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Around Easter, I happened to have a camera on me when an airship was passing overhead, and managed to take a couple of pictures before the camera batteries died. But they didn't look quite right, and eventually I realised that it was because the airship was too red. Everybody knows, at least subconsciously, that airships are always silver grey; in fact, they probably should be photographed in black and white. So I used Photoshop to turn the airship into grey and the photograph into black and white. It looks much better now!

Holden airship

The black line could almost be a bracing wire on some Sopwith biplane, straining to reach the raider. Sadly, it's just part of the tram power distribution system.

The other day I came across a fascinating article by H. L. Mencken, the Sage of Baltimore. Mencken was very interested in colloquial English, and to this end penned "War words in England", published in the February 1944 American Speech, about new words coming into use in the British press as a result of the war. Some are still familiar today (like decontamination -- for some reason I'd never realised it was first used in connection with anti-gas precautions), some are still familiar enough though no longer current (siren-suit, appropriate attire for the lady shelterer), others are long forgotten (at least, they're new to me, e.g., to spitfire and to hurricane -- to shoot down an enemy plane). He generally avoided invented words which never gained much popularity, along with acronyms or words formed from them.

Here are some of the more interesting words listed by Mencken.

First there's blitzkrieg/blitz and derivatives: blitzfighter, an 'airman or soldier engaged in fighting against a blitzkrieg';1 blitzflu, a 'mild influenza, sudden in its attack', which struck during the winters of 1941-2 and 1942-3; blitzlull, a break in a blitz; blitzpeace, a peace offensive by Hitler; fireblitzed, 'Of an area devastated by air bombardment'; flare-blitz, bombers dropping flares. And of course sitzkrieg, a slow war: according to Newsweek (4 March 1940), in coining this the RAF 'scored a direct pun on the word blitzkrieg'. Despite its popularity, there were evidently many people who didn't like having to use a German word so often -- one alternative was to raff (i.e. RAF) a target, another to ruhr it (as in the Ruhr valley, a heavily-industrialised and often-bombed area of western Germany -- kind of a reverse coventration). But the Children's Newspaper thought that the large number of warlike foreign words imported into English perhaps 'proves that our national genius is for peace rather than war' (26 July 1941).

Another cluster relates to air raids and associated experiences: flitter, 'One who sleeps away from home to escape air alarms' (more usually called a trekker); goofer, someone who doesn't take shelter during an air raid; jitterbug, `A nervous person', according to Mencken's quotes this seems to have a favourite of Cabinet ministers; roof-spotter, somebody watching out for bombers (ie so as to warn the business below that a raid was actually approaching, otherwise work would have to cease everytime an alert sounded); shelteritis, rheumatism; skelter, an air-raid shelter.

Evacuee (from the French evacué) is a word still in use which appears to derive from directly from preparations for air attack in the 1930s; the first use in The Times is from 1938, in the aftermath of Munich. But as with blitzkrieg, there was much resistance at first: 'Evacuees has a dreadfully alien and official sound, and the novelty of the word is as uncomfortable as new paint' (Western Evening Herald, 28 October 1939). Many alternatives were proposed, unsuccessfully it seems: pilgrims, shelterers, sojourners, refugees, war guests, 'Itler's orphans, movers, exodists/exos (from exodus), dumpees/dumpies, agisters (as though they were farm animals), removee, migrant, transient, scatterer. More successful variants (according to Mencken) were evacuatrix, a female evacuee; guinea-pig, an evacuee or billeted soldier; seavacuation, overseas evacuation, particularly of children; vackie/vack/vickie, abbreviation of evacuee.

Finally, a grab-bag of miscellaneous terms: battle bowler, the helmet worn by soldiers and ARP wardens, a term first heard during the First World War; block-buster, a bomb which can destroy a whole city block (a fun fact to tell students in tutes, I've found); bomphlet/bomphleteer, propaganda pamphlets dropped by air and the airmen who drop them; chatter-bug, a civilian who spreads military secrets; parashot/parashooter/paraspotter, Home Guards who are watching for paratroops (itself a new word) -- parashot was a very common word in the summer of 1940, which is a testament to the fear of airborne invasion at the time; shiver-sister, a scared civilian (with chatterbug, an invention of Harold Nicolson, apparently); and telefootler, 'a word for those selfish people who indulge in idle gossip and time-wasting talks on the telephone' (Herne Bay Press, 1 March 1941). I think this last word should be revived -- we all know a telefootler or two, I'm sure.

So the conclusion seems to be that having a war now and then is good for linguistic diversity.


  1. H. L. Mencken, "War words in England", American Speech, 19 (1944), 3-15; JSTOR. All quotes from this source. 

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This is very cool: the Australian War Memorial, Australia's foremost military history museum, seems to be getting into blogging in a big way! Today, there was an announcement on H-War (and Victoria's cross? is already on the case) of a group blog running in conjunction with an exhibition about Australia's participation in the big Western Front battles of 1917: To Flanders Fields, 1917. It's maintained by a group of AWM curators and historians: Peter Burness, Craig Tibbitts, Shaune Lakin and Anne-Marie Condé.

That's all I was going to mention, but I noticed that the AWM has set up a subdomain called blog.awm.gov.au, which suggested that there might be other AWM blogs out there. Now, that page is completely blank, so I used my Google-fu to see if I could find anything else using that domainname. And there are four more blogs! Focus: photography & war 1945-2006; Gallipoli Battlefield Tour 2007; George Lambert: Gallipoli & Palestine Landscapes; Lawrence of Arabia & the Light Horse. All of them accompany AWM exhibitions, except for the Gallipoli tour one, obviously. Presumably they won't be updated after their associated exhibition ends, but then there'll be other blogs to replace them.

The AWM is to be applauded for this. They all look very interesting and are already well-established, with posts on a variety of intriguing topics, with some fantastic illustrations to boot (drawing on one of the Memorial's strengths there). A lot of effort has been put into them and it shows. But I wonder why I haven't come across any of these blogs before? Partly it's because I don't visit the AWM homepage often enough -- they're all listed there quite prominently (so much for Google-fu!) But another part of the answer would seem to be that the AWM's bloggers haven't tried to hook into the rest of the historioblogosphere -- there are no links to other blogs in their sidebars or posts (that I could see anyway). Whether this is by design or by accident I can't say -- I can see why they'd want to focus on their own content -- but I think they're missing out on promotional opportunities by neglecting the social networking aspect of blogging. Hopefully a bit of linkage in their direction will show them what they are missing.

I don't want to end on even that slightly sour note, as I do think this is really exciting, so I'll point to one post by Anne-Marie Condé which caught my eye. It's about the Australian War Records Section, formed in London in May 1917, effectively the origins of the AWM itself, and features some photographs and artefacts associated with it, such as a 1918-pattern pair of anti-gas goggles and a stuffed carrier pigeon. There's also some more good news: the AWM is digitising the war diaries of Australian Army units involved in the various wars of the twentieth century. The project is only its early days, but this is going to be a tremendous resource for historians and genealogists. I was disappointed, though, to discover that war diary entries don't begin with sentences like 'Dear war diary, today we launched another futile assault against Turkish positions at Lone Pine ...' :D

Mark Connelly has written several very fine books on British military history. He also has an amusingly self-referential Wikipedia entry (emphasis added):

Mark Connelly is a Senior Lecturer and Head of the School of History, at the University of Kent in Canterbury.

He is also the author of a book on the Second World War and the British home front called, We Can Take It!, as well as other books and essays. He also detests Wikipedia and regards it as an unreferenced, unreliable and generally very poor source of (reputable) information. However, this entry would appear to be factually correct.

Well, I LOL'd anyway!

Digging a bit deeper, the last two sentences were added by user Rcarolina, who has made a grand total of 2 Wikipedia edits, the other being an earlier version of the same entry ('He regards Wikipedia as the work of the devil'). Another user, Timrollpickering (who Jack and Dr Dan might know, as he's a history PhD student at QMUL) quite rightly asks whether Connelly's opposition to Wikipedia is notable, so the laughs may not last -- which is why I'm preserving them for posterity.

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Since my previous "web log beg" worked so well, here's another. Because this is my first trip to Europe, and could well be my last for a long time, I'd like to do a bit of travel in September to have a look around (I get kicked out of the college on 3 September to make way for the regular students, so I either become an itinerant or fly straight home). It will just be for a couple of weeks or maybe a bit longer, since I'll be running out of both time and money by then. So where to go?

I've just confirmed that the Hamburg conference is actually on; that starts on 5 September (6, really) and finishes on 7. So I may as well make my way straight there. After that I'll have about 10 days, give or take -- I'm due to fly back (from Heathrow) on 17 September but I can change that. What can I fit in in that time? What should I see and do? Some parameters: I'll have a medium-sized suitcase with me, probably partially-stuffed with books, so backpacking is out. I won't be driving, and it's years since I've ridden a bike so I don't see myself doing that. So I'm already limiting myself to places which are good for walking, public transport or (if all else fails) touristy coach trips. I'm not too old for hostels (I think!), but would probably prefer hotels if I can afford it -- which I probably can't, but anyway I can worry about that later.

As for what I'd like to see: well, British history-type stuff obviously. Military history, planes, all that good stuff -- yes of course. But I can get a lot of that in and around London. I love museums and the like; picturesque country landscapes are nice but we have some of that here, so that's less of a priority. And since I'm from a young country, where the built environment dates to no earlier than the 19th century (with one exception), I have a hunger to see really old things. Early modern, medieval would be great; even earlier would be better. I'm a sucker for anything Roman, so Rome is an obvious choice. I don't have any Italian but they've been fleecing tourists for over two thousand years, so I'm sure I'd manage. I'd like to visit the Western Front battlefields in Flanders, particularly Pozières, but I figure I can probably do that earlier in the summer as a day or overnight trip. I also want to visit Cornwall: my patrilineal ancestors came from there, there's Tintagel and other fun pseudo-Arthurian connections, it's got that almost-Celtic-fringe thing happening, and it looks pretty in the pics. What about Scotland? I hear Edinburgh is nice. South is Hadrian's Wall, north the Highlands -- all good. Is there anywhere else I should be thinking about? How long does take to "do" these places, particularly in the absence of a car? 10 days is presumably only enough for two (plus Hamburg) once travel is factored in.

As you can see, I'm pretty clueless about the whole thing, so any and all clues would be most helpful! I don't have to decide everything right now, but there is a time factor: as part of my ticket to the UK, I get a free BA "internal" flight, which could be to Rome or Edinburgh (is it even sensible to fly from London to Edinburgh? it's such an itty bitty distance, or seems that way to an Australian), but apparently not to Hamburg (I'll have to double-check that though). Which is fantastic, but I basically have to decide where by Friday! Arghh, pressure.

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[Cross-posted at Revise and Dissent.]

The German bombing of London and other British cities between September 1940 and May 1941 is referred to as "the Blitz", a contemporary term which, if not actually coined by the press, was certainly popularised by it. Blitz is short for blitzkrieg, German for "lightning war", which was the label given to the spectacularly mobile armoured offensives, strongly supported by tactical bombing, which led to the rapid conquests of Poland and France. Sometimes it is suggested that it was inappropriate or inaccurate to apply a word having to do with fast-paced ground combat, involving Panzers and Stukas, to a fundamentally different type of warfare, a strategic bombing campaign lasting nine months in which no territory was exchanged and no soldiers even saw each other. For example, after noting the popular origins of blitz, A. J. P. Taylor added as a footnote:

Popular parlance was, of course, wrong. 'Blitz' was lightning war. This was the opposite.1

The Wikipedia page on the Blitz says:

The German military doctrine of speed and surprise was described as Blitzkrieg, literally lightning war, from which the British use of blitz was derived. While German air-supported attacks on Poland, France, the Netherlands and other countries may be described as blitzkrieg, the prolonged strategic bombing of London did not fit the term.

I'd like to suggest here that while it's true that the Blitz wasn't a lightning war, nonetheless it was a blitzkrieg. Confused? Hopefully I can explain ...

Firstly, note that initially blitz and blitzkrieg were synonymous terms. So immediately after the first big raids on London on 7 September 1940, the Daily Express was already using the familiar term: 'Blitz bombing of London goes on all night'.2 But at the same time, the Spectator was calling it a blitzkrieg:

The full purpose of the Blitzkrieg may have been more fully revealed by the time these lines are read. Its immediate object no doubt is to break morale.3

(Blitzkrieg seems to have been more common at first, but after a month or so it was replaced by blitz.) I think this is significant, because it shows that the British didn't think of the Blitz as something fundamentally different from blitzkrieg. It was the blitzkrieg, as applied to the attempted conquest of Britain -- which, being separated from the Continent by the English Channel, obviously wasn't going to play out in exactly the same way as it did in Poland and the West.
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  1. A. J. P. Taylor, English History 1914-1945 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1992 [1965]), 501. 

  2. Daily Telegraph, 9 September 1940, p. 1; quoted in OED entry for "blitz". 

  3. "A decisive hour", Spectator, 13 September 1940, 260. Emphasis in original. 

I don't often mention the various history carnivals here, which makes me a bad netizen; but I'm trying to get into the habit of picking out my favourite post from the monthly Military History Carnival. MilHisCar III is now up, and although a great post on the military origins of the phrase "basket case" did catch my eye, I have to go with the two posts I myself nominated from Old is the New New, on the esoteric and military-industrial origins (via wargaming) of role-playing games. Further proof, if it were needed, that Rob MacDougall is king of the geek/historians!

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Last year I talked about J. M. Spaight's The Sky's the Limit (here, here and here), and how its account of the then-developing Battle of Britain was somewhat surprising to anyone familiar with the standard narrative of the summer of 1940. Which is not at all to say that the standard narrative is wrong, just that things quite naturally looked different while the Battle was still in progress.

Now I'm looking at press accounts of the beginning of the Blitz, September and early October 1940, and again I'm finding things which don't seem to have made it into the received picture. One very striking one is the apparently near-universal opinion that the Me 109 fighter was inferior to British fighters: not just a little bit, but greatly; not just to the Spitfire, but to the Hurricane as well.1 So for example, the Manchester Guardian's air correspondent confidently reported that

That Göring's air force has had no single-seat fighter that could compare with the Spitfire or the Hurricane is a fact that has been obvious since the very start of the war in the air against Britain and the replacement of the Messerschmitt 109, that has suffered so heavily at the hands of R.A.F. fighter squadrons, by something better was to be expected.2

Nearly seventy years later, reasonable people still can and do disagree over the relative merits of these fighters. But I think you would be hard-pressed these days to find anyone who would claim that the Me 109 was not comparable in air combat to the Spitfire, and substantially (though certainly not overwhelmingly) superior to the Hurricane. The reason for the underrating of the Me 109 is not hard to find, when British claims for German losses were routinely too high by a factor of two or three. But I suspect Fighter Command pilots wouldn't have been so sanguine, regardless of the numbers!
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  1. Since we're talking day fighters, technically this probably should be classified as the Battle of Britain, not the Blitz, but in some ways this is is an artificial and unhelpful distinction. 

  2. Manchester Guardian, 19 September 1940, p. 5. The 'something better' was the mythical He 113. 

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It's not often that I happen across a discussion of knock-out blow novels outside specialist literature, so I was interested to see that Gideon Haigh (probably best known as a cricket writer, but also a fine essayist) talks about Nevil Shute's What Happened to the Corbetts (1939) in the current issue of The Monthly. The article itself (which is not online; a precis of sorts is available from the Sunday Telegraph) is about On the Beach, published fifty years ago this month: 'arguably Australia's most important novel'1 since it was the first really popular novel to deal with nuclear war and human extinction, selling 4 million copies worldwide.

In retrospect, 1957 was a hinge point in the Cold War, when passive resignation about nuclear arms began yielding to alarm and horror. It was the year that the CND was founded in Britain and the National Committee for a Sane Nuclear Policy was established in the US; it was the year that the National Council of Churches warned that the arms race might "lead directly to a war that will destroy civilization". In 1955, fewer than one-fifth of Americans knew what fallout was; by 1958, seven in ten were saying they would favour a worldwide organisation to prohibit nuclear weapons.

How many people during that transition read JB Priestley's 'Russia, the Atom and the West' in the New Statesman? Or heard the Nobel-winning chemist Linus Pauling rail against nuclear arms? And how many read On the Beach? Nevil Shute's novel was the great popular work on the gravest matter besetting civilisation.2

Haigh is right to see that the two books have a great deal in common.

What Happened, like On the Beach, is a conventional novel on an unconventional, very nearly taboo, subject: the civilian experience of war, with its trials of disaster and displacement. It is not, however, an anti-war novel. To write against war when its coming was inevitable would have struck Shute as pointless posturing. He was arguing not for peace but for preparedness, to ready Britons "for the terrible things that you, and I, and all the citizens of the cities in this country may one day have to face together". On the novel's release in April 1939, a thousand copies were distributed to workers in Air Raid Precautions. It was "the entertainer serving a useful purpose".3

But I don't know that I agree that the subject of the 'civilian experience of war' was 'very nearly taboo'. There were plenty of novels dealing with this subject written in the 1920s and 1930s, at least as it related to aerial warfare. It's just that virtually all of the others were sensationalistic trash in comparison to What Happened to the Corbetts, as I have previously argued.4 Otherwise I like Haigh's take on it.

And what happened to Nevil Shute? After moving to Australia in 1950 and buying the country's first dishwasher, and writing a few more books, he died in 1960. And after that?

The decline of Shute's reputation is unremarkable: it simply attests the perishability of popular art. Shute sold 15 million books in his lifetime, but he aspired to neither literary immortality nor critical approval: "The book which thrills the reviewer with its artistic perfection will probably not be accepted by the public, while a book which the public value for its contents will probably seem trivial and worthless artistically to the reviewer." His obscurity also reflects the contours of the book market: the middle-class, middlebrow novelist of ideas is a discontinued line.5

Still, he wrote one book of almost geopolitical significance; that's more than most writers can aspire to.


  1. Gideon Haigh, "Shute the messenger: how the end of the world came to Melbourne", The Monthly, June 2007, 52. 

  2. Ibid., 53. 

  3. Ibid., 47. 

  4. Haigh has clearly benefited from reading Paul Brians' Nuclear Holocausts: Atomic War in Fiction, but doesn't seem to have any comparable sources for the knock-out blow literature. That's ok, but you know, he could have asked me! 

  5. Haigh, "Shute the messenger", 46.