Monthly Archives: October 2014

The Darkness of Wartime

The autumn evenings seem to have become much darker recently. Spare a thought for those living a century ago, when black-out orders made the nights darker still.

As Londoners (and citizens across the south-east of England) approached the first winter of the Great War, the usual darkness of the season was accentuated by strict orders around the display of lights.

From early October, Lighting Orders restricted the display of lights outside. On 9 October, the Commissioner of the Metropolitan Police issued an “Official Warning” about lighting in London under section 7A of the Defence of the Realm Act 1914 (DORA – which gave the Government sweeping powers in wartime):

‘All external private lighting not needed to secure the safety of traffic should be discontinued.

‘Some businesses and other establishments are still maintaining interior lighting which is of too great intensity and illuminates the road way.

‘The Commissioner of Police is advised that such lighting represents, under certain circumstances, a source of danger to the particular neighbourhood and to the community at large.

‘The police have been given directions to take the actions necessary to ensure that the orders restricting lighting are carried out both in letter and in spirit.’

Hallie Eustace Miles described the scene of the city at night under these orders: ‘One hardly knows London at night now. Scarcely any street lights are allowed, and what lights there are have been painted with some dark stuff half-way down the glass to shade them, so that if there is a Zeppelin raid over London the raiders will not be able to distinguish the lists. London looks as if it was only lit by night-lights. It is, in a way, peaceful and dreamy looking, but very weird, and it is difficult for people to find their way about.’

One of those struggling to get about in the night was Liberal MP for Hoxton, Christopher Addison, who complained that he could not see the kerb in Westminster and had to search around for it with his foot.

Many people noted the contrast between the enforced darkness of houses and streets and the blaze of searchlights. In the wealth West End, Georgina Lee described the contrast in October: ‘In Onslow Square there is about one lamp left. All lamps in the streets have to be darkened at the top by shades, so as to be invisible from the sky. All shops have to reduce their lighting to a minimum. On the other hand powerful searchlights sweep above the city and precincts from all quarters, searching for airships.’

The contrast between the lighting regulations and the bright searchlights did not go without notice - wartime cartoon included in Georgina Lee's diary

The contrast between the lighting regulations and the bright searchlights did not go without notice – wartime cartoon included in Georgina Lee’s diary


The cartoonist's image was not an exagerratin: the front page of the Daily Mirror on 10 Sept 1915 showed London's searchlights (and Cleopatra's Needle) during an air raid

The cartoonist’s image was not an exaggeration: the front page of the Daily Mirror on 10 Sept 1915 showed London’s searchlights (and Cleopatra’s Needle) during an air raid


In November 1914, journalist Michael MacDonagh left the Lord Mayor’s banquet to find a city both dark and quiet: ‘Leaving Guildhall about ten o’clock, what a contrast was presented by its light and colour and warmth; the dresses and jewels of the ladies; the varied uniforms of the men, to the streets of the City – dark, empty, silent. Very few of the street lamps were burning, and these were so masked that their light fell only at their feet. As I walked through King Street and Queen Victoria Street to my office I could not catch even the faintest or most distant sound of traffic. The public-houses close at ten. The town clocks are silent and at night their dials are not lighted. Big Ben has ceased to sound the quarters and the hours since the middle of last month. So all the mighty heart of London was still. But the sky was being lit up and pierced by flashing searchlights. What a thought, amazing and affrighting, that if the period of war to life and property are ever to touch us they will fall from the sky!’

It was not all bleak and frightening, though, according to Mrs Miles: ‘Nearly all the lights in the shop windows are shaded with different colours, and these many coloured lights are reflected in the street and on to the pavements; when there is rain the puddles are turned into glorified iridescent pools, and the pavements and roads are like rainbows. The shop windows too, with the coloured lights cast down upon the goods displayed, look very mysterious and almost fairy-like. So we have our compensations.’

In January 1915, Addison remarked on the increasing darkness of London’s nights: ‘The streets in some parts of London are darker than ever. I heard an amusing story yesterday about some people in Kensington who were rather astonished that their streets were lighter than others. They were not comforted by the assurance that the authorities did not mind that they might perhaps provide an attraction or German aviators and so keep them clear of the Whitehall regions!’

The effect of the black-out can be seen in this contemporary painting of the first Zeppelin sighted over Piccadilly Circus - before the war a place of bright lights (by AC Gow (c)IWM ART 5216)

The effect of the black-out can be seen in this contemporary painting of the first Zeppelin sighted over Piccadilly Circus – before the war a place of bright lights (by AC Gow (c)IWM ART 5216)

By late 1915, assisted by the reality of Zeppelin raids, Mrs Miles was more fearful of the darkness: ‘The shops now close at 6 p.m., and, as every private house shows no light, the blackness that envelopes London is a sort of nightmare. I get home as early as I can, for the darkness horrifies me. Some people are becoming accustomed to it now, and are like cats – about to see in the darkness!’

After a winter of people struggling to locate the kerb, the Commissioner for Police suggested painting the kerbs white. It was for councils to decide and some (including in St Marylebone, as their minutes record) felt that it was unnecessary as the days were getting longer anyway. When the suggestion came again in November 1915, St Marylebone had already begun work whitening the kerbs.

The black-out, of course, continued through the war. As we saw in an earlier blog post, MacDonagh described the Palace of Westminster in late 1917, which ‘instead of being ablaze with lights on the river-front’, presented itself as only ‘a vague, shadowy mass even in the moonlight’.

Another witness to the sight in the latter half of the war was American journalist Milton Valentine Synder. Writing to his wife in Paris in February 1918, he described his arrival in London:

‘The darkness of Paris holds more than a candle to the blackness of London; it is positively dazzling by comparison. The intense gloom into which we were precipitated on our arrival last night was more than depressing; it was stifling! Riding from Waterloo to the hotel in a wheezy taxi […] I got my first impression of London by night in wartime. So impenetrable was the darkness that I did not know when we were crossing Waterloo Bridge. Then the curious sensation that there were thousands of people near you, but invisible.

‘The Strand was crowded with a double row of pedestrians four to six abreast walking slowly, talking in low tones. The occasional coarse laugh of a girl or the raucous hail of a soldier to his mate revealed the presence of the crowd and its composition – even without the aid of frequent glimmers of light as the shaded doors of the “pubs” opened to admit or exude customers – for it was not yet 9.30 P.M. closing time. A few carefully hooded lights indicated the theatres, which formerly presented blazing façades. It was not till I got inside the inner lobby of the hotel that I saw light for the first time since reaching London.’

The restoration of the lights and sounds of the night made a welcome return after 11 November 1918, a reminder through people’s senses that the war was over. Mrs Miles again:

‘Everything seems like a sort of Symbol of Peace; we can hardly believe that it really is Peace. It is so strange and significant to hear the church clock chime and strike again, and to hear the boom of Big Ben wafted to us after the long silence; we now notice sounds that we used to hardly hear before the Great War. When I see lights burning brightly from uncurtained windows, I feel as if we ought to ring up the police station, as we used to in the Zeppelin days when spies and traitors let their lights glare out upon the darkness if a raid was expected.

‘There are still the notices, with fingers pointing to “Air-Raid Shelters,” reminding us of the “Terror by Night,” which is now gone for ever, we hope and believe.’

… ‘This sense of safety is such a new feeling. It is now full moon, and, instead of dreading it as our greatest danger and looking up at it with indignant eyes, we say, “What a glorious moonlight night it is!”.’


  • Gavin Roynson (ed), Home Fires Burning, the diaries of Georgina Lee
  • Michael MacDonagh, In London During the Great War
  • Hallie Eustace Miles, Untold Tales of War-time London
  • Alice Ziska Snyder and Milton Valentine Snyder, Paris Days and London Nights
  • Christopher Addison, Four and a Half Years
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Posted by on 23 October 2014 in Events


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Frank Thomas Rapps: heroism, chance and a bloody nose

Chance and luck had a big impact on whether those serving in or near the front lines survived the Great War. No matter whether someone was a hero, a coward or somewhere in-between, a chance occurrence could kill or injure them, or save them by taking them away from the front line. Frank Thomas Rapps was a war hero but suffered accidents that kept him away from the front for much of the war.

Frank Thomas Rapps was born in Bromley in 1890, the son of shop manager Thomas and his wife Nellie. By 1911, he was a clerk boarding with a family in Deptford. Like his brother, Percy, he was a clerk for the National Telephone Company (from 1912 he worked for the London Telephone Service). In 1914, he was living in Mitcham, Surrey, and he joined the army at the beginning of the war. Unlike Percy, who we met in a previous blog post and who was injured playing football, Frank Rapps was injured in more obviously military activities.

Corporal F.T. Rapps, Daily Mirror 24 June 1916

Corporal F.T. Rapps, Daily Mirror 24 June 1916

He joined the 15th Battalion of the London Regiment, the Civil Service Rifles, at Somerset House on 28 August 1914 and went out to France with them in March 1915, as part of the 47th (2nd London) Division. In November he transferred to the 140th Brigade’s Machine Gun Corps unit (i.e. part of 140th Brigade, the one that the Civil Service Rifles were in). By the summer of 1916, Frank Rapps was a Corporal.

On 8 August 1916, Rapps was awarded the Military Medal. At the end of June, The Daily Mirror reported on the forthcoming award and noted that “A few months before war broke out he played football on the fields on which he has since fought the Huns.” Clearly he and his brother shared a fondness for playing football. It’s not clear when or how he earned the medal. The brigade were involved in the battle at Vimy in May 1916, so it is most likely that he earned the medal (which was only awarded for battlefield bravery) there, in a battle that a modern history of the Civil Service Rifles describes as a ‘disaster’.

A few weeks later, on 25 August 1916, the machine-gunners were near Franvillers being trained in using hand grenades. After an hour of throwing dummy grenades (i.e. the metal casings without explosives), the instructor called a halt – at precisely the moment that Private Jim Rutledge threw a dummy grenade. Corporal Rapps looked round to see who had called out and, despite shouts of alarm from Rutledge and others, did not get out of the way of the dummy grenade, which hit him in the face, breaking his nose. He was immediately treated by medics of the 4th London Field Ambulance (attached to the 47th Division) and then sent on to No 34 (West Lancashire) Casualty Clearing station at Vecquemont. He was then sent back to the UK.

After recovering from his injuries and being posted to the depot battalion at Winchester, Rapp applied to become an officer in early 1917. After officer training at Bisley, he was commissioned as a second lieutenant in the Machine Gun Corps in July and posted to their 62nd Battalion. He arrived back in France on 14 January 1918.

In February 1918, Rapps and his men were helping to fend off German raids at Gavrille/Gavrelle in the Arras sector. A medical board report picks up his story:

“while enemy was raiding [the British] trenches, this officer scratched the bridge of his nose with barbed wire. It was dressed the same day he did not go sick. The wound did not heal and on 8th March he was sent to hospital when he states incision was needed on bridge of nose and then he was transferred to England.”

He left Calais on 24 March, just as the German Spring Offensive was pushing British forces back over the land captured at great cost in 1916 and 1917. Back in England he was treated at Worsley Hall in Manchester and was operated on by a nasal specialist for a defective septum. By May, the wounds had healed and he was able to breathe through his nose as normal. He was graded at C1 level of fitness (not fit enough for overseas service). A later medical board heard that he suffered from “attacks of epistaxes” after blowing his nose hard: he suffered from bad nosebleeds. The May medical board awarded him three weeks’ leave and he was ordered to the MGC depot at Grantham. A series of medical boards assessed that he would be fit again within three months. By the end of 1918, he was serving at the RAF’s school of armament at Uxbridge and was a temporary Lieutenant. He was discharged from the army in 1920.

After the war, Rapps moved back to Mitcham and in April 1922 he rejoined the London Telephone Service as a clerk officer. He married a Marion Broughton Wright in Camberwell in late 1926. They lived in Surrey until at least 1945. By the time of his death in 1963, Rapps was living in Hampshire; Marion had died a few years earlier, so Frank’s estate went to David Wright, a commercial artist (and presumably a relative of Marion’s)

This brave Londoner somehow managed to be put out of action twice by accidental injuries to his nose. After being rewarded for his bravery in 1916, he was injured in training and missed the Battle of the Somme – and remained at home throughout the doomed Third Battle of Ypres in 1917. Back at the front and in action in February 1918, he was accidentally injured again and missed the whole of the rest of the war. Just one example of how chance and luck could play a major part in a soldier’s service and survival in 1914-1918.



  • Long, Long Trail
  • FT Rapps service record (National Archives)
  • Daily Mirror 24/6/1916
  • Jill Knight, The Civil Service Rifles in the Great War
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Posted by on 16 October 2014 in Award-winners, Ordinary Londoners


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