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.
Identity cards were more controversial. First introduced in 1915 to help military conscription and food rationing, they were made compulsory in 1918 when people were required to carry their cards and produce them on demand. The system came to an end in 1919 but was revived in 1939. Identity cards lasted through to the end of food rationing in1952 but the idea survived and the end of the century saw calls for their re-introduction.
Wars that took place elsewhere around the globe were reflected in 20th century London, particularly through the views and opinions of Londoners. The way war was seen changed dramatically over the century. In 1900 popular support for the war against the Boers in South Africa ran high. Thousands gathered in Trafalgar Square in 1900 to cheer what was seen as a glorious adventure. By the second half of the century popular opinion took a more sober view of war, the horror of which could be seen every night on television. In 1968 thousands gathered outside the American Embassy in Grosvenor Square to protest against the long-running war in Vietnam.
The overseas conflict that most affected London in the 20th century took place in Ireland. The creation of the Irish Free State in 1922 was supposed to solve 'the Irish problem' but was a compromise that created new grievances. The 1922 arrangements left the six Northern Irish counties of Ulster under British colonial rule and ushered in 80 years of bitter skirmishes between the British and the IRA (Irish Republican Army). The battle was taken to the streets of London by IRA bombing campaigns, which were at their most intense during the 1970s.
London carried the scars of twentieth-century warfare into the 21st century. Bombs left a legacy of empty spaces where buildings had once been. In the City, the ruins of 17th century churches destroyed in the Blitz were preserved as reminders of the trauma. Londoners also carried scars. No London family escaped the effects of war. Whether through military service, bereavement, separation, displacement, fear or the trauma of becoming a refugee, all twentieth-century Londoners had some personal link to the experience of war.
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