Zeppelins over your town

[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:



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?

Now, there is actually at least one other Australian poster from the First World War with Zeppelins on it, which I discussed on Airminded during its very earliest days:


It's held by the National Library of Australia, and was printed in 1915 for the New South Wales government. It shows a town being bombed by two Zeppelins; in the inset are women and children being killed. The message is clear:



This poster was evidently an attempt to harness the horror and outrage felt at the news of the first Zeppelin raids on British towns in 1915. The mystery poster could well be something similar. But if so, it clearly worked in a different way. Firstly, the Zeppelin is not far away on the other side of the world; instead, it is here in Australia, 'over your town'. Secondly, there is no appeal to the reader to enlist; instead the appeal is to 'come to our dugout' at 'no charge'. Along with the empty box, this suggests that the poster is generic advertising for some sort of movable event where 'Zeppelins over your town' can be seen on the date written in by hand. In form it's almost like a circus poster, except that instead of lions and clowns there are aircraft and searchlights. And that there's no charge.

IWM PST 12258

It turns out that yes, the poster was for recruiting, and yes, it was pretty much for a circus. Above is another Australian poster from the First World War, also held by the IWM. The text reads:




BOXING by World Champions

Straight from the Front


By All Arms of the Service

Tattoos Each Night

Don't Forget the Cannon
Follow the Searchlight
Look Out for the Zeppelin
Run for Our Dug-out


The link is right near the end: there's a searchlight, a Zeppelin, and a dugout, all prominent elements of the poster in question, even if they appear almost as an afterthought here. We now have a name for the event: 'The March to Freedom'. It turns out that this was a snowball march, or series of marches, through rural NSW to Sydney held in 1918 to boost flagging recruitment numbers. Here's another March to Freedom poster from the IWM:

IWM PST 12260


Reviving more spontaneous marches earlier in the war, the idea was that the sight of the soldiers and recruits in uniform plus the effect of the entertainments would bring men flocking to the colours once more: 'a display of something of the panoply of war will make its appeal to the youth of the country'.1 As the Minister for Recruiting, R. B. Orchard, said at the outset of one March to Freedom which began in Armidale on 5 May 1918:

I feel confident that this new scheme of the march to freedom will be the spark to set alight the patriotism and enthusiasm of the people in the country districts. The appeals we will make will bring men in their thousands to join their brothers, who have made such glorious records in their fight for the freedom which has always been the heritage of the British race.2

The March was quite a big affair:

The troops, comprising infantry, Light Horse, a battery of 18-pounders, a column of transport, and a searchlight squad, arrived by special train at daybreak yesterday. Even at such an early hour a party of lady voluntary workers attended to dispense tea and refreshments, and at 8 o'clock the troops paraded and marched through the city, headed by the Band of the A.I.F., and thousands of people lined the streets to welcome the men. They are camped at the Show Ground, the former training camp of the 33rd Battalion. Yesterday afternoon the troops, in command of Captain A. C. Eade, marched through the principal streets, where the public buildings and stores were gaily decorated with flags and bunting. The troops, though not long in training, carried themselves almost as veterans, and evoked bursts of applause from the crowds. It was a great day for the capital city of New England, and the crisp morning air, warming towards noon, was a pleasant stimulant for the inauguration of the route march to Newcastle.2

The panoply of war, augmented by other techniques, did have an effect:

A special recruiting rally was held in the Town Hall grounds last night, when moving picture scenes of the Australians in France were shown; and, in addition to musical numbers by the local girls, the champion boxers Private Clabby and Gunner Tommy Uren, who have joined in the march, gave sparring exhibitions. Appeals were made by Lieuts. Mackenzie, M.C., Litchfield, M'Carthy, W. O. M'Murtrie, S. M. Urquhart, and Privates Barrington, Miller, and Tart. Twenty men responded, making a total of 23 for the day. The district has a record of 154 recruits this year.2

But wait -- where's the Zeppelin? The searchlights are certainly there -- another account from Armidale describes the activities of the 'engineers' detail with searchlight':

Searchlight operators will illuminate the sky line, and also show the people how objects are picked up at a distance for the accurate dropping of shells, or for concentrated rifle and machine-gun fire.3

But no Zeppelin. Unfortunately, while there are a number of newspaper references to various Marches to Freedom, I haven't been able to find any which mention Zeppelins or airships. So maybe the Zeppelin was pulled from the programme. I wonder anyway how it was going to be achieved; there were no airships in Australia, but probably a captive balloon would serve in a pinch.

Peter wondered if the 'Zeppelins over your town' poster might be connected with the 1918 mystery aeroplane scare in some way. It could be. Certainly it represents the same act of imagining enemy aircraft overhead that was at work in the scare proper. But I don't think it can be a cause of the scare, because advance publicity for the first March of Freedom, the one from Armidale in early May, only seems to have begun in April.4 On the one hand, this is right at the point when the mystery aeroplane scare surged. But on the other, mystery aeroplane reports had been a steady trickle since mid-March; there's no evidence that the posters were seen by anyone who reported seeing mystery aeroplanes; they would have been distributed in NSW, where most of the Marches were held, whereas most mystery aeroplane reports were from Victoria; and, of course, only a tiny minority of witnesses saw airships as opposed to aeroplanes. Given the timing, it's possible that causality went the other way: that the mystery aeroplane reports, or at least the stories of Wölfchen's flight, inspired the organisers of the March to include an aerial threat to Australia in their programme. Perhaps, then, it was dropped when the scare deflated and the whole idea seemed ludicrous. That still doesn't answer the question of why an airship instead of an aeroplane; but Australia barely had more aeroplanes than it did airships, and the latter were probably easier to fake.

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  1. Sydney Morning Herald, 6 May 1918, 6. []
  2. Ibid. [] [] []
  3. Singleton Argus, 9 May 1918, 4. []
  4. E.g. Maitland Daily Mercury, 17 April 1918, 7. []

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