Blogging and tweeting


Airminded was down for a couple of days recently, and it now has a new look. The reason for this is that it was hacked, and nuking the entire site from orbit was the only way to be sure.

To be more specific, I noticed last week that Google searches for Airminded were throwing up some odd results, with words and links that no real person has ever typed on this blog appearing next to the more expected ones. But when I checked the posts in question, they looked fine. So, spoofing my browser's user agent, I was able to see Airminded as Googlebot saw it, and it looked something like this:
...continue reading


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

Despite appearing in the Times Literary Supplement a month ago, Eric Naiman's astounding exposure of independent historian A. D. Harvey's fraudulent scholarship seems to have been little remarked upon by historians. (Naiman's piece is quite long, but worth the read; for a much shorter version try here.) Admittedly, the true extent of Harvey's transgressions, which includes fabricating primary sources and reviewing his own work under pseudonyms, is unclear; but as Naiman argues, from what we do know they are not the sort of thing the academy can let slide:

It is not only that the apparent practice of submitting articles under fictitious names to scholarly journals might well have a chilling effect on the ability of really existing independent scholars to place their work. Nor is it just the embarrassment caused to editors who might in an ideal world have taken more pains to check the contributions of Stephanie Harvey or Trevor McGovern, but who accepted them in good faith, partly out of a wish to make their publications as inclusive as possible. The worst thing here, if they are fictitious, is a violation of the trust that remains a constitutive element of the humanities. There is, it seems to me, a fundamental difference between posting partisan, anonymous reviews on Amazon, where there is no assumption of proper evaluative standards or impartiality, and placing similar reviews or hoaxing articles in academic journals, which are still the most hallowed sites for the development and transmission of humanistic ideas. The former is a cheap act of virtual graffiti; the latter may be the closest a secular scholar can come to desecration.

Some prominent academic blogs in cognate disciplines have discussed the affair, namely Crooked Timber, Languagehat, and Lawyers, Guns and Money, but with some exceptions the predominant reaction in the these posts and comments seems to be wry amusement, rather than concern, say, or disgust. Harvey himself (apparently) twice commented himself at Languagehat (without quite defending or explaining his actions), but strangely was all but ignored by the other commenters.

Perhaps I feel more strongly about it than most. Harvey is an independent historian and has been for much of his career, apart from some periods inside the academy. I'm also currently an independent historian, and worry that this sort of misbehaviour will make it harder for people in my position to contribute to academic scholarship from outside the academy proper. That's unfounded, perhaps; I've encountered no undue difficulties so far and Harvey's case is probably odd enough to be sui generis. Also, I own one of Harvey's books (Body Politic: Political Metaphor and Political Violence) and, I notice, praised him on Twitter. Certainly I was impressed by the range of his research in period, topic and discipline, from sex in Georgian England to literary criticism. So I feel foolish for having been taken in by him. Finally, and most importantly, a significant proportion of Harvey's prolific output comprises military history, and even airpower history (though ironically this is the part of his work I'm least familiar with): Arnhem, Collision of Empires: Britain in Three World Wars, 1793-1945, A Muse of Fire: Literature, Art and War, English Literature and the Great War with France, 'The French Armée de l'Air in May-June 1940: a failure of conception', 'The Spanish Civil War as seen by British officers', 'Army Air Force and Navy Air Force: Japanese aviation and the opening phase of the war in the Far East', 'The Royal Air Force and close support, 1918-1940', 'The bomber offensive that never took off: Italy's Regia Aeronautica in 1940' and so on. To be fair, as far as I know there is no evidence that any of these works is fraudulent in any way. But how can historians extend Harvey the benefit of the doubt now? If we should be patrolling the borders of our discipline against incursions by pseudohistorians, then we should also sound the alarm when there's an enemy inside the gates.


Yesterday's post was, thankfully, the last entry in my post-blogging of the 1913 phantom airship wave. I've searched the available (to me) primary sources up until the end of April 1913 and can find no further references; and Watson, Oldroyd and Clarke's exhaustive compilation of phantom airship sightings has only 7 entries from May onwards. In fact in terms of people seeing scareships it really was over by mid-March, but I'm also interested in people talking about scareships, which lingered a little longer. It's definitely time to draw a line under the exercise, and to start analysing what I've found in preparation for my AAEH paper. There'll be more posts along those lines in future, but here I'll comment briefly on the post-blogging as post-blogging.

By some measures this was the most extensive attempt at post-blogging I've yet carried out: 69 posts over nearly four months. That's nearly twice as long as the Sudeten crisis series, and nearly four times as long as the 1909 scareship wave posts. Still, there wasn't a post every day and the scareships only briefly dominated the news, for about a week at the end of February 1913, so researching and writing the posts wasn't as gruelling a task as for the Sudeten crisis or the Blitz. The latter series in particular was quite tough to write as there was so much on-topic material that I had to be very selective. Also, I wanted to give space to non-Blitz news when the press gave it priority. I decided not to do that this time for a couple of reasons. One was, obviously, to save time. The other was that I wanted to focus squarely on the phantom airships themselves; with very few exceptions I only quoted from newspaper articles which mentioned them in some way (even if only in passing), and talking about other things would have obscured the scareship signal. I'm not sure that this was a wise choice, as this means that so much of the context is missing. For example, there was a lot of discussion of airships and the menace they posed in this period that didn't refer to mystery airships at all: the phantom airship scare was only one part of a greater airship scare. Hopefully a sense of this came through. Of course I noted all these other airship references for my own purposes and will use them for writing my paper. There's also the wider European military and diplomatic situation, particularly the fighting in the Balkans and things like France's move to a three-year conscription period and increases in German military spending. This is all obviously relevant background, and again some of it snuck into the posts. But apart from the expansion and activities of Germany's Zeppelin fleet, few explicit links were made in discussions of scareships. Likewise for all the other preoccupations of the press at the time, though intriguingly suffragettes seem to get jokingly mentioned alongside scareships reasonably often, which perhaps suggests they both had this combined aspect of menace and mirth. But that's getting perilously close to analysis, so I'll end this here.

Starting tomorrow, I will be be post-blogging the 1913 British phantom airship scare as it appeared in the press, one hundred years earlier to the day. This scare was much longer than the 1909 one: that lasted for less than three weeks, but the 1913 took over three months to run its course. (Longer, if the Sheerness Incident, which took place in October 1912 but wasn't publicised until November, is taken as its beginning.) It was only sporadic at times, especially at the start, but still I'm unlikely to be blogging about much else until April sometime. In an effort to preserve my sanity, I'll try to adhere to a minimalist form of post-blogging, i.e. focusing very narrowly on the topic at hand and not, as has been the recent trend, getting distracted by trying to explain the context or noting interesting but not very related stories that I come across. But I suspect that won't last. In any case, it will all come in very handy when I come to prepare my Wellington talk in July.

Historians have taken little notice of the 1913 phantom airship scare, whereas it's reasonably common to come across references to the smaller and, I would argue, less consequential 1909 one.1 That's probably because the main historian to take an interest in scareships, Alfred Gollin, devoted only a few pages to 1913 whereas he spent a whole chapter talking about 1909.2 Still, George Dangerfield did discuss the 1913 sightings in The Strange Death of Liberal England, though perhaps his title is now better known than his book.3 Also noteworthy is that the 1913 produced the only substantial contemporary analysis of the whole Scareship Age to be published, a chapter in a book written by the editor of the Economist, Francis Hirst.4 Outside the mainstream historical literature I can recommend the relevant chapters in Robert Bartholomew and George Howard's UFOs & Alien Contact (sceptical, despite the title) and Nigel Watson's The Scareship Mystery.5 Along with David Clarke and Granville Oldroyd, Watson also compiled from local and national press reports a 500-page catalogue of scareship sightings, The 1912-1913 British Phantom Airship Scare -- a massive undertaking in the pre-Internet age, and in fact one that still couldn't be replicated without spending weeks in the fabled British Library Newspapers at Colindale.6 I'll be working largely independently of their gargantuan effort, as I want to see the primary sources for myself, but I will use it to identify incidents and find sources. Apart from the usual online sources, I will also be using the London newspapers the Daily Mail, the Standard, the Globe and Traveller, the Spectator (all Conservative), the Economist (Liberal) and the Daily Herald (Labour), and two local newspapers, the Norfolk News, Eastern Counties Journal, and Norwich, Yarmouth, and Lynn Commercial Gazette and the Southampton Times and Hampshire Express. And maybe some other things.

Let the scare begin!

  1. E.g. A. J. A. Morris, The Scaremongers: The Advocacy of War and Rearmament, 1896-1914 (London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1984), 159. 

  2. Alfred Gollin, The Impact of Air Power on the British People and their Government, 1909-14 (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1989), 238-40; cf. ibid., 49-63. 

  3. George Dangerfield, The Strange Death of Liberal England (London: Serif, 1997 [1935]), 106-9. 

  4. F. W. Hirst, The Six Panics and Other Essays (London: Methuen, 1913), 103-18. Actually, long ago I came across a reference to a whole book published on the phantom airship scares at around the same time -- but published in French! I'd be grateful if anyone knows what it is, because I've never been able to find it again. 

  5. Robert E. Bartholomew and George S. Howard, UFOs & Alien Contact: Two Centuries of Mystery (Amherst: Prometheus Books, 1998), 125-37; Nigel Watson, The Scareship Mystery: A Survey of Worldwide Phantom Airship Scares (1909-1918) (Corby: Domra, 2000), 61-74. 

  6. Nigel Watson, Granville Oldroyd and David Clarke, The 1912-1913 British Phantom Airship Scare (South Humberside: self published, 1987). 


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

(Or, 'Trenchard at sea'.)

Jamel Ostwald's recent post on urban bombardment in the early modern period, itself partly a response to my post on Trenchardism, prompted me to wonder how straight the line was between aerial bombardment and earlier naval and land bombardments? Was the naval precedent more influential or the military one?

This does not quite answer the question, but in his Air Power and the Cities (1930) the Air Ministry civil servant and lawyer J. M. Spaight, the most prolific British airpower writer of the interwar period, spent an entire chapter talking about the historical precedents afforded by naval bombardments, calling it 'The lesson of the naval bombardments'. Stated negatively, this lesson was that 'it has been no part of the policy of belligerent nations to destroy enemy coastal cities'.1 Or, stated positively, 'there has been a clearly marked tendency to confine attack to certain objectives', mostly (but not exclusively) 'those the destruction of which was calculated to prejudice the enemy's military effort and to which, therefore, the term "military objectives" may be broadly applied'.2 (He was a lawyer, after all.) Spaight projected this naval trend onto aerial bombardment, arguing that air forces in the next war would be unlikely to bomb cities indiscriminately:

On the few exceptional occasions in which objectives not of a military character have been shelled, the result has been protest, excuse, condemnation, never justification on the merits of the practice. It is sufficient to recall the salient facts of the naval campaigns of modern times to conclude that there has been no settled policy of indiscriminate bombardment in naval war. In general, bombardment has been confined to military objectives and undertaken for a military purpose.3

Ultimately, this served to buttress his argument that not only was disarmament a bad idea, but it wasn't even necessary, because airpower itself 'is the great disarmer'.4

How can war go on when air power can leap upon it, smother it, smash it? That would be bad work for civilisation if it meant smashing the cities; but it need not mean that. Indeed, it cannot mean that unless air power is to be mishandled, misdirected, grossly misapplied. Used aright, used to the fullest advantage, it will be kept for smashing the nests and. breeding places of armament not the cities.5

So why did Spaight emphasise the naval precedent and not the military one? Because, regrettably, 'it cannot be denied that the bombardment of a defended, town as a whole has been a practice not unknown to land warfare'.6 Indeed, he noted that both the British and the American manuals on the rules of law took the view that 'an attacking force is under no legal duty to limit the bombardment to the fortifications of a place attacked'.7 Moreover, land bombardments tended not to be decisive: 'the terrible bombardment of Strassburg [1870] only made its inhabitants more determined to resist'.8

The naval bombardments Spaight was referring to included Alexandria (1882), Beirut (1912), Canton (1841), Greytown (1854), Kagoshima (1863), Pisagua (1879), Tripoli (1828), Valparaiso (1866), and others mostly from the Crimean and First World Wars. Not all of these examples really serve his larger argument -- the German naval bombardments of Hartlepool, Scarborough and Whitby (1914) attacked targets of no military value and killed more civilians than any air raid on Britain in the next four years -- but he seems to have missed one that did.

In the Anglo-Zanzibar War of 1896, three British cruisers anchored close to the shore and bombarded the ruling Sultan's palace without damaging the surrounding city, as discriminate a bombardment as any. (Though there were at least some civilians among the 500 or so casualties, this was not intended.) It was also decisive, in that it forced the Sultan to flee and allowed the British to install their own preferred candidate, which was the reason for the war in the first place. And it was also incredibly quick: the war began at 9:02am on 27 August 1896 and ended at 9:40am. Indeed, at 38 minutes the Anglo-Zanzibar War is supposedly the shortest war in history. With such effective examples of short, sharp shocks before them, it's easy to see why airpower theorists were drawn to the idea of using the air to strike at cities unreachable by sea. But not why so they so easily discarded the principle of discriminate, precision bombing so easily, confounding Spaight's prediction. The reasons for that lie in the technological and operational limitations of the air weapon, limitations which were not clear when Spaight wrote and would not be clear for some years yet.

  1. J. M. Spaight, Air Power and the Cities (London, New York and Toronto: Longmans, Green and Co., 1930), 92. 

  2. Ibid., 93. 

  3. Ibid., 165. 

  4. Ibid., 235. 

  5. Ibid., 234-5. 

  6. Ibid., 95. 

  7. Ibid., 96. 

  8. Ibid., 95. 

1 Comment

Disburse contiguum against yet the most squamous bulwark

With war comes confusion, and with confusion comes a need for clarity. So it was with simple, determined messages like this that the National Office of Information kept the undersieged civilians of Britain in a robust frame of mind during the teething pains of the Second World War.

The language may be arcane, but the message is plain: disburse contiguum against yet the most squamous bulwark. Firm and reassuringly steadfast, it is a call to action that still resonates today, during times of national pandæmonium. Will Self has a tattoo of this poster on his tongue.

Source: National Office of Importance.


The XXIII Biennial Conference of the Australasian Association for European History will be held at Victoria University of Wellington, New Zealand, in July 2013, and I'll be presenting a paper with the following title and abstract:

'What are the Germans up to?' The British phantom airship scare of 1913

In late 1912 and early 1913, people all over Britain reported seeing airships in the night sky where there were none. The general presumption was that these were German Zeppelins, testing British defences in preparation for the next war. One result was a largely Conservative press agitation for a massive expansion of Britain's aerial forces, perceived to be outclassed by Germany's in both number and power. Another was the rapid passage by the Liberal government of legislation providing for the use of lethal force in the defence of British airspace. In many ways this panic was analogous to the much better known 1909 dreadnought scare, which itself was followed by a smaller phantom airship scare. But historians generally agree that 1913 was a period of detente in Anglo-German relations. Why, then, did British people not just imagine that German airships were a potential threat but imagine that German airships were actually overhead?

As an example of collective behaviour, the phantom airship scare offers us a rare glimpse of the state of British public opinion (as well as press and political opinion) on defence and foreign relations shortly before the outbreak of the First World War. I will place this phantom airship scare in the context of other defence panics, and will argue that the threatening nature of the new technology of flight, and Britain's perceived failure to keep pace with other nations in its military applications, amplified the German threat despite of the improving international situation. The phantom airships were the public and imaginary manifestations of private but very real fears.

This is the next stage of my mystery aircraft project, following on from the 1918 Australian mystery aeroplane scare I spoke about at the AHA this year. Next year being the centenary of the 1913 British phantom airship wave, I plan to postblog it as I did for the 1909 one a few years back, drawing upon the increased availability of digitised newspapers since then. So that will form a major part of my preparation for Wellington.

New Zealand was itself a site of at least two mystery aircraft scares, a well-known (at least to those who know about such things) one in 1909 and a much more obscure one in 1918. So if I can make it work I hope to visit Archives New Zealand and see what they have -- hopefully, enough for another paper/article/chapter!

I'm really looking forward to this. For one thing, despite it being so near I've never been to New Zealand; I hear it's quite nice. I also have fond memories of AAEH XXII in Perth a couple of years ago, and I expect edition XXIII will prove equally excellent. Now to start saving up my pennies...


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

The current conflict in Gaza has attracted much media attention for the so-called Twitter war being fought between the IDF and Hamas, or, more precisely, between the @IDFSpokesperson and @AlqassamBrigade accounts and their respective followers. Insults are traded back and forth, photos and videos of rocket attacks and air strikes and their purported results (sometimes quite horrific, be warned) shared and retweeted many times over, bloggers take up virtual arms on behalf of one side or the other. @IDFSpokesperson tweets a graphic claiming that 'Hamas' goal is to kill civilians'; @AlqassamBrigade one claiming 'In Children's Day: Israel killed 26 Palestinian children!' This present form of propaganda war is sometimes (not always) presented as something new. Certainly the speed of communication and the ease by which it can be accessed by anyone who is interested is remarkable, but nothing ever looks completely new to a historian.

During the Blitz, for example, British newspapers and magazines were the medium by which both British and German propaganda messages regarding the mutual bombing war were passed to readers so that they could judge for themselves. In September 1940, The Listener noted that 'German broadcasts continue to claim that only military objectives are being attacked' by the Luftwaffe.1 By contrast, the Zeesen radio station was reported to have claimed that:

British pilots have received instructions to avoid carefully any kind of military objective and to concentrate instead on terrorising the German civilian population.2

As it was broadcast in English, this message was clearly directed at the British people themselves. Normally only those who owned a radio and were listening in on the right frequency at the right time would have received it, perhaps along with a few others by word of mouth. By reprinting it, The Listener was sharing it with a much larger audience (circulation was around 50,000 in 1939 but had risen to 129,000 by 1945). By reprinting it without editorial comment, it was trusting its readers to draw the right conclusions.
...continue reading

  1. Listener, 19 September 1940, 404. 

  2. Ibid. 


I'm honoured to have been asked to be a member of the new Society for Military History Blog. The other members are Lieutenant Colonel Robert Bateman, Mark Grimsley, Jamel Ostwald, and Brian Sandberg. I've been involved in a couple of previous group blogs; this one is obviously more focused in topic (albeit 'military history' is not particularly narrow!) and will also be more structured in the sense that we'll be sticking to a schedule, with a post every couple of days. It's good to see the SMH taking advantage of social media to promote academic military history and I'll be doing my best to help it do so.

At Investigations of a Dog, Gavin Robinson (as seen on Twitter!) has started post-blogging the letters of Nehemiah Wharton, a sergeant in the Parliamentary army during the English Civil War. The first letter is up: 16 August 1642. Gavin provides context and interpretation, but he's also transcribing the letters in full since the published transcriptions apparently aren't very good. Even without aeroplanes it should be interesting!

It's been a while since I've noted any new post-blogging initiatives here. The concept is alive and well, but I think it has really taken off on Twitter. I follow a number of 'post-tweeting' accounts there, mostly military in nature: @the_60s_at_50, @missilecrisis62, @gallipoli_live, @ukwarcabinet, and @RealTimeWWII. The last two are my favourites, and are long term projects: the former (run by the National Archives) is up to this day in 1942, the latter this day in 1940. Here are the last three tweets from each, to give a flavour of what they do:

Even more than post-blogging, post-tweeting can convey a sense of the immediacy of events as they happened. But post-blogging is better for providing context and interpretation. There's a place for both.