Strafing a Zepp: Words as war-trophies

While ‘Zepp’ was the most familiar slang word in English to come from the Zeppelin raids over England during the First World War, there were others. Essentially these can be considered Home Front slang, not just from the location of the raids, but from the way that variations developed through the Home press, reflecting conversations among civilians.


For example, the Daily Mirror on 28 August 1916 noted that ‘the Zepps are “zepping” again’ after ‘the Zeppless summer months’ – note the use and non-use of initial capitals there, the nouns taking a capital and the verb lower case. “Zepping”, in inverted commas, had been noted as what Zeppelins did (Falkirk Herald, 26 February 1916), but also ‘Some of our airmen go Zepping’ (Sunday Mirror, 2 April 1916). The results of such flights might produce ‘Zepp relics’, which were most desirable, some being sold for charity in 1916 (Western Mail, 19 October 1916); these were brooches made from wire from the Cuffley Zeppelin. The Leeds Mercury 5 October 1916 reported that there was three tons of wire from this airship, fashioned into jewellery by convalescent sailors and soldiers. ‘Zepp brooches will probably become quite a vogue’, the paper proposed.


These were the obvious developments, but in March 1915 there was also a popular game called ‘Zepping’, ‘a simple variation of the dart game, in which Zeppelins and aeroplanes take the place of the more familiar numbers’ (Globe, 17 March 1915); it was supposed to become as popular as ping-pong. An article in London Opinion, 12 February 1915, offered the views of a range of characteristic Londoners, including ‘Bobby and Freddy (quarrelling): I saw it first’, and ‘Thousands of sightseers: Let’s go Zepping’, which rather confirm the attitude indicated on many postcards which show people sitting on rooftops with telescopes looking out for the night-raiders. For the nervous householder there was ‘Free Life, Fire, Zeppelin and Bombardment insurance’, available from the ‘Midland’ (London Opinion, 27 January 1917), though no health insurance for the effects of zeppelin-watching – ‘Zeppelin neck’ (Photo Bits, 7 November 1914), a little premature perhaps, as the first raids on British territory were in January 1915.

Zepp strafe

The Cuffley Zeppelin was brought down on 2/3 September 1916, the first one shot down over Britain.  After the action Lt William Robinson, who was awarded a VC, wrote to his parents: ‘I won’t say much about “strafing” the Zepp L21 for two reasons; to begin with most of it is strictly secret and secondly I’m really so tired of the subject and telling people so I will only say a very few words about it.’  He had reputedly said on landing, ‘I’ve Strafed the beggar this time’. The L48, brought down near Theberton, Suffolk, in June 1917 was pictured on postcards as ‘the strafed Zeppelin’. The word ‘strafe’, taken from the German slogan Gott strafe England (God punish England), became as familiar to Anglophones as ‘Zeppelin’. The above image, of a German propaganda stamp, shows that the Zeppelins’ task was indeed to strafe England. In the Daily Mail 3 March 1916 W Beach Thomas, so unadmired by the editors of the Wipers Times, claimed that ‘“Strafe” has become of course and beyond question a permanent addition to the English language, which will carry within it the record of this war as of every considerable event in history. The only question is whether “strafe” shall rhyme with “calf,” as in officers’ language, or with “safe,” as many Tommies prefer, with perhaps a natural reluctance to pronounce it in German fashion’. Apart from the question of accent, in which Thomas’s claim is quite plausible, there was something in his view of the popularity of ‘strafe’; William Benett’s War Diaries of a Norfolk Man, transcribed from his manuscript and published in 1914, uses inverted commas for several expressions, such as ‘go over’, ‘winkle-out’, ‘barrage’, ‘maze’, but not strafe. The term became in effect a linguistic war-trophy, a term taken from the enemy, used as a decoration to the point it was no longer special. It was taken over so successfully that the New English Dictionary (1919) gave a citation of a mother saying to her child ‘Wait till I git ‘old of yer, I’ll strarfe yer, I will!’


As an example of how far it could be taken from the original meaning, an article in the 18 September 1915 issue of Ally Sloper’s Half Holiday (to place it culturally, think one part Punch, one part News of the World, one part Mad Magazine, one part Viz) described the savings effected by a woman who refused to wear underwear after receiving an excessive bill from a local draper: she acquired some wealth apparently, due to ‘the saving she was able to effect by strafing chemises and frillies’. Hmm, maybe adjust the proportions above to three parts News of the World.

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