Journal of Modern Literature 27.3 (2004) 47-62
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Zeppelin Fictions and the British Home Front1
In The Great War and Modern Memory (1975) Paul Fussell famously argued that the dominant effect that the war produced on writers was a mood of irony and disillusionment.2 Yet the impact of the Zeppelin on the imagination of home-front writers belies the general mood of dread that Fussell indicates, and initially shows instead an intoxication or exhilaration by war.3 As Guillaume de Syon writes, "artists and intellectuals were particularly taken with the contradictory mix of fascination and repulsion that the airship evoked."4 The effect of the Zeppelin was not simply traumatic; it inspired awe as well as fear, excitement as well as dread. The Zeppelin simultaneously displaced attention from soldiers at the front and allowed civilians to identify with soldiers, to feel their own roles in the war as central, and their own lives at risk. As new objects appearing in the sky, the Zeppelins helped trigger the eschatological language which Jay Winter claims assumed renewed prevalence during the war.5 They changed the social fabric of the wartime city, sent city dwellers to the country, and employers to the cellar along with their servants. The Zeppelin changed the meaning of [End Page 47] a clear night and a full moon, and seemed itself a force of nature. Though Zeppelin raids became routine as their novelty faded, the smooth skin of the Zeppelin became a screen for the projection of fantasies of apocalypse and redemption, and formed a key spectacle in the home front skies. The Zeppelin was examined in novels and newspapers, poetry and propaganda, and was interrogated by key modernists such as Woolf, Hueffer, Lawrence, Mansfield, and Shaw, as well as in the letters and diaries of many civilians. The Zeppelins were a very local variety of tragedy, a metonymy for the sudden and catastrophic war itself, and in many ways a distraction from far greater fears and losses. The "Zeppelin sublime" inevitably led to the backlash of "Zeppelin fatigue," and the initial patriotism provoked by Zeppelin attacks on the home front broke down to reveal a more complex pattern of resentment that divided soldier and civilian. Though the Zeppelin's impact was more imaginative than actual, the Zeppelin became a nexus for conflicting and paradoxical fantasies of the First World War. The explosion of the Hindenburg in 1937 marked the beginning of the end for the Zeppelin, and a new Zeppelin has only recently been constructed for passenger trips within Germany and Switzerland.6 Nonetheless, the Zeppelin was a key component of the home front experience in Britain during the First World War and was a crucial term in what Tate calls the production of "a fantasmatic, infantile, and pleasurable relationship to the war and its objects."7
In a call for increased attention to non-combatant experiences of the First World War, Margaret Higonnet has pointed out that "the shock experienced by combatants during the war for a long time displaced our attention from noncombatant traumas."8 Indeed, the most influential literary modernists experienced the war from the ambivalent safety of the home front. If the war accelerated the transition to aesthetic modernism through the attempted articulation of trauma, then that trauma is more likely to have been the experience of having missed the war than the experience of having been on the front lines. Attention to non-combatant traumas may help us discern how the sideline experiences of war—the sound of cannons from a far distance, the indirect accounts of the newspapers, the disappearance of friends and family, and the spectre of the Zeppelin—may have led to new aesthetic attempts to articulate absence, distance and dissonance.9 While critics like Bernard Bergonzi in Heroes' Twilight: A Study of the Literature of the Great War (1980) have argued that "the soldier-poets developed new modes of expression corresponding with their experience of trench-warfare, while the civilians continued unthinkingly to uphold traditional attitudes,"10 later critics have argued against...