On the 100th anniversary of the outbreak of the First World War, we launch a new series tracking down the scars of conflict still visible on the streets of London.
Alfred Buckle was keen to get his tram back to the depot. According to his conductor, he’d had a premonition that something grave was about to happen. Just before midnight, he turned the single-deck tram off Westminster Bridge and onto the Embankment. As he headed north-east, the sound of explosions reached his ears from Strand. London was under attack. He sped up, heading for the relative safety of the Kingsway Tunnel.
On 4 September 1917, the skies above London groaned to the sound of five German planes. This was the first night raid by the menacing Gotha bombers, which would unleash waves of carnage on the capital over the coming months. The main attack followed an arc from Hornsey in the north, down past Hampstead Heath and Regents Park, through the West End and on to Greenwich. A second attack saw Wanstead and Stratford in the bombers’ sights. But it was the West End that took one of the biggest batterings.
As Buckle drove past Cleopatra’s Needle, a 50kg bomb hit the pavement between the tram and the monument. The blast, combined with an exploding gas main, hit the vehicle with force. Buckle and two of his passengers were killed, and several injured. An eye-witness described how the driver suddenly sank to his knees before pulling the stop lever. In fact, his legs had been blown off. Buckle’s last act was to bring the tram to a halt.
Cleopatra’s Needle still bears the scars of that explosion almost 100 years ago. Shrapnel marks are clearly visible at the base of the obelisk. The sphinx to the south-west also contains several holes, as can be seen in the photograph above. The plaque commemorating the blast contains an inaccuracy. It describes the incident as ‘the first raid on London by German aeroplanes’. In fact, Gotha raids had already taken place in May, June and July (following on from earlier Zeppelin missions). This was, however, the first night attack by the bombers.
The incident at Cleopatra’s Needle was just one of many tragedies that night. The 54 explosives dropped by the bombers killed 16 people and injured 56.