12 Comments

I've previously mentioned the Holden airship. At the moment it is at Brisbane, and there are concerns that it will be flown over the Gabba during the first Ashes test next month.1 The problem is that Holden isn't paying Cricket Australia anything for the privilege of flying a billboard over the cricket ground, where it might well catch the eye of 40000 spectators bored with Australia's on-field drubbing of the puny English team. So the Queensland state government is planning to introduce legislation to ban such overflights of major sporting events, along with skywriting. Otherwise, the downfall of Australian civilisation could result, or something.

Now, I've said it before and I'll say it again: there's no need for legislation here. It would likely just impose a fine for infractions, anyway, which might not be an effective deterrent to a sufficiently determined advertiser. A FAR more effective solution would be a belt of anti-aircraft guns around the Gabba, along with a squadron or two of Sopwith Camels and a system of sound locators and ground observers in surrounding suburbs. It worked in the First World War; it can work again.

Of course, the enemy advertisers may adapt, seeking to overwhelm the defences with masses of airships, or to escort the raiders, perhaps with trapeze fighters. Maybe the blimp will always get through, in which case a deterring counter-advertising strategy might well be called for -- holding a force of airships in readiness to instantly fly over sporting events sponsored by the opposition, should they dare to use their airships in a hostile manner. Perhaps the ultimate solution is the international control of all airships, which would then only be used over stadiums as directed by the League of Nations -- I mean, United Nations.

At any rate, I'm available, for only a moderately immoderate fee, to consult with any sporting venues wishing to develop a state-of-the-art-c.-1918 air defence system.


  1. Note to journos: outside of a few not-notably-successful experiments, blimps AKA airships do not rely upon hot air for lift. This one has 5 million litres of helium inside it. 

2 Comments

Last month, I noted a parallel between certain pre- and post-Hiroshima nuclear warfare narratives. Here's an even more common one, this time between the knock-out blow itself and nuclear warfare.

Here's the American astronomer Carl Sagan, from the final chapter ("Who speaks for Earth?") of the 1980 companion book to his acclaimed television series, Cosmos:

By the ninth decade of the twentieth century the strategic missile and bomber forces of the Soviet Union and the United States were aiming warheads at over 15,000 designated targets. No place on the planet was safe. The energy contained in these weapons, genies of death patiently awaiting the rubbing of the lamps, was far more than 10,000 megatons -- but with the destruction concentrated efficiently, not over six years but over a few hours, a blockbuster for every family on the planet, a World War II every second for the length of a lazy afternoon.1

Compare with Lord Ponsonby in the House of Lords, October 1933:

The next war, if there is one, is going to be as different from the last war as the last war was from the Battle of Hastings. During the four years of the Great War 300 tons of bombs were dropped on this country. In the next war 300 tons of bombs are going to be dropped on the great cities of this country in the first half-hour.2

And with P. R. C. Groves, in Behind the Smoke Screen (1934):

"Whereas in the late war some 300 tons of bombs were dropped in this country by the Germans, air forces today could drop almost the same weight in the first twenty-four hours and continue this scale of attack indefinitely." That estimate, made by the Air Staff [in 1926], was based on the number and known 'performance' of the bombers possessed by France. Since then the striking power of the French Air Force, which is the accepted standard of measurement in Europe, has been doubled. Hence, and given the same supposition as regards the distance of the objective, it has now a bombing or striking capacity of 600 tons daily.3

And finally, with Sir Malcolm Campbell, in The Peril from the Air (1937):

But nobody need think that war from the air next time will bear any relation to the happenings of 1914-18. What must be realized is that the development of the air arm has made it possible for an enemy to drop a 1,000 [sic] tons of bombs on London in a single day and night. That is, four times the weight that fell on the whole country during four years of war.4

There are many more examples that I could supply, but that will do. It's the same rhetorical device, isn't it: take the awful destruction of the last war, multiply it, and compress it to fit a timescale of hours instead of years. (And as time goes by, and technology progresses and forces expand, multiply it some more.) It's an effective one, too, whichever war you are talking about: if you don't find the thought of a world war in a day a sobering one, then you are probably Curtis LeMay or Arthur Harris. So here we see an instance where the rhetoric of the Cold War was developed first for the knock-out blow, long before the Manhattan Project.


  1. Carl Sagan, Cosmos (New York and Avenel: Wings Books, 1995 [1980]), 321-2. 

  2. Lord Ponsonby, Manchester Guardian, 28 October 1933; quoted in Patrick Kyba, Covenants without the Sword: Public Opinion and British Defence Policy, 1931-1935 (Waterloo: Wilfrid Laurier University Press, 1983), 88. 

  3. P. R. C. Groves, Behind the Smoke Screen (London: Faber and Faber, 1934), 147-8. Emphasis in original. 

  4. Malcolm Campbell, The Peril of the Air (London: Hutchinson & Co., n.d. [1937]), 49. Emphasis in original. 

1 Comment

Strange name, good blog. Gavin Robinson is moving on from a PhD on horse supply in the English Civil War:

This is mostly a history blog, but I’m aiming to be eclectic. I’m likely to be posting works in progress; reflections on things I’ve been reading; extracts from and criticism of my PhD thesis; and random thoughts on history, historiography, culture, literature, information technology, and, of course, other people’s blogs. This is all part of my strategy to broaden my horizons.

He's also weighed in on the discussion about when the Second World War started, with a post questioning the need for a single metanarrative of the war. His conclusion that 'Since we can’t dispense with the Second World War but can’t define it very easily, we might just have to accept that it’s fuzzy around the edges' seems reasonable to me. I like Gavin's interest in theory, despite (or perhaps because of) the fact that I am resolutely empirical myself.

2 Comments

Vera Brittain. One Voice: Pacifist Writings from the Second World War. London and New York: Continuum, 2005. Consists two of her wartime works, Humiliation with Honour (1942) and Seed of Chaos (1944), a condemnation of RAF area bombing. Scholarly introduction by Aleksandra Bennett, foreword by Shirley Williams.

Peter Cooksley. The Home Front: Civilian Life in World War One. Stroud: Tempus, 2006. I don't normally buy histories without references, but this one has lots of interesting and unusual photos, much of it related to the German air raids (all of Cooksley's couple of dozen previous books are aviation history). Searchlight trams -- who knew?

16 Comments

[Cross-posted at Revise and Dissent.]

In a comment to an earlier post, Jonathan Dresner quite legitimately took exception to my use of the term 'interwar' to refer to the period 1919-1939:

From an Asian history perspective, the Japanese use of chemical weapons in China isn't really "interwar," as major combat operations began in late '37 (leading to the Nanjing Massacre, etc.) and ran continuously through '45.

While Jonathan is conveniently distracted, I thought I'd address the issue he raised -- essentially that of when did the Second World War start? Of course, this is a hoary old question, and the answer usually depends on where you're from. Australia's war started on 3 September 1939, the same date that Britain, France and New Zealand declared war on Germany. So we were in it from the start. Well, the start, bar the two days during which Poland was fighting alone. Or possibly the start, bar the two and a bit years since the Marco Polo Bridge Incident, as Jonathan suggests. (I hope we can all agree that the United States was too late to the party to have much of a say in when it really started.)
...continue reading

48 Comments

Peri Magurum -- 9,700 ft High
30 Sqn D.H.9A at 9700 ft over Peri Magurum.

A friend has alerted me to a thread on the Something Awful forums (thanks, Mike!) One of the users has access to a collection of photos taken by an RAF sergeant who served with 30 Squadron in the early 1920s, which unfortunately looks like it is going to be sold and broken up. But luckily scans of them of them are being posted first, and there are some fantastic pictures of Iraq, Palestine and Egypt, many taken from the air, including several of an air raid carried out against a Kurdish town -- air control in action! Naturally, I can't resist posting some of the best ones here, but there are plenty more on the original thread, including the Holy Land, the Suez Canal, dusky maidens, scorpions, a cross-Africa flight from Cairo to Nigeria, and the promise of more to come. I've had to shrink these to fit them onto the page, so click on them to see the full-size version.
...continue reading

27 Comments

Between the wars, it was a commonplace that poison gas would be used in the next war, would be used in large quantities, and would probably be used against civilians. This was a natural enough assumption; after all, it was used liberally enough in the Great War, and it was widely assumed that science would have discovered even more lethal gases.1 As for civilians, they were now in the front line, as the Zeppelins and Gothas had shown.

Of course, gas wasn't used in the Second World War,2 probably because of the fear of retaliation in kind, i.e., deterrence worked. This could not be assumed a priori, of course, particularly since it was in fact in use throughout the period 1919-39. The best known, and the most egregious, example was by the Italians in Abyssinia (modern Ethiopia), in 1935-6. There were other instances too, but I don't think I've ever seen a comprehensive list (though this isn't bad).
...continue reading


  1. This is leaving aside the argument of those like the chemist J. B. S. Haldane, that the statistics showed that gas warfare led to relatively fewer fatalities than shells and bullets, and so was therefore more humane than conventional war, as well as the argument that all likely gases useful for warfare had already been discovered. The German discovery of nerve gases, had this been publicly known, would have put the lie to these claims. 

  2. There are some dubious claims to the contrary, such as that Germany used gas against Soviet troops in the Crimea in 1942. 

3 Comments

I've added a section to the sidebar for history bloggers in Australia. There aren't many, but I'm always on the lookout for good ones.

The least familar one is probably thesouthcoast. It's is the work of Geoff Robinson, a labour historian at Deakin University in Geelong. It mostly consists of 'Historically informed comments on labour and politics with an Australian and North American focus', with an occasional dash of space exploration thrown in -- all of which suits me fine!

The other two are quite well known. Film writer David Tiley's Barista is by no means a pure history blog, but thoughtful historical posts on diverse topics appear regularly, and those alone would make for a blog worth reading. Everything else is icing on the cake.

The last one will probably be as surprising to most readers as it is familar: the beautiful BibliOdyssey, run by the mysterious peacay. Yes, it is Australian! The clues are out there, if you look for them ...

Two of these three are from Victoria, and one from New South Wales. Given the small numbers, this doesn't prove anything about the relative merits of these states, but let's pretend it does :)

[Cross-posted at Revise and Dissent.]

Mark Grimsley has an interesting post up at Blog Them Out of the Stone Age / Cliopatria asking people how they would fill out a history department of 15 full-time equivalent positions. I thought it would be fun to try this exercise for an Australian history department.

Rather than trying to specify both (a) the period/region and (b) the historical approach employed by each staff member, I see these as mostly independent variables -- so having a political historian of 20th century Australia and a military historian of early modern Europe is just as satisfactory as having a military historian of 20th century Australia and a political historian of early modern Europe.
...continue reading

Common Sense about Disarmament

The front cover of Victor Lefebure's Common Sense about Disarmament (London: Victor Gollancz, 1932); the artist's name is Douglas L. Dick. (I also have a colour scan -- the title is in red and the background is a cream tint -- but it's rather muddy and much less striking than the monochrome version above.) Note the cluster of bombs hurtling down towards the already orphaned and probably homeless child. And the four-engine monoplane bombers up in the sky are a futuristic touch, given the state of the art at that time.

Major Lefebure (not LeFebure, as the internets seem to think) had a wide experience in gas warfare, ranging from participating in British gas attacks on the Western Front to surveying the German chemical industry after Versailles. He also became involved in the business of making chemicals himself, specifically dye production, though I am not sure at what level. He wrote several books on the subjects of chemical warfare and disarmament, including The Riddle of the Rhine in 1921 (an American edition is available at Project Gutenberg), and this one, where he argues for the need to regulate the means of production for any disarmament regime to be effective.