Wednesday, June 11, 2014

London's Anti-German Riots, May 1915

By Mark Patton

At the outbreak of the First World War, there were around 53,000 Germans resident in the UK, making up the third largest minority group after the Irish and the Jews. Some had established their own businesses, as barbers, bakers or restaurateurs (Soho's Charlotte Street, now known for its Italian restaurants, was nicknamed "Charlottenstrasse," because of the number of German restaurants and bakeries), whilst others worked as governesses or waiters. Many had married British people, and some even had sons serving in the British armed forces.

When war was declared, many simply returned home. One source records that this was possible, with relative ease, as late as January 1915 (an English householder escorted his children's German governess to secure her papers), presumably travelling via neutral Holland. Those who had British families, however, had little incentive to leave. "Enemy aliens" had to register with the Police, and their movements were restricted, but they continued to work and socialise as they had before.

Everything changed, however, in May 1915. On the 7th May, a German submarine sank an ocean liner, the Lusitania, off the Irish coast, killing 1,198 men, women and children. In the same week, a Zeppelin raid struck Southend, and Germany's first use of poison gas was reported from the trenches of the Western Front. London was gripped by fear. An article in The Times on 13th May, 1915, referred to "the coming German aerial attack" on London, "not an empty threat, but may soon be an extremely vivid reality."

Announcement of the sinking of the Lusitania
(Image is in the Public Domain).

A mass grave in Ireland for the victims of the Lusitania,
seen at the time as an unprecedented act of barbarity
against civilians (Image is in the Public Domain).

Less scrupulous elements of the press lost no time in whipping up hatred against Germans living in London. John Bull, owned and edited by Horatio Bottomley (a disgraced former MP who would later serve time for fraud), launched a vendetta:

"I call for a vendetta," Bottomley wrote, "against every German in Britain, whether 'naturalised' or not ... you cannot naturalise an unnatural beast, a human abortion, a hellish freak. But you can exterminate it. And now the time has come."

The magazine, John Bull
(Image is in the Public Domain).

Some Germans had already taken the precaution of changing their names (the artist, Georg Kennerknecht, had become George Kenner), but Bottomley send his reporters out to scour the deed poll records, publishing lists of "assumed" and "real" names.

On the 11th and 12th May, large mobs attacked German businesses and homes in Poplar, Bethnal Green, Walthamstow and Camden Town. For many of the rioters it was simply an opportunity to loot and steal (Police officers reported that some turned up with hand-carts, or even donkey-carts, to carry away the belongings they had stolen), but the destruction was total: furniture, carpets, even wooden doors, window-frames and skirting-boards, were ripped out, leaving only the bare shells of the buildings. So frenzied were the attacks that even dachshunds were targeted as "Germans," kicked and abused and, in at least one case, burned alive.

The mob attacking a German shop in Poplar
(Image is in the Public Domain).

The Quaker Meeting Hall in Holloway became a temporary refuge for the Germans who had lost their homes, but their days of freedom were at an end. The Government ordered the internment of all Germans (at least in part for their own protection). Alexandra Palace became a temporary internment camp, and George Kenner has left both a diary and a series of paintings (now in the Imperial War Museum) as a record of life there.

"A great many lost courage. Some had lost their businesses and income, and left a wife and children behind. They entered camp with brown hair and healthy appearance, only a few weeks had passed, and grief had transformed them into white-haired old men. I, a bachelor, felt more free of care ... "

The hall of Alexandra Palace transformed into an
internment camp, painted by George Kenner
(original in the Imperial War Museum,
image is in the Public Domain.)

Interned German prisoners exercising at Alexandra
Palace (original in the Imperial War Museum,
image is in the Public Domain).

Within a few months, Kenner, along with most of his compatriots, had been transferred to the Isle of Man, where they remained until hostilities ceased. Kenner may not have lost courage, but his experiences left him with little enthusiasm for a return to London. Instead, he made a new life for himself as a commercial artist in the United States.


Mark Patton's novels, Undreamed Shores and An Accidental King, are published by Crooked Cat Publications. E-book editions can be purchased from the Crooked Cat Bookstore, and paperback versions from Amazon UK or Amazon USA.

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