Monthly Archives: September 2014

Bryn Hammond. Cambrai 1917: The Myth of the First Great Tank Battle. London: Phoenix, 2009. I was telling my students about Cambrai only yesterday... well, I mentioned it to them, anyway. Hammond argues that it was the improved British artillery doctrine that was the key breakthrough at Cambrai, rather than the massed tank assault it is usually remembered for.

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After looking at rumoured secret Zeppelin bases in Britain in the first few months of the First World War, I asked what the source of these rumours were. In particular, why did people even think that Zeppelins would need to have a base in Britain, given that the reason why they were so threatening was their long range? In the 1913 airship panic, newspapers and magazines regularly published articles and maps showing how they could menace the entire British Isles from Heligoland or Borkum. It must have been one thing that nearly everyone knew about Zeppelins. So why the idea that the Germans would need bases in Britain itself? We're in the realm of folk strategy here.

Firstly, I should note that this idea of secret Zeppelin bases was not entirely without precedent. In 1909, Roger Pocock, the founder of the Legion of Frontiersmen, wrote in his diary that:

4 mi[les] inland from Stranraer a private firm have meadows but this is a blind. There are German experts [and a] depot for 2 Zeppelin ships -- being tested in a suitably hilly place... For 3 years a wooden airship has been building in a factory at Friern Barnet in London. Germans are opp[osite] an institute called the Freehold.1

Friern Barnet is a suburb in northern London, while Stranraer is in the Scottish Lowlands (the opposite end of Scotland from the bases rumoured in 1914, incidentally). Pocock doesn't say what he thinks these Zeppelins or airships were going to be used for (I haven't seen the original diary, only the above extract). However, given that he was a relentless amateur spyhunter it's safe to assume that he didn't think they were for benign purposes.2 There was also some press discussion in 1913 about Zeppelins having the range to reach targets in Britain, but perhaps not the range to make it back. However, that was very rare, and doesn't seem to have translated into any widespread speculation about secret bases; Pocock's rumour or story is the only example I know of before 1914. However, there is at least one example from after 1914, though not from Britain: in the Australian mystery aeroplane panic of 1918, there was speculation that German agents had established bases inland or off the coast. But there the rationale is obvious: Australia was so far away from Germany that it was impossible for aircraft to fly between the two, so they would have to fly from somewhere nearer (the other option was a German raider or raiders). Again, that wasn't the case in Britain in 1914.
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  1. Quoted in A. J. A. Morris, The Scaremongers: The Advocacy of War and Rearmament, 1896–1914 (London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1984), p. 148. 

  2. Pocock also wrote an airpower novel set in 1980, revolving around the attack on Britain by Germany, France and Russia, with etheric ships drawing on radiant energy for power. Roger Pocock, The Chariot of the Sun: A Fantasy (London: Chapman and Hall, 1910). 

Liz Millward. Women in British Imperial Airspace, 1922-1937. Montreal: McGill-Queen’s University Press, 2008. A pioneering gender history of aviatrices in the British Empire, including Lady Heath, Amy Johnson, and above all the New Zealander Jean Batten. Not only is this potentially relevant to my aerial spectacle project, but Millward has more recently been looking at flying displays. So I need to pay attention.

H. G. Wells. The War in the Air, and Particularly How Mr Bert Smallways Fared while it Lasted. Harmondsworth and New York: Penguin, 1941. 3rd edition. I already own a copy of The War in the Air, but it's a modern edition. Yes, I'm one of those people.

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French infantrymen bayonet charge, 1914

I was on ABC New England again today, my fourth contribution to 'The road to war', looking at the events of 3-9 September 1914. My main topic was the Battle of the Marne -- the advance of the German 1st and 2nd Armies towards Paris, the evacuation of the French government from the capital along with 30% of the population, the rallying of the French army under Joffre and Gallieni, the deviation from the Schlieffen Plan by Kluck's 1st Army veering in front of Paris, the opening of a gap between the 1st and 2nd Armies due to the counterattack of the French 6th Army, the advance into that gap by the British Expeditionary Force and the French 5th Army, and finally the resulting retreat of the Germans back to the Aisne, ending their hopes of a rapid victory in the West. All that and the result of the Australian federal election, too. Sadly, very little airpower, apart from brief mentions of aerial reconnaissance and the first air raids on Paris.

Image source: Wikipedia.

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On ABC New England last week I briefly mentioned rumours of secret Zeppelin bases in Britain in the early months of the First World War. So far as I have been able to determine, the stories, which peaked in October 1914, centred on three locations: the Lake District, the Scottish Highlands and the Chiltern Hills.

The one in the Lake District is the best known of these, partly because of the involvement of B. C. Hucks, a famous aviator before the war (he was a regular at Hendon, the first British pilot to loop and, later, inventor of the Hucks starter), but paradoxically it's the hardest to find much information about. According to Cole and Cheesman,

One persistent rumour of a Zeppelin operating from a clandestine base near Grasmere was dispelled only after Lieut. B. C. Hucks -- a highly experienced prewar civil pilot -- had searched the Lake District from a Blériot monoplane.1

Hayward adds a few more details:

In September 1914 a local rumour in Cumberland held that a German airship was operating from a clandestine base near Grasmere, and flew sorties over Westmorland by night. The story was only dispelled after a Royal Flying Corps pilot undertook several patrols above the Lake District in a Bleriot monoplane, and saw nothing but glorious scenery.2

Similarly brief accounts can be found here and there, but they all likewise concentrate on Hucks' search rather than the rumours themselves, and I haven't been able to find any primary sources.3
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  1. Christopher Cole and E. F. Cheesman, The Air Defence of Britain 1914-1918 (London: Putnam, 1984), 8. 

  2. James Hayward, Myths and Legends of the First World War (Stroud: Sutton, 2002), 18. 

  3. Presumably the War Office and the Home Office are the places to look. Hucks' WO 339 might also have something.