Monthly Archives: November 2015

Ian Castle. The First Blitz: Bombing London in the First World War. Oxford and New York: Osprey, 2015. As seen on the Internet! I already own the two books which this combines. But they were review copies so I didn't pay for them; it seems fair enough to support the author more concretely this time.

Robert Loeffel. The Fifth Column in World War II: Suspected Subversives in the Pacific War and Australia. Basingstoke and New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2015. Depressingly timely in the current situation. While on the question of titles, I think most people would assume that a book called The Fifth Column in World War II was about Europe, or perhaps the United States -- definitely not Australia. But this does at least look briefly at the origins of the fifth column fear in Europe, as well as how it was imported into the Australian context. (Spoiler: there was no fifth column, as such.) I'd love to see something this thorough for the British case, for that matter. As a bonus, my article about the 1918 Australian mystery aeroplane episode is cited, a clear sign of quality :)

Neil R. Storey. Zeppelin Blitz: The German Air Raids on Great Britain during the First World War. Stroud: History Press, 2015. As with The First Blitz, I've discussed this book here recently, sight unseen, so I should probably actually buy it instead of just talking about it. It's a very solid and well-illustrated text, and looks like a fairly comprehensive guide to the Zeppelin raids on Britain (and it even discusses the prewar phantom airships, though without giving sources). However, by only including airship raids it provides a distorted picture of the campaign (and the Gotha raids of 1917 and 1918 were the most 'Blitzy' of the war, if you're going to go down that path); and its claim to originality is undermined by the failure to cite Christopher Cole and E. F. Cheesman's The Air Defence of Britain 1914-1918 (1984), which is still the definitive account of the operational aspects of the raids and is pretty clearly also based on the GHQ summaries (among other sources), even if their own refusal to actually cite anything is irritating.

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A ham-bone

An early contribution to the list of strange things dropped from the air in wartime was made by the crew of L13, a German naval Zeppelin under the command of Kapitänleutnant Heinrich Mathy. During a raid on London on the night of 8 September 1915, they dropped bombs from Bloomsbury to the City which killed 20 people and caused more than £200,000 worth of damage. But they also dropped the above object by parachute on Wrotham Park in Barnet. It's a ham-bone.

Clearly, though, it's no ordinary ham-bone. It's carved with a drawing of a Zeppelin dropping a bomb (perhaps L13's 300kg one, the largest one ever used so far in war) on the head of a sad man, along with an inscription reading 'Edwart [sic] Grey' on one side and 'was fang ich armer Teufel an?', the title and first line of an old German soldier's song: 'what's a poor devil to do?' Sir Edward Grey, at this point still Foreign Secretary as he had been when Britain declared war on Germany, would no doubt have been very sad indeed had a bomb (or even a ham-bone) hit him on the head; but the real reason for the tears running down his cheeks is given on the other side (not shown here), where it is written 'Zum Andenken an das ausgehungerte Deutschland', 'A souvenir from starving Germany'. The point was presumably to show that the naval blockade of Germany was not having the desired effect; but perhaps also to justify Zeppelin raids as reprisals for the attempt to starve the German people.

In any case, the ham-bone would appear to be an unofficial piece of propaganda devised by the Zeppelin's crew. Any effect it might have had would have been limited as it does not appear to have been mentioned in the wartime press, and whether Sir Edward himself got to hear of it is probably also doubtful. I don't know where it ended up, but thankfully the Intelligence Section, General Headquarters, Home Forces included the above photograph in a 1918 summary of the Zeppelin raids of August and September 1915 (The National Archives, AIR 1/2319/223/30/2). And here it is at last for the whole world to see!

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In the last decade or so, it seems to have become a thing to refer to the German air raids on Britain during the First World War as the 'First Blitz'. There are now at least three books on the topic with that title or variations thereof: Andrew Hyde's The First Blitz: The German Bomber Campaign against Britain in the First World War (2002), Neil Hanson's First Blitz: The Secret German Plan to Raze London to the Ground in 1918 (2008), and now Ian Castle's The First Blitz: The Aerial Battle for London in the First World War (2015). There's also Neil Faulkner and Nadia Durrani's In Search of the Zeppelin war: The Archaeology of the First Blitz (2008) and Neil Storey's Zeppelin Blitz: The German Air Raids on Great Britain during the First World War (2015).

There are good reasons for this. The lack of a convenient shorthand or commonly accepted label for the First World War raids is quite irritating when writing about them; and even referring to them as the Zeppelin raids obscures the fact that there were Gotha raids too, a more intense, if also more brief, phase of the campaign. There is relatively little awareness or understanding of the First World War raids, especially when compared with the memory of the (second) Blitz itself, so reusing the name immediately gives a sense of what happened. And the similarities are indeed striking: in my own PhD/book, while I refrain from using 'Blitz' to refer to both I do explicitly compare the way the British responded to air raids in 1917 and 1940 in a structural sense, including the development of civil defence measures and the impulse to carry out reprisal bombing in both periods. Even the 'Blitz spirit' was in evidence long before the Blitz.

But I also have some concerns. A minor one is that it's not generally a good idea to give books on the same topic the same titles, especially in the age of SEO. More problematically, though, it is an anachronism. Nobody in 1915 London would have known what a 'Blitz' was, unless they spoke German. They certainly wouldn't have associated it with aerial warfare, since that didn't happen until the end of the 1930s. Still, anachronisms are sometimes useful ('airminded' itself is a good example -- it wasn't used before the mid-1920s, but what it describes already existed by c. 1910). As long as the anachronism doesn't mislead; and in this case I don't think it does too much, for the reasons I've already discussed. Of course, there are nevertheless significant differences between the 'first' Blitz and the real one, such as the tempo and intensity of bombing, but generally speaking that is quite clear in this comparison -- it's part of the point that the first time around was just a foretaste.

I think the real problem for me is that by choosing 'Blitz' as a frame, other frames are excluded. And this is as true for 1940 as it is for 1915 and 1917. There are three connected problems here. Firstly, the Blitz is a national narrative. It constructs aerial bombardment as a characteristically British experience; there is no place in the story for all the other countries that were bombed in the Second World War, from Poland to Germany itself. Secondly, the Blitz is also a nationalist narrative. It celebrates the cheerfulness and stoicism of the British people under the terrible ordeal inflicted on them by the Luftwaffe, while ignoring the widespread demands to do the same or worse to German civilians. Finally, the Blitz isn't even really a war narrative; it's a disaster narrative. The Blitz often isn't portrayed as a military campaign or a strategy; instead, it's a visitation from the heavens, bringing ruin and devastation for no purpose other than to highlight the goodness of the good guys and the badness of the bad guys. Importing the Blitz frame from 1940-41 to 1915-18 risks importing some or all of these narratives too, even if only subconsciously or partially.

I'm not suggesting that the Blitz should be discarded (not that anyone would listen if I did). But there are, of course, other ways to frame this history. Richard Overy's The Bombing War: Europe 1939-1945 (2013) places the Blitz squarely in the European experience of aerial bombardment as well as the broader military context of the Second World War. And this suggests an alternate way to frame the air raids on Britain between 1915 and 1918: as part of the first bombing war, the same war in which Paris was bombed, Antwerp was bombed, Freiburg was bombed, Venice was bombed, and so on. So that's what somebody needs to write now. It won't be me, though!