3 Comments

I've just submitted an article for peer review, 'The airship panic of 1913: the birth of aerial theatre and the British fear of Germany on the eve of the Great War'. I'm not going to say where, since it will likely be rejected and I don't need to have a public record of my failures! But while this particular journal does allow self-archiving, it only allows authors to self-archive the pre-peer review version (which I dislike, but it's better than nothing) and then only if it is uploaded before the article is accepted. So in the unlikely event that it is accepted, I need to self-archive it now or not at all. So here it is, and here's the abstract:

In late 1912 and early 1913, people all over Britain reported seeing airships in the night sky where there were none. It was widely assumed that these 'phantom airships' were German Zeppelins, testing British defences in preparation for the next war. Conservative newspapers and patriotic leagues used the sightings to argue for a massive expansion of Britain's aerial forces, perceived to be completely outclassed by Germany's in both number and power. In many ways this panic was analogous to the much better known 1909 dreadnought panic, which took place at the height of the Anglo-German antagonism. But historians generally agree that 1913 was a time of détente between the two nations. Why, then, did Britons not only imagine that German airships were a potential threat, but imagine that they were actually flying overhead?

The answer lies in the persistence, despite improving relations, of the effects of earlier spy, invasion, and naval panics. When combined with an emerging aerial theatre, which used flying displays and aviation exhibitions to emphasise British weakness, instead of strength as with the older naval theatre, the result was the perfect Edwardian panic. The airship panic was simultaneously a spy panic, an invasion panic, and above all a naval panic: navalists argued that Germany, having lost the dreadnought race, was building Zeppelins at a furious rate in order to overcome British naval superiority, and that Britain was losing a new, aerial arms race of which it was barely even aware.

Also, since it worked so well before, I've decided to use open peer review while the article is undergoing closed peer review. If you feel like it, I'd appreciate your feedback (anonymously if you prefer) at Google Docs.

Either or both of these versions may be replaced or even disappear without notice, depending on what happens with the journal(s). Fingers crossed!

2 Comments

James Brown. Anzac's Long Shadow: The Cost of Our National Obsession. Collingwood: Redback, 2014. Brown has garnered a lot of attention recently for his critique of the Anzac myth. What is perhaps most interesting about his position is that he isn't coming at the question from a historical or even political position: his argument is that Australia's veneration of the diggers of 1915 is actually bad for the diggers of 2014. We see the conflicts we send our soldiers to fight in today through our (mis)understanding of wars they fought in decades ago; we spend more money on commemorating the Gallipoli dead, with the ritual invocation of 'never again', than we do on making sure our still-living soldiers are equipped physically and mentally for combat. We honour the armed forces so much that we can no longer criticise them. So not really history, as such; but essential reading as we prepare to embark on four years of centenaries.

David Christian. Maps of Time: An Introduction to Big History. Berkeley, Los Angeles and London: University of California Press, 2011. As a historian with a background in astrophysics, I'm intrigued by a history book which starts with the Big Bang and has an index entry for 'cosmic background radiation (CBR)'. But I'm also a bit wary. How does it help me as a historian to understand how galaxies evolve? The biological and even geological parts of big history, sure, in an Annales kind of way; but if I'd wanted to do bad physics I would have stayed a bad physicist. Still, there's always value in looking at history from a different perspective.

Richard J. Evans. Altered Pasts: Counterfactuals in History. London: Little, Brown, 2014. Evans would not appear to be a huge fan of counterfactuals, which makes you wonder why he bothered to write a whole book about them -- I mean, it's not like they're in any danger of taking over the historical world. But it's precisely that it comes from a sceptic, but I think a fair-minded one, that will make this worth reading. For one thing, there are are lot of really bad counterfactuals around: Evans takes a hard look at Dominic Sandbrook's rather silly essays, as well as Niall Ferguson's rather schizophrenic approach of laying out a very sober argument for the utility of counterfactuals in his Virtual History collection, which he then rounds off with an again very silly conclusion linking all the chapters together in one big narrative counterfactual history that makes no sense and undermines his pleas that counterfactuals are a worthwhile historical tool and should be taken seriously.

Tom Lawson. The Last Man: A British Genocide in Tasmania. London and New York: I. B. Tauris, 2014. What makes this so interesting is that Lawson is writing not from the Australian perspective but the British one; and not as a British historian but as a genocide historian. So he's not one of the usual combatants in the history wars. He argues that Britain should be viewed as a post-genocidal state for causing the extermination of the Tasmanian Aborigines in the 1820s and 1830s -- not that Australia itself has come to terms with this label (see below).

Richard Ned Lebow. Archduke Franz Ferdinand Lives! A World without World War I. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2014. Continuing on with the counterfactual theme. I'm not yet sure whether this is sensible or silly. On the one hand, by positing a 'best plausible' and a 'worst plausible' world after Franz Ferdinand's non-assassination, Lebow avoids the trap of simply presenting a single version of what might have been, which Sandbrook, Ferguson and so many others have fallen into. That's pointless; instead we should try to Monte Carlo or more realistically scenario plan the possibilities. Ditto for the equally common practice of writing counterfactuals as simple narratives. This is fun but it is not informative. A good counterfactual history needs to be written from our perspective, not that of our non-existent counterparts. So Lebow gets these things right. But then he goes and repeatedly commits another cardinal error, which is to have individuals after the turning point leading very similar lives or having very similar characteristics to their real counterparts. For example, he suggests that in his 'best plausible' world, Isaac Asimov would have remained in Russia instead of emigrating to the United States. That is plausible: no war, the Russian Empire survives, there is no wave of emigration due to civil war and communism. But he then has 'Isaak Ozimov' leading much the same life as he did in reality, becoming a hugely prolific writer on a wide array of topics but who is best known for his science fiction novels about robots and about a galactic empire. True, these aren't simply the Robots and Foundation novels with the serial numbers filed off; Lebow does change them in interesting ways to make them commentaries on authoritarianism and anti-Semitism in Russia and elsewhere. But so much of life depends on chance that making even small changes can lead to very different outcomes; and that goes many times over for counterfactual history. In Asimov's case, for example, it's well known (at least in his own retelling, which of course may not be trustworthy) that he came up with the idea to write his first Foundation story by randomly picking a page from Gilbert and Sullivan's Iolanthe and seeing an illustration of a sentry, which by a chain of association led him to the idea of a galactic empire. It wasn't inherent in Asimov's DNA or his personality; and certainly not his cultural background. Lebow may convince me otherwise, but I'm prepared for disappointment.

Henry Reynolds. Forgotten War. Sydney: NewSouth, 2013. Reynolds makes the case that the white dispossession of the Aborigines who lived in Australia first amounted to a war, and should be recognised as such. This war has been not so much forgotten as denied.

Flight, 22 March 1913, 341

This cartoon appeared in Flight in 1913.1 It's entitled 'In 1950' with the caption 'Flitting -- by the light of the Easter moon'.

Now, 'flitting' is a term used in Scotland and the north of England to mean moving house. It is, or at least was, a practice which happened much more often there than in the south. In fact, it was something of an annual tradition in Scotland, with 25 May in particular being Flitting Day. The Motherwell Times described the scene in an 1898 leading article:

The week that has about gone provides at least one field day in the year for a considerable proportion of our population. Some people must flit every year, and they are no sooner installed in their new diggings than they begin to cast their vision about in order to select the battle-ground of their next upheaval. Now may be seen the central figure of the show, the commander-in-chief of the whole operations, with whitewash in her hair, fire in her eye, and anathemas on her lips, careering wildly about, seeking for some devoted one which to explode her righteous indignation. The poor titular head of the house is altogether a secondary and quite unimportant individual, and if ever he has been prone to at any time think of himself as somebody in particular, it is about now that he gets the starch taken out, and he is made to realize that he is only small potatoes after all.2

There's an obvious gender aspect to this, and a less obvious class one too -- the poor were much more likely to rent their homes rather than own them, and so were much more likely to move about. This is evident in Flight's cartoon, too: although the flitting in 1950 is being done with the aid of a (not particularly realistic) aeroplane, it has patches on its wings and the passengers perched on the back are of humble appearance. What's more, it's not just any old flitting that is being done, but moonlight flitting: i.e. secretly moving house in the dead of night, in order to escape creditors and landlords.

What is the point of this cartoon? It doesn't seem to be any sort of topical reference, and it was published a couple of months before Flitting Day. Obviously it's not meant to be taken particularly seriously. There's probably a play on the other meaning of 'flitting', in the sense of the swift motion of small animals, particularly flying ones like birds and bats. But there is also a glance at Britain's airminded future, even if in a very lighthearted way, at the idea that aviation would become an integral part of British society, that Britons would naturally and instinctively turn to the skies, that even the poor would have access to aircraft. It's also perhaps a little satirical though, because -- at least in this respect -- becoming airminded has not fundamentally altered British society. People are still poor, still evade their debts, and still flit by moonlight; all the coming of flight has done is to change their mode of transportation.


  1. Flight, 22 March 1913, 341

  2. Motherwell Times, 3 June 1898, 2

1 Comment

I heard today that my proposed paper for this year's Australian Historical Association conference has been accepted, so I'll be going to Brisbane and the University of Queensland in July. (Better winter than summer, the only time of year I've been previously, I'm quite sure.) The title and abstract are as follows:

Rumours of war: invasion, Zeppelin and spy scares in Britain, 1914-1918

Despite, or perhaps because of, the British government's tight control of war news, rumours competed with more authorised sources of information as people tried to make sense of the worldwide conflict they now found themselves in. One effect was to reconstruct the home front as a combat zone, under constant, if largely imaginary, attack from German spies, Zeppelins and even invaders. In this paper, I will explore the British public’s reaction to the threat of German attack during the First World War, primarily in the forms of rumours about invasion, bombing, and espionage.

This is part of my current research project. Well, I say 'current', but what with teaching, writing, and booking I haven't had much of a chance to work on it yet. So, in the time-honoured tradition of academia, I've committed myself to giving a talk about something I haven't done yet, essentially in order to force myself to at least start thinking about doing it. Let's see if this works.

3 Comments

I often toss the nouns scare and panic around. One of my articles is titled 'The air panic of 1935', another is subtitled 'airmindedness and the Australian mystery aeroplane scare of 1918'. Sometimes I use them to mean the same thing: in the former article, about the press agitation for RAF expansion in response to the aerial rearmament of Germany, I even refer to 'a panic or scare'.1 I'm not alone in this: for example, an article by Matthew Seligmann is entitled 'Intelligence information and the 1909 naval scare: the secret foundations of a public panic', and uses the phrases '1909 scare' and '1909 panic' twice each.2

Despite this, I do tend to think of scare and panic as having slightly, and usefully, different meanings. Both are about fear, obviously, but the difference lies in the intensity of the fear and hence the response to it. A scare seems less intense than a panic: a scare is closer to being startled; panic is more akin to terror. And we can speak of a panic attack or a panic reaction: a surge of adrenalin, the impulse to flee, losing control of mind and body. But a startle reflex is more like just jumping out of your skin when being surprised by something unexpected. After a moment you are back to normal; there are no significant or longterm effects.
...continue reading


  1. Brett Holman, 'The air panic of 1935: British press opinion between disarmament and rearmament', Journal of Contemporary History 46 (2011), 305. 

  2. Matthew Seligmann, 'Intelligence information and the 1909 naval scare: the secret foundations of a public panic', War in History 17 (2010), 37-59. 

Michele Haapamaki. The Coming of the Aerial War: Culture and the Fear of Airborne Attack in Inter-war Britain. London and New York: I. B. Tauris, 2014. Michele may be better known to some of you as the Idle Historian, at her blog or on Twitter. She's also now a published author, and I've been looking forward to getting my hands on this, having been privileged to read both a late draft and the PhD thesis from which it has been considerably expanded. And also because the topic and, to some extent, the approach is quite similar to my own forthcoming book. But the result is very different to my book, and in some ways better -- or at least more likely to appeal to a wider audience, both academic and general. We both, in broad terms, look at cultural and intellectual responses to the threat of aerial bombardment in Britain in the early twentieth century. But where I try to be comprehensive, Michele goes deep, focusing on one particular response, ARP or civil defence, which takes up only one chapter (and sundry sections) in my book. This might sound like I'm saying The Coming of the Aerial War is narrow, but it's not: quite the opposite, in fact. Michele not only grounds her discussion firmly in the literature and politics of the period, but she also connects it to broader debates about British history and identity going on today, for example in the chapters on civil liberties and on Britishness, which is why I think readers who perhaps aren't quite as obsessed with bombs and bombers as some of us are will get a lot out of it. And it's elegantly written, too. In conclusion, if you find that you have to choose between buying my book or buying Michele's, then your assumptions are invalid: you need to buy them both!

3 Comments

Peter Adey, Mark Whitehead and Alison J. Williams, eds. From Above: War, Violence and Verticality. London: Hurst & Company, 2013. A collection of essays on the aerial view and how it has changed war. While there is a lot of historical detail in here, most of the contributors to this volume are geographers, rather than historians. (Which is fine, depending on how they use the history.) One of the exceptions is Priya Satia's piece on the invention of aerial surveillance by the RAF in the Iraq Mandate (incidentally, illustrated with photographs of air control in action as seen on this blog). Other essays which look particularly interesting include James Robinson on 'airmindedness and camouflaging of Britain's oil installations, 1936-9' (admittedly, any use of the word airmindedness is going to draw me in...), affect theory and morale bombing (Ben Anderson), the invention of aerial photomosaic mapping as applied modernism (Paul Saint-Armour), and 'the balloon prospect' (Caren Kaplan).

Alexander C. T. Geppert, ed. Imagining Outer Space: European Astroculture in the Twentieth Century. Basingstoke and New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2012. Astroculture, which is a term coined by Geppert in this context, 'comprises a heterogeneous array of images and artifacts, media and practices that all aim to ascribe meaning to outer space while stirring both the individual and the collective imagination' (8). It also has obvious parallels, continuities and overlaps with airmindedness. Indeed, while aviation doesn't feature prominently in this book I can see some connections with my own interests: for example, in Geppert's insistence that for astroculture science fiction and science fact are complementary, not contradictory (in my book, I argue the same with respect to the knock-out blow theory); in the interest of the contributors in UFOs, including an essay by Pierre Lagrange on sociology and ghost rockets (a transitional point in the evolution of UFOs from mystery aircraft to extraterrestrial spacecraft), and the participation of Guillaume de Syon, who I know of as the author of Zeppelin! (2002) but here writes on space travel in French-language comic strips. Other topics include the Tunguska event (Claudia Schmölders), Space: 1999 (Henry Keazor), Arthur C. Clarke (Thore Bjørnvig), von Neumann machines and SETI (Gonzalo Munévar), the Pioneer plaques (William Macauley), East Germany and von Braun (Michael Neufeld), changing science fictional uses of Mars (Rainer Eisfeld), and space and imagination (Stephen Dick, author of the brilliant The Biological Universe).

Alastair Gordon. Naked Airport: A Cultural History of the World's Most Revolutionary Structure. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2007. The author is an architectural critic, so the focus is largely on airport terminals and to a lesser extent airport design generally. Most of the book concentrates on the pre-1970 period; in fact there's a gratifyingly chunky chapter on the pre-1930. Lots of great contemporary illustrations, including architectural sketches of never-built airports, but I'm also going to complain here that they are too small and and a bit murky, and also that they tend towards showing off the architecture rather than how they were actually used. But I suppose that goes with this territory.

David Seed, ed. Future Wars: The Anticipations and the Fears. Liverpool: Liverpool University Press, 2012. Though it's not described as such, this is almost a posthumous festschrift for I. F. Clarke: it's published by the same press that brought out most of his histories of the wars to come, it opens with his 'Future-war fiction: the first main phase, 1871-1900' and ends with a checklist of his writing. In between there are essays on On the Beach (Brian Baker), John Wyndham (David Ketterer), Iain M. Banks (Patricia Kerslake), (again!) changing science fictional uses of Mars (Robert Crossley), and the uses of future-war fiction in modelling risk after 9/11 (Michael Matin).

Gary Sheffield and Peter Gray, eds. Changing War: The British Army, the Hundred Days Campaign, and the Birth of the Royal Air Force, 1918. London: Bloomsbury, 2013. Yet another edited collection. As the title suggests, this has essays on relatively uninteresting things to do with the British Army in 1918, if you like that sort of thing, as well as three on aspects of close air support in the same period (David Jordan, Simon Coningham, Alistair McCluskey), two on the origins of the RAF (Gray, Christopher Luck), and one on the role of aviation logistics (Peter Dye).

Dietmar Süss. Death from the Skies: How the British and Germans Survived Bombing in World War II. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2014. Review copy (not for Airminded). I'm looking forward to reading this comparative study of the experiences of the British and German people under aerial bombardment. It's very much from the ground view, not the aerial one: there are chapters on such thing as shelter life, religion, morale, the postwar memory and debates, and the prewar imagination of bombing; topics covered include children at war, rumour, just war, mourning, and reconstruction. I think there's still room for an analytical history of the Blitz, but this weighs in at nearly 550 pages, excluding endnotes, etc; so half of that amounts to a reasonable-sized book on the bombing of Britain, and in fact the comparative dimension should prove highly illuminating.

8 Comments

The Next War in the Air

My book, The Next War in the Air: Britain's Fear of the Bomber, 1908-1941, is getting closer to being real. In June, in just three months, it will be in the bookstores. Soon the indexing will be undertaken. Yesterday I made the final corrections to the text, and shortly I'll receive the page proofs from Ashgate, for last-minute error checking. And it has a draft cover design! Which I must say I am rather pleased with.
...continue reading