Origin of the League of Nations

I did my second Turning Point for ABC New England radio today, and chose to talk about the founding the League of Nations in 1920. The League is usually considered to be a failure, because it didn't prevent the Second World War or even play any significant role after the Italian invasion of Abyssinia. But I argue that this is too harsh, because the League did have some real successes and because it normalised the idea that international cooperation is the best way to solve international problems. I also briefly discussed ways in which the League might have been more effective, including the idea of arming it with an international air force.

Image source: Wikimedia.


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.


Abolish all war aeroplanes

I found this pro-disarmament poster on eBay (at US$1985, I won't be buying it!) The text reads:

Abolish All War Aeroplanes

This is the seller's own description:

An incredibly rare original vintage anti-war poster circa 1938 in fine condition, archivally mounted on acid-free paper and linen-backed. Measures 28 1/2 x 18 3/4 inches (63 x 48 cm). Fine condition or nearly so (A). Lightly toned, a few repaired closed short tears from edges (clearly shown in photos). A few minor instances of printer overpainting in the letters. Possible light stain or mild abrasion to image area. Generally in fine condition. Produced by the Friends' Peace Committee, Friends House, Euston Road, London NW1 and the Northern Friends' Peace Board, Spring Bank, Rawdon, Nr. Leeds, England, and printed by H.W. & V. Ltd., London.

I doubt that it's as late as 1938, as claimed by the seller. A biplane is a bit (though not completely) old-fashioned for 1938, for a start. Katherine Firth suggested that the font is more late 1920s/early 1930s. And the poster's message doesn't make much sense for 1938, when disarmament was no longer realistic. Not that pacifists are always realistic, by any means; but the connection that is drawn between civil and military aviation, between the possibilities of 'death and destruction' through 'war aeroplanes' and 'friendship and peace' through aerial 'transport of the future' is very suggestive of 1932-34, when the World Disarmament Conference debated and tried, unsuccessfully, to resolve precisely this nexus -- usually considered to be the commercial bomber. That said, these two groups (both affiliated with the Society of Friends, i.e. the Quakers) do seem to be separating out civil aviation from military aviation, arguing that a simple ban on military aircraft would save civilisation from destruction and allow it to benefit from air travel. It was more perhaps usual to argue that the internationalisation of civil aviation in some form was required in order to prevent airliners from being turned into bombers, with a further step being the internationalisation of military aviation as well. I can't find any reference to this poster in BNA but a quick search does confirm that the Friends' Peace Committee and the Northern Friends' Peace Board were fairly vocal in 1933-35, for example writing an open letter to the prime minister in 1933 warning against starting aerial rearmament while the Geneva conference was still in the balance, and in 1935 deploring the inevitability of attacks upon civilians implicit in the initiation of air raid precautions.1 The poster is at least evidence that they tried to persuade the public (or some sector of the public) of the aerial danger too.

  1. Sunderland Echo and Shipping Gazette, 14 December 1933, 7; Western Daily Press (Bristol), 14 May 1935, 8

As we all1 know, the Aerial League of the British Empire (later the Air League of the British Empire, now just the Air League) was founded in 1909. Less well-known is that the Aerial League also sponsored the formation of the Women's Aerial League (they are often described as being affiliated, or as the latter being part of the former, but while relations were friendly the Women's Aerial League seems to have led its own existence), which itself set up the Boys' and Girls' Aerial League (which I think later changed its name to the Young Aerial League). But even less well-known is that all of these aerial leagues were preceded by what seems to have been an entirely separate and apparently very short-lived air league known as Britain's Air League.

The only trace of this I have been able to find so far is a brief article in the Sunday Times in early January 1909:


On all hands the signs are visible that the aeroplane is rapidly becoming an accomplished fact. The appalling prospect which its use as an engine of warfare suggests has led to the formation of 'Britain's Aerial League,' the main object of which is to employ every means possible to bring about an international understanding by which the use of airships, aeroplanes, and other aerial machinery shall be prohibited in war, except for observation purposes. The incalculable damage which could be effected in a few hours by a fleet of foreign airships surely needs no insisting upon. Another object of the league is to urge upon public men, without distinction of party, the necessity for placing the United Kingdom upon a level with other countries as regards the building of aerial machines. It will also assist inventors in giving practical trials of their machines. The hon. secretary of the league is Mr. John Mayou, 1, Pump-court, Temple, E.C.2

The obvious question to ask is whether this might be in fact the good old Aerial League of the British Empire, given that it had its first meeting in February 1909, but with advance publicity appearing in the press in late January, less than three weeks after this article appeared. The name is different, of course, but maybe it was decided to change it before the actual launch -- 'Britain's Air League' is a rather awkward formulation, after all. Or perhaps the name was still under discussion at the start of January and the press was notified by mistake. It could be that this Britain's Air League is a glimpse of the embryonic Aerial League of the British Empire.
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  1. For very small values of 'all', obviously. 

  2. Sunday Times, 3 January 1909, 5. 


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

(Or, 'Trenchard at sea'.)

Jamel Ostwald's recent post on urban bombardment in the early modern period, itself partly a response to my post on Trenchardism, prompted me to wonder how straight the line was between aerial bombardment and earlier naval and land bombardments? Was the naval precedent more influential or the military one?

This does not quite answer the question, but in his Air Power and the Cities (1930) the Air Ministry civil servant and lawyer J. M. Spaight, the most prolific British airpower writer of the interwar period, spent an entire chapter talking about the historical precedents afforded by naval bombardments, calling it 'The lesson of the naval bombardments'. Stated negatively, this lesson was that 'it has been no part of the policy of belligerent nations to destroy enemy coastal cities'.1 Or, stated positively, 'there has been a clearly marked tendency to confine attack to certain objectives', mostly (but not exclusively) 'those the destruction of which was calculated to prejudice the enemy's military effort and to which, therefore, the term "military objectives" may be broadly applied'.2 (He was a lawyer, after all.) Spaight projected this naval trend onto aerial bombardment, arguing that air forces in the next war would be unlikely to bomb cities indiscriminately:

On the few exceptional occasions in which objectives not of a military character have been shelled, the result has been protest, excuse, condemnation, never justification on the merits of the practice. It is sufficient to recall the salient facts of the naval campaigns of modern times to conclude that there has been no settled policy of indiscriminate bombardment in naval war. In general, bombardment has been confined to military objectives and undertaken for a military purpose.3

Ultimately, this served to buttress his argument that not only was disarmament a bad idea, but it wasn't even necessary, because airpower itself 'is the great disarmer'.4

How can war go on when air power can leap upon it, smother it, smash it? That would be bad work for civilisation if it meant smashing the cities; but it need not mean that. Indeed, it cannot mean that unless air power is to be mishandled, misdirected, grossly misapplied. Used aright, used to the fullest advantage, it will be kept for smashing the nests and. breeding places of armament not the cities.5

So why did Spaight emphasise the naval precedent and not the military one? Because, regrettably, 'it cannot be denied that the bombardment of a defended, town as a whole has been a practice not unknown to land warfare'.6 Indeed, he noted that both the British and the American manuals on the rules of law took the view that 'an attacking force is under no legal duty to limit the bombardment to the fortifications of a place attacked'.7 Moreover, land bombardments tended not to be decisive: 'the terrible bombardment of Strassburg [1870] only made its inhabitants more determined to resist'.8

The naval bombardments Spaight was referring to included Alexandria (1882), Beirut (1912), Canton (1841), Greytown (1854), Kagoshima (1863), Pisagua (1879), Tripoli (1828), Valparaiso (1866), and others mostly from the Crimean and First World Wars. Not all of these examples really serve his larger argument -- the German naval bombardments of Hartlepool, Scarborough and Whitby (1914) attacked targets of no military value and killed more civilians than any air raid on Britain in the next four years -- but he seems to have missed one that did.

In the Anglo-Zanzibar War of 1896, three British cruisers anchored close to the shore and bombarded the ruling Sultan's palace without damaging the surrounding city, as discriminate a bombardment as any. (Though there were at least some civilians among the 500 or so casualties, this was not intended.) It was also decisive, in that it forced the Sultan to flee and allowed the British to install their own preferred candidate, which was the reason for the war in the first place. And it was also incredibly quick: the war began at 9:02am on 27 August 1896 and ended at 9:40am. Indeed, at 38 minutes the Anglo-Zanzibar War is supposedly the shortest war in history. With such effective examples of short, sharp shocks before them, it's easy to see why airpower theorists were drawn to the idea of using the air to strike at cities unreachable by sea. But not why so they so easily discarded the principle of discriminate, precision bombing so easily, confounding Spaight's prediction. The reasons for that lie in the technological and operational limitations of the air weapon, limitations which were not clear when Spaight wrote and would not be clear for some years yet.

  1. J. M. Spaight, Air Power and the Cities (London, New York and Toronto: Longmans, Green and Co., 1930), 92. 

  2. Ibid., 93. 

  3. Ibid., 165. 

  4. Ibid., 235. 

  5. Ibid., 234-5. 

  6. Ibid., 95. 

  7. Ibid., 96. 

  8. Ibid., 95. 

1 Comment

Daily Mirror, 4 May 1942, 1

The front page of the Daily Mirror today is almost wholly given over to a story which the other papers are far less interested in. The recently-installed Archbishop of Canterbury, Dr William Temple (that's him on the left, though what is being done to him I have no idea; and that's his forehead on the right), used a speech in Manchester yesterday to give 'a new charter to Britain -- a charter of social reform which will bring happiness to millions of people if applied in post-war reconstruction' (1). Its nine points are:

1. Provision of decent houses for the people of this country;
2. Every child to have adequate and right nutrition;
3. Equality in education. There shall be genuinely available to every section of society the kind of education will develop their faculties to the full;
4. Adequate leisure for personal and family life. Where the family is separated because of employment, there should be two days' holiday each week;
5. Universal recognition of holidays with wages;
6. The application of science to discover labour-saving devices, to save labour instead of labourers;
7. Wide appreciation of the fact that labour is a partner in industry, just as much as management and capital;
8. Recognition by workers and employers alike that service comes first, and the opportunity to make profit comes afterwards;
9. The opportunity for all people to achieve the dignity and decency of human personality.

An accompanying article by A. W. Brockbank says that Temple also warned against yielding 'to the lure of people who try to persuade us that it would be wise to establish such a non-party State'":

'The minority must have the right to become the majority if it can. It must be lawful to be in opposition to the Government.'

Just who he has in mind here is not made clear.
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Glasgow Herald, 15 March 1941, 5

The war news today is much closer to home for the Glasgow Herald than usual. A big air raid last night on 'a Central district of Scotland' (5) is vividly described, as though the reporter had witnessed it: readers would know for themselves just how far away it was.

One Nazi 'plane which appeared to be heading for home was spotted by searchlights, and immediately there was a road of gunfire as battery after battery opened up and poured shells into the apex of the searchlights.

The crackle of bursting shells followed a maze of flashes. When the gunfire stopped and the 'plane emerged from the barrage one of its engines could be heard misfiring. The 'plane seemed to be in difficulties and gradually losing height.

On the ground, civil defence workers 'toiled side by side with firemen after bombs scored a direct hit on a tenement building':

As rescue workers struggled to break down the massive barriers of broken stone and secure the safety of those feared trapped in the debris the fire-fighters poured a continuous stream of water to keep down the creeping flames.

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In February 1912, the International Arbitration League issued 'A Memorial Against the Use of Armed Airships', an early proposal for arms control. The memorial claimed that 'For the first time, in the face of a new development of the arts of fighting, nations possess both the conscience and the machinery necessary to check that development effectually'. The new development was the military aeroplane, which had first been used as a weapon only three months before, by the Italians against Turkish forces in Libya. The great powers were starting to form their first tiny air forces: Britain's Air Battalion was formed in April 1911.

It's not clear exactly what the League was proposing; it seems to have been a moratorium on military aircraft. The arguments it gave display a curious mixture of insight and naivety:

There are many who believe that aerial warfare, by reason of its sheer horror, must prove a blessing in disguise, frightening men from war. To those we say: Civilisation does not sanction the ravages of a new and arrestable form of disease, in order that men through horror may be the more eager to join hands in stamping out all forms of sickness. And further, you under-rate the fortitude and adaptability of human nature, which has long proved that it can endure all forms of terror.

There are some who insist that the art of flying will never reach full development without the stimulus of war. To such we suggest that the story of mankind does not leave us without hope that where there is demand, even when only for the purposes of peaceful life, there will also be supply. If the art of flying be delayed a few years by the resolve of men to use that art for mutual help, and not for mutual destruction, the world will be no loser.

There are many who argue that because men fight on earth and water, they may just as well fight in the air. To these we answer: There has never yet been a moment when it was practically possible to ban the war machines of earth or water. There is a moment when it is practically possible to ban those of the air. That moment is now -- before the use of these machines is proved; before great vested interests have formed.1

Some two hundred British intellectuals -- artists, writers, clergy, scientists (all men, I might add) -- signed up to the memorial, including Wilfred Scawen Blunt, J. B. Bury, Walter Crane, Arthur Conan Doyle, Edward Elgar, John Galsworthy, H. Rider Haggard, Thomas Hardy, Frederic Harrison, H. H. Henson, J. A. Hobson, Jerome K. Jerome, Ray Lankester, Lord Lister (who died only a few days later), Oliver Lodge, John Masefield, Gilbert Murray, William Osler, Arthur Pinero, A. F. Pollard, Arthur Quiller-Couch, Joseph Rowntree, Seebohm Rowntree, William Rossetti, William Temple, Alfred Russel Wallace and (of course) H. G. Wells.

An impressive list. In response, Flight had only an anonymous prehistoric skeleton recently unearthed in Norfolk, about which it spun a tale of wise elders begging the inventor of the stone ax to destroy his new weapon 'in the name of humanity'. The point was that the International Arbitration League and the two hundred intellectuals had not taken human nature into account.

Without going quite so far as to say that man's natural instincts lead him to murder, and the appropriation of those things which are not his, whether we regard man as an individual or as a community, the real cause is not very far removed from this. Until all this is changed -- until, that is, human nature has undergone a complete change -- "memorials of protest" against armaments at large and the components of which they consist, are merely in the nature of pious resolutions which do no one any harm if they achieve little good.2

'A Memorial Against the Use of Armed Airships' seems to have had little effect; even the Manchester Guardian, which as a Radical newspaper ought to have been sympathetic, thought the International Arbitration League was on a hiding to nothing.3 Its best chance came twenty years later, when the World Disarmament Conference did consider banning bombers or limiting their use, but the various proposals collapsed as each delegation guarded its own national interest. In other words, because of human nature writ large. The skeleton from Norfolk was right.

  1. Manchester Guardian, 7 February 1912, 8. 

  2. Flight, 10 February 1912, 118

  3. Manchester Guardian, 7 February 1912, 6. 


This is the talk I gave at Earth Sciences back in May. It's long and picture heavy and much of it will be be familiar to regular readers, but some people expressed some interest in it so here it is. I've lightly edited it, mainly to correct typos in my written copy. I've put in links to the Boswell drawings because they're under copyright, and I've replaced one photo because I realised it was of British Army Aeroplane No. 1b, not British Army Aeroplane No. 1a! How embarrassing.

Facing Armageddon: Britain and the Bomber, 1908-1941

Today I'm going to give you an overview of my PhD thesis topic. My broad area is the history of military aviation in the early twentieth century, so first I'll give you a little background on that.

Wright Flyer (1903)

The first heavier-than-air manned flight was made by the Wright brothers in 1903, as you can see here. Within a few years, countries around the world started thinking about how they could use this new technology for warfare.
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It's the 75th anniversary of Stanley Baldwin's famous 'the bomber will always get through' speech. It's an important text which is widely quoted, both in my primary and my secondary sources, as a testament to the fear of bombing in the 1930s. But I've never actually read it very closely, and I think I'm in good company because it's usually the same couple of lines which are quoted, and the rest of it is ignored. And as it doesn't seem to be online anywhere I thought it would be a useful exercise to transcribe it and put it up on the web.

Baldwin was not Prime Minister when he gave the speech, as is sometimes said. He had been PM twice before, in 1923-4 and 1925-9 (and would be again in 1935-7), but at this time he was Lord President of the Council, a Cabinet-level post with no major duties attached to it. Baldwin's real importance was as leader of the Conservative Party, which had by far the most seats in Ramsay MacDonald's National Government. He had power without responsibility, one is tempted to say.

The occasion for the speech was a debate in the House of Commons about disarmament, held on 10 November 1932 -- the eve of Armistice Day. The original motion was proposed by Clement Attlee, deputy leader of the Labour Party, and read:

That, in the opinion of this House, it is an essential preliminary to the success of the forthcoming World Economic Conference that the British Government should give clear and unequivocal support to an immediate, universal, and substantial reduction of armaments on the basis of equality of status for all nations, and should maintain the principles of the Covenant of the League of Nations by supporting the findings of the Lytton Commission on the Sino-Japanese dispute.1

This was obviously an attempt to embarrass the Prime Minister, a well-known pacifist -- and a hated former leader of the Labour Party. But MacDonald didn't speak in the following debate; instead, his Foreign Secretary, Sir John Simon, defended the Government's record and went into some hopeful diplomatic initiatives in some detail. George Lansbury, Labour's leader, lashed out and accused all nations of failing to fulfill any of the international peace pacts signed since the war. Baldwin spoke last of all. According to the Times's parliamentary correspondent, when he finished 'There was a deep and almost emotional round of applause' from the House.2 Of course, he was the party leader for most of the MPs, but it does seem that he had touched a chord. Baldwin had a longstanding record of concern about the air threat and his sincerity would have been evident. And -- not that there was ever any doubt given the huge majority enjoyed by the National Government -- Attlee's motion was defeated by 402 votes to 44.

The following transcript of his speech is taken not from Hansard but from The Times.3 I've edited it lightly, mainly to move the murmurs of approval from the listening MPs into footnotes. The phrases in bold are those which are most commonly quoted.
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  1. The Times, 11 November 1932, p. 7. 

  2. Ibid., p. 14. 

  3. Ibid., p. 8.