Conferences and talks

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.

I got back yesterday from a very successful trip to Singapore, where I attended The British Empire and the Great War: Colonial Societies/Cultural Responses conference, organised by Michael Walsh (Nanyang Technological University) and Andrekos Varneva (Flinders University). Since the conference was extensively livetweeted, I thought I'd forgo my usual post-conference report and instead Storify the #EmpireWW1 hashtag. While I've included tweets from the other livetweeters (Ashleigh Gilbertson, Jo Hawkins, Steve Marti, and Alexia Moncrieff), I've used only those about the sessions I actually attended myself. So it's still sort-of my view of the conference. There are keynotes by John MacKenzie, Hew Strachan (with bonus airpower), Tim Barringer, and Jay Winter; mystery aeroplanes, Zeppelins, air control, and the destruction of the Turkish 7th Army; various asides and interruptions; and Eric Bogle!
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Now that I'm back home, it's time to sum up what my UK sojourn achieved. The short answer, at least in terms of my immediate research objectives, is that it yielded only mediocre results.

The ostensible purpose for the trip was to attend the Empire in Peril workshop at Queen Mary and to give a paper on the 1913 phantom airship scare. This I did, and I think it went well enough (though perhaps in future I should revert to actually reading a paper, rather than speaking to slides). It certainly helped that I was after Michael Paris (Central Lancashire), who set the scene with a discussion of early aerial warfare fiction, and Michael Matin (Warren Wilson), who used the phantom airship scare as a starting point to reflect upon invasion scare literature more generally. This capped off a stimulating two days of papers and discussions about, inter alia, inter-service debates regarding the possibility of invasion (Matthew Seligmann, Brunel; Richard Dunley, KCL), the representation of compulsory service in invasion scare fiction (Harry Wood, Liverpool), the Yellow Peril (Robert Brown, Birmimgham; Ailise Bulfin, Trinity College Dublin); and women writers on Germany (Richard Scully, UNE). A usefully discordant note was struck by Ian Hopper (Brandeis) who questioned just how seriously publishers, authors and readers took invasion scare novels: were they reflective of deeply held fears or simply trivial entertainments adapted to the political themes of the day? Perhaps the standout talk was the public lecture given by Nicholas Hiley (Kent), who reconstructed 'Vernon Kell's perfect nightmare', i.e. the German invasion of Britain as supported by the large number of spies and saboteurs believed to be lying in wait for Der Tag, as was fully expected at the outbreak of war by MI5, and hence prepared for -- but played down after the war in favour of the very different, and less impressive, threat posed by the handful of naval spies rounded up in the first days of the war by Kell's men. Apart from the papers themselves, of course, there was the usual networking: identifying a nucleus of researchers interested in broadly the same topic is a useful thing in itself, and may lead to future workshops, research and publications.
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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!


[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.

1 Comment

I've argued that in 1913 there was a perception that the Anglo-German naval arms race was becoming an aero-naval arms race which Britain was losing, and that there was a response on the part of the Navy League, the Aerial League and others to mobilise public opinion in support of an aerial defence programme in a deliberate echo of the 1909 dreadnought scare. In my AAEH talk I drew out these parallels a bit further. In the traditional naval phase:

  • 1906: launch of radical HMS Dreadnought destabilises existing naval balance
  • Popular/elite perceptions that hostile Germany trying to catch up/overtake Britain at sea
  • 1909 press/Navy League campaign: 'we want eight and we won’t wait' (successful)
  • Naval arms race over by 1912 (Britain won, detente reached)

In the aero-naval phase:

  • 1908: flight of new Zeppelin LZ4 demonstrates long-range capabilities
  • Popular/elite perceptions that hostile Germany has already overtaken Britain in air
  • 1913 press/Navy League campaign: '£1,000,000 for aerial defence' (failed)
  • However, aerial arms race just beginning (Britain losing, detente over?)

I concluded that despite the easing of tensions between the two nations at the diplomatic level, at a popular level the Anglo-German antagonism continued into 1913.1 Perceptions lagged reality. The naval race may have been won objectively, but it had not yet been won subjectively. And now technology again upset the balance, only this time in the air and with Britain starting from behind.

I also briefly put forward a counterfactual: that had the First World War not taken place, more aero-naval scares would have occurred in future years, replacing the more 'traditional' naval/invasion panics. We can't know that, of course. We do know that after 1918 they were replaced by pure air panics: the war both demonstrated the potential of aerial bombardment of great cities and discredited the possibility of an invasion of Britain. Without that evolution I suspect that the two would have co-existed and combined in the 1913 pattern, and the Anglo-German antagonism would have taken on a new complexion.

  1. Which concept in the last few years has come under increasing scrutiny: for a summary of the recent literature, see the introduction to Richard Scully, British Images of Germany: Admiration, Antagonism & Ambivalence, 1860-1914 (Basingstoke and New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2012). 


Empire In Peril

Is this the best conference topic ever? I think it just might be. There's even a Zeppelin on the poster!

Note that abstracts are due by 1 August 2013.


Public Lecture & Interdisciplinary Workshop
Queen Mary, University of London, 14-15 November 2013

Bernard Porter
(Newcastle (em), UK) • Nicholas Hiley (Kent, UK) • Michael Matin (Warren-Wilson, US) • Jan Rueger (Birkbeck, UK) • Matthew Seligmann (Brunel, UK)

This year marks the first centenary of one of the most popular examples of the invasion-scare genre: Saki’s (H.H. Munro) When William Came (1913). Saki’s famous account imagines the defeat of Britain at the hand of an invading German army. The cultural and political concerns of Edwardian Britain lay at the heart of the novel’s masochistic narrative: degeneration, the rise of modernity, militarism, national security, decadence, germanophobia, a battle for global hegemony, and imperial decline. As such, the narrative reflects the general convergence of popular politics, the public and the press, which coalesced around a repertoire of anxieties, embodied in the trope of the ‘German Menace’ and foreign intrigues in the metropole and in the empire.

The aim of this workshop is to facilitate a greater integration of the study of invasion-scares and popular politics at the intersection of divergent approaches. It is suggested that a more thorough investigation of the interconnectedness of press, politics and popular culture is essential to furthering our understanding of key aspects of Edwardian society and British identity on the eve of the Great War. Responding to a recent surge of interest in the pre-war period, this workshop will stimulate debate and reflection on the latest research in these areas, and identify avenues for further study, based upon a broader and more inclusive approach to historical analysis.



Contributions from established scholars as well as junior researchers in all fields relevant to the broader subject are invited. Participants should submit a 300-word abstract of their proposed paper and a brief biography by 1 August 2013.

Kim A. Wagner ( & Patrick Longson (
Dr Kim Wagner
Queen Mary, University of London
Department of History
Mile End Road
London E1 4NS

Tel no: +44(0)207 882 8428
Visit the website at

Image source: Island Mentalities.


The XXIII Biennial Conference of the Australasian Association for European History will be held at Victoria University of Wellington, New Zealand, in July 2013, and I'll be presenting a 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 outclassed by Germany's in both number and power. Another was the rapid passage by the Liberal government of legislation providing for the use of lethal force in the defence of British airspace. In many ways this panic was analogous to the much better known 1909 dreadnought scare, which itself was followed by a smaller phantom airship scare. But historians generally agree that 1913 was a period of detente in Anglo-German relations. Why, then, did British people not just imagine that German airships were a potential threat but imagine that German airships were actually 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) on defence and foreign relations shortly before the outbreak of the First World War. I will place this phantom airship scare in the context of other defence 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 of the improving international situation. The phantom airships were the public and imaginary manifestations of private but very real fears.

This is the next stage of my mystery aircraft project, following on from the 1918 Australian mystery aeroplane scare I spoke about at the AHA this year. Next year being the centenary of the 1913 British phantom airship wave, I plan to postblog it as I did for the 1909 one a few years back, drawing upon the increased availability of digitised newspapers since then. So that will form a major part of my preparation for Wellington.

New Zealand was itself a site of at least two mystery aircraft scares, a well-known (at least to those who know about such things) one in 1909 and a much more obscure one in 1918. So if I can make it work I hope to visit Archives New Zealand and see what they have -- hopefully, enough for another paper/article/chapter!

I'm really looking forward to this. For one thing, despite it being so near I've never been to New Zealand; I hear it's quite nice. I also have fond memories of AAEH XXII in Perth a couple of years ago, and I expect edition XXIII will prove equally excellent. Now to start saving up my pennies...


Today I attended the University of Melbourne's Faculty of Arts eResearch forum 2012. This was in two parts: firstly, a talk by Tim Sherratt, down from Canberra for the day, entitled 'Digital Disruptions', where he exhorted us to find new ways to break things; followed by short spiels by local academics on some of their digital humanities work. There was a lot of really interesting stuff on display, and whether by chance or design each one was digital in a very different way:

  • Susan Lowish spoke about creating a databases of Pitjantjatjara and Yankunytjatjara artwork, Ara Irititja, which is deployed in remote Indigenous communities in central Australia to preserve their (and our) cultural heritage and, crucially, make it accessible to them and allow them to add their own knowledge. It's a huge logistical task but judging from the use the databases get, a very worthwhile one.
  • Alison Young works on street art and the people and communities involved in creating it. She described how the Internet has enabled her to observe and intereact with these communities, which could be difficult due to the borderline-illegal nature of street art. For example she can use her blog to establish her academic credentials (and her politics) to artists she wants to interview to prove that she isn't an undercover cop!
  • David McInnis's contribution was to talk about the Lost Plays Database. This had perhaps the most traditional academic orientation of any of the projects on display today, but the way it works is anything but. It's a wiki which collates information about plays which we known were written in the late Tudor/early Stuart periods, but about which we have only fragmentary knowledge.1 This information is out there in the published literature and has been for decades, but has never been collected together, as it is now. And combining the power of crowdsourcing (even with a crowd of only a few dozen enthusiastic scholars) with newly digitised sources means when a question arises it can often be answered very quickly.
  • Cate O'Neill described the usability issues faced by the Find & Connect project she edits. This may sound boring, but in fact it was fascinating, and quite moving. Find & Connect is a government resource which provides information for people who were in state or foster care as children (including child migrants and the Stolen Generation). While the site has been designed according to best practice and with the best intentions, investigation has shown that users actually didn't understand how it works. What's interesting about these usability problems is how these usability issues are bound up with the reason for the site's existence. For example, with low computer literacy and self-confidence, it can't be assumed that users will know what things like "glossary" or even "help" are for. Even something as taken for granted as a "home" button was confusing in this context, as it is naturally enough interpreted as something to do with orphanages or foster homes. Similarly, the commonplace experience of clicking on a dead link and getting a 404 page can be read by some users to mean that the government is trying to hide something from them (i.e. again, as it has been doing for most of their lives). This was a real eye-opener: usability matters.
  • Véronique Duché is working on adapting her teaching methods to best serve the current generation of students, who live in their smartphones and tablets. So she is looking at developing an ebook, with embedded video, audio, slideshows, 3D models... It's easy to see how this would be useful for language teaching (well, except for the 3D part).
  • Finally, Nikki Hemmingham spoke about the Australian Women's Register and (forthcoming) online encyclopedia of Australian women leaders. What was interesting here was the way the project has evolved with experience: the encyclopedia was originally intended to be a comprehensive hyperlinked resource, but the problem is that links die. What was available on the web when it was written cannot be guaranteed to be there in the future. So now the encyclopedia is intended to be a snapshot in time, but it will be complemented by the Register, a Trove-like harvester of various online resources and databases. As such the need to curate links disappears; instead you curate the sources which contain them.

All good stuff, and I know there are many more digital things being done in the Arts Faculty which could have been included.

As for Tim Sherratt, I've mentioned him here before and used his tools as well. He's a one man digital history machine: QueryPic, the front page, Archives viewer, the future of the past, Headline roulette, the real face of White Australia (with Kate Bagnall) and more. The amazing thing is, despite all this work he has done to improve the way Australians (historians and not-historians) access their history, Tim's not employed or supported by any of our great universities or cultural institutions: he's just one person with a laptop and a broadband connection. While it's inspiring for others in that situation (as I am) to see what can be done with so little resources, I'd really rather see him be gainfully employed and fully supported. And while it's fantastic that Australian universities like Melbourne are getting serious about the digital humanities, it's not to their credit that they apparently can't find a place for someone as creative and productive as Tim. Somebody fix this please.

  1. Humble brag: completely coincidentally, in one of my day (technically night) jobs I'm the sysadmin who looks after the server hosting (among other things) LPD. This is humble because I have nothing to do with the content and in fact LPD was set up before I started; but more particularly so because the server was noticeably sluggish during the demonstration! Oops. 


Last week, the Australian Historical Association held its 31st annual conference, hosted by the University of Adelaide. The last time I was at an AHA was in 2008 (I didn't have to go far, since it was in Melbourne); it seems to have got bigger since then. Around four hundred delegates, if memory serves; up to nine concurrent sessions as well as three smaller, parallel conferences -- that's as big as history conferences get in Australia. If anything it was too big. There was an embarrassment of riches and it wasn't possible to see everything of interest; but that's to be expected (though it would have helped if the sessions were properly streamed by subject). The real problem with big conferences, I find, is that it makes the whole thing a bit fragmented. When you chat to someone in the coffee break, you probably haven't gone to many of the same sessions, let alone each other's. It's harder to get an overall sense of what's going on (though Twitter does help now). So I think I prefer the smaller, more specialist conferences and workshops. That said, it was still an absorbing week of history and well worth attending. Here are some of the highlights (for another attendee's perspective, see here, here, here and here).

There wasn't much aviation history going on, except for Erin Ihde's (New England) paper on Biggles in Australia -- which sadly I couldn't attend! But there was quite a lot of military history. Ashleigh Gilbertson (Adelaide) looked at the dedication the Tomb of the Unknown Australian Soldier in Canberra in 1993, and asked why then and not, say, in the early 1920s when the idea was first proposed. The usual answer, and one which I probably would have given myself, is that it had to do with Paul Keating's republican push, but Gilbertson argued that he played no part in the process. Instead it was a confluence of factors which made it possible by the early 1990s (for example, the principle in the world wars, that Australian soldiers would be buried near where they fell, was abandoned from Vietnam on). Christina Twomey (Monash) rather provocatively suggested that feminism 'saved' Anzac Day, which by the early 1980s appeared to be dying along with the diggers. But, she argued, feminist antiwar protests at Anzac Day ceremonies gave great copy to the press, which portrayed the women as extremists and fuelled the determination of veterans and their families to carry on. Caroline Adams (South Australia) looked at Australian nursing in the Boer War. It took some time for them to even be allowed into the rear area hospitals, and they also had a hard time enforcing modern aseptic discipline on the orderlies; but eventually they helped to increase survival rates in the wards. As these selections might suggest, the military history sessions were dominated by women (Yvonne Perkins noted that more than two thirds of the audience in one were female). Why this might be is an interesting question. Maybe it's the result of the turn towards war and society, but then the only paper on operational military history was given by a woman: Meleah Hampton (Adelaide) spoke about Australian infantry-artillery cooperation at Pozieres in 1916. She took as her title J. F. C. Fuller's dictum, 'artillery conquers and infantry occupies', but she showed what a difference discipline made to the infantry's success in following up the artillery's.
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