Truth Puzzle No. 1581

Truth was a British political newspaper first published in 1877, founded by Henry Labouchère, a sometime Liberal MP. By the 1930s it was infamous as a scurrilous and often libellous pro-appeasement and often anti-semitic rag; in the Edwardian period it was still Liberal in inclination. At the end of May 1909 it issued no. 1581 of its many reader 'puzzles' on the topic of the recent phantom airship panic -- actually a satirical poetry competition:

One of the most engrossing topics of the past week has been the nocturnal manoeuvrings of the mysterious, but now happily exploded, German airship -- or, as it has been happily christened, 'Scare ship' -- which has been so vigorously exploited by a certain class of imaginative journalists that any number of people's legs seem to have been effectively pulled thereby. The topic is certainly one that lends itself to humorous treatment in verse, and I now present it to my numerous poets to see what they can make of it. That is to say, I offer herewith the usual Prize of Two Guineas for THE BEST ORIGINAL POEM, OF A HUMOROUS, BURLESQUE, OR MOCK-HEROIC CHARACTER, DEALING WITH THE MYSTERIOUS GERMAN BOGEY-AIRSHIP WHICH CAUSED SUCH A PANIC, LAST WEEK, IN THE BOSOMS OF OUR NERVOUS PATRIOTS.1

And I present herewith a selection of the twenty-five such poems, as published a few issues later:


From planet Mars or Kaiserland
There came a flying ship of war;
But east or west, on every hand
It found a wakeful, guarded shore
With columns drawn up line on line,
Our pressmen came out strong and fine.

Oh! was't a phantom of the air?
A horse that rode the ebon sky?
Well, not a horse -- let's say a mare!
A mare from out its nest on hight.
A mare that never sped by day --
A fly-by-night mare flown astray!


The Wellsian reference to Mars here is interesting, but of course it's not being offered as a serious possibility for the origin of the airships: the point is that the idea that they came from Germany is just as ridiculous. Nice play on newspaper columns vs columns of troops, too.

B ritannia shook and trembled at the 'scareheads' in the press:
'O ur "homes" have passed to Teutons'; 'We are in a dreadful mess';
'G erman troops have entered London'; 'Whitehall fell before sunrise';
'E asy victims, minus "Dreadnoughts"'; 'Last bombardment from the skies.'
'Y eomen muster in your thousands' (Here she heaved a deep-drawn sigh);
'A h! they'll not let England's greatness at a conqueror's proud foot lie.'
I felt quite in a fluster, certain sure a 'Z E P' had dropped,
'R esurgam Drake and Nelson'; 'twas today's 'Express' that flopped.
S auerkrout and cheese and lager are 'hot stuff' on which to sleep.
'H och, mein freund' (the waiter muttered), 'you Englisch von big scheep!'
I started as again I heard that noisy tooting 'pip,'
'P ip, pip; pip, pip,' it passed just now -- there's another 'Bogey Ship!'


Are acrostics the lowest form of poetic wit? Lots of references here to standard images from the invasion genre: An Englishman's Home; 'far-called, our navies melt away'; German spies under every restaurant table. Also interesting here is an early use of a shortened form of Zeppelin, which would be common from 1915 on.

The gangs of disorder, discord and perdition
Have united in friendship, by coaxing sedition,
The peace of Europe to harass and disturb,
The Germans to punish and their insolence curb.
They've set up their standard, the skull and cross-bones,
Jerimiah and Job for lamentations and groans.
Provocations were sought and dread visions in air
Supplied awful reflections of England's despair.
The war-gongs were sounded, and the scarecrows in ranks,
Reviewed and admired, they for valour and thanks;
But the spectres and the phantoms, in the gloom seen beer-eyed,
Will still be kept floating with Germans astride.


If 'Mary' is taken to indicate a female author, this is unique in this sample.

Since eighteen hundred and fifteen, when 'Boney' was laid low,
Dear old John Bull had sat serene, fearing nor friend nor foe;
But in the year nineteen-ought-nine a wondrous change came o'er
The spirit of his dream, and he -- so calm, so strong before --
Began to lie awake o' nights, a-quaking in his bed,
Afraid to go to skeep -- at least, so it is gravely said.
It seems his cousin Hans some air-rum, scare-'em things had got,
With which he flew across the waves -- it made John feel quite hot --
Upon the wildest, darkest nights his secrets for to spy,
And he in fancy heard winged shapes come hurtling through the sky,
And saw weird lights, like comets, flash o'er mountain, hill, and dale,
But quite forgot a grain of salt to put upon the tale.

Ydnuam Snikta [Maundy Atkins?]

Where are the stiff upper lips of yesteryear?

I remember, I remember, that with terror great I heard
The foreign foe has come on us like some gigantic bird;
He came by night and swooped around, with lanterns in his tail,
To show him where to drop his bombs with aim that could not fail.
I remember that the newspapers ran hard that frightful scare,
And published news six times a day of wonders in the air;
They told us how the airship every night around did sail,
And vanished at the morning light with German shriek and wail.
I remember how I saw myself that airship one dark night;
It looked much like a motor bike, a comet and a kite;
'Twas in a nightmare while I slept; it raised on high my hair.
And then I knew that baseless dreams had caused that beastly scare.


This one very explicitly blames the press for the scareships. The reference to bombs is interesting, because fear of bombing, though present, was not actually a big theme in the 1909 panic, which was more about fear of espionage (as in the preceding poem), and, indirectly, of invasion.

The prize itself was jointly awarded for three of the poems.3


'Twas evening, in the month of May, on Cambria's moss-clad down,
When Ebenezer Perkin Jones achieved his laurel crown.
A monster airship hid the moon, its prow o'er Severn Sea,
It stretched as far as Snowdon's range, and almost to the Dee.
Six German armies were on board, with Krupps and dynamite,
And engin'ry infernal, too, Old England for to smite.
Now, when the ship was o'er the sea, and whirring wheels outrang,
Cried Perkin, taking up his gun, 'St George for England!' Bang!
The gas-bag pierced, the monster ship, like Lucifer, fell down,
The tide rose high at Bristol Town and covered Clifton Down.
And so his Motherland so dear the hero Perkin saves.
A million corpses strew the shore. 'Britannia rules the waves.'

Piers Peniles

This is pretty clearly parodying the bizarre experience of the Punch-and-Judy showman on Caerphilly Mountain in May 1909, and inflating it to a Wales-sized airship carrying a million solders.

Our John, a've jined tha C.L.B.,
An' coomed vrom drill las' night
Wi' 'Here's a purty summat, zee!
Mother, d'ee think we'll vight?

Tha Germans, saw the tha peapers say,
Be droppin' vrom tha sky.
Jist let 'em drap down thease here way,
We'll larn 'em how ta vly!'

Lor' bless 'ee, no! I dwont teak on,
Nit veel one scrap avraid,
Not now es John 'ave bin an' gone
An' jined tha 'Lads' Brigade'!


C.L.B. = Church Lads' Brigade, a muscular Christian youth group with militaristic overtones, similar to (but preceding) the Boy Scouts. As for the mock-whatever accent (which seems half-mock-German to me), I offer no excuses.

Hanky, panky, whither and why?
The fat's in the fire, for the ship's in the sky.
Up and down, up and down, over the realm,
'Man' at the motor and 'will' at the helm.
Over the Fens, with a whizz and a whirr;
His eyes have got goggles, his coat is of fur.
And it's O for the Obus we found on the hills,
And it's Ha! for the dealer in magic and thrills;
It's the money we've got, and it's Dreadnoughts we'll buy --
So sail away, sail away, ships in the sky!

Delagoa (later revealed, for some reason, to be the Rev. W. H. C. Malton, of Delagoa, St Margarets-on-Thames).4

'Obus' is another reference to the Caerphilly Incident: that word was written on a metal plug later found at the scene, which could have been the French word for artillery shell, but instead turned out to be from a Michelin tyre. The 'dealer in magic and thrills' is probably the showman. The penultimate line recalls the origin of jingoism in an 1878 ditty:

We don't want to fight but by jingo if we do
We've got the ships, we've got the men, and got the money too!

Collectively, Truth's poets take pretty good aim at the part played in the scare by the patriotic press, along the lines of the Dreadnought panic just past; the obsessions of the scaremongers was common currency but so too were the critiques made by their ideological opponents. And I don't disagree with that analysis very much: the scareships were clearly used by conservative newspapers to attack the Liberal government as being derelict in its duty to defend the nation. But what Truth's little poetry competition demonstrates is how risky that strategy was, because once the scare deflated the scareships were equally useful to the liberal press for ridiculing the anxieties of the conservative press. Press panics of this kind should be seen as political battlegrounds, not just assaults by one side on the other.

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  1. Truth (London), 26 May 1909, 1301. []
  2. All poems from ibid., 16 June 1909, 1485-1486. []
  3. Ibid., 21 July 1909, 187. []
  4. Ibid., 11 August 1909, 367. []

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