Keeper of the Tower Armouries, Bridget Clifford, continues her posts on Charles John Ffoulkes, who was Curator of the Armouries from 1913-1938 – during which he took part in the World War I civil defence of London, completed the first and last complete modern printed catalogue of the Tower collection, and created a museum infrastructure within The Tower. After his retirement, he was awarded an OBE in 1925 and a CBE in 1934 in recognition of his work on the Imperial War Museum.
If ffoulkes had wondered how best he could contribute to the War effort, his involvement with London’s anti-aircraft defences saw him thrust him into the frontline on the evening of Wednesday 8th September 1915.
The threat of air raids hung over Britain from the outbreak of hostilities, finally materialising on 19th January 1915. The intention was for German naval Zeppelins L3 and L4 to attack military and industrial buildings on Humberside, while L6 targeted the Thames estuary under strict instructions to avoid London (and the Kaiser’s relations there). Engine problems forced L6 to turn back, while bad weather caused the other pair to bomb Norfolk coastal towns. As a result, Samuel Alfred Smith, shoe maker of St Peter’s Plain, Great Yarmouth became the first civilian victim of an air raid, closely followed by Martha Taylor. In King’s Lynn 14 year old Percy Goate and 26 year old Mrs Alice Gazely (recently widowed) perished.
Further raids on the East Coast followed, and on May 31st Army Zeppelin LZ.38 attacked Greater London reportedly killing 6 (nowadays revised to 7 dead with 35 injured).
At the Tower ffoulkes was already beginning to turn his thoughts to the collection and preservation of material from the conflict, and attempted – unsuccessfully – to secure examples of this new form of warfare as this letter of 8th June reveals.
The Imperial German Navy’s Zeppelin L13 commanded by Kapitänleutnant Mathy (follow this link to see his photograph www.iwm.org.uk/collections/item/object/205303848) was a comparatively new addition to the fleet, and its raid on Eastern Counties & London District on the night of 8th September 1915 – the 15th raid on England – was probably the most costly. The Times of 10th September reported 20 dead (including children and babies) and 86 injured. Damage to property was reckoned to be £500,000. More decisively it struck at the heart of the nation’s capital.
Recalling the events of that night in his 1939 autobiography ffoulkes admitted that realising a historic moment was approaching he ordered the anti-aircraft gun he commanded to fire before receiving official orders. “I was questioned as to why I had fired without orders, and on giving my reasons, which were mainly of a historical nature, after a mild ‘reprimand’, was told by a sympathetic retired naval captain that I could keep the two first cartridge-cases provided that my return of used cases was complete. This was effected by judicious negotiations in the proper quarter, known as wangling, and the historic first rounds repose, the one in the Tower and the other in the Imperial War Museum”.
ffoulkes cartridge case accompanied by one from Tower Bridge anti-aircraft gun and the remains of a German incendiary device from the raid on display in the Basement of the White Tower today.
There was much debate about the effectiveness of the raids. The British press asserted it merely raised anti-German feeling stiffening the home front’s resolve to resist the enemy. Much was made of the abandonment of the “honourable practice of civilized warfare to exempt from attack” civilians. The German press trumpeted British vulnerability in the face of “successful attacks, conducted with endless technical superiority” (Cologne Gazette) while stressing the raids sought to spare “the Royal Palaces, homes of art and science, monuments, churches and buildings which serve benevolent purposes” (Vessiche Zeiling).
L13 made her stately withdrawal to fight another day. On the night of October 1st 1916 while part of an 11 strong attack on the Eastern Counties she was shot down in flames at Potters Bar. Mathy, described as “incomparably the best of all the airship commanders” perished with his crew.
London’s last Zeppelin attack was on 19th October 1917.