Conferences and talks

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The Australasian Association of European Historians is, by widespread acclaim, the best conference series ever, and so I'm pleased to report that I will be speaking at the next one, to be held in July at the University of Newcastle. The title of my talk is 'Zeppelinitis: constructing the German aerial threat to Britain, 1912-16', and the abstract is:

I will show how the German aerial threat to Britain was constructed in the public sphere during the First World War, with the Zeppelin menace eclipsing older anxieties such as invasion and espionage. This was partly an objective assessment: Zeppelin raids did actually occur. But it was also partly a subjective and greatly exaggerated one, due to prewar speculation about aerial warfare, wartime propaganda about German atrocities, and the pervasive nature of the atmosphere, which for the first time exposed everywhere and everyone in Britain to attack. In this way, the Zeppelin menace helped construct the home front, too.

Now to work out what I actually meant by all of that. Something to do with this, I think.

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IWM Q48951

For my twelfth (and last?) contribution to ABC New England's Road to War series, I spoke about what was undoubtedly the most important battle to take place in late April 1915, the Second Battle of Ypres in Flanders. The reason why this was so important is because it opened with the first successful, large-scale poison gas attack in the history of warfare (the first unsuccessful attack had been at the Battle of Bolimov on the Eastern Front at the end of January). I looked how the particular gas used by the Germans, chlorine, worked in chemical, biological and military terms, the role played by Fritz Haber in developing it, the shattering effect it had on the French lines, and the unreadiness of the German army to do much to exploit its success. I also noted briefly the prewar laws against the use of poison gas and its subsequent career in the war and after, including in the present Syrian civil war.

Image source: Imperial War Museum.

Medea

In my eleventh contribution to ABC New England's Road to War series, I took another look at how the economic war at sea was working out. My particular focus this week was the sinking of the Dutch freighter Medea (above), the first neutral casualty of Germany's unrestricted U-boat campaign. I also discussed the difficult position of the Netherlands as it continued to trade with both sides while trying to keep out of the war that was all around it, and the way that Medea's sinking led to fears of a German invasion -- which in turn threatened Churchill's plans for the Dardanelles. As usual, there's some aviation in here too, particularly German air attacks on merchant ships in the North Sea.

Image source: The Great War Blog.

SMS Dresden before scuttling

For my tenth contribution to the Road to War series on ABC New England today, I discussed how the mutual naval blockades between Britain and Germany were becoming more total. In this week in 1915, Britain extended its blockade of Germany; the German unrestricted submarine blockade began to sink greater numbers of ships, including one of the British blockaders; Germany acknowledged that it would have to pay the United States for sinking one of its merchant ships; and, off the Chilean island of Más a Tierra, the British intercepted the German raider SMS Dresden (above, just before its scuttling). So there was a lot going on in the economic war at sea.

Image source: Wikimedia.

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U-9

Today I made my ninth contribution to ABC New England's Road to War series, talking about U-boats (AKA 'the Zeppelins of the sea') and their advantages and disadvantages in warfare. More specifically, I spoke about the German declaration on 4 February 1915 of unlimited submarine warfare in the seas around Britain, switching from their previous Kleinkrieg strategy of targeting warships in order to reduce the British surface superiority (U-9, above, sank three armoured cruisers in one engagement alone). I put this into the context of erosion of international law with the British imposition of a North Sea blockade the previous November, as well as the increasing readiness to attack civilian targets directly, as evidenced by the naval bombardment of Hartlepool, Scarborough and Whitby in December and the aerial bombardment of Norfolk in January.

Image source: naval-history.net.

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Zeppelin L3

For my eighth contribution to The Road to War on ABC New England, I spoke about the first Zeppelin raid on Britain, on the night of 19 January 1915; certainly more consequential than the first air raid on Britain as it actually killed people in Great Yarmouth and King's Lynn in Norfolk. I talked about the Zeppelins themselves (including L3, above), why everyone assumed they would be used to bomb Britain, why they were not used at first, and why they finally were used nearly six months into the war. I also talked a little about the response to the raids, including the rumours which sprang up afterwards about German spies driving around in motor cars during the raid guiding the Zeppelins to their targets.

For more from me on this topic you could also check out this article by Shane Croucher in the International Business Times.

Image source: Love Great Yarmouth.

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Aircraft recognition poster, c. 1914

Back to back Roads to War! This week's topic is the most airminded yet: the first German air raids on Britain. I had to cheat slightly to fit them in, as technically I'm supposed to talk about the centenary events in the week leading up to the broadcast date, i.e 23 December, but the first German bomb didn't fall on British soil until 24 December. However, if you count bombs falling pointlessly into the sea off Dover pier then 21 December 1914 was the date of the first German air raid on Britain. That's not exactly exciting, so I also talked about the slightly more interesting Christmas Eve raid (which famously destroyed a Dover cabbage patch) and the even slightly more interesting Christmas Day raid (which led to the first aerial combat in British skies). Even so, that wasn't enough to fill up 15 minutes, so I also talked about the fear of aerial attack and (of course) phantom airships, including one over Hartlepool the second night after the bombardment which led to a rumour that the Germans were back and this time had landed, and hence to a minor exodus as people fled to the relative safety of Middlesbrough.

Image source: Online Bicycle Museum (!) Note the injunction for members of the public in country districts to report hostile aircraft to the authorities.

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Remember Scarborough!

After a break of a few weeks, today I recorded another Road to War episode for ABC New England, covering the period 10–16 December 1914. I focused on the German naval bombardment of Hartlepool, Scarborough and Whitby, which caused the greatest loss of civilian loss of life due to enemy action in Britain for the entire war. As it happens, this was something I researched during my recent trip to the UK, so I was able to draw on some primary source material -- in particular, the diary of Annette Matthews, who was originally from Scarborough, and not only quoted letters from her relatives who were there during the bombardment but also recorded her thoughts on visiting her home town to see the damage a few weeks later.

Image source: Remember Scarborough!

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Today, I received the news that not one but two conference abstracts I'd submitted have been accepted. Which means I'll be going to some interesting conferences and listening to some interesting talks, but it also means that I've made a lot of extra work for myself in just one day. Well done, me!

The first of these conferences is entitled New Research in Military History: A Conference for Postgraduate and Early Career Historians, and organised by the British Commission for Military History and the Department of History, Politics and War Studies, University of Wolverhampton. It's on 22 November 2014, i.e. just over a month, meaning I will have to leave my Newcastle stronghold temporarily for the wilds of the West Midlands. The title of my talk is 'Folk strategy, Maubeuge platforms and Zeppelin bases in Britain, autumn, 1914'; the abstract is

As Catriona Pennell has shown, the fall of Antwerp in October 1914 led to a surge of rumours in Britain about covert German activity in Britain. These took very specific and unusual forms: in particular, the ideas that before the war German businesses had prepositioned concrete foundations in strategic locations in order to serve as platforms for heavy artillery, and that secret Zeppelin bases had been established in rural areas preparatory to air raids on British cities. The public belief in the truth of these rumours forced the authorities to take action, by raiding suspect business premises and searching the Highlands and the Lake District. In this paper, I will discuss the extent to which these rumours reflected prewar ideas about German invasion plans, but will also show how they were modified by news from the war, specifically claims about German plans relating the fall of Maubeuge in France and Antwerp in Belgium. I will also assess how far the rumours about Maubeuge platforms and Zeppelin bases can be understood within the framework of 'folk strategy', that is the popular, civilian understanding of military strategy. What British civilians understood about war in 1914 was very different to what their military counterparts understood about it: it was a dimly perceived and mysterious world of dark conspiracies and occult forces. How far this changed over the course of the war remains to be seen.

So, obviously this is inspired by recent blog posts; I think it's an interesting episode which doesn't appear to be well-documented anywhere, so it's worth pulling it together and incidentally seeing if I can make the idea of folk strategy stick. Hopefully it could be something I can turn into a publication at some point, especially if I can find anything useful in the National Archives.

The second conference is called The First World War: Local, Global and Imperial Perspectives, and will be by the Centre for the History of Violence at the University of Newcastle. That's Newcastle, Australia, not Newcastle, United Kingdom; but in fact it's the original Newcastle I'll be talking about. The title of my talk is 'War in a Northern Town: News and Rumour in Newcastle upon Tyne' and the abstract is:

As arguably the first total war, the First World War gave birth to the 'home front', a term affirming that civilians far from the battle front were nevertheless now inescapably part of the war. But the physical distance from local communities to their men in the real fighting made it all the more important to collapse the emotional distance between them, to believe and to show that they were in fact in the front line, sharing in the danger, that the enemy, too, realised their importance and was drawing plans to spy, to bomb or even invade. In this paper, I will examine the way in which news and rumour were used in Newcastle upon Tyne, an important shipbuilding and coal-mining centre on the north-east coast of England, to show how they were used to affirm the critical importance of the region to the British war effort. I will concentrate on the complex of stories communicated verbally or in print relating to the threats believed to be posed to Newcastle by enemy spies, Zeppelin raids and German invasion. I will end by briefly making comparisons with other types of wartime rumours, in Britain and in other countries, suggesting that this kind of 'manufacturing war' (per Michael McKernan, in the Australian context) was in fact a widespread phenomenon.

Again this is following on from my current project, but inevitably it's a bit more speculative, since I haven't done the Newcastle research yet. But by the time of the conference, 26 and 27 March 2015, I should have some idea of what's going on.

Tschaukaib, German South-West Africa, 17 December 1914

My fifth contribution to ABC New England's 'The road to war' series is now online, covering the period 8-14 October 1914. Today I looked at two major events. The first was the Maritz Rebellion in South Africa, a military mutiny by disaffected Boers who resented British influence and saw the botched invasion of German South-West Africa as their chance to win independence from the British Empire. The second was the fall of Antwerp, including Churchill's intervention and the escape of much of the Belgian army. I also made a short detour to Great Missenden. With mystery aeroplanes, aerial reconnaissance, and Zeppelin raids, it's the most Airminded episode yet. But my biggest achievement was keeping track of all those former Boer generals!

Image source: Wikimedia.