Australia

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.

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[Cross-posted at Society for Military History Blog.]

Ottawa Evening Journal, 15 February 1915, 1

On 15 February 1915, the Winnipeg Evening Tribune's daily astrology column noted the unfavourable positions of Mars and Uranus:

The affliction of Mars this month is ominous of outrages against persons in power. A disaster that will shock the people living in cities is threatened.

Uranus foreshadows peril from aeroplanes or Zeppelins. National alarm from unexpected causes is presaged by the planets.1

Readers might indeed have been excused for being alarmed, for the previous evening, Ottawa, the Canadian capital, had been placed on high alert due to reports of aircraft approaching it from the United States border. While no attack actually eventuated, the omens were not good -- at least according to the McClure Newspaper Syndicate's anonymous astrologer.
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  1. Winnipeg Evening Tribune, 15 February 1915, 6. 

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[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:

ZEPPELINS OVER YOUR TOWN ON ________

"COME TO OUR DUGOUT"

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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It's quite a small world tour, admittedly, but two gigs in two countries just qualifies, I think. Little to no moshing is expected.

First, I will be giving a paper at the Empire in Peril: Invasion-scares and Popular Politics In Britain 1890-1914 workshop, which is being held at Queen Mary University of London on 14 and 15 November 2013. I'll be reprising my Wellington AAEH paper, with the following title and abstract:

'What are the Germans up to?' The British phantom airship scare of 1913

In late 1912 and early 1913, people all over Britain reported seeing airships in the night sky where there were none. The general presumption was that these were German Zeppelins, testing British defences in preparation for the next war. One result was a largely Conservative press agitation 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 scare (itself followed by a smaller phantom airship scare). But historians now generally agree that 1913 was a period of detente in Anglo-German relations. Why, then, did Britons not only imagine that German airships were a potential threat, but imagine that they were actually flying overhead?

As an example of collective behaviour, the phantom airship scare offers us a rare glimpse of the state of British public opinion (as well as press and political opinion) regarding Germany shortly before the outbreak of the First World War. I will place this scare in the context of the preceding dreadnought, spy and invasion panics, and will argue that the threatening nature of the new technology of flight, and Britain's perceived failure to keep pace with other nations in its military applications, amplified the German threat despite the improving international situation. In particular, I will show that the airship scare was also a naval scare: 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. 1913 may have witnessed detente at the official level, but the British press and public were still less than ready to believe in Germany's good intentions.

So, the usual, in other words. But what's really exciting is that I won't be the only one talking about phantom airships or air scares! I'm speaking in a session entitled 'The Terror from Above' along with Michael Paris who is speaking on 'Aerial Invasions'; and afterwards there is a keynote and plenary by Michael Matin on 'The 1913 Airship Panic and the Cultivation of Fear'. At last, I have found my people! Of course, we'll probably vehemently disagree with each other but that's okay too. Given the topic, the rest of the workshop will also be fascinating, and on the evening of 14 November there's also a public lecture by Nicholas Hiley, intriguingly entitled 'Vernon Kell's perfect nightmare: The German invasion of Britain in 1914'. See, didn't I say that this was the best conference topic ever?

I'll also be giving a paper at The British Empire and the Great War: Colonial Societies/Cultural Responses conference, which is being held at Nanyang Technological University, Singapore, on 19-22 February 2014. This time I'll be expanding on my Adelaide AHA paper, with the following title and abstract:

Mystery Aeroplanes and the Colonial State of Mind in Total War

In the autumn of 1918, mysterious aeroplanes were seen in the skies of Australia and New Zealand. Hundreds were reported by men and women, young and old, civilians and soldiers. It was presumed that they were German aircraft flying from unknown merchant raiders or from secret inland aerodromes. Investigations by authorities revealed that the aeroplanes were phantoms, but for a time they appeared to pose a real threat.

After nearly four years of war, both countries were largely defenceless, with the vast majority of their military forces overseas and 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 undetected and unopposed. A few days later, Germany's Spring Offensive nearly broke the Allied lines for the first time since 1914. The mystery aeroplanes resulted from the sudden fear that the Antipodean home fronts were now directly threatened and that the war could be lost.

I will discuss what the mystery aeroplane scare reveals about the state of mind of the people of Australia and New Zealand after nearly four years of total war.

This is a big conference: the keynote speakers alone are John MacKenzie, Hew Strachan, Tim Barringer and Jay Winter. There's much less airpower history on offer (only me) than in London, but you can't have everything, I suppose.

I'll be in London for at least two weeks, perhaps three from 9 November, researching in various archives and sightseeing at various attractions. (I might travel outside London or even the UK for the third week, but it won't exactly be holiday weather.) So, apart from the actual workshop dates of 14 and 15 November there will be opportunities for Airminded social activities, should there be sufficient interest. It's been four years since my last visit to the UK so there is catching up to do. Suggestions please!

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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

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[Cross-posted at Society for Military History Blog.]

The election of Tony Abbott's Liberal-National Coalition on Saturday night, after six years of Labor majority and minority government, will mean many things for Australia. Whether they are good or bad remains to be seen. For historians, however, there are some troubling omens. A $900 million cut to university research funding (ironically, to help pay for an ambitious reform to secondary education) announced by Labor in May was inevitably criticised by the opposition, but then accepted. Despite some fine words in the months leading up to the election about respecting research autonomy, Julie Bishop, then the shadow foreign minister, announced that a Liberal government would cut funding to any academics who supported boycotts against Israel. And with only two days to go the Liberals revealed that they would 're-prioritise' another $900 million of Australian Research Council grants deemed 'wasteful'. This, again inevitably, means the humanities will be targeted, with any research project not contributing to somebody's bottom line open to ridicule, or worse.

Due to its role in constructing the nation's self-image, history is going to be particularly vulnerable to political interference. As I briefly noted back in April, the then shadow minister for education, Christopher Pyne, attacked the history component of the new National Curriculum as politically correct and promised that a victorious Coalition would overturn its emphasis on the so-called 'black armband view of history'. This is a phrase which first became prominent in the 1990s during what became known as the history wars, and though it was historian Geoffrey Blainey who introduced it, it remains indelibly associated with John Howard, the last Liberal prime minister before Abbott. Howard used the accusation that historians were painting a far too negative picture of Australia's past, particularly in the invasion, dispossession and genocide of its indigenous people by European settlers, as an excuse to do nothing about Aboriginal reconciliation. So the reappearance of 'black armband history' suggests that the history wars are about to start again.

If so, then both military history and British history -- my areas of expertise -- may turn out to be key battlefields. Pyne claimed that the teaching of history in Australian schools 'must highlight the pivotal role of the political and legal institutions from England, Ireland, Scotland and Wales'. I agree, in principle; certainly the teaching of British history seems have declined at university level over the last decade or so, which seems odd given the importance of Britain in Australia up until the mid-twentieth century. But I have little faith in the ability of politicians to not be politicians when it comes to history. Gallipoli, as ever in this country, shows why. Pyne further criticised the way that the significance of Anzac Day was being taught alongside other national days and hence diluted:

ANZAC day is very central to our understanding of our Australian character and our Australian history, and I think it downplays ANZAC day for it not to be a standalone part of the history curriculum – to be taught about Australia’s culture and what we’ve done in the past [...] I think ANZAC day speaks very much about the kind of country we are today and where we’ve come from. It was the birth of a nation – the birth of a nation in the First World War [...]

He's right that Anzac Day has been and continues to be very important to Australians. But that doesn't mean it's unproblematic -- as the (unidentified) ABC journalist who interviewed Pyne at the time pointed out:

Journalist: You think that the Australian nation was born when we stormed Gallipoli?

Pyne: I have absolutely no doubt that the experiences of the First World War, as exemplified by the campaign in Gallipoli, bound the Australian nation together like no other event in the first fifteen years of federation.

Journalist: It divided the nation – what about the great debates over conscription? It was an incredibly divisive time, Christopher Pyne.

Pyne: Well David, the debate about conscription has nothing whatsoever to do with the campaign in Gallipoli.

Journalist: How can you say that the conscription debates had nothing to do with the slaughter which had been going on up until that time? Those conscriptions, that referendum occurred in 16, and again in 1917. Of course they were referring back to what happened in the previous twelve months, eighteen months, two years.

Pyne: Well, I think you’ve massively expanded the debate. I mean yea, the conscription debates are a fascinating part of Australian History, but…

Journalist: You said it was unifying. I’m saying it was a divisive time.

Both have a point here. The extent to which Gallipoli unified the nation in 1915 can't erase the incredibly bitter conscription debates in 1916 and 1917, or vice versa. (And Australians were very jittery in 1918, too.) But Pyne is the one who will be in power.

With the centenaries of the start of the First World War arriving next year and of Gallipoli itself the year after, historians are going to struggle to preserve any sense of nuance in the public historical debate. But we have to try.

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My peer-reviewed article, 'Dreaming war: airmindedness and the Australian mystery aeroplane scare of 1918', has now been published in the latest issue of History Australia, which can be found here. This is the abstract:

Numerous false sightings of mysterious aeroplanes, thought to be German and hostile, were reported by ordinary people around Australia in the Autumn of 1918. These reports were investigated by defence authorities, who initiated a maximum effort to find the merchant raiders presumed to be the source of the aeroplanes. The scare is interpreted in the context of reports that a German seaplane had flown over Sydney in 1917; fears that the German offensive in France would lead to an Allied defeat; wartime paranoia about German subversion; and the growth of negative airmindedness thanks to the wartime press.

As I've previously discussed, this is my first mystery aircraft article, and hopefully not my last!

I'm also self-archiving the version originally submitted to History Australia, that is, before it was peer-reviewed. This can be downloaded for free from here. I don't normally like to do this, since the text usually changes significantly after peer-review. That is indeed the case here: I swapped the introduction with the following section, the graphics have been redone, and there are some other smaller, but important, changes. But, per my contributor agreement with History Australia, this is only version I am allowed to self-archive. Because this mystery aeroplane scare is virtually unknown, I'd like to make the information and ideas in the article widely available, even if not necessarily in the form that I would like. Otherwise, if you aren't a member of the Australian Historical Association or don't have institutional access to History Australia, the final, peer-reviewed (and better!) version should be open-access in 2015.

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[Cross-posted at Society for Military History Blog.]

The Australasian Association for European History XXIII Biennial Conference -- 'Faultlines: cohesion and division in Europe from the 18th Century to the 21st' -- lived up to the high standard set by its predecessor. Wellington was much colder and windier than Perth, but the locals were friendly, the locations historic and the history stimulating.

Sadly, there wasn't a lot of airpower history on offer (apart from my own effort). However, James Crossland (Murdoch) mentioned during his discussion of Britain's participation in the Geneva convention process, noted that as late as 1948 the Soviet Union proposed banning aerial bombardment altogether. A real throwback to the days of the World Disarmament Conference in the early 1930s! There was a tiny bit of aviation in the account given by Andrew Webster (Murdoch) of his intervention as a historian into a matter of law and policy -- well, an aeroplane was mentioned. The question was whether Nationalist Spain was a combatant in the Second World War; at stake was compensation for the family of a Wellington pilot who had been shot down over France but escaped over the Pyrenees only to be interned by Franco's security apparatus. Surprisingly, history (and the family) was the winner. And, as part of her argument that universalist ideals of human rights are being eroded by a reversion to us vs. them thinking, Joanna Bourke touched on the rhetoric used by western air forces about 'accidental' bombing of purely civilian targets in Afghanistan and elsewhere, noting that when you look at concepts such as CEP (circular error probable), the probability of not hitting the target is built in. In other words, accidents are not accidental. I'm not sure about this. It seems to me that the (no-fault) admission of mistakes now is precisely because the weapons have become more accurate; they are much more likely to hit where they are aimed, and so if the wrong target is hit then that requires an explanation, an admission of error.

While the conference was not explicitly about war, there was plenty of it to go around. In fact, one of the speakers -- unfortunately I can't remember who -- criticised its continuing prominence in our narratives. It's not the only thing going on in European history. But so often, even when we're talking about peace we're still talking about war as well (or vice versa). For example, Maartje Abbenhuis (Auckland) looked at neutrality and humanitarianism in the Franco-Prussian War, arguing that it was seen as having been successfully limited, with little risk that it would spread. Separately, Neville Wylie (Nottingham) and Christine Winter (ANU) examined the role of third-party powers in protecting civilians of belligerents in wartime, the former in terms of the big picture and the longish durée, the latter using Swiss oversight of German internees in Australia during the Second World War. Wim Klinkert (Amsterdam) gave a fascinating paper on the Dutch-Belgian defence relationship in the early twentieth century, which was far more complicated than you might think: in 1919 and 1923 there was even serious talk of war. Marjan Schwegman (NIOD) explored the public controversy over a seemingly slight change in the status of her home institution, the Institute for War, Holocaust and Genocide Studies in Amsterdam, which originally started out in 1945 as a state archive for documenting the German occupation of the Netherlands. Chloe Ward (Melbourne) reassessed the Left Book Club's intervention in British politics, particularly in post-Munich by-elections. Bodie Ashton (Adelaide) looked at the aftermath of the Austro-Prussian War, specifically the little-known, and ultimately doomed, attempt to create a Federation of the United States of Southern Germany to counterbalance the Prussian surge. And Andrew Graham Watson (Adelaide) discussed Anglo-American press reactions to the rise of Gorbachev and the disaster at Chernobyl, a topic which bemused those of us who are old enough to remember the late Cold War!

There was much else going on, including a roundtable in honour of Richard Bosworth (Oxford), contributions by Omer Bartov (Brown) and Sheila Fitzpatrick (Chicago), and keynotes by Peter McPhee (Melbourne) and Geoff Eley (Michigan). And that's just the stuff I got to see. Hopefully I can make it to Newcastle in 2015 -- at 390km away, it will be practically next door to Armidale.

After outlining the Anglo-German naval rivalry and the tariff reform debate, Alfred Gollin, one of the few historians to discuss the subject in any depth, has this to say about the origins of the 1909 phantom airship scare:

This was the intense condition of Britain affairs when the Prime Minister, H. H. Asquith, made his announcement about the government's new aeronautical policy in the House of Commons on 5 May 1909. His speech produced a curious and remarkable result.

People in several parts of England now began to see airships in flight, in places where it was impossible for such aerial vehicles to be.1

It's true that it was right about this time that phantom airship sightings took off. However, some of these took place before 5 May, some as far back as March. Moreover, the contents of Asquith's speech (which was quite short and hardly deserves the name) were not exactly sensational and seem unlikely to have caused much apprehension. He had two main points to make. The first was that 'The Government is taking steps towards placing its organisation for aerial navigation on a more satisfactory footing':

As the result of a Report made by the Committee of Imperial Defence, the work of devising and constructing dirigible airships and aeroplanes has been apportioned between the Navy and the Army. The Admiralty is building certain dirigibles, while certain others of a different type will be constructed at the War Office Balloon Factory at Aldershot, which is about to be reorganised for the purpose. The investigation and provision of aeroplanes are also assigned to the War Office.2

The second was to announce the formation of a 'Special Committee' under the presidency of Lord Rayleigh and the chairmanship of H. T. Glazebrook to oversee 'investigations at the National Physical Laboratory and for general advice on the scientific problems arising in connection with the work of the Admiralty and War Office in aerial construction and navigation'.3

It could be that it was the way Asquith's announcement was reported that was the trigger. But while the major newspapers did report it, again there doesn't seem like there was much to excite the general public. Most press reactions that I've looked at treated it as a welcome, if overdue, development, and expressed hopes that Britain would now be able to catch up to Continental standards in aviation -- not only those like the Manchester Guardian which were in political sympathy with the government, but also those which were not, like the Standard, the Globe, and even the Manchester Courier, which by 1913 had definitely decided that the aerial defence of the nation could not be entrusted to the Liberals. It's true that The Times and the Observer did criticise the makeup of the Rayleigh committee (mainly on the grounds that there were very few members with practical aviation experience), but even so there was no suggestion of immediate peril.

So I'm sceptical. But I'm also sympathetic. It's natural to seek some definite cause of these puzzling events -- I do it myself: I think successfully in the Australian case in 1918, with the report of the Wölfchen's flight over Sydney; less so in my 4th year thesis, when I suggested that the outbreak of the First Balkan War was somehow responsible for the Sheerness incident. Why did some people see mystery airships in March 1909? Why did a lot more start seeing them in May? Why did they stop seeing them by the end of the month? The last is actually relatively easy to explain: the scare collapsed under its own weight, as too many airships were being reported to be credible and the press became sceptical. By the same token, the press was certainly crucial in the expansion phase, by reporting on the growing phenomenon and suggesting to people that there really were airships flying around at night. So it's finding the initial spark that is the real problem, and generally there isn't a satisfactory one to be had. I think it's essentially random. People see strange things in the sky from time to time. Sometimes they think they're airships, because what else could they be? Usually they are ignored, even if they tell somebody. Sometimes, though, the reports are picked up and amplified by the press, which is when the scare proper begins. There's no single ultimate cause; it's more the vibe, the popular understanding of aviation. To an extent this process is irrational, then; which makes me think that maybe Asquith's announcement could have been one of the triggers after all.


  1. Alfred Gollin, The Impact of Air Power on the British People and their Government, 1909-14 (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1989), 53. 

  2. HC Deb, 5 May 1909, vol. 4, col. 1047

  3. Ibid., col. 1048. 

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I haven't mentioned this before now, partly because it seemed so far off and a little unreal. Exactly one month from today, I will become a lecturer in modern European history in the School of Humanities at the University of New England (UNE), Armidale, New South Wales. Which is both very exciting and ever-so-slightly scary!

UNE is an interesting place for a number of reasons. It's one of the smaller Australian universities, but it's not really small: it has something like 17,000 students, though more than 80% are taught by distance education (and UNE has a strong reputation in online education). It's a regional university: Armidale is located up (elevation 982m) in the Northern Tablelands of NSW, about equidistant from Sydney and Brisbane. (New England is another name for the area -- hence UNE -- because it is supposedly like the American New England in that it has four distinct seasons, though winter seems to be the most distinctive...) With a population of around 20,000, even the relatively small on-campus student body in combination with the staff means that UNE makes up a big proportion of the town; it's the closest Australia comes to the American phenomenon of the college town. I haven't actually been to Armidale yet (my interview was by video), and it's not a part of the country I know very well (though some of my forebears came from up around there, and I once spent a summer at Coonabarabran, only a few hours' drive to the southwest). But by all accounts it's a beautiful area.

The humanities are strongly supported at UNE, from archaeology to peace studies. One of the School's strengths is in history. There are twelve historians currently listed on its staff page, and another six in classics and ancient history. And that's not including me, or two other positions which were advertised shortly after mine. So that's a decent size. The School offers everything from bachelor degrees (including one in historical inquiry and practice) to PhDs, and the units taught range from the Vikings to Cold War popular culture. I'll be teaching 19th and 20th (and even 21st) century European history: next year this will include the long 19th century and the First World War. First up, though, I'll be running a methodology unit and also working on adding some digital humanities to the curriculum.

I think this is a good first academic job. It's full-time, as opposed to part-time or casual, so I can devote my full energies to it. It's equal parts teaching and research, so I'll still be able to write and publish. I don't have much full-on lecturing to do (as opposed to coordination, marking, and curriculum development, as well as research and writing) until next year, so I'll have plenty of time to settle in and get used to being an academic. Admittedly, the position is only for 2.5 years, until the end of 2015, and is not tenure-track. So I'll be looking for work again in 2016. But a couple of years' worth of lecturing and academic experience on my CV (plus a few more publications) should make me more employable.

After more than three frustrating years on the job market and nearly three dozen job applications before this one without getting an interview, I'm conscious that I haven't made it... but at least I've made it this far!