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Westminster’s air raid plaques – a war memorial that never was

After the Great War a vast number of war memorials were erected across London, the UK and other combatant nations across the world. Most commemorated those who had died (also commonly, but less frequently, those who fought and returned were remembered), others marked sites of important events in local war experiences. In the City of Westminster, an abortive scheme was launched in 1919 to commemorate the air raids on London.

The Zeppelin air raids on England killed 1,400 and injured 3,400 people between January 1915 and May 1918. Hundreds of the victims were Londoners in the thirty raids that hit the city. The City of Westminster Council established that in their area (a much smaller area then than now, mainly the area around Parliament and Whitehall and between Kingsway and Green Park) there had been 78 fatalities and 167 injuries due to raid raids. The bomb map produced by the City Engineer shows 54 bombs dropped (22 on 18 December 1917 alone) and 60 other sites where damage was caused by dud bombs or anti-aircraft shells.

Great War bomb sites in central London (from a post-war Harmsworth atlas)

Great War bomb sites in central London (from a post-war Harmsworth atlas)

In February 1919, a councillor called Philip Conway put forward a motion to the council stating

“That it be an instruction to the Works Committee through the City Engineer or as the Committee may think best to prepare a list and map of places and properties within the City which were struck by bombs during Air Raids with a view to obtaining the consent of the owners or occupiers thereof to the placing of suitable memorial or identification tablets for the purpose of reminding in perpetuity the Citizens of Westminster and of the Empire of the brutal, horrible and cowardly character of our principal and present enemy Germany and to submit a scheme and report forthwith.”

The council adopted the resolution and, apparently intending the scheme to be London-wide decided to send it on to all other Metropolitan borough councils. (n.b Germany was still the enemy because technically the war was still ongoing; after the Armistice of 11 November 1918, the war continued in law until 1921)

The Council’s Works committee reported back in July with a design for a plaque, which was to state:

City of Westminster

Near this spot bombs were dropped by

German Air Raiders

(Date)

Total Casualties …Killed and …Injured.

“Lest We Forget”

They also reported that five quotes had been received for making them, ranging “from £10 10s 0d each to £16 10s 0d each for tablets of varying degrees of artistic merit in various kinds of metal.” The £14 version was picked, to be erected at 19 sites, a total of £266, plus £7 12s to put them up. The Council approved the scheme and the spending.

The scheme was up and running in Westminster, then, but it was less popular elsewhere. “Replies have been received from the Borough Councils of Chelsea and Hammersmith supporting the proposal, though the latter did not propose to take any action, no place in the Borough having been struck by enemy bombs.” Meanwhile, nine boroughs had “replied, not supporting, viz: – Bermondsey, Camberwell, Deptford, Lambeth, St Pancras, Shoreditch, Southwark, Wandsworth and Woolwich. The remaining 17 Borough Councils and the Corporation of [the City of] London have not so far expressed any opinion for or against the proposal.” The scheme was not popular in those boroughs where there had been air raid damage. We might also wonder whether the cost of the scheme did not appeal to the less well-off southern and eastern boroughs, compared with Westminster which (then as now) contained a lot of businesses.

The full map of London bomb sites

The full map of London bomb sites

In January 1920, the works committee felt that “Upon further consideration of the matter we thought that the desired purpose might possibly be served by putting up a tablet on the spot where the first enemy bomb fell in Westminster and another at the spot where the last fell. The Commissioner of Police states that the first enemy bomb in Westminster fell on the Lyceum Theatre at 9.26 p.m. on the 13th October, 1915, and the last on No. 26A, King Street, St James, at 12.30 a.m. on 20th May 1918.”

The Lyceum bomb was, of course, part of the raid that cause Mr Petre, the local pub landlord, such strain that he later committed suicide; the King Street bomb was the only one to fall in Westminster in that raid, although 49 were killed nationwide that night.

Damage caused by the second bomb to fall in Westminster, on Wellington Street near the Lyceum

Damage caused by the second bomb to fall in Westminster, on Wellington Street near the Lyceum

The City Engineer was sent off to inquire about erecting plaques at these two locations, but had little success. The works committee reported to the Council on 20 May 1920 (exactly two years after that last bomb):

“We instructed the City Engineer to report the exact positions where the tablets should be fixed, and whether all necessary consents of parties concerned had been obtained, and he informs us that he has received a letter from the Lyceum Theatre stating that the Directors do no approve of a tablet being fixed at the Theatre.

“With regard to 26A, King Street, the occupiers, Messrs. Robinson, Fisher & Co., have suggested a position which the City Engineer thinks too high to be suitable. The point as to what would be a satisfactory position has not yet been settled with them.

“It will be seen that the Council’s intention cannot be carried out as the proprietors of the Lyceum Theatre are opposed to the fixing of a tablet, and having regard to the circumstances we think the proposal had been be left in abeyance. Moreover, the price of the tablets now quoted is £30 as against £14 each some months ago.”

The Council agreed to put the scheme permanently on hold. Although there are sporadic memorials of the Great War air raids, Westminster Council’s attempt to have a London-wide commemoration failed in the years after the war.

Sources:

  • City of Westminster Council minutes 1919-21
  • Map of bomb damage sites, Westminster Archives.

 

 

 

 
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Posted by on 12 August 2014 in Air Raid, Places, War memorials

 

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Then and Now: Searchlights over Westminster

Then:

Searchlights sweep the London sky over a blacked-out Palace of Westminster © IWM (Art.IWM ART 17172)

Searchlights sweep the London sky over a blacked-out Palace of Westminster © IWM (Art.IWM ART 17172)

Now:

Palace of Westminster at night (image from flickr: (c)UK Parliament)

Palace of Westminster at night (image from flickr: (c)UK Parliament)

‘The Palace of Westminster, instead of being ablaze with lights on the river-front, its numerous windows casting their bright reflections on the waters, as in peace-time, is now a vague, shadowy mass even in the moonlight.’

This is how Michael Macdonagh, the parliamentary correspondent of the Times during the war, described the view of the Palace at night in December 1917 (in his book In London During the Great War).

The current Palace of Westminster was built in the 1840s and 1850s, following the fire of 1834 that destroyed most of the old Palace. Its outline is clearly the same today as it was in the Great War. The big difference is the light. Streetlights were kept to a minimum during the war and external lights on shops and public buildings were banned. This has a big impact on the Palace of Westminster, turning it into a shadow at night. Most noticeably, the clock face is dark. In addition the Ayrton Light did not shine. (This is the light at the top of the clock tower that is lit whenever Parliament is sitting after dark, to tell the nation that its elected representatives or the Lords are still at work). In place of those lights are the searchlights, scouring the sky in search of Zeppelins and German aeroplanes.  The war also changed the sounds of Westminster, as Big Ben fell silent in October 1914 and did not toll again until November 1918.

The impact of the Great War, though, was much less than the Second World War and the Blitz,as this page at West End at War demonstrates.

 
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Posted by on 8 April 2014 in Air Raid, Places, Then & Now

 

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The Royal Naval Division memorial

In the corner of Horse Guards Parade, partly hidden behind the Admiralty Citadel is a memorial to an unusual Great War fighting force: the Royal Naval Division. These naval men served as infantry at Gallipoli and on the Western Front.

The Royal Naval Division memorial

The Royal Naval Division (RND) was an odd hybrid unit, seamen serving as and alongside footsoldiers. It was both a category of naval personnel and a fighting unit of the British Army, although the two were not for long the same thing. The history and the make-up of the Division told well elsewhere, but a brief summary is that Winston Churchill, as First Lord of the Admiralty, formed the Division from surplus naval troops (mainly reservists) as the Germans rapidly invaded Belgium in 1914. The Division first saw action in the (unsuccessful) defence of Antwerp in October – many of the RND escaped over the border to the neutral Netherlands and were interned there.

Recruiting poster for the RND

Reconstituted, and following further training, the Division was sent to Egypt in 1915 and landed on the Gallipoli peninsula on 25 April in the first landing of British troops there. They served throughout the campaign there before being sent back to the Western Front in 1916, where the Division served out the rest of the war, fighting in most of the major battles.

The RND at Gallipoli – full page photo in page 1 of the Daily Mirror (15/7/15)

During this time, though, the battalions that made up the Division were – as in other Divisions of the British Expeditionary Force – moved around and the RND as a fighting unit became less naval in its make-up (the memorial remembers those from the army units that served in the RND as well as the naval personnel). Its original battalions bore names evocative of British naval history: Nelson, Hawke, Drake, Collingwood, Benbow, Hood, Howe and Anson.

In 1925, a decade after the landing at Gallipoli, Winston Churchill unveiled a memorial to the officers and men of the Division who died during the war, alongside him was Sir Ian Hamilton – the commander of the Gallipoli campaign.

Churchill and Hamilton at the unveiling ceremony (Daily Mirror 27/5/25)

The memorial was constructed at the corner of Horse Guards Parade, at the back of the Admiralty building. Its inscription lists the places that the RND served and bears the words of a sonnet by Rupert Brooke – the Division’s most famous casualty.

BLOW OUT YOU BUGLES, OVER THE RICH DEAD / THERE’S NONE OF THESE SO LONELY AND POOR OF OLD / BUT, DYING HAS MADE US RARER GIFTS THAN GOLD / THESE LAID THE WORLD AWAY: POURED OUT THE RED / SWEET WINE OF YOUTH; GAVE UP THE YEARS TO BE. / OF WORK AND JOY, AND THAT UNHOPED SERENE / THAT MEN CALL AGE: AND THOSE WHO WOULD HAVE BEEN / THEIR SONS, THEY GAVE THEIR IMMORTALITY

The view of the memorial in 1925, looking towards the Mall (Daily Mirror 27/4/25)

The same view today, blocked by the citadel.

The memorial under construction (Times 6/4/25)

Two South Londoners served as naval soldiers with the RND and had very different war stories:

Able Seaman H. Hardcastle, from Vauxhall, was a serving naval rating in 1914, but was drafted into the RND for the fighting on the Western Front.  He later rejoined his ship and saw action at the Battle of Heligoland Bight, where (according the National Roll of the Great War) the ship was sunk and Hardcastle was taken prisoner.  After a second attempt to escape, he was recaptured and moved to a punishment camp. Eventually he was sent to Holland and repatriated in England in November 1918.

Unlike Hardcastle, virtually all of Able Seaman Alexander Frederick Smith‘s war service was in the RND.  He was a surveyor from Catford and enlisted in the Public Schools Battalion of the Middlesex Regiment.  After Antwerp, most of the original Hawke Battalion, RND, had been killed, captured or interned, and the battalion was reformed incorporating men from the Public Schools Battalion in its D Company. Hardcastle served in Gallipoli throughout the fighting there and then as an anti-aircraft gunner on the Island of Imbros. After a few months in the UK from July 1916, he was sent out to France and Flanders in December and was killed in action on 18 February 1917, at Miraumont during the battle of the Ancre. He is commemorated on the Theipval memorial to the missing in France, and on the war memorial in St George’s Church, Catford.

The Royal Naval Division memorial has had an odd history since 1925.  It was removed from Horse Guards Parade in 1939, when the Admiralty Citadel was built between Horse Guards Parade and the Mall, and only re-erected in Greenwich in 1951. Forty years later it was moved back to Westminster and restored to its original location – albeit dwarfed by the citadel.

Sources:

UK National Inventory of War Memorials

Page on the RND on a site about Jack Clegg, one of its number

And (as ever) the Long Long Trail webpage on the RND

 
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Posted by on 29 November 2012 in Ordinary Londoners, War Dead, War memorials

 

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Hitler’s wreath at the Cenotaph

The central public site for national commemoration of the Great War is the Cenotaph in Whitehall. It represents the war dead of Britain and the Empire (irrespective of race, colour and creed). As such it meant a lot to those who served and those whose friends, comrades and relatives were killed in the war. In 1933, it was the site of protest against Herr Hitler, the new Chancellor of Germany.

Adolf Hitler became chancellor of Germany in January 1933 (he only became “Führer of Germany” after also becoming President in 1934). On 10 May 1933, his emissary Dr Alfred Rosenberg laid a wreath from the Chancellor at the Cenotaph on behalf of Hitler. It was not welcomed.

On the 11th, it was snatched and thrown in the river. Newspaper accounts differ, but it appears that early that morning a man stepped from a car and slashed off the swastika that was displayed in the centre of the wreath. Later that morning, another man (or possibly the same one) got out of a car and snatched the wreath – taking it off with him in the car and throwing it into the Thames.

People inspecting the damaged wreath (D Mirror 13/5/33), presumably before it was thrown into the Thames

The man who did this (or at least certainly took the wreath away) was James Edmonds Sears, a 57-year-old British Legion member and owner of a Norfolk building firm, who was also the prospective Labour candidate for the St Pancras South West constituency in the next election. Sears had served in the Great War as an officer in the Royal Army Service Corps, arriving in France in November 1915.

James Edmonds Sears

Sears’s medal index card

Appearing in Bow Street magistrate’s court on 11 May, Sears stated that:

I removed the wreath from the Cenotaph as a deliberate national protest against the desecration of our national war memorial by the placing on it of a wreath by Hitler’s emissary, especially in view of the fact that Hitler’s Government at the present moment are contriving to do those things and foster the feeling that occurred in Germany before the war in which so many of our fellows suffered and lost their lives.

Sears was cleared of a charge of theft but ordered to pay 40 shillings for willful damage, being told that whatever his personal views it was an ill-mannered thing to do. The general public feeling, though, seems to have been supportive of Sears. In Germany, the regime was furious. One German newspaper stated that England’s reputation for treating its guests well had been dealt a severe blow.

An American ex-serviceman also added his voice to the protests, laying a single lily beside the cenotaph with a card reading:

If the Unknown Soldier could speak to this unknown American, he might voice his preference for this single flower to the wreath of a murderous dictator which now desecrates this memorial.

A policeman removed the card, but left the flower.

The eventual fate of Hitler’s wreath, is neatly summed up by the Yorkshire Post:

It appears that when a wreath has been placed on the Cenotaph, it becomes, ipso facto, the property of the Office of Works. When this one had been rescued from the river, Scotland Yard inquired what the First Commissioner of Works wished to have done with it. A representative inspected the wreath and reported that it had suffered so severely from immersion as to be of no further value. So Hitler’s tribute has now been consigned to the rubbish heap with the approval and blessing of Whitehall.

This was not the only time that the Cenotaph has been at the centre of protest. The event also has resonance with unease people feel today about the British National Party laying wreaths at war memorials – including one group removing a wreath in Lancashire in 2010.

It was also not the last time that a swastika-bearing wreath was laid at the Cenotaph in 1936, as Nazi ex-servicemen laid a similar wreath there as guests of the British Legion.

German ex-servicemen in Whitehall, 1936 (from nickelinthemachine.com)

German ex-servicemen giving a nazi salute after laying their wreath at the Cenotaph (Yorkshire Post, 21/1/36)

Postcript: James Edmonds Sears did stand as Labour candidate in St Pancras SW in the 1935 General Election, but he was defeated by the Conservative incumbent Mr G G Matheson.

Further reading:

Interesting blog post from Nickelinthemachine.com about the Hitler wreath, the other anti-Nazi protests and the Cenotaph.

 

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The King’s Speech, 1917

The monarch’s speech marks the start of each session of parliament. This week, Queen Elizabeth II will open a new session of parliament in one of the great ceremonies of state. Ninety-five years ago, her grandfather opened the 1917-1918 session in a ceremony that replaced the normal splendour and pageantry with sombreness khaki.

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Posted by on 8 May 2012 in Events, Famous People

 

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Buildings in St James’s Park: “a horrid, offensive eyesore”

St James’s Park is one of most pleasant open-air places to visit in central London, a beautiful open space between Trafalgar Square, Parliament Square and Buckingham Palace. From 1915 to 1920, it looked rather different. Most of the lake was drained and temporary government buildings constructed in the park. Read the rest of this entry »

 
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Posted by on 1 February 2012 in Places

 

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