London at War

London at War

War had profound effects on twentieth-century London. For the first time since the 17th century, the city was directly attacked. Then, the weapon was cannon fire. In the 20th century explosive bombs were carried by airships and aeroplanes into the heart of the city. A terrifying new dimension had been introduced into warfare.

The first airship-borne bomb fell on London in 1915, a year after the start of the First World War. The explosion killed six people and by the time war ended the death toll from bombs had risen to 600. The experience gave Londoners a dreadful warning of things to come. Throughout the 1920s and 1930s fear of aerial warfare grew.

Londoners' worst fears were realized in September 1940 when the Nazis unleashed a 'blitzkreig' (lightening war) on British cities. For eleven weeks London was bombed virtually every night, creating a massive firestorm in the City of London and a death-toll that ran to 20,000. By the end of the Blitz parts of central and East London had been turned into a landscape of ruins. Londoners were left mourning the loss of family, friends and homes. A third of the capital's housing stock was destroyed or damaged during the Second World War

Both world wars disrupted all aspects of life but also speeded up social change. Between 1914 and 1918, women entered the workforce in larger numbers than ever before, filling the places left by the men fighting on the front line. The experience demonstrated that Britain, as a modern state, could not afford to exclude its female population from the national effort.

During the Second World War, a similar process occurred with the working classes. The experience of pulling together against a common enemy paved the way for the Welfare State social reforms, which provided equal standards of health and education for all, irrespective of class or background. Thanks in part to war, London became a less hierarchical city and Londoners more socially mobile.

War also had the effect of increasing the presence of the State in Londons' daily lives. Food rationing, identity cards, licensing laws, censorship, wage-freezes, price ceilings, curfews, and other restrictions were all a product of war-time conditions. Food rationing was said to have had some social benefits in that all Londoners had healthier diets.

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