Poetry

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Illustrated London News, 1 March 1913, pp. IV-V

The Illustrated London News is not really a campaigning newspaper, but it has followed up last week's striking graphical depictions of the airship menace with this fantastic double-page drawing by Norman Wilkinson, RI, of a German aerial fleet on its way to bomb Britain (pp. IV-V; above). The title asks

WILL IT EVER BE SO IN THE EASTERN SKY OVER ENGLAND? THE COMING OF THE BATTLE-DIRIGIBLES AND WAR-PLANES

The caption explains that the Aerial Navigation Act 'forbidding the passage of unauthorised air-craft over certain areas' was 'deemed advisable in view of the numerous reports current of late of strange air-ships manoeuvring by night over this country'.

The fact gives particular interest to this drawing, which represents the eastern sky of England as we may one day see it if the fears of some are realised. It shows an army of invading air-craft. In the middle is the main battle-squadron of air-ships with appliances for bomb-dropping; in the foreground and in the background are high-speed aeroplanes acting as the fleet scouts. Unless met by a stronger opposing force, such an army of air-craft could clear the way for the water-borne fleet of its country and so facilitate the landing of large bodies of troops. It may be remarked that from a height of a mile on a clear day a vision of ninety miles can be obtained.

The text in fact nowhere identifies where these invaders have come from, but airship no. 72 is flying what looks very much like a German war ensign.
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Let's turn now to Tolkien's The Hobbit and Smaug's attack on Lake-town (Esgaroth).1 In my PhD thesis I identified six characteristics of the ideal theory of the knock-out blow from the air: it would be a surprise attack, on a large scale, which would strike at the interdependent structures and civilian morale of its targets, and would wreak massive destruction with great speed. In the 1920s and 1930s, fictional and non-fictional predictions of victory through airpower would usually feature four or five out of these six. As I'll now show, The Hobbit has four: surprise, morale, speed, destruction. Of course, Lake-town isn't a modern, industrial society, nor is Smaug a technologically advanced enemy nation, so the fit isn't going to be perfect. It doesn't need to be, though.

There being so many editions of The Hobbit, it seems a bit pointless to cite page numbers here, but all my quotes come from chapter XIV, 'Fire and Water'.2
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  1. Cf. Janet Brennan Croft, War and the Works of J. R. R. Tolkien (Westport and London: Praeger, 2004), 112-3, for another analysis of military themes in this part of The Hobbit, suggesting that Bard's organisation of the defences is more suggestive of a modern infantry officer than a dark ages hero. 

  2. The actual copy I'm using is a 1984 edition I read as a boy, a hardcover with beautiful illustrations by Michael Hague

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Death of Smaug by JRR Tolkien

Last year Alun Salt pointed out to me a proposal for a collection of essays on the theme of J. R. R. Tolkien's The Hobbit and history, and asked if I'd thought about sending in something on ideas about airpower and the dragon Smaug. I hadn't, but immediately saw what he was on about! I did a little research, wrote up the proposal below (with a couple of small differences), and sent it in. Of course, it was rejected (or not accepted, same thing).
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Sunday Express, 6 October 1940, 1

This photo appeared on the front page of the Sunday Express on 6 October 1940, a month into the Blitz. A caption explained, or rather asked:

WHO PUT UP THIS POSTER?

This mystery poster has appeared in the streets of London.

It is about six feet high and ten or twelve feet across, and bears nothing to indicate its authorship. No one knows who is paying for it.1

In just nine words the poster presents a very simple argument in favour of the reprisal bombing of Germany:

BULLIES ARE ALWAYS COWARDS

BOMB BERLIN AND SAVE LONDON

By bombing Berlin, London would be saved from the Blitz. The German (or perhaps just the Nazi) bullies, being cowards, will not be able to take it as well as the British and so will crack first.
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  1. Sunday Express, 6 October 1940, 1. Apparently a 'Mr. Beabie' admitted to the Sunday Dispatch that he was responsible, but I can't see the original text and I wonder if that should be 'Begbie'. Not that I know who he is either. 

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Manchester Guardian, 30 December 1940, 5

President Roosevelt had one of his famous 'fireside chats' (i.e. over the radio) with the American people last night. This one would seem to deserve its lead-story status in the Manchester Guardian, as he firmly committed the United States to Britain's side in the war, even if not as a non-combatant but as the 'arsenal of democracy' (5), producing the weapons needed to beat Hitler. 'There can be no reasoning with incendiary bombs', Roosevelt said. If Britain fell, America would have to face the Nazis alone, and 'to survive in such a world of "brute force" the United States would have to become permanently a militaristic Power'. Early signs are that this is a popular policy; the isolationists are becoming, well, isolated.
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Daily Mirror, 18 November 1940, 1

The Daily Mirror likes its headlines big and bold. The one above takes up two-thirds of the width of today's front page. The story is that Arthur Greenwood, Minister without Portfolio in the War Cabinet (and deputy leader of the Labour Party; interesting that he is not described as such in an ostensibly left-wing newspaper) has claimed that Germany is suffering from aerial bombardment more than Britain -- fifty times more, to be precise (though I'm not sure if that's just last week or over the whole war). Partly this is due to 'The R.A.F.'s mastery of night flying, which enables them to take off in weather which grounds the Germans'.

Mr. Greenwood, who spoke at Colchester, said the past week had been a bad one for the enemy. It had opened a new chapter in the war. "I myself have gained heart," he said. "I am satisfied of [sic] the result."

He said that serious as were the enemy attacks on such places as London, Coventry, Birmingham and Liverpool, the R.A.F. had handed out greater punishment. "I am not concerned with the killing of people in Germany," he declared. "I am concerned with killing their power to strike at us."

On that subject of killing, the death toll at Coventry has now reached 250.
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Daniel Swift. Bomber County: The Lost Airmen of World War Two. London: Hamish Hamilton, 2010.

This book is a very different way to approach the Allied bomber offensives of the Second World War. It is not a history of strategic bombing policy, nor is it a history of the machines used to carry it out, of the men who flew them, or the damage they did. While it is well-researched and has elements of all of these types of history, Bomber County is not really a history at all, but an account of a personal quest to understand the life and death of one airman, and more originally a plea for recognising the importance of the genre of bomber poetry.
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Cecil Day Lewis, 'Bombers' (1938):

Through the vague morning, the heart preoccupied,
A deep in air buried grain of sound
Starts and grows, as yet unwarning --
The tremor of baited deepsea line.

Swells the seed, and now tight sound-buds
Vibrate, upholding their paean flowers
To the sun. There are bees in sky-bells droning,
Flares of crimson at the heart unfold.

Children look up, and the elms spring-garlanded
Tossing their heads and marked for the axe.
Gallant or woebegone, alike unlucky --
Earth shakes beneath us: we imagine loss.

Black as vermin, crawling in echelon
Beneath the cloud-floor, the bombers come:
The heavy angels, carrying harm in
Their wombs that ache to be rid of death.

This is the seed that grows for ruin,
The iron-embryo conceived in fear.
Soon or late its need must be answered
In fear delivered and screeching fire.

Choose between your child and this fatal embryo.
Shall your guilt bear arms, and the children you want
Be condemned to die by the powers you paid for
And haunt the houses you never built?

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Neptune feels a draught

This whimsical illustration, showing Father Neptune beset by all manner of aerial pests, appeared in Murray F. Sueter's Airmen or Noahs: Fair Play for our Airmen; The Great 'Neon' Air Myth Exposed (London: Isaac Pitman & Sons, 1928), opposite 410. Sueter had been a technically-minded naval officer (torpedoes, airships, armoured cars, tanks and of course the first head of the Royal Naval Aerial Service). After retiring with the rank of rear-admiral (albeit an unemployed one), he won election to the House of Commons (succeeding Noel Permberton Billing, and with his blessing) as an independent, but soon joined the Conservatives.

Airmen or Noahs is, in part, an attack on Neon's attack on the airminded. (Defence was not Sueter's style, just as it wasn't Neon's.) But it's also an attack on the Admiralty, and all those boat-obsessed 'Noahs' who preferred battleships to bombers, for being shortsighted in relation to aviation: hence this drawing, 'Neptune feels a draught'. From page 410:

Father Neptune has raised some sturdy sons, but even he is beginning to see, as he watches the transatlantic flights, that they are not the only pebbles on the beach.

A piece of doggerel (I assume by Sueter himself) accompanies the drawing, pointing to the problems airpower posed for the navy, but also how it could also help control the seas:

Shiver my shiny scales!
These bird-men maketh a draught!
They have stolen my trident!
And broken the barb.
And my Crown and Kingdom are threatened.
Unless I rouse myself
I am undone.

Boat ahoy! Boat ahoy!
Good old Noahs!
Take Aphrodite and mermaids too.
For I intend to fly with Ruth
Around the seven seas,
And thus control my kingdom
With efficiency, speed and ease.

And Ruth? Who is Ruth? The picture gives a clue. To the right of Father Neptune sits an aviatrix on the wing of a sinking aeroplane, waving an American flag. She must be Ruth Elder, who attempted in October 1927 to become the first woman to fly across the Atlantic. Her aeroplane -- the American Girl, which she flew from Florida with her flight instructor, George Haldeman -- suffered engine trouble near the Azores and ditched in the ocean. She and Haldeman were extraordinarily lucky to be rescued by a passing freighter. (See here for a vastly amusing collection of contemporary opinions on her flight.)

That Sueter has Father Neptune say he intends to fly with a woman may be a reference to the suspected identity of Neon (a woman who didn't think much of flying at all). But I'm not sure why he singled out Elder, an American, for this honour. He refers in the text to 'Miss Ruth Elder and Captain Halderman's [sic] very fine effort' (410) as part of a long list of aviation feats which attracted the interest and admiration of thousands and tens of thousands of people, whom he invited to join him in laughing at the 'Earthbound Noahs' (411) like Neon who thought aviation pointless and impractical. But the list also mentions Lady Bailey and Lady Heath, two British aviatrices of the day, so he could have chosen them instead of Elder. Perhaps I'm cynical in suspecting he didn't think them pretty enough, but the attention paid to the likes of Amy Johnson and the New Zealander Jean Batten the following decade does tend to support this line of thought.

Hmm, how did I end up here?

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The new Fortnightly Review (actually a monthly, of course) is out today. Each issue opens with a review of 'Imperial and foreign affairs', which is usually written by J. L. Garvin, editor of the Observer and a figure of great influence in Conservative politics. Assuming that it is he who penned this Review's review, Garvin uses the scareship episode as an excuse to attack the Liberal government. It's part of a long excursion which takes in the recent death of novelist George Meredith (who, although a Liberal, supported conscription); the collapse of Britain's diplomatic position (somewhat at odds with the Foreign Secretary's opinion, it would seem); the deleterious effect of a lack of British military power on its seapower; Lord Robert's recent statement that the Army is 'sham'; and so on. Returning to Meredith, Garvin quotes (1006) his recent poem 'The Call' for its evocation of how weak Britain is without a real Army to defend it:

Under what spell are we debased
By fears for our inviolate isle,
Whose record is of dangers faced
And flung to heel with even smile?

Garvin goes on to show just how debased the British are, when instead of facing the 'real and immense dangers' facing the nation, with a 'silent and settled resolution worthy of a great people',

we bemuse ourselves with irrelevant hysterics about German waiters and phantom airships and secret squadrons hovering about our coasts.

Meredith would have known what to do, to steel the national nerve: introduce compulsory service!

Who can doubt that he was right, and that all the democracies of all the Britains must follow him if they mean to hold the Empire together by their united strength and severally to preserve their national liberties under a common flag.

As an indication of just how much defence issues have come to dominate the national press recently, the first five issues of the Fortnightly this year had at most one article on the topic (excluding Garvin's column). This month there are four: 'Our duty to our neighbour: the defence of France' by Cecil Battine; 'The Admiralty Board and the Army Council' by George T. Lambert; 'Do dreadnoughts only count?' by Navalis; and 'War and shipping' by Benjamin Taylor. Nothing about airships, though, it must be said.