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First World War centenary: New book looks at impact on Londoner’s lives

A crowd gather outside a bombed house. A crowd gather outside a bombed house.

Monday, August 4, 2014
6:00 PM

How do you write a fresh, interesting history novel on a subject that has been covered from every angle possible?

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The bishop's chaplain, Lord Bishop of London Dr Winnington Ingram, and Horace Sanders on their way to St Bride's House for lunch in the press club.The bishop's chaplain, Lord Bishop of London Dr Winnington Ingram, and Horace Sanders on their way to St Bride's House for lunch in the press club.

Do as Jerry White did and write Zeppelin Nights: London in the First World War, looking at the period, not through the lives and actions of politicians and high ranking officials, but of the everyday Londoner’s experiences of bombing raids by German airships.

“Everybody thinks of The Blitz when they think of London at war and it struck me then that World War One was an under-regarded moment in London’s history,” Mr White explained.

Readers get a glimpse into the lives of Londoners during the Great War thanks to the hundreds of contemporary diaries and letters which Mr White and an assistant spent two years examining.

“So many people in 1914 turned to diary keeping because they knew they were living through an absolutely world shattering moment,” Mr White said.

Postwomen working the Golders Green and Hampstead Garden Suburb districts during World War One.Postwomen working the Golders Green and Hampstead Garden Suburb districts during World War One.

“I’ve tried to weave in these individual stories with other glimpses into ordinary people’s lives that you get in the court reports and newspapers.”

The result is a vivid and often moving portrait of life in the city, a tapestry of personal trauma and fact, shedding light on several colourful local characters who played a big part in the war.

In particular, Mr White outlines the activities of Noel Pemberton Billing, a notoriously paranoid and homophobic MP born and raised in Hampstead.

He was famous for his article The Cult of the Clitoris in his journal, Vigilante, which expressed the view that homosexuality was infiltrating and tainting English society, even claiming that the wife of the prime minister was involved in a “lesbian ecstasy” and German espionage.

“He was extraordinarily deluded about high ranking plots, about the cabinet all being homosexuals and being blackmailed by German agents – it was just mad,” said Mr White, a history professor at Birkbeck.

Despite claiming that the Germans were blackmailing “47,000 highly placed British perverts” and had agents of the Kaiser stationed at such places as Marble Arch and Hyde Park Corner, Pemberton Billing was seen as “one of most popular men in England”.

Pemberton Billing provides just one example demonstrating the mass hysteria that swept the nation as it turned to increasingly radical figures.

Bishop Arthur Winnington-Ingram – who has not one but three roads named after him in Hampstead Garden Suburb, including the famous Bishops Avenue – is another. The clergyman, famous for whipping disillusioned crowds to a feverish pitch with his anti-German rants “basically stated that the only good German was a dead one. It was enormously popular at the time,” Mr White commented disapprovingly.

Mr White – who has also written an acclaimed trilogy on London from the 18th to the 20th centuries – also uncovers the wartime roles of a number of our best-known local landmarks.

Hampstead Heath, for example, was used as a training ground for troops and cut up for allotments for food growing, while further south St Pancras, Euston and King’s Cross station were all alive with the never-ending shipping of munitions and troop movements.

One woman living in Bloomsbury described the sound of troops moving through Euston station: “We hear an incessant muffled roar of trains all night; it is like the roaring of the sea.”

“Every square inch of London and every aspect of London life was impacted on from day one. No-one escaped the impact of the war,” Mr White said.

And that is reflected in the overall tone of the book, panning with sweeping cinematic detail over the air raids in London, stresses that the devastation was absolute.

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