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!

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.
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Globe, 8 March 1913, p. 7

An Australian view of the 1913 phantom airship scare in Britain, from the Sydney Globe, 8 March 1913, p. 7:

A scare was created in England last week by the reported appearance of a mysterious airship at night over the East Coast. Two residents of Ipswich separately saw the searchlight of the airship, and one declares he heard the engines. Residents in Hunstanton, a watering-place in Norfolk-on-the-Wash, state that they saw three bright lights pass from the east and disappear in the north-west after hovering overhead for half an hour. The steamer Arcadia also reported that she saw an airship to the north of the Orkneys. The airship is believed to have been a German visitor.

Artistic interpretations of phantom airships are not common; I'm not sure if this particular one is Australian or if it was sourced from the British press (or elsewhere), or for that matter whether it was drawn specifically to represent a phantom airship or just a generic one.1 It's a fanciful depiction, with its double-decker gondola and stubby wings. Phantom airships were almost universally equipped with searchlights, which were much less common features of real airships (though not vanishingly so). It is perhaps a reasonable representation of what people thought they were seeing when they saw phantom airships. On the ground below is a prosperous-looking town, but by the sea in the foreground is what might be a military base of some kind -- it's tempting to say those sheds are hangars, but I suspect it's a military or naval depot, as popular strategists believed that these would be the primary targets in a Zeppelin attack on Britain.

Thanks to David Waldron for the image.

  1. Another contemporary drawing of a phantom airship appeared in the Whitby Gazette, 7 March 1913, p. 12, depicting the Othello incident; but the online version is not great; a better one is in Nigel Watson, UFOs of the First World War: Phantom Airships, Balloons, Aircraft and Other Mysterious Aerial Phenomena (Stroud: History Press, 2015), p. 54. 

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


Getty Images has just announced an embed function, which makes it possible to very easily use images from their collections in blogs and other social media, while simultaneously maintaining Getty Images' rights and -- this is the really nice bit -- avoiding the use of unsightly watermarks. This is rightly being greeted with enthusiasm (though not so much by photographers), and I'll try to use it myself where possible. Even a quick search turns up many great historical images, some familiar, most not. (Basic tip -- to filter out stock photos, restrict your search to editorial images.)

But there are problems, too. Above is an example of a embed from Getty Images. It's from a lithograph by W. Walton of Day & Haghe, lithographers to the Queen, depicting 'Ariel, the first carriage of the Aerial Transit Company', and printed on 26 March 1843 by Ackermann & Co., Strand, London. But the only part of all that which is given in the Getty Images metadata is the title; the rest came from the Library of Congress's copy, which moreover has no usage restrictions at all (since it's long out of copyright) and shows the uncropped lithograph (admittedly, probably less desirable for a blog post). The only other information offered by Getty Images is that the date it was created was 1 January 1900, which is ludicrously incorrect.

We can't expect Getty Images to thoroughly research every image they hold, and an aeroplane flying over Egypt in the mid-19th century is kind of weird to begin with. But the problem of poor or incorrect Getty Images metadata is actually quite common.
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Pour la patrie

This must be about the strangest image to have ever appeared on this blog. How to explain it?

First of all, it was published in Review of Reviews, May 1913, 457, accompanying the second part of a two-part article by Count Zeppelin on 'The conquest of the air'. However, apart from the obvious aviation theme there's no obvious link to the text. The caption reads:

The Pictorial Postcard issued for sale on behalf of the Swiss National Aviation Fund.

I can't find much about the Swiss National Aviation Fund (which doubtless had a proper name in French and German -- there's a version of the postcard in the latter), apart from a solitary but simultaneous mention in Flight, 3 May 1913, 496:

Having arranged to fly at Aaran in the interest of the Swiss National Aviation Fund to which £16,000 has already been subscribed, Oscar Bider flew over from Berne on his Blériot tandem on the 22nd ult., in 45 mins.

This confirms what was already apparent from the name, that the Swiss National Aviation Fund was an effort to raise funds to buy aircraft, 'pour la Patrie', for the Fatherland, presumably for military purposes. (It seems to have been reissued during the First World War, in which Switzerland of course was neutral, but in need of aircraft more than ever.) Similar efforts were then underway in Britain and the Dominions, such as the Britannia Airship Committee and the Imperial Air Fleet Committee, and during the recent airship panic the Navy League had tried to get British municipalities to volunteer funds to buy aircraft for their own defence -- though I suspect none were as successful as the Swiss National Aviation Fund, if the report in Flight is correct.

All that may help explain the presence of this image in Review of Reviews, but it doesn't explain the image itself, a photograph of a sculpture, probably in clay, by the Italian Domenico Mastroianni. All I can offer is that the woman with the sword and the cross on her breast is Helvetia, the national personification of Switzerland. The grouping of her with the horses almost seems like a statue group; perhaps it is a reference to a well-known depiction, but I haven't been able to find it. Like Helvetia herself, the horses also seem to pull the image away from modernity into a classical past, which is contrary to how you'd expect such a radical new technology to be portrayed -- on the Italian side of the Alps, the even newer literary and artistic movement, Futurism, was filled with images of aviation precisely because it was such a break with the past. But perhaps that was the point of this image -- maybe by classicising the aeroplane and relating it to safe and familiar forms of patriotism and strength it reassured the viewer that the traditional virtues and mores would not be overturned along with transportation and warfare. It this context it might be noted that the British committees and leagues referred to earlier all had, in that typical Edwardian way, aristocratic patrons: Lord Desborough was president of the Imperial Air Fleet Committee, for example. It's a more subtle way of giving the same assurance, that the social order will be upheld.

It's still a bizarre image, though. And it must be pointed out that 3 hp is woefully underpowered for an aeroplane, even in 1913.


[Cross-posted at Society for Military History.]

IWM PST 12249

Above is a poster printed in Australia during the First World War. It very strikingly shows a Zeppelin caught in searchlights (with an aeroplane just visible at the top) over what looks like a town nestled in a valley beside a river. The text reads:



No Charge

It was pointed out to me by Peter Taylor, who found it in the Imperial War Museum's collections and noted that it seems unusual for a Zeppelin to feature in Australian propaganda. So what's going on here?
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Cyril Power, Air Raid (1935)

Cyril Power, Air Raid (1935): British biplanes tangling with an unidentified enemy against a smoke-filled sky.

It is tempting, given the date, to see this as an air raid of the next war, especially given Power's marked interest in machines and speed and influence by Futurism and Vorticism. But it could just as well be an air raid of the last war. Power, then an architect and a lecturer, joined the RFC in 1916 and was put in charge of the repair workshops at Lympne, a transit point for aircraft going to and from the Western Front. Judging from his AIR 76, he arrived after the daylight Gotha raid on the airfield on 25 May 1917 (as well as the riot at nearby Hythe), but he would have been familiar with British bombers passing through. Power's partner, Sybil Andrews, also had some aeronautical experience as she had been a welder in a factory making parts for Bristol (possibly for the all-metal M.R.1, but that's a guess as details are sketchy).

It's probably both. Or neither. It's still a striking evocation of speed, violence and, well, power.

Image source: Museum of Fine Arts.


NZ Observer, 4 May 1918, p. 5

For a country so far from the frontline, there was a surprising amount of discussion in the New Zealand press in the autumn of 1918 about the possibility of Auckland being bombed or Wellington being shelled. It's true that it was often framed in a joking fashion, as with the above cartoon which appeared in the New Zealand Observer on 4 May with the caption 'IF A BOMB FELL ON ONE OF OURS?' showing the reactions of an amusingly confused congregation as the war intrudes into their Sunday devotions.1 But despite the humour, there's an undercurrent of fear, and also perhaps, strangely, of desire.
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  1. New Zealand Observer (Auckland), 4 May 1918, 5

1 Comment

Previously I looked at Excubitor's claim that in 1913 the Anglo-German naval race was turning into a more dangerous aero-naval one, and that Britain, having won the first was now in the process of losing the other. Here I'll look at some related strands of thought in the press more generally, and what the point of it all was.

Excubitor was not alone in suggesting that Germany was concentrating on airships to compensate for its inferiority in dreadnoughts. A leader in the Devon and Exeter Gazette, for example, drew on an article in Blackwood's Magazine by T. F. Farman (the journalist father of aviator Henri Farman), for its argument that Britain could not afford to be complacent:

Without impugning the sincerity of the German Chancellor's assurances, it is, nevertheless, permissible to inquire whether the alleged intention to abandon, for the time being, the project of creating a fleet equal in every respect to that of Great Britain cannot be accounted for by the creation of a German aerial fleet of dreadnoughts, which is at the present moment unrivalled, and which could, in the case of hostilities, render signal service in a naval engagement in the North Sea or English Channel, and be utilised for attack on ports, arsenals, etc. The Germans may be, indeed, justified in calculating that the proportion of ten to sixteen units is compensated for to a considerable extent by the aerial fleet they have already created, and which is being increased with extraordinary rapidity, both in the number of its units and in their power.1

Relatedly, and more commonly, there were a number of commentators who also pointed to the threat posed to Britain's decisive naval superiority by Germany's even more decisive air superiority, but stopped short of claiming that this was a continuation of the dreadnought race (though, arguably, this is implicit). So, for example, an anonymous 'naval expert' interviewed by the Daily Mirror said that

'I think that the strength of the British fleet is unchallengeable [...] if you have regard solely to the old conditions of warfare -- that is to say, that we have a comfortable margin of superiority ship for ship.

'Naval science, however, has recently made such rapid progress that it is not now merely a question of sea ship for sea ship; but sea ship plus the air fleet. Bear that in mind, and you will realise the gravity of the present situation.

'The plain fact is that while Germany can come over and attack us by air, we not only cannot attack Germany, but we have no air fleet to resist their attack.

'Our defence against an air attack by Germany is so insignificant as to be practically worthless.

'I believe that if Germany sent over half a dozen airships they could cripple if not destroy our battle fleet and blow up many of our fortresses, and having reduced us to a state of impotence and panic these airships could head for home again unscathed.2

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  1. Devon and Exeter Gazette, 29 March 1913, 2; cf. T. F. Farman, 'Aerial armaments: dirigibles and aeroplanes', Blackwood's Magazine 193 (April 1913), 433-47. 

  2. Daily Mirror, 14 February 1913, 5.