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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. 

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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.

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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?

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[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.)
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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.
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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).
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  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. 

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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.
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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.

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Actually, as interwar visions of armageddon go, this is pretty mild. But it reminded me of the scene in Terminator 2: Judgement Day where Sarah Connor has a nightmare about the coming nuclear war, with a nuclear warhead exploding over a playground filled with children:

He was lying on a hill-side. Below him there was a flower-strewn valley. Children were playing there. He could hear their voices, thin and shrill, on the wind. Then he noticed that the children were not alone. Near them, concealed by a fold in the ground, were men, men in uniform. They seemed to be talking earnestly together over something too small for him to see. The next moment they scattered and ran. They seemed to be swarming all over the hillside. Then they stopped and turned to watch the field of flowers and the children playing. Everything was quiet except for the sound of the children's voices on the breeze. Suddenly there was a quick rumble from beneath his feet. Before his eyes the field rocked. With a tearing, splitting roar a huge crack appeared in it, widening to emit a fountain of blackened earth which rose and hung in the air like a curtain. Then the curtain fell, slowly, as if it were wind borne, to unveil the scene behind it. With a cry of horror the Professor awoke.1

This is from Eric Ambler's first novel, The Dark Frontier, a spy thriller published in 1936. The resemblance to Sarah's nightmare is closer than it might seem from the above quote, for despite the pre-Hiroshima date, the explosion in the valley is caused by an atomic bomb. As Ambler himself wrote, 'I must be among the earliest members of the Ban-The-Bomb Movement. I may even have been the first'.2 In fact, in his depiction of atomic warfare, he was preceded by at least two other well-known British writers: H. G. Wells in The World Set Free (1914) and Harold Nicolson in Public Faces (1932), and it's hard to believe he didn't know either of these books. But Ambler was certainly correct to claim membership in a select club.

Of course, since nobody then knew how an atomic bomb might work, it's not surprising that his proposed mechanism now seems a little odd:

"Horrible, certainly," agreed Groom, "but incredible, no. You are no doubt aware that ordinary high explosive depends for its action on a sudden and enormous expansion in volume. Trinitrotoluol, for instance, when detonated with fulminate of mercury expands by something like 500,000 volumes in a fraction of a second. The Kassen bomb, so far as I can gather, is an extension of the principle. Under the influence of the bomb, ordinary silicon rock or earth in its vicinity undergoes an atomic change on detonation, producing huge volumes of some inactive gas such as nitrogen, argon or helium. In other words you are using the earth as your high explosive. The Kassen bomb is merely a special kind of detonator."3

It's an interesting idea. Unfortunately for my purposes, Ambler doesn't connect his atomic bomb with air warfare at all. In fact, he's not particularly interested in the ramifications of such a weapon for warfare or diplomacy.4 Instead, it's just a MacGuffin, seeking the destruction of which leads the famous physicist Professor Barstow to lose his memory, think he's the fictional secret agent Conway Carruthers instead,5 travel to the fictional Balkan country of Ixania under what he believes is an alias but is actually his real name, help start a revolution, get into and out of a lot of scrapes, fall in love with a sinister countess, and yes, this is a parody of bad spy thrillers. Though perhaps not only that -- for example there's a very noticeable "merchants of death" theme running through it, which I don't think was there for laughs, and anyway the book could probably be read with profit as a "straight" thriller. Worth a read.


  1. Eric Ambler, The Dark Frontier (London: Hodder & Stoughton, 1973 [1936]), 35-6. 

  2. Ibid., 6. 

  3. Ibid., 28-9. 

  4. It's never used in the novel, outside of the Professor's nightmare. The only military use suggested is to bury it, then lure the enemy army onto it by retreating, and explode it remotely, which doesn't seem like a stratagem that would work more than once! 

  5. A relation of the narrator of The Riddle of the Sands, perhaps?