The scars of the bombing of the Second World War can be seen across London: in a small number of ruins left standing, some scarred buildings, and the flurry of post-war construction where buildings were lost (as in the case of Percy Gayer’s street in Pimlico). There is less sign of the German bombing campaign in the First World War, but remnants and reminders do appear: the most prominent is at Cleopatra’s Needle.
The needle itself dates from the 15th century BC – it has no connection at all with Cleopatra – and was moved to London in the 1870s. There was a suggestion that it should be placed in Parliament Square, but this was rejected on the basis that it might be dwarfed by the surrounding buildings and might collapse the tunnel recently excavated for the Underground railway (surprisingly close to the surface). It was eventually placed on the new Victoria Embankment, where it still stands.
Bombing raids on London had begun with Zeppelins in 1915 and developed with heavier-than-air aeroplanes in 1917. On the night of 4/5 September 1917, 11 Gotha bombers reached London and scattered their loads across the city. It was the first night raid by Gothas and the first raid in months, so must have been particularly frightening. It is easy to down-play the danger and terror of Great War bombing now that we know of the Blitz and nuclear weapons, but aerial bombardment was unknown before 1914 and was a source of great fear.
Bombs fell in the East End, including on an empty jute factory that had until recently been an internment camp before Germans, and in central London around Strand. Another fell just before midnight on the Victoria Embankment, by Cleopatra’s Needle, “rupturing a gas main. The driver of a passing tram was killed instantly in the blast, along with two of his passengers.” (as described in Neil Hanson’s The First Blitz). Most contemporary accounts talk of damage to other buildings, such as a theatre that was destroyed nearby, although F.S. Oliver did describe this bomb falling on the Embankment as a failed attempt to hit Charing Cross.
Shrapnel from the bomb damaged the plinth of the Needle and tore holes in one of the Sphinxes that stand either side of it.
The damage was left as a reminder of the raid.
The damage adds some extra interest to a slightly odd monument in London and should help to remind us that London was visited by bombers in the First World War. Although the damage is quite minimal, it is worth considering the energy required for a shard of metal to cause such damage to metal and stone – and to think what damage it could do (and this bomb did) to people caught in the blast.
Update: There is an interesting photo of the sphinx and the road in the wake of the bombing here on the IWM website.
Neil Hanson – The First Blitz
Georgina Lee – Home Fires Burning
FS Oliver – Anvil of War