Monthly Archives: December 2013

Joan Beaumont. Broken Nation: Australians in the Great War. Crows Nest: Allen & Unwin, 2013. With the centenary of the outbreak of the First World War looming, it's high time we had a book like this: a synoptic overview of the whole of Australia's war, from the fighting overseas to the conflicts at home, from why we got into the war to what we got out of it. Sadly, no mention of mystery aeroplanes that I can see.

Arthur Marder. From the Dreadnought to Scapa Flow. Volume 1: The Road to War 1904-1914. Barnsley: Seaforth Publishing, 2013 [1961]. The classic account of the Royal Navy and the naval arms race with Germany before 1914. Dated now, no doubt, but still influential and still a good source for a lot of boring but necessary facts. Four more volumes cover the actual war years, if you like that sort of thing.

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As I discussed recently, Philip Sabin's Simulating War: Studying Conflict through Simulation Games (London and New York: Bloomsbury, 2012) is primarily about using wargames to understand past wars. This is sensible; apart from the obvious benefit of helping us to understand history better, there's also the useful featurethat there are some facts to go on -- this war, campaign or battle happened once before, so we know something about the forces involved, the terrain it was fought on, the dynamics of combat at the time, and so on. Sabin does occasionally discuss wargaming future conflicts, though mainly in the context of wargaming in the military, where refighting the last (or worse) war is of limited interest.

However, I've been thinking about how to wargame something which is not quite a historical war, and not quite a future war: the knock-out blow from the air. This never actually happened in the past, but for a time was thought to be what might happen in the future. Precisely because of this, a wargame of the knock-out blow could be extremely valuable in demonstrating just how far it was from the reality of aerial warfare. But also precisely because of this, it would be difficult to find the information needed to design the game.

Difficult, not impossible. In fact, I've already done most of the work needed. Part of my PhD and forthcoming book involves a reconstruction of an ideal or consensus form of the knock-out blow theory as it was articulated in the airpower literature from the First World War to the Second. So I could use this as the basis for a wargame showing not what would have happened, or even what could have happened, but what people thought was going to happen in the next war.

Well, that's easier said than done. As Sabin discusses, there are many ways of representing warfare in a wargame, and hence many choices to be made about the maps, the counters, and most importantly the rules. How do this? While I have a reasonable amount of experience playing wargames, I have none designing them. One thing Sabin suggests is starting with an existing game on a related topic, and adapting it to suit or at least borrowing useful elements. Now, as far as I know, there aren't any other wargames simulating the knock-out blow, or for that matter strategic aerial warfare in the interwar period.1 So three realistic options come to mind. One is to start with a game set in the First World War, and project it forward. I have a couple of these: The First Battle of Britain and Airships at War 1916-1918. The second is to start with a game set in the Second World War, and project it backwards. Again, I have a few to work with here, including RAF and The Burning Blue. These approaches both have the advantage of the games being at appropriate scales, and of simulating the sorts of dynamics and tradeoffs inherent in aerial warfare. They have the disadvantage, of course, of being based on historical reality rather than contemporary imagination. The third option, then, is start with a game simulating nuclear warfare, since in many ways that's closer to the anticipated effects of the knock-out blow than was actual aerial warfare of the period. Perhaps surprisingly, there are a few such games, such as the Warplan: Dropshot/First Strike series and Fail Safe. Unfortunately I don't have any of these, though perhaps unsurprisingly I have been meaning to change that. These, of course, would be at a completely different scale to aerial warfare in the 1920s and 1930s, though that may not actually be too much of a problem at the strategic level.

It all depends on what aspects of the knock-out blow I want to simulate. I'll think through some of those choices in another post.


  1. There are some alternate history wargames out there, but in my experience they tend to either stick fairly closely to the real history, such as Case Green, or else tend to be fairly fantastic dieselpunk scenarios, Crimson Skies-style (or Aeronef for the steampunk crowd, and let's not forget the roleplaying equivalent, Forgotten Futures). I did find an interesting discussion on Interbellum about the wargaming potential of H. G. Wells's The Shape of Things to Come (1933), which is not too far off the mark; but that seems to be for miniature gaming. See also this, on the same blog. 

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

If I had to recommend one military history book I've read this year it would be Philip Sabin's Simulating War: Studying Conflict through Simulation Games (London and New York: Bloomsbury, 2012). Admittedly, this is not your usual military history book. Sabin ranges at will from the 5th century BC to the present day, devotes twelve pages of its bibliography to games as well as providing the rules to eight games in the book itself, and talks about things that didn't happen more than those that didn't. The reason for all this is that Sabin argues, I think persuasively, that insights into historical warfighting can be gained through historical wargaming. In particular, he advocates the use of wargames in teaching military history, something he has much experience in and offers much advice about. Firstly, Sabin argues that what it is best to use what he terms manual wargames rather than computer wargames, that is played with dice and paper on a table-top (though there are in fact computer-assisted versions too). The advantage of this is that students can easily understand the rules, rather than have them hidden in a software black box. More importantly, they can also modify the rules, to experiment with increasing realism or playability, for example, or to alter what is being simulated. Even more importantly, they can design their own games, to reflect their research and understanding of a particular war, something Sabin has his own MA students do. Secondly, he advocates the use of what are called microgames with small maps and no more than twenty or so pieces per side, as opposed to the more complex wargames available commercially, which can have hundreds or even thousands of counters and very finely detailed maps. The main reason for this is that in his experience anything more complex than this is too hard to teach in a two-hour class. Also, given the need to make a game playable as well as gaps in our knowledge of the battle or campaign being simulated, Sabin suggests that it is better to focus on accurately representing key dynamics, such as the importance of suppressing fire in infantry combat, rather than trying to incorporate every last detail. Thirdly, and relatedly, for several of his courses Sabin uses nested simulations to represent warfare at different levels. So for the Second World War, he uses one game covering the war in Europe from 1940 to 1945, another focusing on the Eastern Front, a third at the operational level (depicting the Korsun pocket), and a fourth at the tactical level, gaming an assault by a British infantry battalion against German defences. This enables him to highlight the ways in which warfare looks different at different scales. There's much more in here, reflecting Sabin's years of teaching, playing and designing wargames; it's an essential book if you're interested in trying this at home (or in the classroom).

So if you had to recommend one military history book you've read this year, what would it be? What one book most impressed you, informed you, surprised you, moved you?

Note: I've changed the book featured here. I may discuss the reasons for this in a future post.

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While archival research can be slim pickings, I suspect that this may not be such a problem for my Great War panics project, given that on my recent trip the UK I found some really good examples without even trying. The following is an excerpt from a letter dated 7 June 1915, sent to the navalist and journalist Arnold White by a member of the public (the first item in the list is a -- false, as far as I can tell -- claim that the same man had been captain of both HMS Bulwark and HMS Princess Irene and had left 15 minutes before each was sunk by internal explosions, and was court-martialled and shot):

Second, the last German Zeppelin raid [presumably 4 June 1915] has been very serious in loss of life at Tilbury, Gravesend, Greenwich Hospital, Enfield and elsewhere. The [objective] was Woolwich where Von Donop is [still] in charge. Engineers who meet him daily are astounded at the Government keeping him there!

Third, the 'guide' to the last raid is, as I have previously referred to, a motor cyclist with a side seat and a woman. This I have from a man who saw it flashing an upward light at the last raid with a Zeppelin following. I have seen the couple pass my house at Castlenau several times -- they go at great speed.

Fourth, I hear, again on good authority and from an Engineer who has frequently to meet von Donop, that the next Zeppelin raid in force will be made, (as they now know their ground) on Woolwich and that the German Navy will come out to meet our Navy, and the opportunity will be made for the German [transports] to slip out and attempt a landing at Southend. [Personally] I believe the S.E.Kent Coast will also be a base for their operations -- Ramsgate in particular -- they want waking up there -- Especially the Chief Constable -- its [sic] still a hotbed of spies.1

So Major-General Stanley Von Donop, Master-General of the Ordnance, is a suspicious character, apparently even more so since Woolwich Arsenal was the objective of the last Zeppelin raid, which caused serious loss of life. He may be connected with the couple in the motorcycle and sidecar who were seen guiding the Zeppelin. He is also apparently somehow involved in the next Zeppelin raid, also on Woolwich, which will be coordinated with a sortie by the German fleet and a landing by the German army at Southend in Essex. Also, spies or something in Kent. Of course, the spineless authorities are doing nothing about it. (White, at least, was paying attention: in 1917 he published The Hidden Hand detailing German infiltration and subversion of Britain.)

Just about none of this was true: if Von Donop, grandson of a German nobleman but son of a British admiral, was a German agent, he was never found out; spies did not go out at night to guide Zeppelins to their targets; nobody was killed in the air raid of 4 June 1915; the next Zeppelin attack wasn't on Woolwich but on Hull, and there was no German fleet sortie then, let alone a landing in Essex. In fact, this is an excellent example of the intersection and interaction of the three types of scares I am looking at: invasion, spies, air raids. These didn't exist in isolation, but could complement and reinforce each other, in a sum of the British people's fears.


  1. National Maritime Museum, Arnold White Papers, WHI/186. The words in square brackets are not unclear -- the original is in typescript as well as handwritten versions -- but I'm fairly sure I've transcribed them incorrectly. I was in a hurry; I'll have to go back. 

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I've been awarded a small grant by the University of New England to fund research into 'Popular perceptions of the German threat in Britain, 1914-1918'. I'm very fortunate to have received this and very grateful. The basic idea is this:

This project will investigate the British public's reaction to the threat of German attack during the First World War, including invasion, air raids, and espionage. Broadly speaking, the anticipation of such attacks before 1914 has received occasional attention over the last few decades. However, the way these fears actually developed during the war itself is less well understood. From scattered evidence it is known that they included trekking to safe areas, spontaneous organisation of civil defence measures such as the occupation of Tube stations as air raid shelters, and anti-German riots, but no comprehensive study has been carried out, with the recent and partial exception of invasion fears in south-east England in 1914. These fears are important for several reasons. Firstly, because they played a role in strengthening or weakening popular support for the war. Secondly, because they played a role in the retention in Britain of substantial military, naval and aerial forces which could have been deployed on the Western Front and elsewhere. Thirdly, because during the 1920s and 1930s, memories of air raids by Zeppelin and Gotha bombers led to an exaggerated fear of bombing which in turn had significant psychological, political and military consequences.

This is designed to be a standalone project (i.e. and an article), but it's also designed to support my longer-term mystery aircraft research by establishing a sort of baseline for the effect and extent of other forms of scares. How I (tentatively) plan do this is as follows:

  1. Using a combination of distant and close reading techniques, survey the British wartime press to identify periods when fear was likely at its highest, which will likely include the period after the fall of Antwerp, October 1914; the battlecruiser and Zeppelin raids in December 1914-January 1915, the first London air raids in May 1915, the height of the Zeppelin raids in the winter of 1915-6; the daylight Gotha raids in the summer of 1917; the night Gotha raids in the winter of 1918; and the German spring offensives of 1918. This can be done via the Internet using digitised newspaper archives such as the British Newspaper Archive and Gale NewsVault, which between them give good coverage of national and provincial daily newspapers.
  2. The core of the research will be undertaken in London:
    I. 1 week research at the National Archives to examine the official understanding of public fears and responses to particular incidents such as riots and trekking.
    II. 2 weeks at the Imperial War Museum to survey diaries from relevant places and periods to ascertain privately held and expressed reactions to the German threat.
    III. 1 week in a provincial archive in a threatened area such as Hull or Norwich as a check of the predominant London bias of many sources, to gauge local government understanding of and responses to the German threat.
  3. Analysis of data and followup research, if necessary.

This is significant for a number of reasons. First, it's the first time I've won any substantial research funding. Second, it will be the first time I've moved outside aviation history to any real degree (even if I will still be mostly doing aviation history). And third, while my last research trip to the UK may not have been completely successful, I will be going back for more.

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Now that I'm back home, it's time to sum up what my UK sojourn achieved. The short answer, at least in terms of my immediate research objectives, is that it yielded only mediocre results.

The ostensible purpose for the trip was to attend the Empire in Peril workshop at Queen Mary and to give a paper on the 1913 phantom airship scare. This I did, and I think it went well enough (though perhaps in future I should revert to actually reading a paper, rather than speaking to slides). It certainly helped that I was after Michael Paris (Central Lancashire), who set the scene with a discussion of early aerial warfare fiction, and Michael Matin (Warren Wilson), who used the phantom airship scare as a starting point to reflect upon invasion scare literature more generally. This capped off a stimulating two days of papers and discussions about, inter alia, inter-service debates regarding the possibility of invasion (Matthew Seligmann, Brunel; Richard Dunley, KCL), the representation of compulsory service in invasion scare fiction (Harry Wood, Liverpool), the Yellow Peril (Robert Brown, Birmimgham; Ailise Bulfin, Trinity College Dublin); and women writers on Germany (Richard Scully, UNE). A usefully discordant note was struck by Ian Hopper (Brandeis) who questioned just how seriously publishers, authors and readers took invasion scare novels: were they reflective of deeply held fears or simply trivial entertainments adapted to the political themes of the day? Perhaps the standout talk was the public lecture given by Nicholas Hiley (Kent), who reconstructed 'Vernon Kell's perfect nightmare', i.e. the German invasion of Britain as supported by the large number of spies and saboteurs believed to be lying in wait for Der Tag, as was fully expected at the outbreak of war by MI5, and hence prepared for -- but played down after the war in favour of the very different, and less impressive, threat posed by the handful of naval spies rounded up in the first days of the war by Kell's men. Apart from the papers themselves, of course, there was the usual networking: identifying a nucleus of researchers interested in broadly the same topic is a useful thing in itself, and may lead to future workshops, research and publications.
...continue reading

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Holger Afflerbach and David Stevenson, eds. An Improbable War? The Outbreak of World War I and European Political Culture before 1914. New York and Oxford: Berghahn Books, 2007. Sometimes the origin of the First World War seems overdetermined, there are so many theories to account for it. Other times, it seems like, as in the title of this book, an improbable war. Eighteen chapters examine the question from the point of view of the arms races, public opinion, socialism, culture, the non-European powers, and so on.

Scott Anthony and Oliver Green. British Aviation Posters: Art, Design and Flight. Farnham and Burlington: Lund Humphries, 2012. Who doesn't like aviation posters? Chances are, if you're a reader of this blog, not you. This book draws upon the collection of British Airways, but is mostly concerned with its predecessors, Imperial, BOAC and BEA. While there are are occasional excursions into related topics, the content is narrower than the title might suggest: there's next to no military content at all, and not much from manufacturers or other parts of the civil aviation industry. Still, a beautiful book.

Martin van Creveld. Wargames: From Gladiators to Gigabytes. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2013. Van Creveld takes a narrow definition of 'war', excluding economic and political simulations (though he would presumably concede that these are essential parts of warfare at the grand strategic level), but a broad definition of games, including things like gladiatorial combat, medieval tournaments, and duels. He also takes a narrow view of women and their role in anything relating to war, and a broad view of relevance and sometimes logic ('Italy, the land where dueling had been invented, was a special case, part European, part African (as adherents of the Lombard League argue to this day)', 131 -- what does this even mean?) Still, it's potentially useful to look at the history of the subject beyond hexes and miniatures.

Colin Cruddas. 100 Years of Advertising in British Aviation. Stroud: History Press, 2008. Complements British Aviation Posters nicely, being much more interested in the companies outside the BA lineage, including aircraft and some component manufacturers, as well as military aviation. It focuses more on print advertising rather than posters, too. On the other hand, the text is more of a gloss than a sustained narrative, and the reproductions less generous (smaller, also less colourful, though that may be because the originals were monochrome), though still perfectly adequate for research purposes.

Robert S. Ehlers, Jr. Targeting the Third Reich: Air Intelligence and the Allied Bombing Campaigns. Lawrence: University Press of Kansas, 2009. As is well known, early in the war Bomber Command thought it was doing reasonably well in terms of accuracy and effectiveness in bombing Germany, but was really not. But what of later in the war, and what of the Americans? This should have the answers.

Philip Sabin. Simulating War: Studying Conflict through Simulation Games. London and New York: Bloomsbury, 2012. Unlike van Creveld's book, Sabin's interest is squarely on wargames in the usual sense (though perhaps a slightly old-fashioned sense now, given that they are primarily intended to be played on tabletops rather than desktops). Also, it's not a history of wargaming, but an analysis of how wargames can be used to aid history students in understanding how wars are fought -- not only through playing them, but in designing them, as his own students do. As I'm entirely in sympathy with this idea and would to one day use wargames in my own teaching, I'm keen to read this. And maybe even play some of the eight games included with the book -- two of which are on air warfare, Big Week and Angels One Five.