Post-blogging the 1918 mystery aeroplanes: introduction

This post is part of a series post-blogging the Australian mystery aeroplane panic of 1918. See here for an introduction or here for a list of all posts.

Memo, E. L. Piesse, 5 May 1917

When casting about for some way to mark the centenary of the 1918 Australian mystery aeroplane panic, an obvious idea was to post-blog it, especially since it's something I haven't done in a while. For new readers, post-blogging is my term for taking a historical event spanning weeks or months and posting about how it was represented in the press at the time, day by day but exactly one hundred (or whatever) years later. So the Sudeten Crisis seventy years later, the Battle of Britain, the Blitz and the Baedeker Blitz seventy years later, the phantom airship scares of 1909 and 1913 seventy years later. This is great for restoring a sense of what people (via the press) thought was happening and the pace in which it happened, rather than the highly foreshortened hindsight we tend to get from conventional historical narratives. But I've mined Trove on this topic pretty thoroughly in the past, both for the blog and for publication, and a quick check suggests there's not too much new information there. Besides which, the newspapers tell only part of the story: there's a wealth of material in the National Archives of Australia which shed light on what the Australian military thought was happening and what they did about it.

Fortuitously, since I carried out my original research the main archival file I used, MP1049/1, 1918/066, 'Reports of suspicious aeroplanes, lights, etc', has been digitised and is available for free online -- all 1113 pages of it! This gave me the idea to post-blog the panic, but a bit differently: by focusing on the evolution of the archival record, rather than the press one. It will still be in real time, that is I will post about events exactly a century after they happened, but instead of the 'events' being the publication of a newspaper article, it will be the creation of an archived document. How (or whether) this will work exactly remains to be seen; I will probably still do a little bit of Troving, for example, because (I argue) the events of the war in Europe supply the crucial context for understanding the way the mystery aeroplane panic evolved here in Australia.

Post-blogging is very time intensive, however, and I do have to earn a living. So, rather than going through all 1113 pages, blog-post by blog-post, I've decided to add another twist, by posting about only those individual documents I cited in my peer-reviewed article on the panic, about 30 or so, a far more manageable number. My ex post facto justification for this is that I can then talk about how and why I used each document, what work it did for me in my writing and my argument.

That's all getting a bit convoluted and a bit meta, so I'll just dive right in. The actual centenary of the Nyang incident which began the 1918 panic is today, but the centenary of the archival document which begins the official record is tomorrow. As it happens, however, one of the documents I cited from MP1049/1, 1918/066 dates from ten months earlier, 16 May 1917, so I'll start with that. (I don't know of an easy way to link directly to a particular page of a digitised NAA file, but it starts on page 1062 (edit: it turns out there is an easy way.)) It's an analysis entitled 'Report of aeroplane seen at Towamba, NSW', written by Major E. L. Piesse, Director of Military Intelligence, about an aeroplane seen by multiple witnesses in the Twofold Bay region on 16 April. (MP1049/1, 1918/06 was compiled by naval intelligence, but contains material created elsewhere too.) This shows, firstly, that there were mystery aeroplanes seen in Australia before 1918 (in fact, quite a few -- more on that in a bit), and, secondly, that the military took at least some of these sightings quite seriously. Here, Piesse is writing for the benefit of the Chief of the General Staff (Colonel Hubert Foster) and drawing on half a dozen witness statements collected by both the local police and by officers from the destroyer HMAS Warrego, then assigned to patrol duties off the east coast.

As the excerpt above suggests, Piesse parses the witness statements closely in terms of whether they support the hypothesis as being an aeroplane or whether it was something else. He ends up concluding the latter, namely a flight of birds:

Such flights, I would suggest, usually attract little notice; or if noticed, nothing is thought of them, and at all events they are not reported. If however those who see them have any reason for being interested in, or attaching significance to, anything they see in the air, the flight of birds will be noticed, thought of, in quite good faith supposed to be not a flight of birds at all and reported to the authorities.

I'm less persuaded by his argument that the various odd sounds heard at the time (likened to steamer whistles, motor cars, rattling buzzing', the wind...) was due to a coincidental and unseen meteorite, as this is possible but quite rare. But I think he's on the money overall:

The public know that there is an enemy vessel unaccounted for and they probably suppose, and may even know as a fact, that she carries aircraft. We may accordingly expect reports of aircraft to be made in quite good faith.

In fact this is basically my entire argument with respect to the quite real German raider Wolf and its seaplane (that plus a sense of panic caused by the German spring offensives in early 1918). Indeed, a month before the Towamba sighting, the Minister for the Navy, Joseph Cook, had made a very definite statement in Parliament that a raider was at large in the Indian Ocean and that it carried a seaplane (Wolf and its Wölfchen). Given that Piesse was already making this case in 1917, it's somewhat surprising that the similar (but admittedly far more widespread) aeroplane sightings in 1918 caused such alarm within the military.

But the real reason I cited Piesse is not because of his analysis of the Towamba sightings, but because he gives a very useful short summary of the mystery aeroplanes seen in the first few months of the war, which I in turn will summarise here:

  • August 1914: Yarram, Vic
  • September 1914: Swansea, NSW (carrying a classic scareship-style searchlight); Wonthaggi, Vic; Barwon Heads, Vic; Macksville, NSW
  • October 1914: Queenscliff, Vic (investigated by an unnamed 'flying officer'); Hobart, Tas (multiple aircraft, causing 'much alarm')
  • December 1914: Maribyrnong, Vic (near the government munitions factory)

Piesse uses these sightings, all 'either definitely known to be unfounded' or 'almost certainly so' to bolster his case that a climate of anxiety was at play:

Now in the months of August to December 1914, in which the cases reported in the last paragraph were reported (I can find no such reports after December 1914, until last month) the whereabouts of German warvessels [sic] were unknown, at least by the public. There was a feeling that such warships might appear any day on our coasts, and people knew that such warships carried seaplanes. Here then was the state of mind required to cause people to think that the objects they see in the air are aeroplanes.

Piesse doesn't point out -- perhaps it was too obvious to be worth stating? -- that this period was when the first Anzac convoys were being assembled to transport Australian soldiers to the war overseas, and so there was an extra reason for people to feel vulnerable to a German attack. The way I've cited this document in my article does imply that he did make this connection, though, when in fact it was me who seems to have done that. As I always tell my students: it pays to go back to the original sources!

Next in Nyang Week: the post-blogging proper begins.

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