“War of terror”: “terror” and “reprisal” in 1916

zeppelins 1916
Awaiting Zeppelins. Sandringham, 1915.

© IWM (Art.IWM ART 2493) http://www.iwm.org.uk/collections/item/object/13527




The heading above appeared in the Daily Express in February 1916. Like 9/11, and the emergence of the modern “war on terror”, perceptions of this ‘new war of terror’ in 1916 were prompted by a series of aerial attacks in civilian locations. While WW1, by 1916, was indeed a ‘world war’ in hitherto unprecedented ways, it was the victims of German aerial warfare in British towns along the east coast, in Kent, and in the Midlands which prompted anxiety of this kind. The language of ‘terror’ was marked. While war zone is itself a coinage of WW1 (dated to 1914 in the Oxford English Dictionary, it is  widely documented across the Words in War-Time archive), it was clear by 1916 that systemetic attack could occur outside formal theatres of war. Conflict of this kind instead consolidated the sense of what we know now as total war. As the article continued:

The governing condition of our national life during about the last four hundred years – that is, since naval power became our principal defence, has been the circumstance that Britain was an island, which strength at sea could defend … Britain is, quite manifestly, ceasing to be an island, and though strength at sea does still protect her from serious invasion, and may continue to do so for some years to come, that strength is powerless to defend us against aerial attack.

In war in the air, geographical boundaries were easily transcended; the ‘mailed fist’ could, as in the headline above,  hover at will above London or Lowestoft, Dover or Deal. ‘Henceforth no non-combatant will be immune from attack’, the writer added. Here, too, language and (re)definition could be at stake. As recent events confirmed, combat and non-combatants could intersect with deadly effect, rendering civilians  remote from the field of battle into direct casualties of war.

The language of terror – phrased with particular acuity in 1916 –can, in fact, be traced from the beginning of the war, whether in analysis of the Kaiser’s ‘power to terrorise’ (in September 1914) or in comment on the emergence of new weapons of destruction which were intended ‘to strike terror into the hearts of the “treacherous” British’. Terror was, from the begining, depicted as a deliberate campaign, being widely articulated – as earlier posts have explored – in the discourse of frightfulness or “hate”.

The Belgians opposed the German advance, and by a deliberate policy of terrorism, their cities and villages were destroyed, their children were massacred, and their women were outraged. The whole civilized world vehemently denounced this medieval brutality, but the German generals declared it was absolutely necessary to punish people who had dared to defend their own country and to prevent a continuation of their opposition by a wholesale frightfulness.

By 1916, however, terror, and WW1 as a specific ‘war of terror’, was seen as entering a new phase, consolidated in other new coinages such as air-frightfulness as well as in the widespread emphasis on civilian death as murder or, more specifically, as Zeppelin murder:

‘We publish below a further selection of letters from readers on the question of a vigorous air offensive against Germany in retaliation for the Zeppelin murders here

as the Daily Express noted in February 1916. If the diction of the air debate is prominent in articles of this kind, the preferred solution was clear. ‘Attack the Huns by Air’ was the consensus of the readers’ letters which were printed in the Express. Air, in a telling historical shorthand, comes to signify not – as it might today – concerns about air quality, but instead is firmly embedded in the context of war – of air attack, air offensive, and air reprisal.

The diction of reprisal – and reprisal raids – emerges, in this respect, as a topic of particular interest. As we have seen, terror –and a ‘war of terror’ — are widely depicted in terms of British abhorrence. Nevertheless, at the heart of the air debates of spring 1916, lay the potential appropriation of similar methods by British forces. Reprisals – configured as an ongoing process of cause and effect, and of reciprocal action and response – offered an interesting semantic loophole. It was one of which – according to the New York Herald, the Germans had already made good use, in ways which intentionally defused ‘terror’ into justified (and thereby legitimate) retaliation.

every fresh instance of aerial attack on undefended towns, where the victims must always be non-combatants and usually are helpless women and innocent children, is now euphemized and classified by the Huns as mere “reprisals,” says a leading article in the New York “Herald”.

These are, of course, other language games of war. Just as ‘one person’s freedom-fighter is another person’s terrorist’, so, too, might acts of ‘terror’ be constructed as ‘reprisals’ in 1916  in a process of ‘just deserts’ seen as merited by  earlier Allied acts.

Nevertheless, as the article above suggests, the diction of  ‘reprisal’ –  when placed in the context of ‘helpless women’, ‘innocent children’, and undefended towns’ – was surely appropriated without cause. It is, it concludes, a euphemism — a tactical use of words in which language is assumed as semantic disguise. In war, reprisal can prove a useful ‘weasel word’, offering legitimization and validation in ways which terror, and accusations of terror, do not. As here, language can neatly be used to direct – or redirect — channels of interpretation.

The increasing use of reprisal, air reprisal, and resprisal raids in British discourse in 1916 is therefore very interesting, not least in the ways such discussions can, in a range of ways, studiously avoid the semantic overtones of terror and its place in war. The British public, as one newspaper noted, was ‘eagerly discussing … the question of reprisals’; ‘retaliation’ of this kind, it added, ‘would make the German people understand the real meaning of murder by airships’. ‘Air Reprisals. ..Why not an Offensive?’, the Star likewise contended in February 1916. ‘Women call for reprisals’, another heading in the Daily Express affirms; the voice of non-combatants is, importantly, made to urge (and sanction) retaliatory measures.

‘Our advocacy of reprisal raids remains, despite the opposition of Sir Evelyn Wood, a great soldier for whose judgment we have the most profound respect.. .. We urge them because they must have a far-reaching moral effect …’

states another article to similar effect.The language of terror is conspicuous by its absence Air raid reprisals are necessary, the Scotsman advocated. Actions speak louder than words, it stressed;  ‘you cannot appeal to the honour or conscience of a cobra’.

Across 1916 the discourse of reprisal and legitimized retaliation – on ‘open towns’ as well as military targets — remained prominent,  prompting a range of difficult questions which, as other writers explored,  might impact on both morals and morale. As Isabel Hull notes, ‘reprisals’ can, in reality, ‘just as easily destroy the law as uphold it: they hit the innocent, rather than the guilty’ and are, in a range of ways, hard to ’distinguish from mere revenge’.**  ‘Sunday’s raid avenged. Five tons of bombs dropped on Zeebrugge’, as the Daily Express proclaimed in unalloyed celebration on 21 March 1916 (in an attack – here on a military target – which was depicted as just retaliation for a German civilian attack on 19 March). This was, it declared, the ‘Allies’ Greatest Air feat of the War’.


 See Isabel Hull, A Scrap of Paper: Breaking and Making International Law during the Great War (Cornell University Press, 2014) for a useful discussion of reprisal and reprisals in WW1.





One thought on ““War of terror”: “terror” and “reprisal” in 1916

  1. The language and concept of reprisal operated on many levels during the war- air attacks but also treatment of POWs and in naval operations. The problem of course is that even when an act could be seen as illegal under the ‘laws of war’ what was it actually possible to do about it in the absence of any transnational authority. Hence both the attraction and problem of reprisal.
    It is also worth a look at Susan Grayzel’s book ‘At Home and Under Fire’ on the issue of combatant and non combatant..
    Incidentally it is worth noting that the reference to Zeebrugge is to ‘retaliation’ against a target in occupied Belgium. Although the attack in 1916 only hit military targets, the result of later raids were, ironically, heavy casualties amongst the very Belgian civilians who the British were supposed to be fighting to protect and liberate. According to Sophie de Schaepdrijver in her book ‘Bastion’ 123 civilians were killed and 243 seriously wounded in the Bruges district.


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