“That siren call ….”. The diverse language of Air-raid precautions in 1916



zeppelin picadilly circus
The First Zeppelin over Piccadilly Circus 1915. See http://www.iwm.org.uk/collections/items/objects/11192

The spring and summer of 1916 saw an escalating series of air raids over Britain. Some twenty raids (according to official tallies published in the Press) had taken place over 1915. In 1916, Andrew Clark decided to keep his own record in the Words in War-Time archive as a further part of his engagement with contemporary history and its representation.  19th May 1916 – almost a hundred years ago to-day – hence saw the 10th raid in six weeks.

While debates on the desirability  of air reprisals continued (see War of terror”: “terror” and “reprisal” in 1916), the question of air defence, and, more specifically, of the kind of air raid precautions that should be introduced and maintained  for the Home Front, were increasingly prominent. Still associated most commonly  with WW2, it was WW1 which would, in reality, see a range of measures implemented  in this respect. As the Scotsman argued in February 1916, the ‘expediency of public warnings against Zeppelins’ was surely incontrovertible’ — what was needed was ‘an organised system giving early warning of the presence of enemy aircraft in the country, and information as to their movements inland’.

Language – and the plethora of locutions that emerge in 1916 – can, however, be used to explore some of the complexity of response. Silent warnings, light warnings, buzzers, hooters, and syrens as well as sirens – or indeed, no warnings at all — appear in the public discourse of air raids and the importance of non-combatant safety.

The dominant meaning of air raid (in terms of the Home Front) in 1916 remained, as the Words in War-Time archive makes plain,  an attack on non-combatants by enemy airship (the latter usually referred to at this point in time under the generic Zeppelin). Precautions were often referred to equally specific terms:

ANTI-ZEPPELIN PRECAUTIONS IN EDINBURGH. ‘A deputation from the Edinburgh Rotary Club were present at a meeting of the Lord Provost’s Committee of Edinburgh Town Council on Saturday, and advocated the adoption by the Corporation of certain anti-Zeppelin precautions.

Air raid warning first appears, as the Oxford English Dictionary confirms, in 1915:

1915  Times 13 Sept. 3/3 (heading) The British Fire Prevention Committee announce that their Air Raid ‘Warning’ as to the nature of the bombs and how to deal with the fires arising from them, is being reissued in the form of a small poster.

While the accompanying OED definition — ‘a public warning about impending air raids, usually given by means of a siren’ — reflects later use with precision, this can neverthless sit somewhat uneasily alongside earlier evidence in WW1. As the 1915 citation given above indicates, for example, the ‘warning’ specified gives generic advice in terms of public safety and the fires that might ensue after such an attack. Its poster format is linked less to an ‘impending air raid’ but rather to general public safety, and a warning of longer rather than shorter duration. Sirens, too, present a number of complexities in their suggested use in 1915-16.

Whether noise should be used at all was, for example, a matter of considerable debate. As the Scotsman indicates in April 1916, while ‘anti-Zeppelin precautions’ were a matter of immediate concern, their precise form remained controversial:

[The deputation] insisted on a more stringent carrying out of the instructions as to the darkening and obscuring of lights, and indicated that some general public warning should be given. The Committee said they were fully in accord with the views of the deputation as to the importance of obscuring lights as much as possible, and pointed out that those places which had adopted general warnings by sound had discarded them.

Siren warnings  could, it was felt,  allure rather than force people off the streets.– in ways which neatly aligned with their classical forebears (‘Syrene, the mermayde is a dedely beste that bringeth a man gladly to dethe’, as a 16th-century citation in the OED declares). That Zeppelins might connote spectacle alongside danger is a recurrent thread in comment at this time. Siren warnings, in this respect, might merely alert the  populace to Zeppelin presence in ways which tempt rather than deter. An article in the Daily Express, in April 1916, provides a useful illustrativion of the conflicted meanings which warnings of this kind could assume:

AIR RAIDER DRIVEN OFF. SEAPLANE’S FUTILE VISIT TO KENTISH COAST. SYREN WARNING. ‘Holidaymakers at Ramsgate and Broadstairs to-day experienced the thrill of hearing the shrill shriek of the syren announcing the approach of hostile aircraft. The syren sounded at 11.58 in both towns, but there was no panic. The mayor’s reiterated warning to keep under cover was again disregarded, and the visitors, as well as the inhabitants, seemed to enjoy the excitement. …At 12.30 the syren again sounded to announce that all danger was past. …This is the first time the syren at Ramsgate has given warning before the arrival of hostile aircraft.

Buzzers presented similar problems; if attack was heralded so was the prospect of seeing the invader:

Warning was given. There was no panic. People came into the streets to see what they could, but were disappointed. The safety buzzer went at 4 o’ clock (Star, July 1916)

If the air raid warnings trialled in 1916 intentionally shared the semantic force of warn (OED, sense 3): ‘To put (a person) on his guard, to caution against some person or thing as dangerous’, they could, it seems, also participate – at least for some sections of the population – in the less loaded sense by which warn merely provided useful  notification. Being warned, individuals might instead venture out to get a glimpse of what was going on. First-hand accounts of the experience of seeing a Zeppelin are not difficult to find.

‘the most surprising thing is the way everybody rushes into the street. Nobody takes any notice of the police warning; they just look upon these raids as a good show, and all are eager to miss nothing’ (Evening News April 1916)

The safety buzzer, or release buzzer, both of which appear in signalling the “All Clear” (an idiom used in railways which was only gradually extended to air raids and air attack) — could, in this respect, simply herald the end of the ‘performance’.**

Warnings, however implemented, could therefore be surprisingly polysemous. The empty streets which followed warnings in 1918 self-evidently took some time to achieve. What is particularly  clear in 1916 is the ways in which precautionary measures were often local and individual. Air raid sirens (dated to 1918 in the OED, in an entry revised in 2008) could be used, either on their own or alongside other measures. Yet they were by no means the automatically favoured form. In the Potteries, for example (in February 1916):

News of approach of Zeppelins is to be signalled by a “buzzer,” or if the use of a “buzzer” is considered inadvisable, by the stoppage of the tramway service. A second “buzzer” will mean that it is safe to turn up the lights

Here the embedded punctuation – and the presence of scare quotes – offers a visual reminder of the changes of words and word-use that are at stake. Used as  gas alarms on the Western Front, buzzers  provide a similarly defensive function across Britain, gaining new patterns of signification (‘something that buzzes’ versus ’something that buzzes in warning of imminent air attack’).

3 ZEPPS OVER EAST COAST. 32 Bombs on Norfolk and Lincolnshire. NO CASUALTIES … A “Star” correspondent telegraphs: — ‘About midnight the inhabitants of a certain important North-East Town, which has suffered severely from air raids in the past, heard, after a pleasant immunity of over three months, the sound of the buzzer. They listened with considerable confidence, knowing that extensive defensive precautions had been taken. The enemy never got over the town, and about four o’clock the welcome sound of the release buzzer sent the people to their beds.

Hooters appeared elsewhere, gaining similar meanings, as in the following article, headed ‘How a Midland Town was Warned’, which appeared in the Scotsman in March 1916.

In accordance with prearranged plans to warn the public, electricity was cut off, hooters were sounded, and the Corporation tramcars were stopped, together with general traffic.… The place was kept in complete darkness until all danger was over’

Similarly interesting is the diction of the light warning, used, for example, in Southend from April 1916:

SOUTHEND “LIGHT” WARNING. The residents of Southend will in future receive warning of air raids. The pressure of the electricity main will be reduced in the borough for five minutes on receipt of information that hostile aircraft are in the district.

Or, conversely, the decision to implement silent warnings, as in Birmingham in May a hundred years ago:

SILENT WARNING. ‘The Lord mayor and Chief Constable of Birmingham yesterday sanctioned a scheme for giving silent warnings throughout the city in the event of Zeppelin raids. Captains have been appointed in each ward, and each captain will be in charge of a number of helpers. To carry out the scheme 672 special constables have been sworn in.

Just as in later  air raid warnings in London  1917, policemen could become, in effect, “moving posters”, as they walked, cyclued or drove across the city by means of the words ‘Take Cover’ emblazoned on placards on their person or vehicle.

This close engagement with temporality — here in the diversities of the diction of air raid precautions in 1916 — can usefully counter the flattening of history and language which broader narratives must, of necessity, employ. The most important change comes, however, not in the language of material form (how the air raid warning is delivered) but in the changing nature of response and understanding.  If, as in Scotland in March 1916, the imminent arrival of a Zeppelin meant that the strees were ‘thronged [by those who] gazed upwards in a vain attempt to locate the airship’, the best precaution lay, of course, in patterns of behaviour by which, whatever form the warning took, it would be interpreted as an imperative  to take immediate shelter. People ‘must learn to avoid the open streets, and no less open passages’, as the Scotman already stressed. The changing prominence — and use — of the diction of air raid shelters (first recorded in the OED in 1917) is, in this respect, a closely related story.


** The OED entry, and definition,  for All clear (revised in 2012)  reveals some of the same problems when applied to WW1: A signal indicating that there is no danger or obstruction; esp.  (a) a railway signal indicating that the line is clear (cf. danger n. 4c);  (b) a signal given by means of a siren, etc., to inform the public that (the danger of) an air raid is over

Strafe it! Words as enemy aliens in war-time English.


University of OsnaBruck. Copyright under Creative Commons.

Long before 1914 and the advent of war, Samuel Johnson had pointed out that words, like citizens, exist in ‘different classes’. Some are natives, remaining in their linguistic homeland from the beginning. Others are denizens, having lived there for so long that they are virtually indistinguishable from the original inhabitants. Others, however, retain ‘the state of aliens’. If used in English, these – either in terms of form, spelling, or pronunciation – confirm allegiance to languages outside the nation state. The first edition of the Oxford English Dictionary, still in progress during 1914-18, maintained these same divisions. Naturalisation was key.


The langscapes of war brought some interesting synergies into play in this respect. Political solidarities with allied nations could, as with France, yield a new influx of words. An ‘Entente-Gallicism’ seemed to be in operation alongside  the ‘Entente-Cordiale’,  the Daily Mail observed, drawing attention to the wide range of French derived forms which had appeared in public discourse and at the Front from the summer of 1914. As Andrew Clark verified in the Words in War-Time archive, this was a marked feature of the war, even if, as he rightly suspected, the majority of such words would fade out of use when war came to an end.

Words with traceable (or suspected) links to the enemy were rather different. German was ‘the Stigma’, as an article the Star in 1915 observed, here in documenting a campaign by the residents of German Place in London to have it renamed Tipperary Place. The Words in War-Time archive documents a variety of emergent shibboleths in this respect, as in the cultural silencing of terms such as wanderjahr:

 ‘Many servants are bent on taking what might have been called a “Wanderjahr” – the fates forbid I should use this word now’. Daily Express (March 1915).

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