Last night I watched Threads, an extremely affecting BBC film from 1984 about the effects of a full-scale nuclear war on one British city, Sheffield.1 One might say it's a very British 'kitchen sink' approach to the subject, following the lives of two ordinary families during the international crisis (involving Iran -- so what else is new) leading up to the nuclear exchange, then switching to a relentless depiction of the death, confusion, suffering and struggle for existence in the days, weeks and years afterwards. 'Harrowing' is the word usually trotted out for movies like Threads; if you want to feel like you've been punched repeatedly in the stomach for two hours then you won't want to miss it. At the end of it, I let out a huge sigh of relief -- it was over, it wasn't real, I could thankfully escape back to reality again.

The reason why Airminded has a sometime interest in the Cold War is partly because -- at the risk of crossing a bridge before I come to it! -- it's an area I may go into after the PhD, but also because the fear of nuclear war is an obvious comparison to the fear of the knock-out blow. The one grew out of and replaced the other. In fact, it seems to me that they are extremely similar indeed: most of the ideas and tropes in literature anticipating nuclear war were used by the writers worrying about the effects of aerial bombardment upon British society before the Second World War. For example, the opening narration2 of Threads explains the meaning of the title (over shots of a spider weaving a web intercut with ones showing trucks transporting goods around the city):

In an urban society, everything connects. Each person's needs are fed by the skills of many others. Our lives are woven together in a fabric, but the connections that make society strong also make it vulnerable.

As the film goes on to show, a nuclear war would completely sever these connecting threads, and with them, all hope and dignity. (One of the main characters sobs in grief when he finds that he can't get any water out of the taps to comfort his wife, dying from radiation exposure.) Of those Britons who survive the attack, many millions more die for lack of food, water and medical attention. L. E. O. Charlton would have understood the point immediately. In 1938 he wrote that

Our millions are bottle-fed, and all their needs are cared for, by a system of distribution and supply so intricate, and so haphazardly evolved, that once seriously dislocated beyond the power of immediate repair they would be as helpless as new-born babes to fend for themselves.3

But there are also differences. One obvious one is radiation, and its lingering effects. After a knock-out blow, the survivors could rebuild and repopulate Britain without having to worry about no-go areas or genetic damage. Another, related and more striking difference is that the natural world would be largely unaffected by a knock-out blow, whereas a nuclear war would blight the land and the sky for generations to come. In Threads, the global thermonuclear war leads to a nuclear winter (Carl Sagan and Richard Turco are both credited as advisors), with near-freezing temperatures and stunted harvests. Britain's population drops to medieval levels. These scenes, mostly of silent people in the bare fields hunched over and grubbing for what little crops still grow, are very bleak and extremely effective. Visually, they are so dark as to be almost black, while the wind howls constantly. Nature itself has been wounded. Contrast this with a passage in Sarah Campion's 1937 novel Thirty Million Gas Masks. The protagonist is caught in a cellar in an air raid, and recalls a bicycle ride the previous May, in glorious spring:

This at least, thought Judith in December confusedly in the hot horror of her gas-mask, was unconquerable. The bombs might fall; did, in fact, fall at this moment, upon the brick and macadam of the railway bridge outside, upon the chestnut trees and the grassy bank and the dark winter-resisting laurels: the bridge might never be built again, for there might be no men to build it: but the grass would sprout of itself over the brick, and the laurel would put out a startling green bud, pale as water, and the chestnut, though split from top to bottom, would spring up in new life from the seedling now cosily safe at its foot, and bear in April a galaxy of green fingers, and in May a candle-blossom as insouciant as the free air itself. This alone, she thought as a brutal crash turned her world tipsy for a moment, this perennial birth in the face of disaster would go on invincibly to some sort of conclusion, some final flowering, however hazardous.4

Unsurprisingly, visions of the knock-out blow could sometimes turn into anti-urban, back-to-nature utopias by the back door. With the cities destroyed or emptied, the population drastically reduced, industry and commerce at an end, people could return to a simpler and therefore (of course!) better way of life, closer to the land and free of the corruptions of modernity. A Threads-style nuclear war would take this a step too far, corrupting the land as well and offering only an unrelenting and probably pointless struggle for mere existence instead. Even this, though, could be paradise to some, as shown by the survivalist fiction of the later Cold War.

There are some very good websites devoted to Threads: I particularly recommend Don't Panic, Mr Mainwaring: Threads, while the site at Action After Warnings is extremely comprehensive. But above all, watch the film.

  1. Interestingly, it was co-produced by the Nine Network in Australia; however I don't remember it being shown here, whereas I do remember The Day After, or perhaps it was just the controversy surrounding it. 

  2. Actually, the narration was one of the weakest parts of the film: although used sparingly, the documentary-style voiceovers kept pulling me out of the story, a reminder that it wasn't real. For some reason, the more frequent textual overlays were far less jarring, and also more informative. 

  3. L. E. O. Charlton, G. T. Garratt and R. Fletcher, The Air Defence of Britain (Harmondsworth: Penguin Books, 1938), 102. 

  4. Sarah Campion, Thirty Million Gas Masks (London: Peter Davies, 1937), 173. 


Choice: Current Reviews for Academic Libraries has an article on academic blogging in its latest annual web issue, and guess which academic blog scores a mention ...

Airminded is an example of a graduate student blog; it is devoted to the topic of fears of air attack in Britain prior to World War II.1

Note that it doesn't say it's a good example of a graduate student blog :D

  1. Laura B. Cohen, "Blogs in academia: a resource guide", Choice 43 (August 2006), 9. Actually, the OCRed version says 'Airmindcd'! 


Executive Council of the New Commonwealth. An International Air Force: Its Functions and Organisation. London: The New Commonwealth, 1934. A submission to the International Congress in Defence of Peace, February 1934, detailing the organisation and role of an international air force.

Lawrence Freedman. The Evolution of Nuclear Strategy. London: Palgrave Macmillan, 2003. Third edition. An authoritative history. Starts in the right place, with the knock-out blow.

P. R. C. Groves. Our Future in the Air. London, Bombay and Sydney: George G. Harrap & Co., 1935. Not to be confused with his 1922 book of the same name. This is about both the danger of Britain falling behind in civil aviation and the danger of air attack.

Mick Jackson, dir. Threads. BBC Worldwide, 2005 [1984]. The UK's answer to the The Day After. I've never seen it before; I'll have to track down a copy of The War Game next. Come to that, it's years since I've seen The Day After ...

Patrick Kyba. Covenants without the Sword: Public Opinion and British Defence Policy, 1931-1935. Waterloo: Wilfrid Laurier University Press, 1983. Studying public opinion before polling or even Mass-Observation is extremely difficult; this is a pioneering attempt, drawing upon metropolitan and provincial newspapers, the Peace Ballot, by-elections, and so on.


[Cross-posted at Revise and Dissent.]

He 111 over London, 7 September 1940

He 111 over London, 7 September 1940. Image source: Wikimedia Commons.

So, I've looked at J. M. Spaight's predictions in The Sky's the Limit about how the British fighters would fare in the Battle of Britain, and how the German ones would too. All that remains is to examine his thoughts on the German bombers.

...continue reading


Veteran history blogger Alan Allport (Horizon and Cliopatria) has an interesting new blog: War Starts at Midnight! I can't find anything defining the blog's scope, but so far the posts are a mixture of links to images, reviews and news relating to the World Wars, centering on the Second World War and Britain. Which is not surprising given Alan's PhD is on British demobilisation after the Second World War. Good stuff -- added to the sidebar.

Reginald Berkeley. Cassandra. London: Victor Gollancz, 1931. A workers' uprising and a Soviet invasion (including the inevitable aerial bombardment), along with a future archaeologist digging through the ruins of London -- as seen via clairvoyant visions of things to come! Looks like fun.

Hamish Blair. Governor Hardy. London: Edinburgh and London: William Blackwood & Sons, 1931. Looks to be a sequel to 1957.

Hamish Blair. The Great Gesture. London: Edinburgh and London: William Blackwood & Sons, 1931. Might be a knock-out blow novel -- doesn't really look like it. I bought these books by Blair partly on spec, and it doesn't really look like it has paid off. Though they were quite cheap, I need to be more careful about this in future.

L. E. O. Charlton. The Secret Aerodrome. London: Oxford University Press, 1933. Charlton tries his hand at juvenile fiction, boy's own stuff out on the fringes of Empire.

John Connell. David Go Back. London: Cassell and Company, 1935. A Scottish revolution against English rule. Not sure how aerial it is (see above).

David Davies. Suicide or Sanity? An Examination of the Proposals before the Geneva Disarmament Conference. London: Williams and Norgate, 1932. Lord Davies puts forward the case for an international police force.

C. G. Grey. Bombers. London: Faber and Faber, 1941. The pro-German, fascist-leaning former editor of The Aeroplane gives his thoughts on the evolution of bombing and its use in the present war. DID YOU KNOW: the G. stands for "Grey"!

James P. Levy. Appeasement and Rearmament: Britain, 1936-1939. Lanham: Rowman & Littlefield, 2006. Argues that appeasement was 'an active, logical, and morally defensible foreign policy designed to avoid and deter a potentially devastating war' (according to the blurb, anyway). Should be interesting!

Leslie Reid. Cauldron Bubble. London: Victor Gollancz, 1934. A bit of an oddity -- a Ruritanian novel where Edwal (Wales) rises up against Grendel (England), which in turn gets involved in a war with Belmark (Germany) -- including aerial bombardment. The real identities of the countries involved are so obvious that one wonders why the author bothered to obscure them.

Siegfried Sassoon. Memoirs of a Fox-hunting Man. London: Faber and Faber, 1999 [1928]. This and the following are part of my ongoing quest for self-improvement.

Siegfried Sassoon. Memoirs of an Infantry Officer. London: Faber and Faber, 2000 [1930].


It's exactly 40 years since the Battle of Long Tan, a notable feat of Australian arms during the Vietnam War. But I have a more personal anniversary in mind -- yesterday was 90 years to the day since my great-grand uncle John Joseph Mulqueeney was killed by an artillery round during the Somme campaign, on 17 August 1916. As I wrote a brief memorial about him last year on Remembrance Day, today I thought I would look at the online sources I used for that post.

The first thing to note is that the Australian War Memorial website is absolutely superb for researching family members who served in wartime. By entering a surname on their search page, choosing a war and specifying whether they were killed in action or not, you can obtain a wealth of information, including Red Cross records, embarkation rolls, lists of decorations awarded, and so on. There are also two important external links: one to the Commonwealth War Graves Commission for the location of graves (though the AWM link is actually broken at the moment), and another to the National Archives of Australia, where service records can be obtained (hopefully online, if not photocopies can be ordered).

In looking through these records, the big surprise was that Private Mulqueeney did not die at Gallipoli, as my family's oral tradition held. Upon reflection, the reason for this is obvious -- over the years, as the family members who could remember John themselves passed away, the succeeding generations assimilated fragments of his story into what little they knew of the war, and that increasingly came to mean Gallipoli. Unlike Gallipoli and in contrast to the situation in Britain, the Somme has little meaning for modern Australians. And in family history terms, having a relative who fought at Gallipoli has a cachet that is probably only second to having First Fleet convict blood running in your veins.

His service records were perhaps the most interesting, and sobering, find. Here's part of the attestation paper filled out when he enlisted. Note the bureaucratic scrawls all over it, and in particular the very final KILLED IN ACTION stamped across the top -- naturally, such a common occurrance merits a labour-saving device like a rubber stamp.

Attestation Paper

From his casualty form, we can trace his movements in the last months of his life. On 7 March 1916 he disembarked at Alexandria from the troopship Wandilla and on 29 March (presumably after further training) re-embarked, this time on the Transylvania, arriving in Marseilles to join the BEF on 4 April. He then presumably moved to the Australian depot at Etaples, where he remained for over two months: his group of reinforcements joined the 4th Battalion on 13 June. I'm not sure where the unit was then -- I'd need to check a unit history or war diary for that -- but it was another two months before he was killed, near Mouquet Farm. He was a well-behaved soldier, with nothing to mar his conduct sheet (where his character is recorded as "good").

John Mulqueeney's death added more pages to his service record than his life ever did. Six relate to the forwarding of his personal effects to his father, Timothy:

Writing Case, Tie, Key, Letters, Cards, Photo, 2 Pen Holders, Holdall, Housewife, 4 Brushes, 2 Combs, Scarf.

A receipt slip from 1921, to certify that (I think) his mother, Sarah, had received his 'Memorial Scroll and King's Message'. Stamps for his service medals: 1914/15 Star (presumably because he enlisted in 1915), British War Medal, Victory Medal.

Service medals

A positive reply to a family request for a photograph of his grave at Courcelette British Cemetary. Perhaps saddest of all, a form letter evidently for the purpose of informing his family which troopship he will be coming home on, never to be filled in, never to be sent.

Coming home

Finally, there are the records of the Australian Red Cross Society Wounded and Missing Enquiry Bureau's enquiries on behalf of his family. They wrote to his comrades, asking for more information than the terse Department of Defence telegram would have provided.

We should be most grateful for any details you could send us concerning 4572 MULQUEENEY 4th Batt. A.I.F. and would also be glad iff [sic] you would add a short personal description, or any points that would sa tisfy [sic] his relatives that no error had been made.

There were six replies, including one from his sergeant. Pte. Hutchinson (himself recovering in the Eastbourne Military Hospital) provided the following information in December 1916:

Informant states that on Aug.17th. 1916, at the Pozieres Sector, a friend, Pte. McBride asked him to go with him into the next bay to see if "old Mul" [?] was alright as he did not think he had moved for a little time. Informant went, they found Mulqueeney dead, shot through the head, death must have been instantaneous. This was during the big bombardment. They buried him just beyond the bay, and informed the Sergt. Informant took some letters which he is sending to the Mother with details and also has pay book which he will forward to the right quarter as soon as he can do so.

That same month, Pte. Dickman wrote from Etaples:

He was killed at Moquet [sic] Farm about the middle of August. We were in the trenches. He was observing. I saw him killed by a shell, which burst near the parapet, and a piece hit him in the head. He belonged to IV Pl. A.Co. I knew him quite well. He was buried in a shell hole near by. A rough cross was put on his grave.

I hope that knowing how John Mulqueeney died, the return of his effects, the photo of his grave and so on, somehow provided some solace to his family. I can only imagine the pain they carried with them for the rest of their lives. My own sadness in examining these remains of his life can only be the palest (and somehow unearned) reflection of their grief. And of course, this was merely one, not particularly remarkable, death from a very bloody war. Scale all of that up by a factor of 10 or 40 million or so, and that's one huge reason why the First World War is still worth studying.

[Cross-posted at Revise and Dissent.]

The British contingent of the historioblogosphere has swung into action upon hearing that their government is planning to pardon over 300 soldiers executed during the First World War. I have little to add to what everyone is saying (broadly, that such a blanket pardon rides roughshod over a complex situation and seems to derive more from politics than history -- not that this is surprising), so I'll just link to the various posts:


[Update: due to my misunderstanding of a key word, this post is fundamentally misconceived. Exercise due caution!]

Hello everybody, I seem to have got here at last, it's been a long long time but here I am and jolly glad I am to be here at last. I bring [inaudible] from the people of England to the people of Australia and I shall be very, very happy if this flight of mine can bring together people so far apart, but so near together in -- in good feeling, fellowship and friendship, and everything except violence mileage! If you could get aeroplanes to bring you together that would be so much better.

I'm fairly certain the above words were spoken by aviatrix Amy Johnson, on the occasion of her pioneering solo flight from Britain to Australia in May 1930 -- the first by a woman and the first of several record-breaking flights by her. I've transcribed them from a sample at the start of a song called The Golden Age of Aviation, by The Lucksmiths, one of my favourite bands. (For any Londoners reading, their next gig is very nearby, so go see them if you get the chance -- particularly if you like very witty and somewhat wistful indie pop.) The words would seem to fit the context of a speech to a throng of gawking Australians, and the voice sounds very much like Johnson's in the clips on this BBC Humber Culture site about her.

If it is Amy Johnson, then she is espousing a liberal, internationalist view of aviation -- that by allowing easy travel around the world, it can help people from different countries to know and understand each other. By 1934, her views had become rather darker:

The science of aviation has progressed so extensively in recent years that even in thick cloud and fog pilots can fly blind to their objective, drop their bombs, and return unseen. How are we to stop them? We cannot.
Our Government tells us that we have a certain measure of home defence. We have aircraft guns [sic]; searchlights which work on the 'grid' pattern, i.e. in squares, in order to give the least possible chance of escape to any enemy aircraft; fast interceptor fighters. What use are all these if the enemy is invisible, as he would be in the kind of weather which usually prevails in this country? ...
We have only one way of defence -- reprisals in kind. In the new techniques required in aerial tactics the best way to defend is to attack. We must be equipped with numerous squadrons of large, high-speed, long-range bombing machines. These might be flown by pilots experienced in long-distance, all-weather flying, as they may have to fly 'blind' to their objective and back.1

She was born in Hull, where her father was a fish merchant -- I wonder if she experienced any of that city's Zeppelin raids?

Johnson died in the line of duty -- she was a ferry pilot for the Air Transport Auxiliary and baled out over the Thames Estuary on 4 January 1941 and apparently drowned: 'an aviatrix lost at sea, never to be found'.

The novelty wore off
When the pilots still wore goggles
But your eyes look skywards
And your mind still boggles
Through frequent flyers' disappointments and disasters
The golden age of aviation never lost its lustre

  1. Daily Mail, 5 April 1934; quoted in Philip Noel Baker, "A national air force no defence", in Challenge to Death (London: Constable & Co., 1934), 198.