"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 is the second installment of Dr. Sutherland’s account of aerial raids on Deal, Kent one hundred years ago.
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 for 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.
On the lawn Captain Syson passed and stopped to talk for a few minutes. He was the coolest man I ever knew. On the Marine reserve of officers before the War, he was recalled from being gym.instructor at Eton. He was in the retreat from Antwerp, and led his marines–not into Holland, but into French lines. “Not much use our firing from the ground,” he remarked. “Aeroplanes are the only thing.” A terrific explosion followed which shook the earth. “That’s the monitor in the Downs,” he continued. “A fifteen-inch gun. I doubt if it can do the elevation, but we’ll see in a minute.” A great red circle of flame appeared in the sky behind and below the Zeppelin, followed by the concussion of the burst. “A good mile off her I would say, and–hullo, they’ve picked up the other one.” We turned, and over the Mess was a second Zeppelin in a searchlight. The depot was the objective, because later she dropped four bombs into a marsh some miles away.
From behind us on the grass came a dull thud. “What’s that?” I exclaimed.
“Well, I’ve got a fairly good idea what it is, but we’ll see.” He produced an electric torch and flashed it on the grass. “Yes, there it is; a fairly large piece, too. Probably from that fifteen-inch shell. Well, I must be getting along to see the men along the north walk. Half of them are only boys, you know.” Off he went, and I returned to the ante-room.
The whole place was shaking, and the noise was hellish. I pressed the bell without much hope of it being answered. Within a minute the Mess sergeant appeared, as imperturbable as if it were noon on a Sabbath morning. He and I were the only occupants of the Mess.
“A double whisky and soda,” I said, “and sergeant, have one yourself.”
“Thank you, sir.” He returned with one large whisky and a siphon. I put in the soda. “Where’s your drink, sergeant?”
“In the pantry, sir.”
“Well, good luck sergeant.”
“Thank you, sir.”
I pulled an armchair to the fire and thought what wonderful people these marines were. I had wanted to talk to someone, but the sergeant was right. What would the Mess president have said had he known that I expected the sergeant to have a drink with me in the Mess? Could nothing disturb their equanimity–not the whole damned place blown to bits? What a perfectly hellish noise! Then there was my servant. Where would he be? Perhaps at the north wall. And what a fuss we’d had before dinner when he put out my dress shirt.
“I think we’ll have a clean shirt tonight, sir.”
“No, the old one will do. I’ve only worn it once.”
“Excuse me, sir, but this is a guest night, and I’d get the blame.”
“Who is going to blame you even if I wear a tennis shirt?”
“Well, sir, it’s the Mess sergeant. If an officer isn’t properly dressed, it’s his servant that gets the blame.”
“All right, put out the clean one then.”
Wonderful people! If ever I had enough money I’d have an ex-marine servant. Would I ever have enough money, and would this blasted noise and vibration ever cease? At that moment the Mess sergeant entered. “Excuse me, sir, but there’s a sergeant in the porch. Perhaps you’d see him, sir.”
“Certainly.” And I went into the hall.
An elderly sergeant was leaning against the wall of the porch. He was as white as a sheet and trembling from head to feet. I knew the diagnosis. But for Syson and the whisky, I might have felt like that myself. As I came up to him he stood at attention. “Don’t blame me, sir. I can’t help it. I swear to God, South Africa was nothing like this.”
“Of course not,” I answered. Not that I’d been in the Boer War. I told the Mess sergeant to bring a double brandy neat, and while he was getting it, I asked the other: “What are your orders?”
“To deliver this message at the north wall, sir.” He was holding an envelope.
“Well you’ll get there alright in a few minutes.” The brandy was brought, as usual on a silver salver, and I told the man to drink it straight away.
He did so and replaced the glass. “Thank you very much, sir.” He saluted, and went off into the noise of the night.
From The Arches of the Years.
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