"Dr. Halliday Sutherland is a born writer, especially a born story-teller. Dr. Sutherland, who is distinguished in medicine, is an amateur in the sense that he only writes when he has nothing better to do. But when he does, it could hardly be done better” – G.K. Chesterton
This article is in two installments: the first today (1st February) and the second on 1st March. February 20th 2016 marks the centenary of the events described below.
An earlier post of this blog covered the outbreak of the First World War and Dr. Sutherland’s posting to The Empress of Britain in 1914. At the beginning of 1916, he was transferred to the Royal Marine Depot at Deal. It was here that he encountered German aerial raids by Taubes and Zeppelins, and he wrote about it in his 1933 bestseller The Arches of the Years.
In the first week of February 1916 I was transferred to the Royal Marine Depot at Deal. There was plenty of excitement in the air, as enemy aircraft were in the habit of crossing the coast at this point. Zeppelins passed on their way to London, and Taubes on their way to and from the bombing of Dover. Our air defence was weak, and more than once I saw a dozen planes bombing Dover. Not until the last had gone did our planes reach a height at which a counter-attack was possible. Any unused bombs were reserved by the enemy for the Depot. For defence we had two Maxim guns, and on one occasion I borrowed a rifle from a protesting sentry – an innovation which was not encouraged. When enemy aircraft were about, the blinds of most of the houses were lowered, and this suggested a corpse in every house.
On a bright, cool Sunday morning I was walking along a quiet road, smoking a cigarette and thinking of nothing in particular. A sharp “crick-crash,” a gust of wind striking me in the face, glass falling out of the houses on either side, I jumped about a foot from the earth, and for a moment thought that I was killed. Twenty yards ahead was a smoking crater in the roadway. My first thought was to run at full speed in the opposite direction. It was not my uniform that stopped me, but the sudden recollection of a booklet called Sutherland’s First Aid to the Sick and Injured, and I ran to the smoking crater.
In the roadway were the remains of a man who had literally been blown to bits. The details of such a sight should only be described by those who have never seen it. There was also a lad on the ground with a shell wound in the right thigh. Later I learned that he was only seventeen, and, being under age, had been bought out of the Royal Marines the previous day by his mother. As I rose to my feet an elderly sergeant appeared. He was shaking his fist at the rapidly departing Taube, tears were streaming down his face and from his lips came a well-selected string of abuse. I began to laugh, and laughed so much that the sergeant stopped, stared at me, and exclaimed: “You’re laughing, sir?”
“Yes,” I laughed, “and look, man, look at that!” I pointed down the roadway. There, on the doorstep of a large house, the blinds of which were lowered, stood a very fat sergeant. With his left hand he was hammering the knocker on the door and with his right he was almost pulling the bell out of its socket. Within the house the bell was ringing furiously. The fat sergeant was seeking shelter, and rightly so, because, although he was not seriously injured, the force of the explosion had completely blown away the seat of his trousers.
The Zeppelins, on their way to London, came at night, and the only warning we had of their coming was the electric light was suddenly cut off. Once this happened towards the end of dinner on a guest night. In the darkness the mess president apologised to the guests, and within a minute the servants had brought candles in silver candlesticks. Once the guests had departed, the officers rushed to their rooms to change. They had to distribute two thousand men along the wall enclosing the depot, so that in the event of a direct hit there would be as few casualties as possible. I alone did not change because I had nothing to do except wait or casualties, and I sat alone in the ante-room in naval dress uniform. Within ten minutes the row began, and I walked out on to the lawn to see what was happening. One Zeppelin had been picked up by a searchlight. She looked very beautiful—a silver cigar floating in the sky. Everything was firing at her. Dover was firing and warships anchored in the Downs were firing.
For more information about “Britain’s First Blitz” visit http://www.iancastlezeppelin.co.uk The site contains comprehensive information about the raids on Britain during the First World War, including the events described above at: http://www.iancastlezeppelin.co.uk/20-feb-1916/4589874370