Christmas Day 1914 – Air battle fought over Cliffe – disturbing lunch and a wedding!

The first aerial battle to take place in British skies took place over Cliffe on Christmas Day 1914. It not only disturbed Christmas lunch it also disturbed a wedding! The following is based on news reports of the time. The descriptive language is as it appeared in the press. As a marriage was being solemnised during the raid the blog concludes with some information concerning the couples that married on Christmas Day 1914. 

Christmas Day, Friday, started as much as usual for the time of the year.

There had been a thick fog all morning, but it gradually disappeared as the day advanced, and the sun asserted its supremacy in the heavens making the air beautifully calm. 

These were the atmospheric conditions that prevailed at 12:50pm when an aeroplane suddenly emerged from the mist, coming from an easterly direction and flying westward towards London. It was fairly low in the sky, was seen to be a grey colour, and was recognised by the knowing ones as a German “Taube”. 

The fact that this was no ordinary aeroplane flight was soon made evident to the casual observer, for as it passed over the centre of the village the boom of a heavy gun was heard as it fired from the direction of Chattenden. Boom, boom, boom followed in quick succession, until there was a perfect fusillade fired from Chattenden, Upnor and Chatham on the one side, and from Hope Point where aerial guns have been established for the protection of Messrs. Curtis and Harvey’s extensive [explosives factory] works, situated on the banks of the river on the other side. 

The villagers, who rushed out of their houses to see what was the matter were alarmed to hear the whistling of shells as they came whizzing through the air. The Rector of the Parish, Canon H. Boyd who was driving from the church in his motor car realised the danger from falling shells, shouted to those he passed to get indoors or undercover for safety. 

In a few minutes, the daring aviator had got out of the range of the guns and disappeared in the direction of Gravesend. While the German aircraft was passing over a wedding was taking place in the parish church – surely the first wedding ever solemnised absolutely under fire! (See end for details not reported in the press.)

As the German plane disappeared from sight the villagers settled down in their homes to their Christmas dinner, when about half-an-hour later their serenity was again disturbed by the reappearance of the German aeroplane in the west, shaping its course east, followed by a British aeroplane which was unmistakably in hot pursuit. 

The German pursed a somewhat more southerly track than before, but as it drew near the guns again belched forth their destructive fire from Chattenden, Upnor and Chatham, causing the enemy to alter course and cross the Hundred of Hoo line. This bought the Hope Point (Cliffe) artillery into action, and once more the village of Cliffe appeared to be the centre of a terrible bombardment. Again, the villagers rushed out from their houses in a state of mingled curiosity and alarm. Again, the shells explored behind and in front of the plane but the daring German had a charmed existence and one could not help feeling that after all an aeroplane is a very small target, although everybody devoutly hoped that one fortunate bullet might find its billet. 

In the midst of the cannonade the English biplane, flying at a lower altitude, seemed to be gaining ground, and shots were exchanged between the two aircraft, apparently without effect. The gallant British biplane was hailed with cheers by the onlookers, as it appeared to be gaining ground, and seemed to be routing the enemy up, but in a few minutes both pursuer and pursued had disappeared from sight and the firing had ceased. Shortly afterwards was heard firing in the distance, probably from the warships and forts at Sheerness. It was subsequently reported that the German had dropped a couple of bombs near Mortimer’s Farm, on the main road to Rochester and just south of Cliffe Railway Station. 

When it was all clear investigations found that a cavity had been made in the middle of the main road in Strood, about 3ft in diameter and 21/2ft. in depth. Although the cavities in the road were attributed to the bombs some felt that the shape was inconsistent with that caused by an aerial bomb and may have been caused by shells fired from Hope Point. Canon Boyd was standing on the lawn of the Rectory when a fragment of shell fell within thirty yards of him. An unexploded shell also fell opposite the Evening Star, in the very centre of the village. 

Evening Star Cliffe

At Cliffe church on Sunday evening, thanksgiving prayers were offered up that no-one was hurt or killed, and the Rector strongly advised his parishioners, in the event of a similar raid taking place, to seek shelter in the nearest house.

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There were many inquest verdicts in Medway that attributed the cause of death to shrapnel or splinter to the brain – with the jury unable to determine whether the fragment came from a German bomb or an artillery shell. Early in the war the artillery used was what had been used during the Boar War – designed to hit ‘surface’ as opposed to aerial targets.

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Marriage Postscript

Three marriages took place in Cliffe Parish Church on Christmas Day 1914. It has not been possible to determine which couple were having their marriage solemnised at the time. The marriages that took place that day were:

Bertie Woolley (22) clerk from Rochester: Edith Weaver (20) from Cliffe.

Alfred James Hasted (25) labourer from Cliffe: Rosetta Attaway (25) from Cliffe.

Thomas Guy Squire (26) soldier from Cliffe: Dorothy Amy Murray (24) from Bermondsey.

At least three other marriages also took place in Cliffe parish church on Boxing Day.

(This compares with only one marriage being conducted in the months of October and November – one on a Thursday and the other on a Saturday.)

Initial thoughts were that the marriages were arranged for the Christmas holiday as the groom may be heading off to war – however only one groom listed his occupation as being a solider.

Christmas Day apparently was not an unusual day for marriages during the 17th and 18th centuries – the day being regarded as somewhat romantic. The reason for the Cliffe couples getting married over the Christmas holiday though may well have been more pragmatic – it being the only days that the couples could expect to have off!?

Geoff Ettridge

25 December 2018

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