1 Comment

Australia and the Great War

I have a new publication out -- at least, it's out electronically, I haven't seen a physical copy yet! It's a chapter in a collection published by Melbourne University Press and edited by Michael J. K. Walsh and Andrekos Varnava, Australia and the Great War: Identity, Memory and Mythology. My chapter is entitled 'The enemy at the gates: the 1918 mystery aeroplane panic in Australia and New Zealand'. It's based on my presentation at the British Empire and the Great War conference held at Singapore in February 2014, and as the title suggests is effectively an expansion of my article on the Australian mystery aeroplane panic of 1918 to encompass its New Zealand counterpart. In a way, expansion is not quite the right word, since I had to compress my discussion of the Australian side compared with the article version, and to be consistent I had to pitch the New Zealand part at the same level. But then again, compared with Australia there wasn't anything like the archival material in New Zealand, while the press was both more sceptical and more candid about what it thought was going on. And the fear of bombardment, as opposed to espionage, seems to have been uppermost there. So there were interesting differences as well as similarities to tease out, and it ended up being more than just a rehash of the Australian article with some Kiwi stuff thrown in.
...continue reading

In my previous post on the possible airship panic of 1915, I used n-grams for 'Zeppelin' and 'rumour' derived from the British Newspaper Archive to try to work out when exactly it was. The answer was that it began in late December 1914 and finished in early February 1915. But is the answer right? Is the method useful? To test that I switched to close reading and checked whether it does indeed relate to an airship panic. The very preliminary upshot is that the principle seems sound, but its application is difficult, or at least more complicated than I've allowed -- while the signals in the data are more or less real, there are a substantial number of false positives and false negatives. There will always be some of these, due to bad OCR or just chance, but there are a couple of systematic reasons increasing the difficulties.

The first problem, an obvious one, is that a wider range of key terms is needed: 'Zeppelin' is pretty sound for this period (though occasionally 'airship' and 'dirigible' appear in its place), but 'rumour' needs to be supplemented by other terms such as 'panic', 'scare', or even a phrase like 'it is said'. And of course ostensibly sober and objective analysis of the prospects of Zeppelin raids won't get picked up by a search like mine which is looking for discussions of panic. So there are these false negatives (things I've missed) -- such as the claim in early January that Germany was planning to send ten Zeppelins to raid London at the end of the month with 'the task of crippling the British fleet, and also cause a panic', or the story that a 'huge box kite' being used to test London's anti-aircraft defences led to speculation 'as to whether [a?] Zeppelin has arrived at last'.1 The second, and less soluble, problem is that BNA isn't always very good at detecting when one article starts and another one begins. In fact, it's quite common to find a dozen or two short articles joined together. This means that BNA could (say) consider an article mentioning Zeppelin operations over France, and another discussing rumours that the Germans have mined Brussels so that they can destroy the city if forced to evacuate it, to be part of the same article.2 These are false positives.
...continue reading

  1. Western Times (Exeter), 11 January 1915, 4; Daily Mail (Hull), 19 January 1915, 4

  2. Birmingham Daily Post, 28 December 1914, 4

1 Comment

My peer-reviewed article 'The phantom airship panic of 1913: imagining aerial warfare in Britain before the Great War' has now been published in the Journal of British Studies, and can be found here (or here, for the free, self-archived version). This is the abstract:

In late 1912 and early 1913, people all over Britain reported seeing airships in the night sky, yet there were none. It was widely assumed that these “phantom airships” were German Zeppelins, testing British defenses in preparation for the next war. The public and press responses to the phantom airship sightings provide a glimpse of the way that aerial warfare was understood before it was ever experienced in Britain. Conservative newspapers and patriotic leagues used the sightings to argue for a massive expansion of Britain’s aerial forces, which were perceived to be completely out-classed by Germany’s in both number and power. In many ways this airship panic was analogous to the much better known 1909 dreadnought panic. The result was the perfect Edwardian panic: the simultaneous culmination of older fears about Germany and the threat of espionage, invasion, and, above all, the loss of Britain’s naval superiority. But, in reality, there was little understanding about the way that Zeppelins would be used against Britain in the First World War—not to attack its arsenals and dockyards, but to bomb its cities.

As I've said a fair bit about this article already, I won't go on about it any further -- except to add that this is my first illustrated article (apart from maps and figures), and a very rare illustration it is too!

In order to start characterising the possible airship panic of 1915, let's generate some n-grams and do some distant reading to get a basic overview of press interest in Zeppelins during the early part of the war. Here are the number of articles per month in the British Newspaper Archive for 1914 and 1915 mentioning the word 'zeppelin', normalised by the number of issues published each month, to account for variations in BNA's coverage (since, if there are more newspapers in total, all else being equal you would expect to get more articles about Zeppelins).1

zeppelin, monthly, normalised

There are a few things that are apparent from this plot. One is that the start of the war is really obvious: Zeppelins are mentioned ten or more times more frequently from August 1914 onwards than in the earlier part of 1914. (Even the peak of the 1913 airship panic was only about a fifth of the level of August 1914.) In the wartime period itself, there are a number of peaks. The biggest is in June 1915, which corresponds to the aftermath of the first Zeppelin raid on London. The next biggest are January 1915, the period of interest here, and September-October 1915, in which there were a dozen raids in total. Also of interest is October 1914, when there were no air raids on Britain at all. This was when the possibility of aerial attack began to be taken seriously (and when the Zeppelin panic of 1914 took place, but that's a subject for another day, or article).
...continue reading

  1. It would be much better to use the total number of articles each month for this normalisation, but I don't know how to get that from BNA. Words common enough to appear in practically all articles, like 'the', are now stop words, so they can't be used to estimate how many articles there are in total. 


In the middle of January 1915, days before the first, fairly ineffectual Zeppelin raids on Norfolk, the novelist Marie Belloc Lowndes visited some relations of Reginald McKenna, the Home Secretary. There she

was told that Mr. Gatty [a London historian] had heard from the Duke of Westminster that Winston Churchill says he expects a fleet of a hundred Zeppelins to leave for England on the eve of the Emperor's birthday, January 26th! He expects seventy to be destroyed, but believes that thirty will reach London and he estimates the casualties at 10,000 to 12,000! Several people are so affected by this tale that they have already sent their children away into the country.1

This sounds very much like an airship panic, complete with rumour, fear and even evacuation. Indeed, Jerry White places this in the context of rumours in the East End on 3 or 4 January that a Zeppelin had reached Colchester in Essex, and the Hackney and Kingsland Gazette of 22 January passing on the almost unanimous prediction of experts that a raid on London was certain to come within a few weeks (though equally that it would be a failure). He attributes these public fears to an infection by official fears: on 10 January the War Office warned the London Hospital to prepare for air raid victims, presumably informed by the Admiralty's submission to the Cabinet on 1 January that Germany planned 'an attack on London by airships on a great scale at an early opportunity'.2 Indeed, the First Sea Lord, Admiral of the Fleet Sir John Fisher, threatened Churchill, his political master, with resignation if his proposal to 'take a large number of hostages from the German population in our hands and should declare our intention of executing one of them for every civilian killed by bombs from aircraft' was not taken to Cabinet.3 (It was, and it was rejected.)

White's account is intriguing, but as a glance back at the prewar airship panics of 1909 and 1913 might suggest, there was a lot more going on, which obviously is what I intend to explore in the next few posts!

  1. Susan Lowndes, ed., Diaries and Letters of Marie Belloc Lowndes 1911-1947 (1971), 47; quoted in Jerry White, Zeppelin Nights: London in the First World War (London: The Bodley Head, 2014), 124. Emphasis in original. 

  2. White, Zeppelin Nights, 124-125. 

  3. Winston S. Churchill, The World Crisis, vol. 2 (2007 [1923]), 38; quoted in White, Zeppelin Nights, 81. 


A ham-bone

An early contribution to the list of strange things dropped from the air in wartime was made by the crew of L13, a German naval Zeppelin under the command of Kapitänleutnant Heinrich Mathy. During a raid on London on the night of 8 September 1915, they dropped bombs from Bloomsbury to the City which killed 20 people and caused more than £200,000 worth of damage. But they also dropped the above object by parachute on Wrotham Park in Barnet. It's a ham-bone.

Clearly, though, it's no ordinary ham-bone. It's carved with a drawing of a Zeppelin dropping a bomb (perhaps L13's 300kg one, the largest one ever used so far in war) on the head of a sad man, along with an inscription reading 'Edwart [sic] Grey' on one side and 'was fang ich armer Teufel an?', the title and first line of an old German soldier's song: 'what's a poor devil to do?' Sir Edward Grey, at this point still Foreign Secretary as he had been when Britain declared war on Germany, would no doubt have been very sad indeed had a bomb (or even a ham-bone) hit him on the head; but the real reason for the tears running down his cheeks is given on the other side (not shown here), where it is written 'Zum Andenken an das ausgehungerte Deutschland', 'A souvenir from starving Germany'. The point was presumably to show that the naval blockade of Germany was not having the desired effect; but perhaps also to justify Zeppelin raids as reprisals for the attempt to starve the German people.

In any case, the ham-bone would appear to be an unofficial piece of propaganda devised by the Zeppelin's crew. Any effect it might have had would have been limited as it does not appear to have been mentioned in the wartime press, and whether Sir Edward himself got to hear of it is probably also doubtful. I don't know where it ended up, but thankfully the Intelligence Section, General Headquarters, Home Forces included the above photograph in a 1918 summary of the Zeppelin raids of August and September 1915 (The National Archives, AIR 1/2319/223/30/2). And here it is at last for the whole world to see!

1 Comment

In the last decade or so, it seems to have become a thing to refer to the German air raids on Britain during the First World War as the 'First Blitz'. There are now at least three books on the topic with that title or variations thereof: Andrew Hyde's The First Blitz: The German Bomber Campaign against Britain in the First World War (2002), Neil Hanson's First Blitz: The Secret German Plan to Raze London to the Ground in 1918 (2008), and now Ian Castle's The First Blitz: The Aerial Battle for London in the First World War (2015). There's also Neil Faulkner and Nadia Durrani's In Search of the Zeppelin war: The Archaeology of the First Blitz (2008) and Neil Storey's Zeppelin Blitz: The German Air Raids on Great Britain during the First World War (2015).

There are good reasons for this. The lack of a convenient shorthand or commonly accepted label for the First World War raids is quite irritating when writing about them; and even referring to them as the Zeppelin raids obscures the fact that there were Gotha raids too, a more intense, if also more brief, phase of the campaign. There is relatively little awareness or understanding of the First World War raids, especially when compared with the memory of the (second) Blitz itself, so reusing the name immediately gives a sense of what happened. And the similarities are indeed striking: in my own PhD/book, while I refrain from using 'Blitz' to refer to both I do explicitly compare the way the British responded to air raids in 1917 and 1940 in a structural sense, including the development of civil defence measures and the impulse to carry out reprisal bombing in both periods. Even the 'Blitz spirit' was in evidence long before the Blitz.

But I also have some concerns. A minor one is that it's not generally a good idea to give books on the same topic the same titles, especially in the age of SEO. More problematically, though, it is an anachronism. Nobody in 1915 London would have known what a 'Blitz' was, unless they spoke German. They certainly wouldn't have associated it with aerial warfare, since that didn't happen until the end of the 1930s. Still, anachronisms are sometimes useful ('airminded' itself is a good example -- it wasn't used before the mid-1920s, but what it describes already existed by c. 1910). As long as the anachronism doesn't mislead; and in this case I don't think it does too much, for the reasons I've already discussed. Of course, there are nevertheless significant differences between the 'first' Blitz and the real one, such as the tempo and intensity of bombing, but generally speaking that is quite clear in this comparison -- it's part of the point that the first time around was just a foretaste.

I think the real problem for me is that by choosing 'Blitz' as a frame, other frames are excluded. And this is as true for 1940 as it is for 1915 and 1917. There are three connected problems here. Firstly, the Blitz is a national narrative. It constructs aerial bombardment as a characteristically British experience; there is no place in the story for all the other countries that were bombed in the Second World War, from Poland to Germany itself. Secondly, the Blitz is also a nationalist narrative. It celebrates the cheerfulness and stoicism of the British people under the terrible ordeal inflicted on them by the Luftwaffe, while ignoring the widespread demands to do the same or worse to German civilians. Finally, the Blitz isn't even really a war narrative; it's a disaster narrative. The Blitz often isn't portrayed as a military campaign or a strategy; instead, it's a visitation from the heavens, bringing ruin and devastation for no purpose other than to highlight the goodness of the good guys and the badness of the bad guys. Importing the Blitz frame from 1940-41 to 1915-18 risks importing some or all of these narratives too, even if only subconsciously or partially.

I'm not suggesting that the Blitz should be discarded (not that anyone would listen if I did). But there are, of course, other ways to frame this history. Richard Overy's The Bombing War: Europe 1939-1945 (2013) places the Blitz squarely in the European experience of aerial bombardment as well as the broader military context of the Second World War. And this suggests an alternate way to frame the air raids on Britain between 1915 and 1918: as part of the first bombing war, the same war in which Paris was bombed, Antwerp was bombed, Freiburg was bombed, Venice was bombed, and so on. So that's what somebody needs to write now. It won't be me, though!


The novelist William Le Queux is famous, or rather infamous, for beating the drum of the German invasion and spy threat before the Great War. But what did he do during the war? Unsurprisingly, he did much the same thing. On 28 February 1915, for example, The People published an article by Le Queux entitled 'HOTBEDS OF ALIEN ENEMIES AND SPIES IN THE HEART OF THE METROPOLIS. THE SCANDAL OF THE ALIEN ENEMY AND SPY IN OUR MIDST. HOME OFFICE TURN A BLIND EYE TO TREASON-MONGERS AND TRAITORS'.1 This was not a work of fiction, but rather a supposedly factual expose of 'the alien enemy in our very midst [which] will be read with amazement and disgust'.2 The disturbing revelations were the result of Le Queux's intrepid forays into the 'nests of Germans who, unchecked by the authorities, vilify Britain and openly pray for her downfall', right in the heart of darkness, i.e. 'the neighbourhood of Tottenham Court-rd. and Soho'.3 For example, he claimed to have sat in on a conversation (apparently posing as an Italian –– the mind boggles) between two men and a woman in a house on Tottenham Street:

They laughed the British Government to scorn, and declared that certain Ministers were Germany's friends. 'We shall win,' declared one of the men. 'The British Army will never re-enter Belgium. We have some surprises there for them, just as we have here in England when our Zeppelins come. All is prepared, and, at a given signal, these English fools will wake up with a start. We already have our hand upon these vermin here, and it will not be long before the Eagle will show its claws. Happily, the fools are asleep. We are not! We know every night what is happening. Tonight, at eight o'clock, there were five German aeroplanes between Dunkirk and Dover. But they are not coming to England.'

'How do you know that?' I asked, instantly interested.

The round-faced man, a typical Prussian, only smiled mysteriously behind his glasses, and refused to satisfy my curiosity.4

Le Queux, of course, was able to verify that there were indeed five German aeroplanes near Dunkirk that night, and further that information was reaching the German spies in London on a nightly basis. And if more evidence was required, there was much more:

Everywhere I went, both around Tottenham Court-rd. and in Soho, I heard the same vile abuse of England, the same wild enthusiasm over German victories, the same blind, unshaken confidence in the German power to eventually crush us, and the same declaration that the bombardment of London from the air is only a matter of days, and that it will be the signal for terrible havoc and destruction to be worked in all our great cities by the army of secret agents who are 'lying low' awaiting the signal to strike, and thus produce a panic.5

And so on. The point was, of course, to rouse the Home Office from its slumber, to force it to place 'the whole matter of enemy aliens and espionage [...] under the control of a central board with absolute power to crush it out, and so protect the State from a deadly peril which has permeated into every walk of our national life'.6
...continue reading

  1. The National Archives [TNA], MEPO 3/243: clipping from The People (London), 28 February 1915. 

  2. Ibid. 

  3. Ibid. 

  4. Ibid. 

  5. Ibid. 

  6. Ibid. 

The Peril in the Air

This could be the lurid cover of an Edwardian novel about the dangers of aerial bombardment, with an aeroplane, an airship and Death himself hovering over a great city, watching the terrified populace streaming outwards in panic: the first knock-out blow from the air. But it's not. Instead it's the lurid cover of an Edwardian advertising brochure for Peps tablets, claimed to alleviate everything from coughs and colds to potter's rot and pulmonary tuberculosis, any ailment of the throat and chest.
...continue reading

In December I'll be giving a talk at the Aviation Cultures Mk. II: Technology, Culture, Heritage conference at the University of Sydney, entitled 'Comparing Hendon: aerial theatre in context'. Here's the abstract:

The RAF Pageants held between 1920 and 1937 at Hendon in north London were an annual series of air shows, in which military aircraft put on impressive displays of aerobatics and formation flying, climaxing with an elaborate set piece in which a battle scenario with an imaginary enemy was acted out, for the entertainment and edification of the spectators. These pageants were hugely popular among all social classes, being witnessed each year by hundreds of thousands of people directly and many millions more indirectly through newsreels. Hendon was undoubtedly the most important British venue for staging aerial theatre, the use of aviation spectacle to project images of future warfare, national power and technological prowess. However, the RAF Pageants were not unique. In this paper I will compare them with: equivalent forms of theatre employed by the British Army and the Royal Navy; similar forms of aerial theatre staged internationally, for example in Italy, the Soviet Union and Australia; and different kinds of aerial theatre used by the RAF itself, particularly Empire Air Day. This comparative approach will enable me to demonstrate the importance of Hendon and its influence, and to understand the relationship between the specific form of aerial theatre and the messages it conveyed about war, nation and technology.

This is the start of pulling together a few themes into something publishable. As part of the revision process for my 1913 phantom airships article, I decided to cut the section on the idea of the aerial theatre and to instead expand that into an article of its own. But instead of focusing narrowly on the Edwardian aerial theatre I'll think I'll take it into the interwar period and talk about the Hendon pageants instead, which were the subject of a series of posts I did ages ago. So it's time to take another look at Hendon, and presenting at Aviation Cultures Mk. II will be a part of that process.

I see that I neglected to post about Aviation Cultures Mk. I, which was held back in February, also at the University of Sydney. I think that was because I wasn't presenting anything original, just an overview of my research interests. It was an excellent one day interdisciplinary seminar involving mostly Australian researchers from the humanities and social sciences, as well representatives from the heritage sector. A highlight for me was Michael Molkentin's paper on pre-1914 military aviation in the Dominions, where he revealed the (unsurprisingly) naive entries submitted by the public for the Australian government's competition to design an effective military machine. Peter Hobbins (one of the organisers) spoke about his work on the pioneering Cotton Aerodynamic Anti-G Suit, the remains of which we got to see (it was developed at Sydney). So with Aviation Cultures Mk. I being such a success, the programme for Mk. II has expanded to cover two days. There are a lot of papers to look forward to, but here I will just mention those given by Leigh Edmonds, author of the (I think) only study of Australian airmindedness, who will speak on 'Australian aviation and society: the feedback loop', and two by commenters on this blog, Phil Vabre (with Roger Meyer) on 'How to make the uninteresting interesting: the Airways Museum as a case study', and James Kightly (AKA JDK) on 'Tested testers: re-learning to fly the Boxkite'. Should be fun!