Conferences and talks

German infantry on the battlefield, August 7, 1914

My second contribution for ABC New England to the increasingly inaccurately named series 'The road to war' was broadcast today, and is online here. Increasingly inaccurate because my topic today was the outbreak of war in August 1914 between Germany on the one hand and France and especially poor little Belgium on the other, including the Schlieffen Plan and German atrocities against Belgian civilians. I also talked about Plan XVII and the French occupation and then retreat from Mulhouse, which had been lost to the Germans in 1871. I also spoke in somewhat garbled fashion about the escape of the Goeben and the Breslau from the Royal Navy in the Mediterranean, and the Australian capture of the German merchant vessel Hobart in Port Phillip, which gained priceless naval codebooks for Allied intelligence; and not at all about Austro-Hungarian atrocities in Serbia, the Australian raid on Rabaul, or the British and French invasion of German Togoland. Because I ran overtime. At least I wasn't as croaky as last time!

Image source: Wikimedia.


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:

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.

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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.

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.

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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.