Canals and the First World War

Airships and canals don’t usually go together but the First World War Centenary commemorations that start in 2014 have cast up some interesting nuggets of heritage.

The Great War of 1914-18 is characterised by utter incredibility. The never-ending trenches, the mud, No Man’s Land and the huge cemeteries, have become part of our minds. But one of the most incredible sights of all were the Zeppelin airships that began raiding Britain from January 1915 to the end of the war. Over 50 raids took place, dropping 5,000 bombs and killing or wounding over 1,900 people. In all, 84 Zeppelins took part, and 30 were shot down or crashed.

Canals and rivers played an unwitting part in this air campaign as they could be used to navigate by, although not reliably. In October 1915, for example, Zeppelin L16 bombed Hertford after its captain mistook the Lee Navigation for the River Thames. And on the night of 31 January/1 February 1916, Zeppelins heading for Liverpool bombed the Black Country, apparently mistaking the lights below for Liverpool and one of the many canals for the River Mersey. Tipton, Walsall, and Wednesbury were bombed by L19 and L 21. So was Bradley, where a courting couple were fatally injured by a bomb that hit the Wednesbury Oak Loop that terminates at the Trust’s Bradley Yard.

Here, a small plaque on the wall of the existing pump-house commemorates this sad event and records the memory of Maud and Fredrick Fellows (they shared the same surname, but were unrelated), who just happened to be walking beside the canal at exactly the wrong moment.

Last date edited: 3 February 2014

About this blog

Nigel Crowe

As national heritage manager, Nigel’s role is to lead the Canal & River Trust’s team of regional heritage advisers in England and Wales. He has over 25 years’ experience of working in the conservation, archaeology and interpretation of historic buildings and places. He is a member of the editorial board of the Institute of Historic Building Conservation. He has written numerous articles concerning heritage conservation and is the author of several longer published works, including the English Heritage Book of Canals.

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