Spithead review

Today I had my very first radio appearance, on ABC New England North West, talking to Kelly Fuller on the Mornings show. I was talking about what was happening in Europe 100 years ago, during the July Crisis of 1914. More specifically, I spoke about the Royal Navy's test mobilisation at Spithead (above) and the drafting of the Austro-Hungarian ultimatum to Serbia in response to the assassination of Franz Ferdinand. Despite a throat infection and a couple of stumbles, and going under time, I think it went alright. You can listen to it here.

This is my first contribution to a weekly radio series, 'The Road to War', where historians from the University of New England (mostly) and Flinders University will discuss the events of 1914 and then 1915, a century after they happened. The idea, at least at this stage, is that we will highlight what was happening in the First World War (and the lead up to it) before Gallipoli, which is essentially when Australian memory of the war begins -- even though there was actually a lot going on before then. So something like the post-blogging I've done from time to time, but less time-intensive. Particularly since I'm just one member of a team: the others are my colleagues Richard Scully (whose idea all of this was), Nathan Wise, Erin Ihde (all from UNE), and hopefully Melanie Oppenheimer (Flinders). Richard has already given a couple of talks, on the assassination itself and the German blank cheque, and Nathan spoke last week about Europe going on its summer holidays while Austria-Hungary decided what to do; next week Erin will look at the Serbian response to the ultimatum and the firing of the first shots. Future episodes will be available from here or here. My contributions will mainly focus on the war in the air (naturally -- I even managed to sneak the RNAS in today) and at sea, but I'll be covering some aspects of the land war, too. It should be fun and educational -- maybe even at the same time!

Image source: the-weatherings.co.uk.

No sooner is one conference over than another one looms. The one which is over is the Australian Historical Association annual conference for 2014, which was held last week at the beautiful St Lucia campus of the University of Queensland. I spoke on the topic of invasion, Zeppelin and spy scares in Britain during the First World War. I was glad that I could speak, because I had an unfortunate throat infection that at times took away my voice entirely (and my poor students are still having to deal with the aftereffects). But I got through it, and the audience, if small, seemed appreciative. I had planned to use the talk to push the planning for my forthcoming research trip to the UK, but in the event teaching meant that I didn't have time to do any substantial new research. Instead, I expanded upon my recent n-map post, looking at how to use the British Newspaper Archive to map geographical variations in word use (and in my case, I'm arguing, suggesting where in Britain spy, invasion and Zeppelin fears were most common). That wasn't such a bad thing, and since historians, unlike scientists, are rarely explicit about how they do what they do, it may even be worth writing up as a methodological article, with the wartime fears as a case study. Otherwise, the AHA was good for what AHAs are usually good for -- catching up with friends and making new ones, and sometimes even learning some new history. I won't try to summarise the conference, particularly since I was too sick/lazy to livetweet it, but see Marion Diamond's post at Historians are Past Caring, as well as the indefatigable Yvonne Perkins' series at Stumbling Through the Past, here, here, here, here, and here.

The conference which is looming, Regional Australia at War, is just under a month away, 14-15 August 2014. Fortunately it is much closer to home; in fact it will be at my own institution, the University of New England, and is being organised by my Humanities colleague Nathan Wise. I'm giving a paper on the topic of 'The Australian mystery aeroplane scare of 1918', which actually fits in perfectly with the theme of 'regional Australia at war', since it was primarily a regional and rural phenomenon. The abstract is as follows:

Between March and June 1918, Australian newspapers, police forces and military intelligence units were deluged with hundreds of reports of mysterious aeroplanes. They were seen in every state, mostly at night, by men and women, young and old, civilians and soldiers. The vast majority of reports came from regional areas. As there were only a tiny number of aircraft known to be operating in Australia, the sightings were presumed to be German aircraft, perhaps flown from unknown merchant raiders operating in Australian waters or by foreign spies working against Australia. The reports were taken seriously, but investigations by the authorities eventually found nothing to substantiate them. The mystery aeroplanes were phantoms.

Australia had been at war for more than three years. But it was a nation both divided and defenceless. It had gone through two bitterly-fought conscription referenda, and appeared to be threatened from within by immigrants, the Irish and the Wobblies. The vast majority of its military forces were deployed overseas, with little more than poorly-equipped training cadres remaining at home. In March 1918, newspapers carried reports that the German merchant cruiser Wolf, which had been raiding Australian waters the previous year, had flown its seaplane over Sydney unopposed and undetected. A few days later, Germany's Spring Offensive opened, nearly breaking the Allied lines for the first time since 1914. The mystery aeroplanes resulted from a new perception that Australia was directly threatened and that the war could be lost.

This is pretty much the same abstract I used for the AHA in 2012 and at Singapore earlier this year. I actually plan to give a slightly different different talk, focusing on following the chain of rumour from the initial aeroplane sightings to (ultimately) the military and naval intelligence archives. But as my experience with the AHA this year shows, that may be somewhat ambitious! I'll even have to give my paper in between lectures and tutorials, since I'll be teaching that day, which unfortunately also means that I'll miss many interesting papers. I was particularly keen to hear Jennifer Sloggett, who I met at the AHA and is doing her PhD at Newcastle on the topic of Australian military and civil defence planning before and during the Second World War, especially since her paper "Girt" and "boundless": the war roles of the coast and hinterland in NSW in WWII' would seem to have interesting conceptual parallels with my aforementioned project on invasion, spy and Zeppelin scares. Well, there's always the next AHA.


The New Zealand government, despite its lack of a homegrown air arm, was little inclined to get involved in the Imperial Aircraft Flotilla. Even though a local Over-Seas Club president happened to have a seat in Cabinet, official participation was largely confined to forwarding money collected by New Zealand individuals and organisations to the Over-Seas Club headquarters in London. This was not because the government wasn't asked. In February 1915 Evelyn Wrench, the Honorary Secretary and Organiser of the Over-Seas Club in London, wrote to the New Zealand Minister for Defence, James Allen, explaining the purpose of what was at this time called the Over-Seas Aircraft Fund. He pointed out that it had been approved by the Army Council and quoted a letter from Lewis Harcourt, the Secretary of State for the Colonies, giving his endorsement.1 A pamphlet was included which pointed out that 'In view of the superhuman efforts which Germany is making to establish a mastery of the air' and 'the official German statement that the Yarmouth raid is only the precursor of many such exploits, every Aeroplane which we can provide will be needed'.2 Wrench's 'appeal to the people of New Zealand' to provide £2250 for a 'Vicker's Gun Biplane', to be 'definitely associated with the Dominion and the fact that it has been contributed by the residents of New Zealand would be painted on the machine' was considered by Cabinet in May.3 However, Allen's reply was that his colleagues 'cannot see their way to take any action in view of the tremendous demands that are being made upon the country during this war time'.4

There was a further approach in August, this time from Horace H. Hunt of the Auckland branch of the Over-seas Club. Hunt wrote to the Minister for Munitions, A. M. Myers, who just happened to be the president of the same branch. Hunt enclosed further literature and endorsements of what was now called the Over-Seas Aircraft Flotilla. This time, however, the idea was that the aircraft in question would be built in New Zealand and sent to Britain. Hunt noted that he had been in contact with 'the firm of Messrs. Walsh Brothers, who have for some time been manufacturing Seaplanes, and who have opened an Aviation School at Orakei'. Given that Walsh Brothers 'have received official recognition from the New Zealand Government' and 'have machinery etc on order for the complete outfitting of Seaplanes', Hunt seemed to be suggesting that the government should facilitate the establishment of a native New Zealand aircraft industry under the auspices of the Over-Seas Club.5 Myers passed this on to Allen, who again demurred. His argument this time was that 'it would be extremely difficult to see that any Aeroplane provided was up to the proper standard for use on active service, since there is no competent aviation engineer in the Dominion'. He also somewhat peevishly pointed out that the government had not given 'official recognition' to Walsh Brothers, having 'only undertaken to appoint officers to observe flights in accordance with the requirements of the Royal Aero Club's conditions for the granting of Pilots' Certificates'.6
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  1. Archives New Zealand [ANZ]: AAYS 8638 AD1/920 46/62/128, letter, Evelyn Wrench, 22 February 1915. 

  2. Ibid., 'The Over-Seas Aircraft Fund', n.d. [1915]. 

  3. Ibid., letter, Evelyn Wrench, 22 February 1915. 

  4. Ibid., letter, James Allen, 21 May 1915. 

  5. Ibid., letter, [Horace H. Hunt], 27 August 1915. 

  6. Ibid., letter, James Allen, 10 September 1915. 


As of May 1916, the Imperial Aircraft Flotilla consisted of 91 machines purchased with funds donated by Britons overseas, 69 for the RFC and 22 for the RNAS. The RFC donations were organised through the Over-Seas Club -- £1500 for a B.E.2c and £2250 for a Vickers F.B.5 -- and were as follows.1
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  1. The Imperial Aircraft Flotilla (London: The Over-Seas Club, n.d. [1916]), 18-23. 


The Imperial Aircraft Flotilla

We are familiar enough with the Spitfire Funds of the Second World War, in which patriotic individuals and groups could buy aircraft for the nation. There was a fair amount of precedent for this. In the early 1930s, Lady Houston more than once offered the government hundreds of thousands of pounds for air defence, though this was turned down. Perhaps she was inspired by the Nizam of Hyderabad who in 1917 donated a whole squadron of DH.9As, forming the initial complement of No. 110 Squadron RFC. In fact the idea of civilians donating military aircraft had its origins before 1914, at a time when Britain appeared very weak in the air. Most famously there had been the sorry story of the Morning Post airship, purchased from France in 1910 with the money raised by a subscription fund, damaged on arrival when it tried to squeeze into its hangar, and destroyed on its first flight after being repaired. But the idea persisted. A proposal made by the Review of Reviews during the 1913 airship panic for 'each county, each great city or town, each collection of villages in the homeland and the Empire [to] give one or more aeroplanes to the State' came to not much, though a few months later it was reported that 'a sum of £1000 has been subscribed in British East Africa for the purchase of an aeroplane for Great Britain'.1
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  1. 'Britain’s peril in the air', Review of Reviews 47 (April 1913): 134; Manchester Courier, 4 July 1913, 7


With my book's publication imminent and my return to the job market beginning to, if not loom, then at least creep up, it's time to think about what's next in terms of a research programme. I had been thinking of something to do with mystery aircraft, and indeed my next small research project, on scares during the First World War, was intended to be part of that. But after turning this idea over for a while, and trying to outline a grant proposal, I don't think this is quite viable, at least not by me, or not by me right now. It's either too big or too small. It's too big in the sense that to do mystery aircraft properly and bring out what is interesting about them, in the sense of speaking to larger historical questions, Britain is too narrow a compass: I really need to do a comparative study across all the English-speaking countries at a minimum, and ideally take in Europe as well, from the 1890s to the 1940s. It's too small in that I'm not sure that what is interesting about mystery aircraft scares is actually all that interesting: at least not interesting enough for a grant committee, and maybe not enough to warrant three years of my life plus a book. And the smaller I make the project, the less interesting it gets. There's probably a happy medium to be struck between these problems (okay, so I maybe don't need to include every single mystery aircraft wave from Australia to the United States, and let's be honest, how interesting is anything I do likely to be?) But perhaps I need to develop more as a historian first. Perhaps I need to step back a bit and look at the bigger picture.

What I am now thinking should be my next project is what I have termed the aerial theatre, the use of aviation spectacle to construct national identity and project national power. This is small enough, in that I can focus just on Britain's aerial theatre, while still drawing comparisons only when and where it is helpful. And it is big enough, in that there is a huge variety of topics I can pull into the aerial theatre concept, many of which I have long been interested in and would love an excuse to study in a more sustained way. Hendon is the prime example, both in its civilian phase under Claude Grahame-White before 1914, and its military phase under the RAF between 1920 and 1937. But I keep thinking of many, many things I could look at. Like Hendon, some of these were organised by civilians and some were organised by the military; some had only incidental civilian audiences, some had only incidental military purposes. The Daily Mail prizes, like the London-Manchester race in 1910. Grahame-White's 'Wake Up, England!' campaign, which toured seaside resorts in the summer of 1912. Empire Air Day, the RAF's 'at home' day in the 1930s. The Air Defence of Great Britain exercises between 1927 and 1931, held around London. Even combat operations, like Operation Millennium, could be considered aerial theatre: it was explicitly designed, in part, to be a media spectacle, to impress people at home and abroad with the power of Bomber Command. I could go on and on, and hopefully will (just not now).
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Since I'll be undertaking a research trip to the UK this November or so, I need to think about exactly what I'm going to do there. Giving a paper at the AHA is part of that process. That will hopefully help me formulate my approach or at least identify potential approaches to comparing airship, spy and invasion scares in the First World War. But I also need to nail down where I am going to go in a very physical and literal sense. This is because I want to get out of London for at least a week, to look at scares in a provincial area, and raid the local archives for civil defence files or personal diaries and so on (which of course I can supplement in the London archives). This is partly because it'd be nice to avoid the London-centric perspective for change, but also because I suspect that such fears could be as or even more intense in outlying areas -- particularly on the eastern coast facing Germany. I had been thinking somewhere like Hull, which was raided by Zeppelins on multiple occasions, or East Anglia which is the closest part to Germany and so an obvious (at least in the folk sense) place for a German invasion or raid. Both areas also had notable phantom airship sightings in 1913. So maybe there. Or maybe somewhere else.

I wondered if it there was perhaps a systematic way of gauging fears along the invasion coast, something better than throwing darts at a map. And it occurred to me that I might be able to use the British Newspaper Archive (BNA) for this. We're all used to n-grams by now, which are great for tracking the varying usage of words over time. Tim Sherratt's QueryPic does this for Australian newspapers based on the Trove Newspapers corpus; though there's nothing similar for BNA that I know of, you can manually extract the data yourself without it getting too tedious. What I am thinking of might be termed an n-map: an n-gram across space instead of across time. It's a very obvious thing to do, but I don't think I've seen it done for the databases I'm used to using. It's really just GIS (without an actual map). Or distant (newspaper and map) reading.

There's no publicly-available BNA API to make it possible to do this in an automatic way, but again it is actually not too difficult to use the BNA interface manually. This is because BNA has a very fine level of geographic discrimination: all newspapers in the database are allocated a place (e.g. Hull), a county (e.g. East Riding of Yorkshire) and a region (e.g. Yorkshire and the Humber). These appear as filters when you do a search, and listed beside each filter is the number of issues the search has thrown up for it. So you can just copy down the numbers into a spreadsheet to construct your own low-tech n-map (or n-gram, for that matter).

So now the question is, what keywords do I use? This is not completely straightforward, though neither does it have to be airtight. This is just back-of-the-envelope stuff, after all. After some experimentation, I ended up going with 'zeppelin'; 'invasion'; and 'spy'. (BNA automatically searches on plurals as well.) Here are the number of articles in the BNA for each keyword for each region, for the period 4 August 1914 to 11 November 1918.

Borders, Scotland10592103
East Midlands, England269912972657
East, England530395354
Grampian, Scotland271018403429
London, England204148
Lothian, Scotland661432968
North East, England156911641690
North West, England510434086854
South East, England629569656
South West, England477739604917
Strathclyde, Scotland224207349
Tayside, Scotland236116083849
West Midlands, England852247856552
Yorkshire and the Humber, England598830755575

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I've just submitted an article for peer review, 'The airship panic of 1913: the birth of aerial theatre and the British fear of Germany on the eve of the Great War'. I'm not going to say where, since it will likely be rejected and I don't need to have a public record of my failures! But while this particular journal does allow self-archiving, it only allows authors to self-archive the pre-peer review version (which I dislike, but it's better than nothing) and then only if it is uploaded before the article is accepted. So in the unlikely event that it is accepted, I need to self-archive it now or not at all. So here it is, and here's the abstract:

In late 1912 and early 1913, people all over Britain reported seeing airships in the night sky where there were none. It was widely assumed that these 'phantom airships' were German Zeppelins, testing British defences in preparation for the next war. Conservative newspapers and patriotic leagues used the sightings to argue for a massive expansion of Britain's aerial forces, perceived to be completely outclassed by Germany's in both number and power. In many ways this panic was analogous to the much better known 1909 dreadnought panic, which took place at the height of the Anglo-German antagonism. But historians generally agree that 1913 was a time of détente between the two nations. Why, then, did Britons not only imagine that German airships were a potential threat, but imagine that they were actually flying overhead?

The answer lies in the persistence, despite improving relations, of the effects of earlier spy, invasion, and naval panics. When combined with an emerging aerial theatre, which used flying displays and aviation exhibitions to emphasise British weakness, instead of strength as with the older naval theatre, the result was the perfect Edwardian panic. The airship panic was simultaneously a spy panic, an invasion panic, and above all a naval panic: navalists argued that Germany, having lost the dreadnought race, was building Zeppelins at a furious rate in order to overcome British naval superiority, and that Britain was losing a new, aerial arms race of which it was barely even aware.

Also, since it worked so well before, I've decided to use open peer review while the article is undergoing closed peer review. If you feel like it, I'd appreciate your feedback (anonymously if you prefer) at Google Docs.

Either or both of these versions may be replaced or even disappear without notice, depending on what happens with the journal(s). Fingers crossed!

Flight, 22 March 1913, 341

This cartoon appeared in Flight in 1913.1 It's entitled 'In 1950' with the caption 'Flitting -- by the light of the Easter moon'.

Now, 'flitting' is a term used in Scotland and the north of England to mean moving house. It is, or at least was, a practice which happened much more often there than in the south. In fact, it was something of an annual tradition in Scotland, with 25 May in particular being Flitting Day. The Motherwell Times described the scene in an 1898 leading article:

The week that has about gone provides at least one field day in the year for a considerable proportion of our population. Some people must flit every year, and they are no sooner installed in their new diggings than they begin to cast their vision about in order to select the battle-ground of their next upheaval. Now may be seen the central figure of the show, the commander-in-chief of the whole operations, with whitewash in her hair, fire in her eye, and anathemas on her lips, careering wildly about, seeking for some devoted one which to explode her righteous indignation. The poor titular head of the house is altogether a secondary and quite unimportant individual, and if ever he has been prone to at any time think of himself as somebody in particular, it is about now that he gets the starch taken out, and he is made to realize that he is only small potatoes after all.2

There's an obvious gender aspect to this, and a less obvious class one too -- the poor were much more likely to rent their homes rather than own them, and so were much more likely to move about. This is evident in Flight's cartoon, too: although the flitting in 1950 is being done with the aid of a (not particularly realistic) aeroplane, it has patches on its wings and the passengers perched on the back are of humble appearance. What's more, it's not just any old flitting that is being done, but moonlight flitting: i.e. secretly moving house in the dead of night, in order to escape creditors and landlords.

What is the point of this cartoon? It doesn't seem to be any sort of topical reference, and it was published a couple of months before Flitting Day. Obviously it's not meant to be taken particularly seriously. There's probably a play on the other meaning of 'flitting', in the sense of the swift motion of small animals, particularly flying ones like birds and bats. But there is also a glance at Britain's airminded future, even if in a very lighthearted way, at the idea that aviation would become an integral part of British society, that Britons would naturally and instinctively turn to the skies, that even the poor would have access to aircraft. It's also perhaps a little satirical though, because -- at least in this respect -- becoming airminded has not fundamentally altered British society. People are still poor, still evade their debts, and still flit by moonlight; all the coming of flight has done is to change their mode of transportation.

  1. Flight, 22 March 1913, 341

  2. Motherwell Times, 3 June 1898, 2

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I heard today that my proposed paper for this year's Australian Historical Association conference has been accepted, so I'll be going to Brisbane and the University of Queensland in July. (Better winter than summer, the only time of year I've been previously, I'm quite sure.) The title and abstract are as follows:

Rumours of war: invasion, Zeppelin and spy scares in Britain, 1914-1918

Despite, or perhaps because of, the British government's tight control of war news, rumours competed with more authorised sources of information as people tried to make sense of the worldwide conflict they now found themselves in. One effect was to reconstruct the home front as a combat zone, under constant, if largely imaginary, attack from German spies, Zeppelins and even invaders. In this paper, I will explore the British public’s reaction to the threat of German attack during the First World War, primarily in the forms of rumours about invasion, bombing, and espionage.

This is part of my current research project. Well, I say 'current', but what with teaching, writing, and booking I haven't had much of a chance to work on it yet. So, in the time-honoured tradition of academia, I've committed myself to giving a talk about something I haven't done yet, essentially in order to force myself to at least start thinking about doing it. Let's see if this works.