Clerkenwell During The First World War
The Registration of Aliens
Life continued in London relatively uneventfully until Britain found itself teetering on the edge of a state of war. Italy had been an ally of Germany and Austria-Hungary. The threat of war lead to the British government issuing a new decree requiring the registration of all aliens aged 16 or over. They had to report to their local Police station, and they were issued with a card bearing their details, place of origin and a photograph. Even British born wives of aliens had to register themselves, as it was considered that they had relinquished their nationality at the time of their marriage. A sense of foreboding must have settled over the Italian community at this time, but especially for Mamma as she was just coming to terms with the fact that she was expecting another child.
Then the momentous news was delivered by the British Government on the night of the 14 August 1914, that German troops had invaded Belgium and consequently that Britain was at war with Germany. Before very long British born sons of Italians would find themselves being conscripted to fight on the battlefields.
Italy Declared War on Austria
Initially Italy remained neutral, and delayed entering the war for another fifteen months. Italy finally declared war on Austria on the 23rd May 1915. There was an initial sense of relief and enthusiastic patriotic Italian men marched to Piccadilly Circus waving British and Italian Flags and banners saying “Down with Austria”. There were stirring speeches which influenced many to return to Italy and fight for their country. They were to join regiments to fight along the Austrian border. My uncle Michele, now aged 18 was one of them. He was sent to Trieste, Trento.
Many of the recruits in the army were young and inexperienced, and even the Officers were poorly trained. In 1915 the Italian army launched mass attacks in an effort to break through enemy lines. However the defending army rapidly constructed trenches and dug in for a long battle. The Italians suffered heavy casualties.
In the summer of 1916, under the command of General Luigi Cardona, Chief of Staff of the Italian Army, the Italians once again went on the offensive, and launched an attack at Gorizia in an attempt to break through Austrian / Hungarian lines.
Michele fought in this Sixth Battle of Isonzo, also known as the Battle of Gorizia. The Italians eventually succeeded in capturing the town, by establishing a bridgehead across the Isonzo River, but at a terrible human cost. Around 50,000 Italian soldiers were to lose their lives there.
Like many young soldiers, Michele was deeply affected by his wartime experiences. For the rest of his life he was tormented by terrible memories, and one in particular haunted him until his dying day.
Two of his young comrades from Atina were so traumatised by the horrors of war, that they decided to escape. Unfortunately the two lads were soon apprehended, accused of desertion and made to face their death before a firing squad. Michele was one of the soldiers who were ordered to execute them.
Back in Britain, Mamma had given birth to their third child on 14th January 1915, a baby girl who they named Giuseppina.
Bombing Raids by German Zeppelins
Soon the Leonardi family were facing daunting times during the war themselves – that of terror from the skies. In 1915 Germany initiated a strategic campaign against Britain using Zeppelins to carry out deadly bombing raids, using high explosives and incendiaries. These huge cigar shaped floating machines must have looked so menacing as they loomed high in the night skies of London, illuminated at night by the bright beams of search lights.
The German airships could fly up to altitudes of 5,000 metres, which was well above the range of anti-aircraft guns of that time. Policemen and special wardens, who often road bicycles, would blow their whistles to warn of a raid. They also wore a large sign either saying “TAKE COVER” or “ALL CLEAR”.
London had already experienced several deadly raids. Then one evening on the 9 September 1915 an airship was sighted over the skies of central London heading for the heart of the City. On hearing the whistle signalling the alarm, my parents, my brother and 7 month old sister would have dashed for shelter in the Italian church, just before Zeppelin L13, commanded by Kapitänleutnant Heinrich Mathy, dropped a high explosive bomb on Farringdon Road. My family would have most certainly felt the mighty shock waves of the huge blast, which took place no more than a couple of hundred yards from their home.
When they emerged after the all clear they discovered that an entire building had been razed to the ground, the premises of the Brass Foundry & Lamp Company and West & Price Jewellers. That night was the Germans’ most successful Zeppelin raid on London during the entire war.
Today a memorial plaque commemorates the attack on the new building of 61 Farringdon Road, that was erected in its place in 1917. The edifice has now been given the name of the Zeppelin Building.
Food became scarce as merchant ships carrying important supplies were being targeted and regularly sunk by German U-boats. Fortunately the Italian shops of Little Italy had stockpiled plenty of supplies in their basements. Eventually Ration Cards were issued and people had to register with a local butcher and grocer. It was to everyone’s great relief when the war eventually came to a close.
* Government leaflet detailing the consequences of breaking the rationing laws
Photos have been accredited to the photographer / owner. Images marked * are in the Public Domain.
Photos marked with ● are believed to be in the Public Domain due of their age.
All other photos belong to my family or I have taken myself – © Louise Shapcott