Monthly Archives: June 2013

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Previously I looked at Excubitor's claim that in 1913 the Anglo-German naval race was turning into a more dangerous aero-naval one, and that Britain, having won the first was now in the process of losing the other. Here I'll look at some related strands of thought in the press more generally, and what the point of it all was.

Excubitor was not alone in suggesting that Germany was concentrating on airships to compensate for its inferiority in dreadnoughts. A leader in the Devon and Exeter Gazette, for example, drew on an article in Blackwood's Magazine by T. F. Farman (the journalist father of aviator Henri Farman), for its argument that Britain could not afford to be complacent:

Without impugning the sincerity of the German Chancellor's assurances, it is, nevertheless, permissible to inquire whether the alleged intention to abandon, for the time being, the project of creating a fleet equal in every respect to that of Great Britain cannot be accounted for by the creation of a German aerial fleet of dreadnoughts, which is at the present moment unrivalled, and which could, in the case of hostilities, render signal service in a naval engagement in the North Sea or English Channel, and be utilised for attack on ports, arsenals, etc. The Germans may be, indeed, justified in calculating that the proportion of ten to sixteen units is compensated for to a considerable extent by the aerial fleet they have already created, and which is being increased with extraordinary rapidity, both in the number of its units and in their power.1

Relatedly, and more commonly, there were a number of commentators who also pointed to the threat posed to Britain's decisive naval superiority by Germany's even more decisive air superiority, but stopped short of claiming that this was a continuation of the dreadnought race (though, arguably, this is implicit). So, for example, an anonymous 'naval expert' interviewed by the Daily Mirror said that

'I think that the strength of the British fleet is unchallengeable [...] if you have regard solely to the old conditions of warfare -- that is to say, that we have a comfortable margin of superiority ship for ship.

'Naval science, however, has recently made such rapid progress that it is not now merely a question of sea ship for sea ship; but sea ship plus the air fleet. Bear that in mind, and you will realise the gravity of the present situation.

'The plain fact is that while Germany can come over and attack us by air, we not only cannot attack Germany, but we have no air fleet to resist their attack.

'Our defence against an air attack by Germany is so insignificant as to be practically worthless.

'I believe that if Germany sent over half a dozen airships they could cripple if not destroy our battle fleet and blow up many of our fortresses, and having reduced us to a state of impotence and panic these airships could head for home again unscathed.2

...continue reading

  1. Devon and Exeter Gazette, 29 March 1913, 2; cf. T. F. Farman, 'Aerial armaments: dirigibles and aeroplanes', Blackwood's Magazine 193 (April 1913), 433-47. 

  2. Daily Mirror, 14 February 1913, 5. 


John Bede Cusack. They Hosed Them Out. Kent Town: Wakefield Press, 2012 [1965]. An Australian war novel, originally published nearly half a century ago under the pseudonym John Beede, and republished a number of times since; this edition has been revised and edited by John Brokenmouth and includes a glossary, footnotes, appendices, and a memoir by Cusack's daughter. It's based on the author's wartime experiences as an air gunner in 2 Group, RAF Bomber Command. The title immediately evokes Randall Jarrell's poem 'The Death of the Ball Turret Gunner', but a more relevant comparison is Don Charlwood's No Moon Tonight. (Review copy.)


'Excubitor' is Latin for 'sentinel'; it was the pseudonym chosen by a frequent correspondent on naval affairs for the Fortnightly Review. In March 1908, for example, Excubitor contributed an article entitled 'The British reply to Germany's dreadnoughts'; the following January, 'The blessings of naval armaments'. By May 1913, though, a new theme had appeared. 'Sea and air command: Germany's new policy' argued that the naval arms race with Germany was over: 'the naval predominance of Great Britain in Europe to-day is greater than it was before the passage of the first of the [German] Navy Acts in 1896'.1 But this didn't mean that Germany was going to give up its ambitions to match Britain at sea: it just meant that it was transferring its efforts to the air:

by the development of the new aerial arm -- airships and hydro-aeroplanes -- they hope to turn the scales in their favour. Germany possesses already about twenty large airships and over a dozen 'docks' of a permanent character, apart from private ships and 'docks' subsidised by the Government and available for naval and military use, and it is now proposed to increase the number of aerial Dreadnoughts to forty, and to build many more 'docks.' Cuxhaven, 300 miles from England, is to become a great airship station, with revolving sheds so as to enable the vessels to be launched whatever the direction of the wind, and to set forth, armed with quick-firing guns and provided with explosives, on missions of reconnaissance over the British arsenals and the bases and the bases where British squadrons and flotillas are being prepared for action. British naval strategy is to be robbed of secrecy, and secrecy in preparation is of the essence of successful strategy. This the Admiralstab in Berlin fully realises.2

According to Excubitor, the danger is grave:

Sea-power is costly, while air-power is cheap: for the cost of a single Dreadnought of the sea, a dozen Dreadnoughts of the air, each with a revolving shed of the latest type, can be constructed. German expert opinion believes that by command of the air Germany can neutralise our superiority on the sea, besides unnerving the civil population and thus embarrassing the Government by cruising over these islands -- high above the reach of artillery -- and dropping bombs. This is the confessed policy of Germany, and we have not a single long-range airship by which we can take the only effective defensive action -- the strong offensive.3

And the hour is late:

We cannot reply to the aerial danger by developing our naval or military strength, but we must take the offensive in the air, threatening with our superior airships, in numbers proportionate to our naval strength, any potential enemy. We are now open to attack by Germany, and we must lose no time in placing ourselves in a position to retaliate.4

But not yet too late:

if immediate steps are taken there is no reason why we should not make as secure our command of the air as we are making secure our command of the sea, convinced that the future will show that aerial power and naval power are interdependent and inseparable. The essential point is that we must adopt in aerial matters our well-tried policy in naval matters -- the bold offensive. Our airships, like our sea-ships, must be able to carry war to the enemy's frontiers and thus free us from its horrors. This is the only policy compatible with safety, and to that policy we must bend all our splendid industrial and scientific resources if we are not to incur the risk of our naval supremacy passing from us.5

As I'll discuss in another post, Excubitor was far from alone in asserting an 'interdependent and inseparable' connection between aerial strategy and naval strategy, that Germany was attempting to use its mastery of the air to overcome its inferiority to Britain at sea.

  1. Excubitor, 'Sea and air command: Germany's new policy', Fortnightly Review 93 (May 1913), 868. 

  2. Ibid. 

  3. Ibid., 868-9. 

  4. Ibid., 880. 

  5. Ibid. 


Charles Emmerson. 1913: In Search of the World Before the Great War. New York: PublicAffairs, 2013. Another case where a book seems an apposite purchase, given that it is about the year I'm currently researching. This one has generated a bit of buzz. It's certainly an interesting approach, providing snapshots of a couple of dozen major cities around the world (Melbourne gets half a chapter, paired with Winnipeg; London gets two chapters, framing the book). The danger is that 1914 will overshadow 1913, that dark foreboding will prevail throughout; but flipping through it seems the author has avoided this pitfall.


In my article about the commercial bomber concept, I began my discussion of the idea that airliners could be turned into bombers in 1918, with the report of the Civil Aerial Transport Committee. But it turns out that it appeared some years earlier, though in a far more fragmentary and undeveloped form than in the interwar period. And it involved airships, not aeroplanes.

In December 1912, the Admiralty received a joint report from the military and naval attachés in Berlin about the wartime disposition and employment of Germany's airship fleet. They suggested that the German government was paying subsidies to airship manufacturers so that their civilian production would be built to the minimum standard required for military service. So, in the next war,

the naval and military authorities will thus have at their disposal not only the Government aircraft, but also a number of dirigible airships belonging to private firms fully manned and equipped and ready for instant service[.]1

The attachés estimated that this would yield a German fleet of between 21 and 23 airships, though as it's unclear how many of these were civilian it's equally unclear how much of a difference their inclusion would make. But generally speaking, they increased the aerial threat to Britain:

A number of vessels in this formidable array of airships would be capable of sailing from Germany to Sheerness, Woolwich, or any other desired point in England and return without the necessity of an intermediate descent to the earth.2

The commercial bomber idea also appeared in the press. 'C. C. T.' (i.e. C. C. Turner) , writing in the Observer at the end of March 1913, also attempted to estimate the size of the German air fleet in the event of war. He came up with 13 government-owned airships, and

In addition, there are in Germany privately-owned airships:--

First-class... 2
Second-class... 83

So his total came to 23 airships, which corresponds well with the (presumably confidential) estimate provided by the attachés. This could be because they were working from the same information, or perhaps Turner got his figures from the Admiralty. The basic rhetorical function of the commercial bomber is much the same here as it was later, to inflate the size of the enemy air fleet and make it seem more threatening, the better to demonstrate 'the fatal complacency and ignorance permitted, and even fostered, in this country'.4 However, in the 1920s and 1930s, the commercial bomber idea was useful only so long as Germany had no air force, and more or less disappeared with the creation of the Luftwaffe (or so I argue). Here, it is being claimed that it is Britain which effectively has no aerial force to speak of, since it is credited with only 2 airships '(on order)'.5 So piling on even more German airships hardly seems necessary. Perhaps the point is to increase the German lead over France, which has 10 airships attributed to it '(these are less powerful than Germany's').6

If Turner got his information from the Admiralty, he might also have taken the idea that civilian airships could be used for military purposes from the same source. But perhaps it was obvious enough: military airships and civilian airships were in fact more or less identical at this time. Schwaben, a DELAG airliner which first flew in June 1911, was built to the same plan as two military Zeppelins, Ersatz ZII and ZIII. Two other DELAG Zeppelins, Viktoria Luise and Hansa, were indeed pressed into military service in August 1914 after a rudimentary refit. Though they were mainly used for training, it seems that Hansa, at least, flew combat missions over France and the Baltic. And Sachsen, the last DELAG Zeppelin to be built before the war, raided Antwerp on the night of 25 September 1914. So as well as being the first commercial bombers in theory, airships might have been the first, and even the only, commercial bombers in practice.

  1. The National Archives [TNA], AIR 1/657/17/122/563; quoted in Neville Jones, The Origins of Strategic Bombing: A Study of the Development of British Air Strategic Thought and Practice upto 1918 (London: William Kimber, 1973), 39. 

  2. TNA, AIR 1/657/17/122/563; quoted in Alfred Gollin, The Impact of Air Power on the British People and their Government, 1909-14 (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1989), 231. 

  3. Observer, 30 March 1913, 11. 'First-class' means Zeppelins and Schütte-Lanzes

  4. Ibid. 

  5. Ibid. 

  6. Ibid. 


Empire In Peril

Is this the best conference topic ever? I think it just might be. There's even a Zeppelin on the poster!

Note that abstracts are due by 1 August 2013.


Public Lecture & Interdisciplinary Workshop
Queen Mary, University of London, 14-15 November 2013

Bernard Porter
(Newcastle (em), UK) • Nicholas Hiley (Kent, UK) • Michael Matin (Warren-Wilson, US) • Jan Rueger (Birkbeck, UK) • Matthew Seligmann (Brunel, UK)

This year marks the first centenary of one of the most popular examples of the invasion-scare genre: Saki’s (H.H. Munro) When William Came (1913). Saki’s famous account imagines the defeat of Britain at the hand of an invading German army. The cultural and political concerns of Edwardian Britain lay at the heart of the novel’s masochistic narrative: degeneration, the rise of modernity, militarism, national security, decadence, germanophobia, a battle for global hegemony, and imperial decline. As such, the narrative reflects the general convergence of popular politics, the public and the press, which coalesced around a repertoire of anxieties, embodied in the trope of the ‘German Menace’ and foreign intrigues in the metropole and in the empire.

The aim of this workshop is to facilitate a greater integration of the study of invasion-scares and popular politics at the intersection of divergent approaches. It is suggested that a more thorough investigation of the interconnectedness of press, politics and popular culture is essential to furthering our understanding of key aspects of Edwardian society and British identity on the eve of the Great War. Responding to a recent surge of interest in the pre-war period, this workshop will stimulate debate and reflection on the latest research in these areas, and identify avenues for further study, based upon a broader and more inclusive approach to historical analysis.



Contributions from established scholars as well as junior researchers in all fields relevant to the broader subject are invited. Participants should submit a 300-word abstract of their proposed paper and a brief biography by 1 August 2013.

Kim A. Wagner ( & Patrick Longson (
Dr Kim Wagner
Queen Mary, University of London
Department of History
Mile End Road
London E1 4NS

Tel no: +44(0)207 882 8428
Visit the website at

Image source: Island Mentalities.

After outlining the Anglo-German naval rivalry and the tariff reform debate, Alfred Gollin, one of the few historians to discuss the subject in any depth, has this to say about the origins of the 1909 phantom airship scare:

This was the intense condition of Britain affairs when the Prime Minister, H. H. Asquith, made his announcement about the government's new aeronautical policy in the House of Commons on 5 May 1909. His speech produced a curious and remarkable result.

People in several parts of England now began to see airships in flight, in places where it was impossible for such aerial vehicles to be.1

It's true that it was right about this time that phantom airship sightings took off. However, some of these took place before 5 May, some as far back as March. Moreover, the contents of Asquith's speech (which was quite short and hardly deserves the name) were not exactly sensational and seem unlikely to have caused much apprehension. He had two main points to make. The first was that 'The Government is taking steps towards placing its organisation for aerial navigation on a more satisfactory footing':

As the result of a Report made by the Committee of Imperial Defence, the work of devising and constructing dirigible airships and aeroplanes has been apportioned between the Navy and the Army. The Admiralty is building certain dirigibles, while certain others of a different type will be constructed at the War Office Balloon Factory at Aldershot, which is about to be reorganised for the purpose. The investigation and provision of aeroplanes are also assigned to the War Office.2

The second was to announce the formation of a 'Special Committee' under the presidency of Lord Rayleigh and the chairmanship of H. T. Glazebrook to oversee 'investigations at the National Physical Laboratory and for general advice on the scientific problems arising in connection with the work of the Admiralty and War Office in aerial construction and navigation'.3

It could be that it was the way Asquith's announcement was reported that was the trigger. But while the major newspapers did report it, again there doesn't seem like there was much to excite the general public. Most press reactions that I've looked at treated it as a welcome, if overdue, development, and expressed hopes that Britain would now be able to catch up to Continental standards in aviation -- not only those like the Manchester Guardian which were in political sympathy with the government, but also those which were not, like the Standard, the Globe, and even the Manchester Courier, which by 1913 had definitely decided that the aerial defence of the nation could not be entrusted to the Liberals. It's true that The Times and the Observer did criticise the makeup of the Rayleigh committee (mainly on the grounds that there were very few members with practical aviation experience), but even so there was no suggestion of immediate peril.

So I'm sceptical. But I'm also sympathetic. It's natural to seek some definite cause of these puzzling events -- I do it myself: I think successfully in the Australian case in 1918, with the report of the Wölfchen's flight over Sydney; less so in my 4th year thesis, when I suggested that the outbreak of the First Balkan War was somehow responsible for the Sheerness incident. Why did some people see mystery airships in March 1909? Why did a lot more start seeing them in May? Why did they stop seeing them by the end of the month? The last is actually relatively easy to explain: the scare collapsed under its own weight, as too many airships were being reported to be credible and the press became sceptical. By the same token, the press was certainly crucial in the expansion phase, by reporting on the growing phenomenon and suggesting to people that there really were airships flying around at night. So it's finding the initial spark that is the real problem, and generally there isn't a satisfactory one to be had. I think it's essentially random. People see strange things in the sky from time to time. Sometimes they think they're airships, because what else could they be? Usually they are ignored, even if they tell somebody. Sometimes, though, the reports are picked up and amplified by the press, which is when the scare proper begins. There's no single ultimate cause; it's more the vibe, the popular understanding of aviation. To an extent this process is irrational, then; which makes me think that maybe Asquith's announcement could have been one of the triggers after all.

  1. Alfred Gollin, The Impact of Air Power on the British People and their Government, 1909-14 (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1989), 53. 

  2. HC Deb, 5 May 1909, vol. 4, col. 1047

  3. Ibid., col. 1048. 


Just before the outbreak of the First World War, a curious book was published in New York under the title The Secrets of the German War Office. The author, Dr. Armgaard Karl Graves, is described on the front cover as a 'Secret Agent'.1 He probably wasn't a doctor and his name was probably something else, but he was a German spy. Recruited in 1911 by German naval intelligence to gather information about Royal Navy activities off the Scottish coast, Graves was arrested on espionage charges in Glasgow in April 1912, convicted in July and sentenced to 18 months' imprisonment under the Official Secrets Act. He served only a few months of his sentence before being recruited by MO5 (the predecessor of MI5) to hunt down other German spies in Britain. But he managed to fool, defraud and finally escape his new masters. By February 1913 he was in New York; the following year he started telling the American press what he knew about both the British and the German intelligence services, along with some things he didn't know. The Secrets of the German War Office (ghostwritten by Edward Lyell Fox) came out just before war broke out, and sold very well.2

One chapter which would have been of particular interest was devoted to what Graves calls 'The most efficient and elaborate system ever devised by the ingenuity of man', namely 'the German War Machine'.3 It was here, in a section simply entitled 'Aërial', that he claims that a German airship had flown over Britain in peacetime, just as had been claimed by the British press and, in secret discussions, by the First Lord of the Admiralty in late 1912 and early 1913:

It is a far cry from Lilienthal's glider to the last word in aërial construction such as the mysterious Zeppelin-Parseval sky monster that, carrying a complement of twenty-five men and twelve tons of explosives, sailed across the North Sea, circled over London, and returned to Germany. Lilienthal's glider kept aloft four minutes, but this new dreadnaught [sic] of Germany's flying navy was aloft ninety-six hours, maintaining a speed of thirty-eight miles an hour, this even in the face of a storm pressure of almost eighty meters.4

That's all Graves says about peacetime airship flights over Britain. He doesn't give a date for this trip, but it would seem to have taken place in 1912. That could fit the Sheerness incident in October of that year, though an earlier date might fit better (he had last been in Germany in January or February 1913, in between Britain and the United States, so he could not plausibly have had access to secret information after then, but on his own account he was working for the British at that time). Of course, Sheerness is not London, but perhaps the airship flew there after passing over the coast. The figures given for the airship's performance are too high for this period, though. The speed is about right, though probably not in a storm; the naval airship L2 was carrying 28 people when it exploded near Berlin in October 1913. But no airship flew for such a long duration as claimed here until L59 in 1917 (the famous Africa flight), and in 1912 the most extra weight a Zeppelin could carry was about 9 tons. Most glaringly of all, there was never any such thing as a 'Zeppelin-Parseval' airship. The design philosophies of the two companies were utterly different, anyway: one built giant rigid airships, the other small non-rigid airships (even the propellors required centripetal force for stiffness). All in all, Graves's account seems dubious.
...continue reading

  1. Armgaard Karl Graves, The Secrets of the German War Office (New York: A. L. Burt, 1914). 

  2. For details of Graves's career, see Thomas Boghardt, Spies of the Kaiser: German Covert Operations in Great Britain During the First World War Era (Basingstoke and New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2004), 60-3. 

  3. Graves, The Secrets of the German War Office, 219. 

  4. Ibid., 238. 


I haven't mentioned this before now, partly because it seemed so far off and a little unreal. Exactly one month from today, I will become a lecturer in modern European history in the School of Humanities at the University of New England (UNE), Armidale, New South Wales. Which is both very exciting and ever-so-slightly scary!

UNE is an interesting place for a number of reasons. It's one of the smaller Australian universities, but it's not really small: it has something like 17,000 students, though more than 80% are taught by distance education (and UNE has a strong reputation in online education). It's a regional university: Armidale is located up (elevation 982m) in the Northern Tablelands of NSW, about equidistant from Sydney and Brisbane. (New England is another name for the area -- hence UNE -- because it is supposedly like the American New England in that it has four distinct seasons, though winter seems to be the most distinctive...) With a population of around 20,000, even the relatively small on-campus student body in combination with the staff means that UNE makes up a big proportion of the town; it's the closest Australia comes to the American phenomenon of the college town. I haven't actually been to Armidale yet (my interview was by video), and it's not a part of the country I know very well (though some of my forebears came from up around there, and I once spent a summer at Coonabarabran, only a few hours' drive to the southwest). But by all accounts it's a beautiful area.

The humanities are strongly supported at UNE, from archaeology to peace studies. One of the School's strengths is in history. There are twelve historians currently listed on its staff page, and another six in classics and ancient history. And that's not including me, or two other positions which were advertised shortly after mine. So that's a decent size. The School offers everything from bachelor degrees (including one in historical inquiry and practice) to PhDs, and the units taught range from the Vikings to Cold War popular culture. I'll be teaching 19th and 20th (and even 21st) century European history: next year this will include the long 19th century and the First World War. First up, though, I'll be running a methodology unit and also working on adding some digital humanities to the curriculum.

I think this is a good first academic job. It's full-time, as opposed to part-time or casual, so I can devote my full energies to it. It's equal parts teaching and research, so I'll still be able to write and publish. I don't have much full-on lecturing to do (as opposed to coordination, marking, and curriculum development, as well as research and writing) until next year, so I'll have plenty of time to settle in and get used to being an academic. Admittedly, the position is only for 2.5 years, until the end of 2015, and is not tenure-track. So I'll be looking for work again in 2016. But a couple of years' worth of lecturing and academic experience on my CV (plus a few more publications) should make me more employable.

After more than three frustrating years on the job market and nearly three dozen job applications before this one without getting an interview, I'm conscious that I haven't made it... but at least I've made it this far!