Rumours

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Middlesex and Buckinghamshire Advertiser, 24 October 1914, 7

Yesterday was the last research day proper of my big trip. Actually, I was supposed to be having a holiday, but instead I spent it in Aylesbury at the Centre for Buckinghamshire Studies, trying to see if I could get to the bottom of the Great Missenden affair of 18 October 1914, when villagers decided that before the war Germans had hidden either a siege gun emplacement or a Zeppelin base in their midst. I didn't find anything in the nature of a revelation, but I did find some very useful bits and pieces. For example the above photograph from the Middlesex and Buckinghamshire Advertiser shows 'the mysterious enclosure at Great Missenden' itself -- though why with all those hills and trees it was thought to be a safe landing place for an airship is anyone's guess.1 Otherwise most of the local press reports simply repeated the London Star's report, apart from the Bucks Herald which instead gave a sceptical summary, which did add some commentary, and the Bucks Advertiser which rather sniffily declared that 'little importance is attached to the rumours' and so 'it is inadvisable to pursue the matter further'.2 It probably didn't help that they all went to press nearly a week after the scare had begun and then been debunked, so it's treated as a curiosity rather than a live issue. But none of these papers, nor the South Bucks Free Press, denied that the hunt happened, though, so presumably it actually did.
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  1. Middlesex and Buckinghamshire Advertiser, 24 October 1914, 7. 

  2. Bucks Herald, 24 October 1914, 2, 8; Bucks Advertiser and Aylesbury News, 24 October 1914, 8. 

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So, in the previous post in this series, I explained why (at least to a proximate cause) in 1914 people around Britain started worrying that German spies had gone around the country building concrete platforms for heavy artillery, as supposedly had been done before the war near Maubeuge and Antwerp. But what I didn't do was explain the concurrent (and in the case of Great Missenden, overlapping) belief that German spies had also gone around building Zeppelin bases, which after all is where I started. This seems especially puzzling since, thanks to their long range, Zeppelins certainly didn't need any such bases to launch air raids on London or elsewhere in Britain; this was well-known and was the basis for the phantom airship panic the year before the war.

What I think was happening here is essentially the same as happened with the Maubeuge platforms: people were reacting to the rapidly developing war situation, particularly the German advance to the Channel coast: Antwerp fell on 10 October 1914, Ostend on 15 October. The next major ports to the west, Dunkirk and Calais, were to remain in Allied hands for the rest of the war, but this couldn't have been known at the time. Already in late August, the Channel ports were being identified as potential forward bases for Zeppelins: 'While [the Royal Marines] hold Ostend there need be no fear of the town being made a Zeppelin base as was suggested a day or two since'.1 The Western Daily Press thought that

it is plainly the object of the enemy to establish themselves on the coast, and to find there more than one point d'appui for delivering attacks on England by means of aeroplanes and Zeppelins. It has been obvious that, during the past few weeks, the Germans have determined to make the fullest use of their aerial flotilla, quite irrespective of the regulations laid down in the second Hague Convention. The performance of a Zeppelin over Antwerp the other day stands in proof of this conviction.2

By 16 September it was being reported as rumoured in Berlin that 'Germany is preparing to invade England with a Zeppelin armada [...] the stories all agree that the base from which they shall start is Calais. As soon as the French army is disposed of, according to the German plan, a strong force will capture Calais'.3 A week later, there was more confidence, with the Aberdeen Daily Journal suggesting that 'If the Germans had succeeded in establishing a Zeppelin base at Dunkirk or Calais, there is no doubt the danger to London would have been real from a panic point of view'.4 The RNAS raid on the Zeppelin sheds at Düsseldorf on 22 September may have allayed fears, although whether it had done any significant damage was not clear, and the very fact of the raid and its daring nature itself proved that the government was taking the Zeppelin threat seriously. In fact it was assumed to be a reprisal for the bombing of Antwerp.5
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  1. Birmingham Gazette, 28 August 1914, 4

  2. Western Daily Press (Bristol), 29 August 1914, 4

  3. Yorkshire Evening Post (Leeds), 16 September 1914, 2

  4. Aberdeen Daily Journal, 22 September 1914, 4

  5. E.g. Yorkshire Telegraph and Star (Sheffield), 24 September 1914, 2

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After looking at rumoured secret Zeppelin bases in Britain in the first few months of the First World War, I asked what the source of these rumours were. In particular, why did people even think that Zeppelins would need to have a base in Britain, given that the reason why they were so threatening was their long range? In the 1913 airship panic, newspapers and magazines regularly published articles and maps showing how they could menace the entire British Isles from Heligoland or Borkum. It must have been one thing that nearly everyone knew about Zeppelins. So why the idea that the Germans would need bases in Britain itself? We're in the realm of folk strategy here.

Firstly, I should note that this idea of secret Zeppelin bases was not entirely without precedent. In 1909, Roger Pocock, the founder of the Legion of Frontiersmen, wrote in his diary that:

4 mi[les] inland from Stranraer a private firm have meadows but this is a blind. There are German experts [and a] depot for 2 Zeppelin ships -- being tested in a suitably hilly place... For 3 years a wooden airship has been building in a factory at Friern Barnet in London. Germans are opp[osite] an institute called the Freehold.1

Friern Barnet is a suburb in northern London, while Stranraer is in the Scottish Lowlands (the opposite end of Scotland from the bases rumoured in 1914, incidentally). Pocock doesn't say what he thinks these Zeppelins or airships were going to be used for (I haven't seen the original diary, only the above extract). However, given that he was a relentless amateur spyhunter it's safe to assume that he didn't think they were for benign purposes.2 There was also some press discussion in 1913 about Zeppelins having the range to reach targets in Britain, but perhaps not the range to make it back. However, that was very rare, and doesn't seem to have translated into any widespread speculation about secret bases; Pocock's rumour or story is the only example I know of before 1914. However, there is at least one example from after 1914, though not from Britain: in the Australian mystery aeroplane panic of 1918, there was speculation that German agents had established bases inland or off the coast. But there the rationale is obvious: Australia was so far away from Germany that it was impossible for aircraft to fly between the two, so they would have to fly from somewhere nearer (the other option was a German raider or raiders). Again, that wasn't the case in Britain in 1914.
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  1. Quoted in A. J. A. Morris, The Scaremongers: The Advocacy of War and Rearmament, 1896–1914 (London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1984), p. 148. 

  2. Pocock also wrote an airpower novel set in 1980, revolving around the attack on Britain by Germany, France and Russia, with etheric ships drawing on radiant energy for power. Roger Pocock, The Chariot of the Sun: A Fantasy (London: Chapman and Hall, 1910). 

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On ABC New England last week I briefly mentioned rumours of secret Zeppelin bases in Britain in the early months of the First World War. So far as I have been able to determine, the stories, which peaked in October 1914, centred on three locations: the Lake District, the Scottish Highlands and the Chiltern Hills.

The one in the Lake District is the best known of these, partly because of the involvement of B. C. Hucks, a famous aviator before the war (he was a regular at Hendon, the first British pilot to loop and, later, inventor of the Hucks starter), but paradoxically it's the hardest to find much information about. According to Cole and Cheesman,

One persistent rumour of a Zeppelin operating from a clandestine base near Grasmere was dispelled only after Lieut. B. C. Hucks -- a highly experienced prewar civil pilot -- had searched the Lake District from a Blériot monoplane.1

Hayward adds a few more details:

In September 1914 a local rumour in Cumberland held that a German airship was operating from a clandestine base near Grasmere, and flew sorties over Westmorland by night. The story was only dispelled after a Royal Flying Corps pilot undertook several patrols above the Lake District in a Bleriot monoplane, and saw nothing but glorious scenery.2

Similarly brief accounts can be found here and there, but they all likewise concentrate on Hucks' search rather than the rumours themselves, and I haven't been able to find any primary sources.3
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  1. Christopher Cole and E. F. Cheesman, The Air Defence of Britain 1914-1918 (London: Putnam, 1984), 8. 

  2. James Hayward, Myths and Legends of the First World War (Stroud: Sutton, 2002), 18. 

  3. Presumably the War Office and the Home Office are the places to look. Hucks' WO 339 might also have something. 

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The Field of Mons

My third contribution to ABC New England's 'The road to war' series is now online. Today I looked at the events of 20-26 August 1914, focusing particularly on events in Belgium: the march of the German 1st Army through Brussels, 320,000-strong; more German atrocities against civilians, as well as the burning of the library at Louvain; the exploits of L. E. O. Charlton and V. H. Needham of the Royal Flying Corps; and (the ostensible topic for today) the British Expeditionary Force's first major encounter with the German army in the battle of Mons. I also discussed the Angel of Mons, which then led to a digression into the 'Russians with snow on their boots' legend as well as rumours of secret Zeppelin bases in Britain. I then briefly discussed the outcome of the battle of Lorraine, in which Ferdinand Foch first distinguished himself, as well as noting Russian engagements with both Austro-Hungarian and German forces, including the start of the battle of Tannenberg. Finally I talked about the massive losses being incurred by all armies but by France in particular: 27,000 French soldiers were killed on 22 August 1914, which apparently is the highest number of deaths for any army for a single day in this war.

Image source: Yahoo! News.

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Since I'll be undertaking a research trip to the UK this November or so, I need to think about exactly what I'm going to do there. Giving a paper at the AHA is part of that process. That will hopefully help me formulate my approach or at least identify potential approaches to comparing airship, spy and invasion scares in the First World War. But I also need to nail down where I am going to go in a very physical and literal sense. This is because I want to get out of London for at least a week, to look at scares in a provincial area, and raid the local archives for civil defence files or personal diaries and so on (which of course I can supplement in the London archives). This is partly because it'd be nice to avoid the London-centric perspective for change, but also because I suspect that such fears could be as or even more intense in outlying areas -- particularly on the eastern coast facing Germany. I had been thinking somewhere like Hull, which was raided by Zeppelins on multiple occasions, or East Anglia which is the closest part to Germany and so an obvious (at least in the folk sense) place for a German invasion or raid. Both areas also had notable phantom airship sightings in 1913. So maybe there. Or maybe somewhere else.

I wondered if it there was perhaps a systematic way of gauging fears along the invasion coast, something better than throwing darts at a map. And it occurred to me that I might be able to use the British Newspaper Archive (BNA) for this. We're all used to n-grams by now, which are great for tracking the varying usage of words over time. Tim Sherratt's QueryPic does this for Australian newspapers based on the Trove Newspapers corpus; though there's nothing similar for BNA that I know of, you can manually extract the data yourself without it getting too tedious. What I am thinking of might be termed an n-map: an n-gram across space instead of across time. It's a very obvious thing to do, but I don't think I've seen it done for the databases I'm used to using. It's really just GIS (without an actual map). Or distant (newspaper and map) reading.

There's no publicly-available BNA API to make it possible to do this in an automatic way, but again it is actually not too difficult to use the BNA interface manually. This is because BNA has a very fine level of geographic discrimination: all newspapers in the database are allocated a place (e.g. Hull), a county (e.g. East Riding of Yorkshire) and a region (e.g. Yorkshire and the Humber). These appear as filters when you do a search, and listed beside each filter is the number of issues the search has thrown up for it. So you can just copy down the numbers into a spreadsheet to construct your own low-tech n-map (or n-gram, for that matter).

So now the question is, what keywords do I use? This is not completely straightforward, though neither does it have to be airtight. This is just back-of-the-envelope stuff, after all. After some experimentation, I ended up going with 'zeppelin'; 'invasion'; and 'spy'. (BNA automatically searches on plurals as well.) Here are the number of articles in the BNA for each keyword for each region, for the period 4 August 1914 to 11 November 1918.

regionzeppelininvasionspy
Borders, Scotland10592103
East Midlands, England269912972657
East, England530395354
Grampian, Scotland271018403429
London, England204148
Lothian, Scotland661432968
North East, England156911641690
North West, England510434086854
South East, England629569656
South West, England477739604917
Strathclyde, Scotland224207349
Tayside, Scotland236116083849
West Midlands, England852247856552
Yorkshire and the Humber, England598830755575

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While archival research can be slim pickings, I suspect that this may not be such a problem for my Great War panics project, given that on my recent trip the UK I found some really good examples without even trying. The following is an excerpt from a letter dated 7 June 1915, sent to the navalist and journalist Arnold White by a member of the public (the first item in the list is a -- false, as far as I can tell -- claim that the same man had been captain of both HMS Bulwark and HMS Princess Irene and had left 15 minutes before each was sunk by internal explosions, and was court-martialled and shot):

Second, the last German Zeppelin raid [presumably 4 June 1915] has been very serious in loss of life at Tilbury, Gravesend, Greenwich Hospital, Enfield and elsewhere. The [objective] was Woolwich where Von Donop is [still] in charge. Engineers who meet him daily are astounded at the Government keeping him there!

Third, the 'guide' to the last raid is, as I have previously referred to, a motor cyclist with a side seat and a woman. This I have from a man who saw it flashing an upward light at the last raid with a Zeppelin following. I have seen the couple pass my house at Castlenau several times -- they go at great speed.

Fourth, I hear, again on good authority and from an Engineer who has frequently to meet von Donop, that the next Zeppelin raid in force will be made, (as they now know their ground) on Woolwich and that the German Navy will come out to meet our Navy, and the opportunity will be made for the German [transports] to slip out and attempt a landing at Southend. [Personally] I believe the S.E.Kent Coast will also be a base for their operations -- Ramsgate in particular -- they want waking up there -- Especially the Chief Constable -- its [sic] still a hotbed of spies.1

So Major-General Stanley Von Donop, Master-General of the Ordnance, is a suspicious character, apparently even more so since Woolwich Arsenal was the objective of the last Zeppelin raid, which caused serious loss of life. He may be connected with the couple in the motorcycle and sidecar who were seen guiding the Zeppelin. He is also apparently somehow involved in the next Zeppelin raid, also on Woolwich, which will be coordinated with a sortie by the German fleet and a landing by the German army at Southend in Essex. Also, spies or something in Kent. Of course, the spineless authorities are doing nothing about it. (White, at least, was paying attention: in 1917 he published The Hidden Hand detailing German infiltration and subversion of Britain.)

Just about none of this was true: if Von Donop, grandson of a German nobleman but son of a British admiral, was a German agent, he was never found out; spies did not go out at night to guide Zeppelins to their targets; nobody was killed in the air raid of 4 June 1915; the next Zeppelin attack wasn't on Woolwich but on Hull, and there was no German fleet sortie then, let alone a landing in Essex. In fact, this is an excellent example of the intersection and interaction of the three types of scares I am looking at: invasion, spies, air raids. These didn't exist in isolation, but could complement and reinforce each other, in a sum of the British people's fears.


  1. National Maritime Museum, Arnold White Papers, WHI/186. The words in square brackets are not unclear -- the original is in typescript as well as handwritten versions -- but I'm fairly sure I've transcribed them incorrectly. I was in a hurry; I'll have to go back. 

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I've been awarded a small grant by the University of New England to fund research into 'Popular perceptions of the German threat in Britain, 1914-1918'. I'm very fortunate to have received this and very grateful. The basic idea is this:

This project will investigate the British public's reaction to the threat of German attack during the First World War, including invasion, air raids, and espionage. Broadly speaking, the anticipation of such attacks before 1914 has received occasional attention over the last few decades. However, the way these fears actually developed during the war itself is less well understood. From scattered evidence it is known that they included trekking to safe areas, spontaneous organisation of civil defence measures such as the occupation of Tube stations as air raid shelters, and anti-German riots, but no comprehensive study has been carried out, with the recent and partial exception of invasion fears in south-east England in 1914. These fears are important for several reasons. Firstly, because they played a role in strengthening or weakening popular support for the war. Secondly, because they played a role in the retention in Britain of substantial military, naval and aerial forces which could have been deployed on the Western Front and elsewhere. Thirdly, because during the 1920s and 1930s, memories of air raids by Zeppelin and Gotha bombers led to an exaggerated fear of bombing which in turn had significant psychological, political and military consequences.

This is designed to be a standalone project (i.e. and an article), but it's also designed to support my longer-term mystery aircraft research by establishing a sort of baseline for the effect and extent of other forms of scares. How I (tentatively) plan do this is as follows:

  1. Using a combination of distant and close reading techniques, survey the British wartime press to identify periods when fear was likely at its highest, which will likely include the period after the fall of Antwerp, October 1914; the battlecruiser and Zeppelin raids in December 1914-January 1915, the first London air raids in May 1915, the height of the Zeppelin raids in the winter of 1915-6; the daylight Gotha raids in the summer of 1917; the night Gotha raids in the winter of 1918; and the German spring offensives of 1918. This can be done via the Internet using digitised newspaper archives such as the British Newspaper Archive and Gale NewsVault, which between them give good coverage of national and provincial daily newspapers.
  2. The core of the research will be undertaken in London:
    I. 1 week research at the National Archives to examine the official understanding of public fears and responses to particular incidents such as riots and trekking.
    II. 2 weeks at the Imperial War Museum to survey diaries from relevant places and periods to ascertain privately held and expressed reactions to the German threat.
    III. 1 week in a provincial archive in a threatened area such as Hull or Norwich as a check of the predominant London bias of many sources, to gauge local government understanding of and responses to the German threat.
  3. Analysis of data and followup research, if necessary.

This is significant for a number of reasons. First, it's the first time I've won any substantial research funding. Second, it will be the first time I've moved outside aviation history to any real degree (even if I will still be mostly doing aviation history). And third, while my last research trip to the UK may not have been completely successful, I will be going back for more.

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In a not-very-recent post I discussed New Zealand press reports of mystery aeroplane sightings in the first few months of 1918. I suggested then that around about the end of March there was a change in the way these sightings were reported. This change had two aspects. The first was that there were no longer any straight news reports of mystery aeroplanes being published (no new ones, anyway; some of the earlier stories continued to be reprinted as local newspapers caught up). The obvious explanation for this would be because there weren't any to report. However this seems unlikely because of the second aspect: newspapers did in fact continue to circulate stories about mystery aeroplanes, only now in the indirect form of jokes and rumours.

As far as anything which even vaguely resembles an actual sighting is concerned, in fact there are only a couple of examples from April 1918, both from the New Zealand Observer. On 6 April, the Observer's 'They Say' column informed its readers

That a well-known motor car owner and a cold-feet sufferer reported an aeroplane outside Mangere the other night, but when under the third degree he mixed the Urewera locality with Onehunga, the authorities ducked.1

This entirely lacks the sort of information contained in the earlier mystery aeroplane reports, not even a date; and the jocular tone makes it hard to know how seriously to take it. It could be an offhand way of describing an actual sighting by a local notable, or it could be a humorous allusion to some then-topical incident which had nothing to do with mystery aeroplanes.

The other example from April is equally vague as to details, and is quite possibly apocryphal, but its point is clearer. The Observer's 'Fretful Porcupine' column (where did they get these names?) published a letter on 20 April from one 'Jay Bee' which includes this account of a mystery aeroplane sighting, apparently in a posh Auckland suburb:

Dropped into afternoon tea at a friend's house the other day and found I had fallen into the midst of the wife's day-at-home crownd -- 'first and fourth Tuesdays in the month' business. Took me a while to recover, but when I did come to I sat up and took notice of what the dear women were talking about. And, by Jove, it surprised me. One dear thing held the floor by virtue of the strength of her vocal chords, and she was talking about these strange aeroplanes nervous folk are seeing of nights. 'Yes,' she said, 'it's true all right. Only last night Mrs. So-and-So saw one going over her house just after midnight. She called Mr. So-and-So, and he saw it, too, so there. And my husband knows Captain Dash in the Defence Office, and Captain Dash says there are aeroplanes about [...]'2

So unidentified aeroplanes are being seen by unidentified people at unidentified times and unidentified places. Not terribly useful. But wait, there's more:

'[...] and if there's any trouble at any time not to rush to the station to catch a train to get away from town, because they're bound to try to drop bombs on the station, because they know everyone would go there.' (Pause for breath.) 'And then there are these big guns firing 100 miles. What's to stop a raider coming in behind Rangitoto with one of these guns and firing a shell into our houses in Grafton Road? And they're sending my husband into camp, so there would be no one left to fight them.' I regret that at this stage I fainted outright, and heard no more.3

Obviously Jay Bee is partly joking, but he (the condescension towards 'the dear women' suggests a man) was making a serious point about what he saw as the baleful effect of suburban gossip where the defence of the realm was concerned: 'Really, I'm almost in favour of the introduction of women police if they would only find their way to these afternoon teas and arrest a few of these idiotic scaremongers.'4 The reported speech may well be invented, synthesised, and/or exaggerated for effect, but it seems likely that it is more or less representative of talk that was very widespread in April 1918, not just about mystery aeroplanes in the sky or raiders in the sea, but about the possibility that bombs and shells would very soon be falling on New Zealand. Indeed, I think can show this, and will endeavour to do so in the next post in this series.


  1. New Zealand Observer (Auckland), 6 April 1918, 7

  2. Ibid., 20 April 1918, 16

  3. Ibid. 

  4. Ibid. 

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Roland Garros is today mainly known for having given his name to the home of French tennis. But long before then he was famous as a pioneer aviator in both peace and war. In December 1912, for example, he set a new altitude record of 17,000 feet, while in September 1913 he made the first non-stop flight across the Mediterranean, from France to Tunisia. On the outbreak of war the following year, he joined the French Army as a pilot flying Morane Parasols and flew his first combat mission in mid-August. After some unsatisfactory initial experiments with a rifle-armed observer, Garros sought a way of firing a machine gun in the direction of flight. By April 1915 he had a Parasol equipped with the first deflector gear, which consisted of an armoured propellor with deflecting plates, the idea being that any bullets which hit the propellor would bounce off and the rest would pour into the enemy aircraft. As insane as this seems, it worked, enough: Garros shot down three German aeroplanes in a few weeks, before being forced down behind enemy lines himself and captured. His war wasn't over, however. He escaped from a POW camp in Magdeburg in February 1918, made his way back to France and then back into the air, and claimed a fourth German victim before being killed in action in October, just over a month before the Armistice.1

Despite never meeting the formal definition of five combat kills (which anyway wasn't settled until after his capture), the ovations awarded him by an adoring press had effectively made Garros the first air ace. He wasn't the first French airman to shoot down an enemy aircraft, but something about the solitary nature of his victories captured the public imagination, and set the template for the more successful aces of all nationalities who followed him. So it's interesting to discover that this narrative was prefigured by a rumour about Garros published in the British press at the very beginning of the war, which had him ramming and destroying a Zeppelin at the cost of his own life.
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  1. Robert Wohl, A Passion for Wings: Aviation and the Western Imagination, 1908-1918 (New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 1994), 203-10, 238-9.