid on Bolton was a novelty, and drew people onto the streets. Some were scared, some angry, some saddened, some perhaps were excited, and all were just a little curious.
At a time when Boltonians were maimed and killed in their everyday working lives in the mills and mines, the casualties from the air raid may not have seemed as catastrophic as we may imagine today.
Firsthand accounts vs. the press
At 8:30am on the 26th September 1916, Thomas Sanderson opened the doors to the Holy Trinity Church, on Trinity Street, Bolton. Sanderson, the church verger, discovered inside that the church had been hit by a bomb during the zeppelin raid of the night before. There was a hole in the roof, and scattered about the floor was what he assumed was a bomb that had broken open on impact but had not exploded.
Sanderson immediately reported his discovery to the vicar and then proceeded to the Town Hall to make a report to the Police and present his findings. Oddly, there is no mention of the experience of the air raid the night before in his diary, only of his morning discovery.
After the hand written account in his diary, Sanderson has pasted in a newspaper report “passed for publication by Censor” that gives a detailed account of the air raid. However the report adds a little confusion by referring to Bolton as “a North Midlands industrial town”.
Bolton not the Original Target
Zeppelins were large hydrogen filled balloons in a cigar shape that were used by the German military in the First World War to conduct long distance bombing raids against British war industries. Zeppelins had the advantage of being able to fly longer distances at higher altitudes and carry heavier payloads than aeroplane technology allowed at that time. However when the zeppelin named L21 (L standing for the German Luftschiffe) dropped its bombs on Bolton, it was undoubtedly lost.
L21 was part of a raiding party of seven zeppelins that crossed the British coastline at 9:45pm on Monday 25th September, and left at 3:05 am on the 26th. One historian has recorded that the zeppelin crew believed they had been attacking Derby. Navigation over the darkened landscape with poor radio guidance was not a recipe for a successful mission. It seems likely that the crew of L21 were searching for any target that appeared worthy of an attack. Bolton at the time of World War One was at the height of its industrial powers. Between coal fired mill engines and the foundry furnaces of heavy engineering, Bolton must have presented itself as an obvious industrial target. It was just unlucky for Bolton that L21 strayed overhead.
The aircraft did a double loop over Bolton, killing a total of 13 civilians. However, in spite of all the industrial targets and the large areas of railway sidings, it was residential streets that suffered the most damage. Kirk Street in particular was hit by five of the twenty-one bombs dropped on the town.
Censored news reports cover up factory damage
The newspaper article in Sanderson’s diary suggests that no industrial premises were damaged. However, photographs recording the zeppelin damage suggest otherwise. A building at Ormrod and Hardcastle’s mill on Parrot Street was burnt to the ground by an incendiary bomb.
The newspaper article also indicates that the raid was met by a good deal of curiosity by Bolton’s population. The reporter records that: "In the roads and streets leading to that unfortunate south central area there were literally thousands of people…. it was [almost] impossible to get near the scene where the greatest damage had been done: the streets were choked to overflowing.”
Another source records that in the days following the raid, people visited the town to view the damage from places as far away as Liverpool.
A large number of people have since been recorded as having witnessed seeing the zeppelin flying overhead. However, how many of these saw the zeppelin and how many only believed they saw the zeppelin is anyone’s guess. One resident whose sixth birthday was on the day of the raid claimed that she looked out the window of her house and announced to her sister: “Ohh look!! A beautiful big balloon for my birthday.”
The confused nature of this account gives it an apocryphal tone. However, the important point of the varied accounts of witnesses is that the event was a cultural marker for Bolton people on the Home Front during World War One.