1 Comment

The Field of Mons

My third contribution to ABC New England's 'The road to war' series is now online. Today I looked at the events of 20-26 August 1914, focusing particularly on events in Belgium: the march of the German 1st Army through Brussels, 320,000-strong; more German atrocities against civilians, as well as the burning of the library at Louvain; the exploits of L. E. O. Charlton and V. H. Needham of the Royal Flying Corps; and (the ostensible topic for today) the British Expeditionary Force's first major encounter with the German army in the battle of Mons. I also discussed the Angel of Mons, which then led to a digression into the 'Russians with snow on their boots' legend as well as rumours of secret Zeppelin bases in Britain. I then briefly discussed the outcome of the battle of Lorraine, in which Ferdinand Foch first distinguished himself, as well as noting Russian engagements with both Austro-Hungarian and German forces, including the start of the battle of Tannenberg. Finally I talked about the massive losses being incurred by all armies but by France in particular: 27,000 French soldiers were killed on 22 August 1914, which apparently is the highest number of deaths for any army for a single day in this war.

Image source: Yahoo! News.

9 Comments

A few years ago I argued that 'the Few' in Winston Churchill's famous speech of 20 August 1940 didn't refer to the pilots of Fighter Command, as is almost universally assumed, but instead referred to all British airmen, or even perhaps specifically the airmen of Bomber Command, since he spends about two paragraphs talking about bombers and about half a sentence talking about fighters. I still think that's pretty clearly the case (even if not everyone was convinced); and it's clear why he would have done so -- as he himself might have said, wars are not won by defensive victories. But I thought it was worth taking another look at the question of who people (or at least newspapers) at the time thought 'the Few' referred to, particularly since the British Newspaper Archive opened a few months after I wrote that post.

So I did a BNA search for the period 20 to 27 August 1940 (the day of the speech itself, to catch the evening newspapers, plus a week, to catch the weeklies) in articles only for the words 'Churchill' and 'few'. To be thorough, though, I really should have looked at all discussions of Churchill's speech, since some might have paraphrased that part of it or just not mentioned the word 'few'. I don't have time for that here, but focusing on the Few reveals just how few (ahem) newspapers thought that this phrase was worthy of comment. My search found just eight articles, once all irrelevant hits on 'few' were discarded.
...continue reading

4 Comments

The 1955 novel Biggles in Australia is the subject of an interesting article in Inside Story by Adam Nicol, 'Uncivil aviation: Biggles down under' (I like the line 'The common term “civil aviation” -- that is, flight for leisure -- suggests that aviation is intrinsically warlike'), which could be usefully read alongside my UNE colleague Erin Ihde's 'Biggles sees red: Saving Australia from the communist menace'.1 There is an error, though: in referring to the well-known fact that W. E. Johns, the creator of Biggles, called himself Captain Johns 'despite retiring from the Royal Air Force with the rank of flying officer, some four ranks below captain'. But flying officer is not four ranks below captain, unless Nicol is thinking of group captain, or naval captain, neither of which is the rank Johns was claiming. In fact there isn't a RAF rank of plain old captain, except for the brief period when there was, i.e. after the formation of the RAF in April 1918 and before August 1918 1919 when the current ranks (more or less) were established. In between, RFC ranks were used, that is to say, Army ranks. This is where Johns's captain comes from. Since flying officer in the RAF is the equivalent of a lieutenant in the Army, just below captain, Johns only promoted himself one rank, not four.

But this made me think that maybe there is a way to explain why Johns called himself captain, not flying officer, or at least to shed some light on the matter. (In fact he was very inconsistent about it, sometimes using one title, sometimes the other.) In fact it was not an uncommon practice for officers to be given an honorary promotion upon retirement. (Sometimes, too, they retired with the highest rank they may have temporarily held during their career, again normally one grade.) Apart from a bit of additional status in civilian life, I think this also meant a higher pension. Also, in this period when the Air Force was new, former officers who had been in the wartime RAF or indeed the RFC sometimes elected to be called by the military version of their ranks, since these were more familiar and could carry more cachet. P. R. C. Groves is an example of both. At the end of his career in the RAF he was a group captain, but was granted an honorary promotion to brigadier-general (and not air commodore, the next RAF rank up), which had not been an Air Force rank for nearly 3 years at this point. Since he'd actually spent 19 years in the Army and just under 4 in the RAF, brigadier-general might have felt more real to him, for all his devotion to the cause of airpower. But, usefully, since brigadier-general was, at the time, classed as a general officer rank, it also meant that he could be called General Groves, as indeed he always was, which is far more impressive than Air Commodore Groves, it must be said. Not everyone did this; L. E. O. Charlton, also ex-RFC, was happy with air commodore when he retired, though since he didn't receive an honorary promotion perhaps he didn't get any say in the matter.

As for Johns, I don't think he was actually granted an honorary promotion; the London Gazette's entry recording his retirement calls him a flying officer and says he is permitted to retain his rank.2 For comparison, the equivalent for Groves says he 'is granted the honorary rank of Brigadier-General'.3 Perhaps Johns felt he deserved an honorary promotion anyway; and almost certainly he thought Captain Johns sounded better than Flight Lieutenant Johns, the RAF equivalent, let alone Flying Officer Johns, his actual title. Maybe, too, those who had known him as a flying officer in the RAF assumed that he had earned his promotion, which might explain why he seems to have got away it even though he was still heavily involved in the aviation scene. Either way, we're stuck with Captain Johns now.


  1. Erin Ihde, 'Biggles sees red: Saving Australia from the communist menace', Australasian Journal of Popular Culture 2 (2013): 363-80

  2. London Gazette, 22 December 1931, 8260

  3. Ibid., 17 February 1922, 1415

2 Comments

Kristen Alexander. Australia's Few and the Battle of Britain. Sydney: NewSouth, 2014. As an Australian, every time I watch Battle of Britain I notice the mention of the 21 Australian pilots who fought in the Battle of Britain, and the 14 who were killed (these numbers are actually undercounts). This is the story of eight of them before, during, and after; only one of whom survived.

Carolyn Holbrook. Anzac: The Unauthorised Biography. Sydney: NewSouth, 2014. How and why did Anzac become as important to Australians as it undoubtedly is today? It wasn't always so, as Carolyn's book shows. The PhD on which this is based won the Serle Award for best Australian thesis at the AHA last month, which is as auspicious an omen as you could hope for.

Bruce Scates. On Dangerous Ground: A Gallipoli Story. Crawley: UWA Press, 2012. Bruce gave the Russel Ward Lecture at UNE last night, on ways of telling the postwar stories of returned soldiers, using still-to-be-digitised repatriation records and moving pictures (in both senses of the phrase). But more importantly I got a free copy of his first novel, just for sitting in the first couple of rows of the audience! Winning.

German infantry on the battlefield, August 7, 1914

My second contribution for ABC New England to the increasingly inaccurately named series 'The road to war' was broadcast today, and is online here. Increasingly inaccurate because my topic today was the outbreak of war in August 1914 between Germany on the one hand and France and especially poor little Belgium on the other, including the Schlieffen Plan and German atrocities against Belgian civilians. I also talked about Plan XVII and the French occupation and then retreat from Mulhouse, which had been lost to the Germans in 1871. I also spoke in somewhat garbled fashion about the escape of the Goeben and the Breslau from the Royal Navy in the Mediterranean, and the Australian capture of the German merchant vessel Hobart in Port Phillip, which gained priceless naval codebooks for Allied intelligence; and not at all about Austro-Hungarian atrocities in Serbia, the Australian raid on Rabaul, or the British and French invasion of German Togoland. Because I ran overtime. At least I wasn't as croaky as last time!

Image source: Wikimedia.

When the present is too painful to think about, there is always the past to retreat into.

Japanese planes forced down an airliner which was flying from Hong Kong to Wuchow to-day [24 August 1938], and, it is reported, machine-gunned the passengers.

Of 18 people in the plane it is believed that 15 have either been killed or drowned, as the machine, which landed on the Macao River, sank.

The pilot, named Woods, and a Chinese passenger, both of whom were wounded, have arrived at Macao, the Portuguese province at the mouth of the Canton River.

Woods said that after he had landed the machine on the west side of the river, four of the 12 Japanese planes that had forced it down, dived and machine-gunned the helpless passengers.1

Well, there's no respite there.

The turbulent Mohmand tribes who have been gathering ominously on the North-West Frontier of India under incitement by Congress Party and communist agitators to strike a blow at the British administration, failed to heed the warnings to disperse contained in leaflets dropped by aeroplanes which flew over the tribal country in the vicinity of the border, and to-day [9 March 1932] they incurred the penalty stated in the warnings, when scores of their villages were bombed by Royal Air Force 'planes from Risalpur and Kohat. Several villages were wrecked and set on fire, Tribesmen hidden on the mountain tops turned fierce rifle fire on the 'planes, which replied with machine guns.

The bombing will continue until the raiders return to their mountain fortresses. One section of the tribesmen, which was threatening the approaches to the remote British outpost at Chitral is reported to have dispersed.2

No respite there either.

When the airmail leaves Parafield for Perth tomorrow mornining [sic] it will carry a highly-bred Nawab with it -- Higham Nawab of Warncourt, a six-weeks-old Persion [sic] kitten, dusty black in color, and about nine inches long.

The Nawab comes from a distinguished family. He was bred by Miss A. E. Jarmyn, of Prospect. His mother is Higham Gipsy, a litter sister to Higham Roulette, a South Australian grand champion Persian. The Nawab will go to Perth in a specially light matchwood box, and he will be in the care of the pilot of the mail plane.

He has been sold to Miss A. G. Cohen, of Buckingham Hill, Western Australia, who will call for him when the mail plane arrives.

Miss Jarmyn thinks that the Nawab will not be airsick because he is so small. She will give him a good breakfast before he goes, to make him comfortable and sleepy.3

That will do! Except – this is on the same page:

News, 11 November 1932, 8

Mr. Baldwin stressed the probable horrors of aerial warfare. The greatest fear among ordinary people of all nations, he said, was fear of the air. It was well for the man in the street to understand that no power could protect him from air-bombing. The only defence in aerial warfare was to kill more people than the enemy killed.4

There's no escaping the present, or the past.


  1. Argus (Melbourne), 25 August 1938, 1

  2. Western Mail (Perth), 17 March 1932, 34

  3. News (Adelaide), 11 November 1932, 8

  4. Ibid

An update of my list of early 20th century British newspapers online is well overdue. As such, there are a large number of new titles available (some only for a limited range of years), along with the usual additional ranges of years for existing titles. But it's clear that the imminent First World War centenary has really driven this expansion, or at least shaped it, because the range 1914 to 1918 appears over and over again.

By far the most new titles come from Welsh Newspapers Online (WNO):

Abergavenny Chronicle
Abergavenny Mail and Farmers' Gazette
Adsain (Corwen)
Amman Valley Chronicle
Baner Ac Amserau Cymru
Barmouth and County Advertiser
Barry Dock News
Barry Herald
Brecon & Radnor Express Carmarthen and Swansea Valley Gazette and Brynmawr District Advertiser
Brecon County Times, Neath Gazette and General Advertiser
Brython (Liverpool)
Cambrian Daily Leader (Swansea)
Cardigan Bay Visitor (Aberystwyth)
Carmarthen Journal and South Wales Weekly Advertiser
Carmarthen Weekly Reporter
Carnarvon and Denbigh Herald and North and South Wales Independent (Caernarfon)
Chester Observer
Chester Courant and Advertiser For North Wales
Clorianydd (Llangefni)
County Echo, Fishguard and North Pembrokeshire Advertiser (Fishguard)
County Observer and Monmouthshire Central Advertiser (Usk)
Darian (Aberdare)
Denbighshire Free Press (Denbigh)
Dinesydd Cymreig (Caenarfon)
Dravod (Trelwe)
Flintshire Observer (Holywell)
Genedl Gymreig (Caenarfon)
Glamorgan Gazette (Bridgend)
Gwalia (Caenarfon)
Gwyliedydd Newydd (Blaenau Ffestiniog)
Haverfordwest and Milford Haven Telegraph (Haverfordwest) (free)
Herald Cymraeg (Caenarfon)
Herald of Wales (Swansea)
Llan (Rhyl)
Llandudno Advertiser and List of Visitors
Llanelli Mercury and South Wales Advertiser
Llanelli Star
Merthyr Express (Merthyr Tydfil)
Monmouth Guardian (Rhymney)
Negesydd (Glayndon)
North Wales Chronicle and Advertiser For the Principality (Bangor)
North Wales Times (Denbigh)
Pembroke County Guardian and Cardigan Reporter (Solva)
Pontypridd Chronicle and Workman's News
Rhedegydd (Blaenau Ffestiniog)
Rhondda Leader (Tonypandy)
Rhondda Leader, Maesteg, Garw and Ogmore Telegraph (Tonypandy
Rhos Herald (Rhosllannerchrugog)
South Wales Weekly Post (Swansea)
Tenby Observer, Weekly List of Visitors, and Directory
Towyn-on-sea & Meirioneth County Times (Welshpool)
Tyst (Merthyr Tydfil)
Udgorn (Pwllheli)
Welsh Coast Pioneer (Chester)
Welsh Gazette and West Wales Advertiser (Aberystwyth)
Welshman (Carmarthen)
Wythnos A'r Eryr (Bala)

This is an extremely impressive expansion; in fact there are now so many Welsh newspapers I've had to break up the listing in order to make it more readable -- Scotland and Ireland, take note. This raises the question of whether I will continue to include Welsh-language newspapers in this listing: it would make my life easier if I didn't have to check them too, and not many researchers outside of Wales can read Welsh. But when combined with the superior user interface and the completely free access, this makes WNO the most impressive online newspaper archive in Britain. The only limitations are the scope: nothing later than 1919, and nothing that's not Welsh (though it now includes a few titles published outside Wales, in Chester and Liverpool, aimed at or including Welsh markets).

These are the new titles in the British Newspaper Archive (BNA):

Biggleswade Chronicle
Birmingham Daily Mail
Birmingham Daily Post
Birmingham Gazette
Burnley Gazette
Burnley News
Chelmsford Chronicle
Cheshire Observer
Daily Gazette for Middlesborough
Daily Herald
(London)
Daily Record and Mail (Glasgow)
Evening Chronicle (Newcastle)
Evening Despatch (Birmingham)
Folkestone, Hythe, Sandgate & Cheriton Herald and Chronicle & Observer
Hamilton Advertiser
Lancashire Daily Post
(Preston)
Leicester Chronicle
Liverpool Daily Post and Liverpool Mercury
Perthshire Advertiser
Sports Argus
(Birmingham)
Sussex Agricultural Express
Western Mail
(Cardiff)

There are some good things here. Birmingham was previously completely unrepresented, but now it has no fewer than five newspapers, including, unusually, a sports newspaper. However all of them are only available for 1914-1918. The most important newspapers here are probably the Labour Daily Herald and the Cardiff Western Mail, though again they are only for 1914-1918. A small number of titles have actually had issues removed from BNA, whether for copyright or quality control reasons I'm not sure.

The other major archives all have new titles too, though not many. Several Kentish newspapers have been added to ukpressonline for 1914-1918: Herne Bay Gazette, Kent Messenger, and the South Eastern Gazette. More interesting is that these newspapers for the period up to 1912 can be accessed for free, as long as you accessing them in Britain and use a special landing page. It looks like this has been the case for a while, though I missed it because it's not at all obvious from the usual ukpressonline site. Irish Newspaper Archives has added a couple of titles, the Dundalk Democrat and the Skibbereen Eagle. Unfortunately the Kildare Observer, which used to be a free sampler, now has to be paid for. This is probably to do with an upgraded user interface, which is much improved (but unfortunately doesn't seem to work in all browsers). And NewspaperArchive has added a suburban London paper, the North London Mercury And Crouch End Observer, as well as the London and Belfast editions of the US Army newspaper, Stars and Stripes (for the Second World War, obviously).

Finally, a nice standalone (and free!) archive of the Halifax Courier is now available for the First World War period -- thanks to Bruce Gaston for the tip.

4 Comments

Spithead review

Today I had my very first radio appearance, on ABC New England North West, talking to Kelly Fuller on the Mornings show. I was talking about what was happening in Europe 100 years ago, during the July Crisis of 1914. More specifically, I spoke about the Royal Navy's test mobilisation at Spithead (above) and the drafting of the Austro-Hungarian ultimatum to Serbia in response to the assassination of Franz Ferdinand. Despite a throat infection and a couple of stumbles, and going under time, I think it went alright. You can listen to it here.

This is my first contribution to a weekly radio series, 'The Road to War', where historians from the University of New England (mostly) and Flinders University will discuss the events of 1914 and then 1915, a century after they happened. The idea, at least at this stage, is that we will highlight what was happening in the First World War (and the lead up to it) before Gallipoli, which is essentially when Australian memory of the war begins -- even though there was actually a lot going on before then. So something like the post-blogging I've done from time to time, but less time-intensive. Particularly since I'm just one member of a team: the others are my colleagues Richard Scully (whose idea all of this was), Nathan Wise, Erin Ihde (all from UNE), and hopefully Melanie Oppenheimer (Flinders). Richard has already given a couple of talks, on the assassination itself and the German blank cheque, and Nathan spoke last week about Europe going on its summer holidays while Austria-Hungary decided what to do; next week Erin will look at the Serbian response to the ultimatum and the firing of the first shots. Future episodes will be available from here or here. My contributions will mainly focus on the war in the air (naturally -- I even managed to sneak the RNAS in today) and at sea, but I'll be covering some aspects of the land war, too. It should be fun and educational -- maybe even at the same time!

Image source: the-weatherings.co.uk.

No sooner is one conference over than another one looms. The one which is over is the Australian Historical Association annual conference for 2014, which was held last week at the beautiful St Lucia campus of the University of Queensland. I spoke on the topic of invasion, Zeppelin and spy scares in Britain during the First World War. I was glad that I could speak, because I had an unfortunate throat infection that at times took away my voice entirely (and my poor students are still having to deal with the aftereffects). But I got through it, and the audience, if small, seemed appreciative. I had planned to use the talk to push the planning for my forthcoming research trip to the UK, but in the event teaching meant that I didn't have time to do any substantial new research. Instead, I expanded upon my recent n-map post, looking at how to use the British Newspaper Archive to map geographical variations in word use (and in my case, I'm arguing, suggesting where in Britain spy, invasion and Zeppelin fears were most common). That wasn't such a bad thing, and since historians, unlike scientists, are rarely explicit about how they do what they do, it may even be worth writing up as a methodological article, with the wartime fears as a case study. Otherwise, the AHA was good for what AHAs are usually good for -- catching up with friends and making new ones, and sometimes even learning some new history. I won't try to summarise the conference, particularly since I was too sick/lazy to livetweet it, but see Marion Diamond's post at Historians are Past Caring, as well as the indefatigable Yvonne Perkins' series at Stumbling Through the Past, here, here, here, here, and here.

The conference which is looming, Regional Australia at War, is just under a month away, 14-15 August 2014. Fortunately it is much closer to home; in fact it will be at my own institution, the University of New England, and is being organised by my Humanities colleague Nathan Wise. I'm giving a paper on the topic of 'The Australian mystery aeroplane scare of 1918', which actually fits in perfectly with the theme of 'regional Australia at war', since it was primarily a regional and rural phenomenon. The abstract is as follows:

Between March and June 1918, Australian newspapers, police forces and military intelligence units were deluged with hundreds of reports of mysterious aeroplanes. They were seen in every state, mostly at night, by men and women, young and old, civilians and soldiers. The vast majority of reports came from regional areas. As there were only a tiny number of aircraft known to be operating in Australia, the sightings were presumed to be German aircraft, perhaps flown from unknown merchant raiders operating in Australian waters or by foreign spies working against Australia. The reports were taken seriously, but investigations by the authorities eventually found nothing to substantiate them. The mystery aeroplanes were phantoms.

Australia had been at war for more than three years. But it was a nation both divided and defenceless. It had gone through two bitterly-fought conscription referenda, and appeared to be threatened from within by immigrants, the Irish and the Wobblies. The vast majority of its military forces were deployed overseas, with little more than poorly-equipped training cadres remaining at home. In March 1918, newspapers carried reports that the German merchant cruiser Wolf, which had been raiding Australian waters the previous year, had flown its seaplane over Sydney unopposed and undetected. A few days later, Germany's Spring Offensive opened, nearly breaking the Allied lines for the first time since 1914. The mystery aeroplanes resulted from a new perception that Australia was directly threatened and that the war could be lost.

This is pretty much the same abstract I used for the AHA in 2012 and at Singapore earlier this year. I actually plan to give a slightly different different talk, focusing on following the chain of rumour from the initial aeroplane sightings to (ultimately) the military and naval intelligence archives. But as my experience with the AHA this year shows, that may be somewhat ambitious! I'll even have to give my paper in between lectures and tutorials, since I'll be teaching that day, which unfortunately also means that I'll miss many interesting papers. I was particularly keen to hear Jennifer Sloggett, who I met at the AHA and is doing her PhD at Newcastle on the topic of Australian military and civil defence planning before and during the Second World War, especially since her paper "Girt" and "boundless": the war roles of the coast and hinterland in NSW in WWII' would seem to have interesting conceptual parallels with my aforementioned project on invasion, spy and Zeppelin scares. Well, there's always the next AHA.

4 Comments

Alison Bashford. Global Population: History, Geopolitics, and Life on Earth. New York: Columbia University Press, 2014. This was launched at the Australian Historical Association conference this week and looked like fun -- an intellectual history of eugenics, birth control, food supply and, of course, world population, from the 1920s to the 1960s -- so I bought it.

Lara Feigel. The Love-Charm of Bombs: Restless Lives in the Second World War. London: Bloomsbury, 2014. I heard Feigel speak at Exeter a few years back. Here she has written something of a collective emotional biography of five key writers in Britain during the Second World War (Bowen, Greene, Macaulay, Spiel and Green). Inevitably the Blitz (and the V-weapons) bulk large, but it's not just about that.

Margaret MacMillan. The War that Ended Peace: How Europe Abandoned Peace for the First World War. London: Profile Books, 2014. There's a centenary on...

Sean McMeekin. July 1914: Countdown to War. London: Icon Books, 2013. ... in case you hadn't noticed.