Nevil Shute's 1939 novel What Happened to the Corbetts is, as you might expect, one of the most well-written of the knock-out blow novels; it's certainly one of the few that is still read today (outside of H. G. Wells' three contributions to the genre). Shute takes a different approach to most of his predecessors, choosing not to chart the grand strategic and high political course of the war: instead he tells the story of an ordinary middle-class family from Southampton, the Corbetts.
Peter Corbett is a solicitor, and knows nothing of political or military matters. He doesn't even know why Britain is at war, or at first, with whom. (The enemy is never named, but is fairly obviously Germany.) Joan Shelton's resolutely Little Englander horizons are shown by her thoughts as they leave for France in their tiny yacht:
Now, that dim wedge-shaped bit of land was England, perhaps the last of England she would see for years. Gone was the pleasant, semi-detached house that she had married into, had her children in. Gone was their well-loved, battered Austin car. Gone were the happy summer week-ends, bathing at Seaview or Newtown. Gone was the cinema, two streets away from them, where they knew the manager and the cashier by their names. Gone were the occasional, economical trips to London. Gone were their friends, the Gordons and the Hutchinsons and the Littlejohns — all gone. Gone were the shops she loved, the one that had the puppies in the window, the one that sold the radiograms that they could not afford, the piano that they would have had when they were very rich. All these were gone. That rocky point with the white lighthouse, unlit and hardly visible behind them in the mist, was the last of all these things. When that went, England would be gone.
It's refreshing to read a next-war novel where the protagonists aren't dashing RAF flyboys, fearless secret agents, intrepid Fleet Street journalists or up-and-coming backbench MPs, with privileged insight into and influence upon the war!
It's hard to believe, but it's exactly a year since I started Airminded, taking the historioblogosphere by storm with my cryptically-entitled first post, First post! It's been both fun and (I think) productive for me thus far, with the highlights probably being hosting the History Carnival, and being asked to help found the group blog Revise and Dissent. I'd blog even if nobody read what I wrote, but I'd like to thank everyone who has taken the trouble to comment, especially Chris Williams and Alex for their support in the early days.
In total, 144 posts and 324 comments (including trackbacks and pingbacks).
Photographs of actual combat in the First World War are exceedingly rare, in the air as well as on the ground. Both of these are purportedly of Zeppelins flying over Britain. Are they fake or not? My answers are below.
`The low down thing that plays the low down game'. Source: British postcard, Zeppelin im Krieg.
'Over London's roofs. London's defences against Zeppelin raids were never adequate. Searchlights sometimes succeeded in spotting the raiders, as in the actual photograph by an amateur shown in the impression on the opposite page, but the anti-aircraft guns never secured a direct hit. Zeppelin raiders were only checked and finally defeated by aeroplane attack'. Source: Hamilton Fyfe, "Early Zeppelin nights of terror", in John Hammerton, ed., War in the Air: Aerial Wonders of our Time (London: Amalgamated Press, n.d. [ca. 1935]), 17.
If you were wondering what the biggest and loudest air raid siren of all time is, then wonder no more, because it's the American Chrysler Victory Siren, made in the 1950s. Well, I don't know for sure that it was — I'd like to see what the Soviets had to offer — but it was clearly a mighty impressive piece of hardware: 12 feet long; 3 tons in weight; and 138 decibels at a distance of 100 feet! (120 dB is the pain threshold.) These were dotted all over the United States — 20 in Detroit alone.
You can hear one of the few remaining examples in action here. It certainly sends a chill down my spine, which is perhaps strange as nuclear drills were not a feature of my youth here in Australia, so I only know the sound of such sirens second-hand. But I can't help but imagine what would have been happening to the communities these sirens were meant to warn, as the missiles (or in the 1950s, the bombs) rained down. Which in turn leads one to marvel at the optimistic choice of the name Victory Siren … though I suppose the Defeat Siren ("If you can hear this, you're already dead") might not have sold so well!
Via Deltoid: the higher education supplement of The Australian newspaper this week has a couple of articles on academic blogging in Australia. (Choice quote from the first link: 'A spate of studies has shown that making articles available online boosts citations by 50 to 250 percent.')
Hopefully this will encourage more Australian academics and students to take up this noble pursuit — there are disappointingly few of us, even though the term "weblog" was (apparently) coined by two Australian academics in 1995! As far as I know, I'm the only history blogger in the Australian academy (and as a lowly PhD student, I'm only just in the academy :) If there are any others out there, give us a cooee in the comments.
My laptop is my primary workhorse, and I've just upgraded — a very exciting time in any computer geek's life! On the left, my old 12" 1.0 Ghz G4 Powerbook, "zeppelin"; on the right, my new 13" 2.0 GHz Core Duo MacBook, "hendon". Zeppelin has been a rock-solid little machine for me these last couple of years, but it was starting to lose pace with my needs. Switching over to hendon been a very smooth process (other than getting Instiki to work again), and it's just so nice and fast — it's better in every way (except for the size, I prefer the smaller formfactor). It should see me through me through the rest of the PhD in style.
This seems to be a snippet from a documentary made in New Zealand. The main point of it is to show a Camel and a Spitfire flying side by side, but I found the first half more interesting, about the practical aspects of flying a First World War-vintage aeroplane. For example, I hadn't realised that the scarves worn by the pilots were not fashion accessories!
H. G. Wells. The World Set Free: A Story of Mankind. London: Macmillan and Co., 1914. The novel that unleashed atomic warfare upon the world. I actually already have a copy but it's a modern edition, and I'd prefer to reference an original edition, where possible. Besides which, the University of Nebraska Press inexplicably changed the title of their edition from The World Set Free to The Last War, which abomination I don't want stinking up my bibliography!
I've recently read a trilogy of novels about the next war, by Sydney Fowler Wright, a prolific but largely forgotten poet and novelist: Prelude in Prague (London: Newnes, 1935), Four Days War (London: Robert Hale, 1936), and Megiddo's Ridge (London: Robert Hale, 1937). Only the first is a true knock-out blow novel: in 1938, after a brief period of sabre-rattling, Nazi Germany launches a huge aerial attack on Prague and pretty much flattens it in one night.
And it was true that Prague had ceased to exist. Its chemical devices for fighting fire had proved utterly inadequate to overcome the hundred conflagrations which had burst out in so short a time, and had been recruited continually as new bombs rained from the sky.
And, from an early hour of the night, the supply of water had failed, after the German air-fleet had made a concentrated attack upon the great pumping-station, which was built conspicuously on the river bank, as though to invite its fate.
When the fires died, as they did not wholly do for a space of days, not the commercial city alone, but all on river-valley and hills which had been the beauty of Prague, was an ended dream. Cathedral, castle, and palace were broken and blackened shells.
Classic knock-out blow stuff. Czechoslovakia is doomed before the war has even begun: there's nothing anyone can do about it, despite brave resistance by the Czech fighters.
As noted at the War Room, most of these names are really, really bad, and sound like something a 12 year old boy would come up with. Of interest here is the homage to great fighter planes of yore — the Spitfire and the P-38 Lightning. (At least, I assume that Lightning II refers to that and not the English Electric Lightning, itself one of the great post-war fighters.) Presumably, Spitfire II is on the list because of the British participation in the project (though their US$2 billion is just a drop in the bucket, when compared with the projected total cost of US$244 billion). Cyclone sounds like it would have fitted in well alongside the Hurricane, Tempest, Typhoon and Whirlwind, too. Other than those choices, these are some pretty silly names. Piasa is more likely to evoke feelings of slight puzzlement than dread.
Still, fair's fair: the British have made some aircraft with pretty silly names too. Such as the Fawn. The Flycatcher. The Tabloid. The Iris. It's lucky the next war didn't start in 1931, when the Blackburn Iris (a seaplane) entered service; imagine how dreadfully embarassed the aircrew would have been to have been seen by the enemy flying around in something named after a flower.
Of course, the name of a combat aircraft is irrelevant to its actual performance. I guess the only real purpose is for propaganda, particularly on the home front. In that light, it's interesting that the names given to British fighters become more aggressive-sounding over time — think of the difference between the Siskin III (a 'small songbird', according to the OED) of the mid-1920s and the Spitfire of the late 1930s. If you are staring total air war in the face, you might as well put yourself in the mood …