A ham-bone

An early contribution to the list of strange things dropped from the air in wartime was made by the crew of L13, a German naval Zeppelin under the command of Kapitänleutnant Heinrich Mathy. During a raid on London on the night of 8 September 1915, they dropped bombs from Bloomsbury to the City which killed 20 people and caused more than £200,000 worth of damage. But they also dropped the above object by parachute on Wrotham Park in Barnet. It's a ham-bone.

Clearly, though, it's no ordinary ham-bone. It's carved with a drawing of a Zeppelin dropping a bomb (perhaps L13's 300kg one, the largest one ever used so far in war) on the head of a sad man, along with an inscription reading 'Edwart [sic] Grey' on one side and 'was fang ich armer Teufel an?', the title and first line of an old German soldier's song: 'what's a poor devil to do?' Sir Edward Grey, at this point still Foreign Secretary as he had been when Britain declared war on Germany, would no doubt have been very sad indeed had a bomb (or even a ham-bone) hit him on the head; but the real reason for the tears running down his cheeks is given on the other side (not shown here), where it is written 'Zum Andenken an das ausgehungerte Deutschland', 'A souvenir from starving Germany'. The point was presumably to show that the naval blockade of Germany was not having the desired effect; but perhaps also to justify Zeppelin raids as reprisals for the attempt to starve the German people.

In any case, the ham-bone would appear to be an unofficial piece of propaganda devised by the Zeppelin's crew. Any effect it might have had would have been limited as it does not appear to have been mentioned in the wartime press, and whether Sir Edward himself got to hear of it is probably also doubtful. I don't know where it ended up, but thankfully the Intelligence Section, General Headquarters, Home Forces included the above photograph in a 1918 summary of the Zeppelin raids of August and September 1915 (The National Archives, AIR 1/2319/223/30/2). And here it is at last for the whole world to see!

The Peril in the Air

This could be the lurid cover of an Edwardian novel about the dangers of aerial bombardment, with an aeroplane, an airship and Death himself hovering over a great city, watching the terrified populace streaming outwards in panic: the first knock-out blow from the air. But it's not. Instead it's the lurid cover of an Edwardian advertising brochure for Peps tablets, claimed to alleviate everything from coughs and colds to potter's rot and pulmonary tuberculosis, any ailment of the throat and chest.
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Heinkel 111s

For my third Turning Points talk for ABC New England radio, I chose a topic I ought to know something about: the Battle of Britain! In some ways it's an obvious choice, and not only for the obvious reason; there are few years in history as dramatic as 1940, and Hitler's conquest of Britain has long been a favoured topic for wargames and alternate histories. But in other ways it's not obvious, because I'm of the school of thought which argues that the Luftwaffe never really had much chance of defeating the RAF, and that even if it did then the Kriegsmarine had even less chance against the Royal Navy, and that whatever remnants of the Wehrmacht managed to get ashore after all that would not have got very far against the British Army. So how can I claim the Battle of Britain was a turning point? Well, have a listen...

Image source: Wikimedia.

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.


S.55s over the Alps

This photograph purportedly shows a squadron of Italian Savoia-Marchetti S.55X flying boats over the Alps on 1 July 1933, during the second and last of the long-distance formation flights led by the Fascist air minister, Italo Balbo (hence 'balbo', briefly in vogue to describe a large formation of aircraft), Rome to Chicago and back. These flights were (and were intended to be) a powerful and spectacular display the reach and power of Italian aviation, repeated and enhanced through images such as this, and therefore a prime example of what I call aerial theatre.
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Sputnik I

After taking some time to recover after the marathon Road to War, I'm taking part in a new series of talks with ABC New England North West's Kelly Fuller, along with fellow members of the UNE School of Humanities Nathan Wise (who came up with the concept), Sarah Lawrence and Richard Scully (and more, if we can persuade them!) This time the unifying theme is much broader: we will be looking at turning points in history. So we can range far and wide, rather than having to focus on the events of a single week in 1914 or 1915. You'll be able to find all the talks at SoundCloud.

I was first up, and decided to talk about the launch of Sputnik I on 4 October 1957, not only in terms of starting the Space Age, but also because it created no small amount of fear in the United States as the prospect of a (mythical, as we now know) missile gap opened up. I wish I'd had more time to go into that side of the response to Sputnik, because they strike me as being something similar to the kind of panics I'm interested in for Britain earlier in the century. But different. The oddest response is perhaps that of Little Richard, one of the pioneers of rock 'n' roll, who was actually on stage in Sydney when he saw what he thought was Sputnik, and interpreted it as a sign of the End Times. Have a listen if you'd like to know more!

Image source: NASA.


Airminded, 7 July 2005

It's 10 years to the day since I put up Airminded's first post, imaginatively entitled 'First post!' That is a long time ago, a very long time in internet years. Still, Airminded wasn't one of the first history blogs. In fact, Ralph Luker (of Cliopatria fame, alas long since retired from blogging) made a start on writing the history of history blogging two entire months before Airminded even began. Ralph identified Kevin Murphy as the first bona fide historian blogger: Kevin's Ghost in the Machine began in 1999 (in the last millennium!) and is still going strong, though it's not so much about history these days. King of the geek/historians Rob McDougall started on 1 January 2001. Rebecca Goetz started in July 2002 (as she recounts in her own recollections, conveniently published just last month); Tim Burke started in November. Mark Grimsley started the precursor to War Historian (for a long time the military history blog) sometime in 2003. Cliopatria itself, which in many ways became the centre of the history blogging community, or at least its central clearinghouse, started in December 2003. All these history blogs and bloggers were well-established by the time I came along, or indeed before I was really aware of blogging at all. So by starting a history blog in 2005, I was merely joining a swelling crowd.

The only sense in which Airminded might have stood out from that crowd in any sense (apart from being non-American) was in being resolutely, well, airminded. Most of the history blogs I was aware of when I was thinking of starting my own were much more personal or political than I wanted to get -- they were written by historians trying to make sense of academia, or trying to make sense of the world outside academia. I wanted my blog to be much more about trying to make sense of history, the history I was researching. In other words, Airminded was to be a history research blog. (About airpower and British society. Mostly.) But again, I wasn't the first to think along these lines -- Miriam Burstein's Victorian literature blog, The Little Professor, was definitely an inspiration for me; Esther MacCallum-Stewart's (much-missed!) Break of Day in the Trenches was at least three years old; Alun Salt was already around, somewhere (and still is, I'm very glad to say); Sharon Howard's Early Modern Notes was also well-established; a few months after Airminded, Kevin Levin's research blog, Civil War Memory, independently came out of a strong American Civil War blogging community, but soon set the standards for everyone to emulate (or try to).

I didn't always keep to my original vision -- I quickly pulled back from putting everything I was doing or thinking out there (and blogged about that, of course; I never did do anything with the idea I was so concerned to protect, something about interwar robotic warfare, I think) and I did comment on academia, memory, and sometimes even politics. In any case, history blogging as a whole has changed: as Becky notes, much of its conversation and spontaneity (and procrastination) has moved elsewhere, especially Twitter, for good or ill. And, naturally, Airminded has evolved along with my career; teaching is not conducive to serious blogging, at least not if you're me. But I think my blogging has created a profile for myself which I would not otherwise have had as a junior scholar in a remote part of the academic world. I've even worked out how to turn research blogging into research publications (at least sometimes). On the whole, Airminded has remained largely about my research, one way or another, and I'm pretty pleased with the way it has turned out.

Airminded has always been a big part of my scholarly identity. I started it a month before I started my PhD; ten years, 1426 posts, 873000 words (not to mention 6850 comments -- thank you! Most of you, anyway...) -- and one thesis, five peer-reviewed articles, and one scholarly monograph -- later, I'm coming towards the end of my first academic position, and Airminded will still be with me, whatever happens after that. (Take that as a promise or a threat, as you like!)

To celebrate Airminded's tenth birthday -- not having done much for its first or its fifth -- I'm going to take a leaf out of Sharon's blog and repost some of my favourite Airminded posts over the next little while. And for anyone who makes it through all of that, there might even be a surprise.

Image source: via Wayback Machine.

Globe, 8 March 1913, p. 7

An Australian view of the 1913 phantom airship scare in Britain, from the Sydney Globe, 8 March 1913, p. 7:

A scare was created in England last week by the reported appearance of a mysterious airship at night over the East Coast. Two residents of Ipswich separately saw the searchlight of the airship, and one declares he heard the engines. Residents in Hunstanton, a watering-place in Norfolk-on-the-Wash, state that they saw three bright lights pass from the east and disappear in the north-west after hovering overhead for half an hour. The steamer Arcadia also reported that she saw an airship to the north of the Orkneys. The airship is believed to have been a German visitor.

Artistic interpretations of phantom airships are not common; I'm not sure if this particular one is Australian or if it was sourced from the British press (or elsewhere), or for that matter whether it was drawn specifically to represent a phantom airship or just a generic one.1 It's a fanciful depiction, with its double-decker gondola and stubby wings. Phantom airships were almost universally equipped with searchlights, which were much less common features of real airships (though not vanishingly so). It is perhaps a reasonable representation of what people thought they were seeing when they saw phantom airships. On the ground below is a prosperous-looking town, but by the sea in the foreground is what might be a military base of some kind -- it's tempting to say those sheds are hangars, but I suspect it's a military or naval depot, as popular strategists believed that these would be the primary targets in a Zeppelin attack on Britain.

Thanks to David Waldron for the image.

  1. Another contemporary drawing of a phantom airship appeared in the Whitby Gazette, 7 March 1913, p. 12, depicting the Othello incident; but the online version is not great; a better one is in Nigel Watson, UFOs of the First World War: Phantom Airships, Balloons, Aircraft and Other Mysterious Aerial Phenomena (Stroud: History Press, 2015), p. 54. 


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.

Malaya XV

David Payne sent me this great photograph of Malaya XV Cheon Teong, Ngoh Bee, a B.E.2c which was donated to the British war effort as part of the Imperial Aircraft Flotilla I blogged about last year. David's grandfather, Arthur Chapman, is in the cockpit; he was an engineer at Shorts on the Isle of Sheppey, though not necessarily at the time of this photo. David provides the following information:

Arthur Chapman (1877-1937) worked as Shorts "head man" from '09 but I don't know how long for. He taught himself to fly and helped teach the first four naval volunteers to fly. Also he was in the passenger seat when Commander Samson flew the first hydroplane off the Hibernia at the review of the fleet in 1912. At what date he left Shorts I don't know although he joined the RFC in 1917.

Otherwise the details of this photo was taken are unknown, including the identity of the two men standing in front of the B.E.2c. It would likely have been taken in 1916, which is when the Over-Seas Club's book recording the growth of the Imperial Aircraft Flotilla was published; Malaya XV was the 15th of 17 aeroplanes in the Malayan squadron.

I notice that while the names of this aircraft's donors are given as Cheon Teong and Ngoh Bee, in the Over-Seas Club's book the first name is given as Cheow Teng.1 This seems to be an error; at least the name is given as Cheon Teong in a contemporary Singaporean newspaper.2 Either way, I hope he was pleased with his aeroplane.

  1. The Imperial Aircraft Flotilla (London: The Over-Seas Club, n.d. [1916]), 28. 

  2. Straits Times, 3 March 1916, 8