What does the term ‘shell shocked’ mean to you? And who do you think of when it’s mentioned? For many of us, our thoughts will immediately turn to the soldiers who have survived the traumas of the front line but by reading Suzie Grogan’s Shell Shocked Britain: The First World War’s Legacy for Britain’s Mental Health, I recently discovered that during World War I there was a whole other sector of survivors who were also affected – the civilians on the home front. Living with the constant fear of death proved too much for many whilst for others, such as Mrs Bawbrick from Folkestone, the sights following bombardment triggered a life-time of mental torment.
It’s not an easy topic to read about but I’m extremely grateful to Suzie for dropping by to explain how something as simple as a trip to the shops changed the community of Folkestone forever…
The bombing of Tontine Street 1917
On the evening of 25 May 1917, German Gotha aircraft headed, apparently unchallenged, across the English Channel from Flanders. The port of Folkestone was key to the supply route for the British army in France, the port of departure for fresh troops to the front, and a welcome sight to those returning wounded. But it was also a holiday resort, and then filled with holidaymakers set for a fine Whitsun break. No one was particularly concerned at the sound of aircraft, assuming the sound was that of a British plane. Many residents of the town gazed into the sky as the aeroplanes approached, afterwards likening the sight to a swarm of insects with the evening sun glinting on their huge wings. But in one of the first daylight air raids and in ten short minutes the Gothas dropped some 50 bombs on the town. Thirty-eight detonated successfully and caused more damage and casualties than anything managed by the Zeppelin airships that had preceded them.
The crowded, poorer part of town took the full force of the raid. In Tontine Street, the scene became one of unmitigated horror as clouds of dust and smoke settled to reveal the dead and injured, many of whom had been queuing up outside the greengrocer’s for extra Bank Holiday provisions – a new load of potatoes had been recently delivered. The owner of a wine shop left shelter to find that his customer had been decapitated. A gas main was ruptured; the road was ankle deep in shards of glass and the street was filled with screams from the wounded humans and mutilated horses. Gertrude and Mabel Bawbrick, aged 12 and 9 were killed outright; their mother, who had been with them, survived, but she was terribly injured, physically and mentally, and never left hospital, dying there in 1925 after eight years of suffering.
In total, Folkestone and its surrounding area was hit by 163 bombs that day and 71 people had been killed: 16 men, 31 women and 25 children.
The population of the town was horrified that it was so vulnerable to attack. Why had there been no warning? Why were they left virtually undefended? In fact, at this stage in the war British planes were unable to respond to the Gothas in any meaningful sense, their sheer size, and the heights at which they could fly, were beyond the capability of the Royal Flying Corps aircraft. But it later transpired that it had been known there was a likely attack in progress as planes had been heard earlier, over Maidstone. The jury at the inquest asked for their poor opinion of the response to be noted. A warning should have been given, they thought, to enable people to protect themselves.
The Defence of the Realm Act, passed in 1914, did make the reporting of these tragic events difficult, and despite wild rumour, Folkestone was only confirmed as the site of the bombing raid on the 30th May. Then the local and national press did not spare readers any of the grim details:
‘Many harrowing details of the harrowing ways in which the dead were mangled were given, it being stated that one young woman was almost cut in two; and a young schoolgirl, aged 14, had one leg taken off and the other almost severed. The five year old son of a staff sergeant of a famous Scottish regiment was reported to have had his head smashed in. Another boy, aged 11, died in hospital of a terrible wound in the left breast which penetrated through to the chest bone. It was also stated that the head of a girl, about four years of age, with light, fair hair had been found and there was no trace of the body. The child had not been identified…The Coroner pointed out that there were two unidentified heads in the mortuary.’ (Western Daily Press, 30 May 1917).
The vulnerability of Kent to air raids and the suffering of local people was widely acknowledged, locally at least, as the cause of significant mental trauma. On 23 December 1917, a protest meeting was held in Sheerness ‘to protest against the inefficient and inadequate warnings and protection from attacks by hostile aircraft.’ One of three resolutions passed that night (alongside a demand for night warnings and bomb shelters and provision for the families of any breadwinner killed in the bombing raids) was:
‘In the event of any worker’s wife or family being ordered to leave the town by their medical attendants owing to nervous breakdown or shell-shock due to raids they shall receive separation allowance, the same as volunteer munition workers who have come to work in the area.’
This is the first report I found, during all my research for Shell Shocked Britain: The First World War’s legacy for Britain’s mental health that acknowledged ‘shell shock’ was not exclusively confined to the military. What I found most surprising, however, was the lack of official acknowledgment of the tragedy. Where there is a lasting memorial to the many children killed in the raid on the Upper North Street School in Poplar, London less than one month after the tragedy of Tontine Street; in Folkestone there is little to recall and remember the horrors of that day.