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[Cross-posted at Society for Military History.]

IWM PST 12249

Above is a poster printed in Australia during the First World War. It very strikingly shows a Zeppelin caught in searchlights (with an aeroplane just visible at the top) over what looks like a town nestled in a valley beside a river. The text reads:

ZEPPELINS OVER YOUR TOWN ON ________

"COME TO OUR DUGOUT"

No Charge

It was pointed out to me by Peter Taylor, who found it in the Imperial War Museum's collections and noted that it seems unusual for a Zeppelin to feature in Australian propaganda. So what's going on here?
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It's quite a small world tour, admittedly, but two gigs in two countries just qualifies, I think. Little to no moshing is expected.

First, I will be giving a paper at the Empire in Peril: Invasion-scares and Popular Politics In Britain 1890-1914 workshop, which is being held at Queen Mary University of London on 14 and 15 November 2013. I'll be reprising my Wellington AAEH paper, with the following title and abstract:

'What are the Germans up to?' The British phantom airship scare of 1913

In late 1912 and early 1913, people all over Britain reported seeing airships in the night sky where there were none. The general presumption was that these were German Zeppelins, testing British defences in preparation for the next war. One result was a largely Conservative press agitation 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 scare (itself followed by a smaller phantom airship scare). But historians now generally agree that 1913 was a period of detente in Anglo-German relations. Why, then, did Britons not only imagine that German airships were a potential threat, but imagine that they were actually flying overhead?

As an example of collective behaviour, the phantom airship scare offers us a rare glimpse of the state of British public opinion (as well as press and political opinion) regarding Germany shortly before the outbreak of the First World War. I will place this scare in the context of the preceding dreadnought, spy and invasion panics, and will argue that the threatening nature of the new technology of flight, and Britain's perceived failure to keep pace with other nations in its military applications, amplified the German threat despite the improving international situation. In particular, I will show that the airship scare was also a naval scare: 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. 1913 may have witnessed detente at the official level, but the British press and public were still less than ready to believe in Germany's good intentions.

So, the usual, in other words. But what's really exciting is that I won't be the only one talking about phantom airships or air scares! I'm speaking in a session entitled 'The Terror from Above' along with Michael Paris who is speaking on 'Aerial Invasions'; and afterwards there is a keynote and plenary by Michael Matin on 'The 1913 Airship Panic and the Cultivation of Fear'. At last, I have found my people! Of course, we'll probably vehemently disagree with each other but that's okay too. Given the topic, the rest of the workshop will also be fascinating, and on the evening of 14 November there's also a public lecture by Nicholas Hiley, intriguingly entitled 'Vernon Kell's perfect nightmare: The German invasion of Britain in 1914'. See, didn't I say that this was the best conference topic ever?

I'll also be giving a paper at The British Empire and the Great War: Colonial Societies/Cultural Responses conference, which is being held at Nanyang Technological University, Singapore, on 19-22 February 2014. This time I'll be expanding on my Adelaide AHA paper, with the following title and abstract:

Mystery Aeroplanes and the Colonial State of Mind in Total War

In the autumn of 1918, mysterious aeroplanes were seen in the skies of Australia and New Zealand. Hundreds were reported by men and women, young and old, civilians and soldiers. It was presumed that they were German aircraft flying from unknown merchant raiders or from secret inland aerodromes. Investigations by authorities revealed that the aeroplanes were phantoms, but for a time they appeared to pose a real threat.

After nearly four years of war, both countries were largely defenceless, with the vast majority of their military forces overseas and 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 undetected and unopposed. A few days later, Germany's Spring Offensive nearly broke the Allied lines for the first time since 1914. The mystery aeroplanes resulted from the sudden fear that the Antipodean home fronts were now directly threatened and that the war could be lost.

I will discuss what the mystery aeroplane scare reveals about the state of mind of the people of Australia and New Zealand after nearly four years of total war.

This is a big conference: the keynote speakers alone are John MacKenzie, Hew Strachan, Tim Barringer and Jay Winter. There's much less airpower history on offer (only me) than in London, but you can't have everything, I suppose.

I'll be in London for at least two weeks, perhaps three from 9 November, researching in various archives and sightseeing at various attractions. (I might travel outside London or even the UK for the third week, but it won't exactly be holiday weather.) So, apart from the actual workshop dates of 14 and 15 November there will be opportunities for Airminded social activities, should there be sufficient interest. It's been four years since my last visit to the UK so there is catching up to do. Suggestions please!

Cyril Power, Air Raid (1935)

Cyril Power, Air Raid (1935): British biplanes tangling with an unidentified enemy against a smoke-filled sky.

It is tempting, given the date, to see this as an air raid of the next war, especially given Power's marked interest in machines and speed and influence by Futurism and Vorticism. But it could just as well be an air raid of the last war. Power, then an architect and a lecturer, joined the RFC in 1916 and was put in charge of the repair workshops at Lympne, a transit point for aircraft going to and from the Western Front. Judging from his AIR 76, he arrived after the daylight Gotha raid on the airfield on 25 May 1917 (as well as the riot at nearby Hythe), but he would have been familiar with British bombers passing through. Power's partner, Sybil Andrews, also had some aeronautical experience as she had been a welder in a factory making parts for Bristol (possibly for the all-metal M.R.1, but that's a guess as details are sketchy).

It's probably both. Or neither. It's still a striking evocation of speed, violence and, well, power.

Image source: Museum of Fine Arts.

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[Cross-posted at Society for Military History Blog.]

In Giulio Douhet and the Foundations of Air-Power Strategy, Thomas Hippler describes what he calls Douhet's 'ahistorical historicism':

His thinking is ahistorical to the extent that it poses a concept of history ('everything has changed') that simultaneously cuts off history itself. His thinking is historicist, because this absolute beginning not only occurs as a break within history, but also to the extent that it gives way to a technology-driven teleological understanding of later historical development. In other words, it gives way to interpreting the development to come in the sole light of the imagined essence of this beginning.1

That is, Douhet asserted that warfare in the future is going to be utterly different to warfare in the past, and that we can only predict it by looking at warfare in the present, which itself does not resemble warfare in the future either.

Douhet, of course, was not alone. Airpower prophets routinely asserted that the past was no guide to the future, and that the present was not much better, but it was all there was to go on. So Claude Grahame-White and Harry Harper wrote in 1917 that

In viewing the lessons of this war, as they are likely to throw light on the future of the aeroplane, either as a vehicle for transport or as a weapon, it must be understood that this campaign by air, in the sequence of its phases, offers little or no guide to the trend of an air war of the future. The next great war, should it come, will begin where this leaves off; and all its subsequent stages, so far as any one air service is concerned, must be governed by the success or failure of that service in its first offensive by air -- an offensive which, following instantly on a commencement of hostilities, will need to be delivered with a maximum possible force and speed.2

The paradox is that as the last war receded and the next war, presumably, approached, airpower prophets had to continue to rely on that last war for their evidence, as it was the only example of large-scale application of airpower to date. Their futurism became increasingly historical, in other words. To take a random example, in 1937 Frank Morison devoted three quarters of his book to recounting the experience of London and Paris under aerial bombardment two decades previously, and the final quarter to showing how this experience gave only a hint of what was to come. Recalling the 'hectic days of excitement and warlike preparation' before the outbreak of war on 4 August 1914, he suggested that

Surely few historical parallels could be more misleading, because the march of science has destroyed in advance that indispensable time-lag upon which the successful deployment of our military, social and industrial resources mainly depended.3

The reason, of course, was the march of technological progress:

It is practically assured that the speed of a long-distance bombing squadron, sent against London in the next war, will not be less than 250 miles per hour and may conceivably be in excess of that figure. This means that a formation sighted at Beachy Head, say at 11 a.m., if not intercepted and driven off, will reach the suburbs at 11.12 a.m. and be over Central London about one minute later.4

Hence the teleology, with war, and thus all of history, marching towards its inevitable fate of domination and even determination by the bomber. Of course Morison was not to know that within a couple years Beachy Head itself would be the site of a Chain Home Low radar station, and hence part of the solution to the bomber threat. But then, by definition believers in the bomber never had faith in the fighter.

Douhet, Grahame-White, Morison and the rest were essentially military mini-singularitarians. According its adherents, the Singularity is the point in the not-too-distant future when technological changes, especially in artificial intelligence, will accelerate and converge such that they will so utterly change society and humanity itself that it will be practically unrecognisable. But like the airpower prophets before them, singularitarians like Ray Kurzweil extrapolate wildly from the past -- CPU speeds, increasing lifespans -- to predict that the future will be nothing like it -- uploaded personalities, immortality.5 They too are ahistorical historicists, and if the past is any guide to the future, just as likely to be right.


  1. Thomas Hippler, Giulio Douhet and the Foundations of Air-Power Strategy (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2013), 75. 

  2. Claude Grahame-White and Harry Harper, Air Power: Naval, Military, Commercial (London: Chapman & Hall, 1917), 1. 

  3. Frank Morison [Albert H. Ross], War on Great Cities: A Study of the Facts (London: Faber and Faber, 1937), 186, 187. 

  4. Ibid., 189. 

  5. Ray Kurzweil, The Singularity is Near: When Humans Transcend Biology (New York: Viking, 2005. 

Friedrich von Bernhardi. Germany and the Next War. London: Edward Arnold, 1914. This book by a German general laid bare Germany's ruthless plans for world conquest for all to see -- all who ignored the fact that Bernhardi had little influence and did not represent official or military opinion, anyway. Still, very useful for Allied propagandists: this copy is from the 23rd impression. There is a little bit of airship action, though only in support of the army or navy.

Beyens. Germany Before the War. London, Edinburgh and New York: Thomas Nelson and Sons, 1916. Also useful for Allied propagandists, though at least more wittingly this time. Conversely, as Belgian ambassador in Berlin at the time of the July crisis and the outbreak of the war it can hardly be denied that Beyens had a story worth telling.

Fiona Reid. Broken Men: Shell Shock, Treatment and Recovery in Britain 1914-30. London and New York, Continuum: 2010. What happened to shell-shocked soldiers after their war ended? We don't have much testimony from the men themselves; Reid draws mainly on the records of the Ex-services Welfare Society to reconstruct how they themselves tried to control their own fates in the midst of well-meaning and/or misguided pressure from the medical profession and from the public.

Eric Schlosser. Command and Control. London: Allen Lane, 2013. Somebody remarked that Schlosser's publicist should get a bonus, because this book has been everywhere, even in the news. Well, it's a fun topic: how close have we come since 1945 to the accidental detonation of nuclear weapons? (The answer is: very'.)

Craig Stockings and John Connor, eds. Before the Anzac Dawn: A Military History of Australia to 1915. Sydney: NewSouth Publishing, 2013. A great idea for an edited collection. There are essays on such topics as Indigenous warfare (Connor), Eureka (Gregory Blake), colonial navies (Greg Swinden), Australian involvement in wars in New Zealand (Damien Fenton), Sudan and South Africa (Craig Wilcox), invasion novels (Augustine Meaher IV), the capture of German New Guinea (Connor again), and more. Good stuff.

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It's been six months since the last one and so it's time for another update of my list of early 20th century British newspapers online.

The most pleasing addition to the list of newspaper archives for 1901-1950 is the Spectator, the most influential conservative weekly of the period. The Spectator archive is free; near-complete from 1828 to 2008; contains both images and text -- and the OCR is high quality; tagged; and is easy to search or browse. However, there is no advanced search function (though you can use Boolean operators such as AND and NOT). While you can use the Trove-style filters to narrow a keyword search down to a decade of interest, you can't zoom into a year, let alone a month, week or day. There doesn't seem to be any easy way to save article images (the best way I've found is to zoom on the page and use the web browser to save as HTML; you get a lot of extra junk but among them are two usable images). And it's a shame that illustration captions and advertisements appear to have been excluded from the text search, though they are visible visually. Still, it's all still in beta, and did I mention that it's free?

Welsh Newspapers Online is expanding rapidly, having added the following titles:

Aberdare Leader
Brython Cymreig
Cambrian
Cambrian News and Merionethshire Standard
Cardiff Times
Cymro
Cymro A'r Celt Llundain
Lials Llafur
Merthyr Pioneer
Montgomeryshire Express and Radnor Times
North Wales Express
North Wales Weekly News
Papur Pawb
Rhyl Journal
Rhyl Record and Advertiser
South Wales Daily Post
Weekly News and Visitors' Chronicle For Colwyn Bay
Weekly Mail

The coverage for most of these ends in 1910, as with most of WNO's titles; however, Cymro (published in Liverpool), Aberdare Leader, Cambrian News and Merionethshire Standard, Lials Llafur, and Merthyr Pioneer all cover at least the period 1914-1919. The war will be mentioned.
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NZ Observer, 4 May 1918, p. 5

For a country so far from the frontline, there was a surprising amount of discussion in the New Zealand press in the autumn of 1918 about the possibility of Auckland being bombed or Wellington being shelled. It's true that it was often framed in a joking fashion, as with the above cartoon which appeared in the New Zealand Observer on 4 May with the caption 'IF A BOMB FELL ON ONE OF OURS?' showing the reactions of an amusingly confused congregation as the war intrudes into their Sunday devotions.1 But despite the humour, there's an undercurrent of fear, and also perhaps, strangely, of desire.
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  1. New Zealand Observer (Auckland), 4 May 1918, 5

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In a not-very-recent post I discussed New Zealand press reports of mystery aeroplane sightings in the first few months of 1918. I suggested then that around about the end of March there was a change in the way these sightings were reported. This change had two aspects. The first was that there were no longer any straight news reports of mystery aeroplanes being published (no new ones, anyway; some of the earlier stories continued to be reprinted as local newspapers caught up). The obvious explanation for this would be because there weren't any to report. However this seems unlikely because of the second aspect: newspapers did in fact continue to circulate stories about mystery aeroplanes, only now in the indirect form of jokes and rumours.

As far as anything which even vaguely resembles an actual sighting is concerned, in fact there are only a couple of examples from April 1918, both from the New Zealand Observer. On 6 April, the Observer's 'They Say' column informed its readers

That a well-known motor car owner and a cold-feet sufferer reported an aeroplane outside Mangere the other night, but when under the third degree he mixed the Urewera locality with Onehunga, the authorities ducked.1

This entirely lacks the sort of information contained in the earlier mystery aeroplane reports, not even a date; and the jocular tone makes it hard to know how seriously to take it. It could be an offhand way of describing an actual sighting by a local notable, or it could be a humorous allusion to some then-topical incident which had nothing to do with mystery aeroplanes.

The other example from April is equally vague as to details, and is quite possibly apocryphal, but its point is clearer. The Observer's 'Fretful Porcupine' column (where did they get these names?) published a letter on 20 April from one 'Jay Bee' which includes this account of a mystery aeroplane sighting, apparently in a posh Auckland suburb:

Dropped into afternoon tea at a friend's house the other day and found I had fallen into the midst of the wife's day-at-home crownd -- 'first and fourth Tuesdays in the month' business. Took me a while to recover, but when I did come to I sat up and took notice of what the dear women were talking about. And, by Jove, it surprised me. One dear thing held the floor by virtue of the strength of her vocal chords, and she was talking about these strange aeroplanes nervous folk are seeing of nights. 'Yes,' she said, 'it's true all right. Only last night Mrs. So-and-So saw one going over her house just after midnight. She called Mr. So-and-So, and he saw it, too, so there. And my husband knows Captain Dash in the Defence Office, and Captain Dash says there are aeroplanes about [...]'2

So unidentified aeroplanes are being seen by unidentified people at unidentified times and unidentified places. Not terribly useful. But wait, there's more:

'[...] and if there's any trouble at any time not to rush to the station to catch a train to get away from town, because they're bound to try to drop bombs on the station, because they know everyone would go there.' (Pause for breath.) 'And then there are these big guns firing 100 miles. What's to stop a raider coming in behind Rangitoto with one of these guns and firing a shell into our houses in Grafton Road? And they're sending my husband into camp, so there would be no one left to fight them.' I regret that at this stage I fainted outright, and heard no more.3

Obviously Jay Bee is partly joking, but he (the condescension towards 'the dear women' suggests a man) was making a serious point about what he saw as the baleful effect of suburban gossip where the defence of the realm was concerned: 'Really, I'm almost in favour of the introduction of women police if they would only find their way to these afternoon teas and arrest a few of these idiotic scaremongers.'4 The reported speech may well be invented, synthesised, and/or exaggerated for effect, but it seems likely that it is more or less representative of talk that was very widespread in April 1918, not just about mystery aeroplanes in the sky or raiders in the sea, but about the possibility that bombs and shells would very soon be falling on New Zealand. Indeed, I think can show this, and will endeavour to do so in the next post in this series.


  1. New Zealand Observer (Auckland), 6 April 1918, 7

  2. Ibid., 20 April 1918, 16

  3. Ibid. 

  4. Ibid. 

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A year has passed since my article on the debate in Britain over whether to bomb German civilians in reprisal for the Blitz was published. Under the Australian Journal of Politics and History's self-archiving policy I can now upload my own copy of the final, peer-reviewed text for anyone to read for free. So here it is. And here is the abstract:

In Britain, popular memory of the Blitz celebrates civilian resistance to the German bombing of London and other cities, emphasizing positive values such as stoicism, humour and mutual aid. But the memory of such passive and defensive traits obscures the degree to which British civilian morale in 1940 depended on the belief that if Britain had to 'take it', then Germany was taking it as hard or harder. Contrary to the received historical account, opinion polls, Home Intelligence reports and newspaper letter columns show that a majority of the British supported the reprisal bombing of German civilians by Bomber Command. The wartime reprisals debate was the logical legacy of prewar assumptions about the overwhelming power of bombing; but it has been forgotten because it contradicts the myth of the Blitz.

AJPH's attitude to self-archiving is more generous than some journals I could name. Or at least it was -- its RoMEO entry doesn't seem to suggest 12 months as a standard embargo period, if I'm reading it right, but (maybe) 24. There's nothing I can see about it on AJPH's website either, so maybe it has got worse in the meantime. Hopefully not. In any case, my agreement says what it says.

Thomas Hippler. Bombing the People: Giulio Douhet and the Foundations of Air-Power Strategy, 1884-1939. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2013. There are very few studies of Douhet in English, and none since Azar Gat's Fascist and Liberal Visions of War (1998), so I'm very excited to see this. Even leafing through it it's obvious that there is a lot of valuable stuff here: for example, on Douhet's surprisingly pacifistic views before 1914. It doesn't look like there is much on the question of the wider influence of Douhetism outside Italy, but I suspect it will be all the better for it.

David J. Hufford. The Terror that Comes in the Night: An Experience-Centred Study of Supernatural Assault Traditions. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania, 1982. This and the next two books fall outside of the subject matter of this blog: I bought them as methodological inspiration for the problem of how to approach people claiming to see things for which no objective evidence exists, vis-à-vis my ongoing mystery aircraft project. I actually devoted a whole blog post to this book without having actually read it, so it's about time I owned a copy.

Peter Lamont. Extraordinary Beliefs: A Historical Approach to a Psychological Problem. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2013. The 'psychological problem' here is essentially the same one I'm interested in: why do people believe extraordinary things? The 'historical approach' refers to Lamont's use of the history of spiritualism and psychic research to this end. It appears to trip lightly over the decades and centuries in a way I probably wouldn't be comfortable doing, but that's not always a bad thing.

Brian P. Levack. The Devil Within: Possession & Exorcism in the Christian West. New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 2013. This is much more traditional history, unsurprisingly since it's written by a historian, not a folklorist or a psychologist. Levack argues that medical or psychological explanations for demonic possession cases are ahistorical, and that we should consider demoniacs as following a cultural script. How useful for me this is idea is, I'm not sure: where did the cultural script for seeing phantom airship come from, how did it arise so quickly? Something to think about.

Matthew S. Seligmann. The Royal Navy and the German Threat, 1901-1914: Admiralty Plans to Protect British Trade in a War Against Germany. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2012. Back to some air... er, seapower. Actually, this has some relevance for my recent interest in the naval dimensions of the 1913 phantom airship scare, as well as the knock-out blow theory. Also has a very useful discussion of archival sources, including some scathing comments about the Admiralty's archivists who decided to destroy 98% of ADM 1 in the 1950s and 1960s! Ouch.