Nyang Week

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Anonymous, 25 March 1918

NAA: MP1049/1, 1918/066, page 871 is a copy of an anonymous letter sent to the Minister of Defence in Melbourne in reference to reports 'in the press on Saturday that two aeroplanes were seen flying over Nyang' -- likely either the Argus or the Age. Probably the latter, since it added a report from the Central Flying School at Laverton (well, Point Cook) saying it wasn't one of theirs, and the letter writer says 'This may only have been a trial flight by our own men, and again it may not'.

But the aeroplanes are not the real point here; they're not even mentioned again. Instead the writer informs the Minister of 'the fact that a late Officer in the German Army, by the name of Schefferdecker (Farmer) lives either at Cow Plains or Murrayville -- a few stations further on' from Nyang. He had only arrived in Australia a few months before the war. The writer wants the Minister to see 'that the matter is thoroughly investigated' -- though what, exactly, Schefferdecker is supposed to have done is never specified. Still, something must be done about it:

I have given you the information which I know to be a fact, and it remains with you to see that the enemy officer is interned and not allowed to enjoy the same privileges as the parents of the boys from that district who are now at the front fighting; doubtless many more would enlist if it were not for the fact that so many Germans are permitted to profit by the freedom we are fighting for.

This seems to be the heart of the matter: this Schefferdecker may not have actually done anything wrong, but he is a German and the fact that he remains free is an affront, and it's no wonder that new recruits for the AIF are drying up. This month in fact saw the lowest recruitment figures for the war to date -- only 1500 across the entire country -- so perhaps the writer was getting at some confluence of fears to do with the war draining manpower away and leaving the nation defenceless. Or else they had very cannily happened on a theme which was already creating much official alarm and despondency down in Melbourne, especially after the failure of the bitterly divisive second conscription plebiscite in December 1917.
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report, J. Wright, 22 March 1918

NAA: MP1049/1, 1918/066, page 878, is a report submitted by Constable J. Wright of Ouyen police station, in the Mallee region of northwestern Victoria:

I have to report that whilst I was in the vicinity of Nyang about thirty miles from Ouyen at 4 30 pm on 21.3.18 I saw two flying machines pass overhead. They were up an [sic] great height & appeared to be about twenty yards apart. I did not hear the noise of the machines. They proceeded in a Westerly direction & as the sky was particularly clear, the machines were easily discernible.

And that's all Wright wrote. His superiors forwarded his report down to Melbourne, where, three days later, it was received at the Navy Office. There, Lieutenant-Commander J. G. Latham, a former lawyer (and future chief justice) who was head of naval intelligence, read it and commented: 'Reads true'.
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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.
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In 2016 I contributed a chapter on the 1918 mystery aeroplane panic to Australia and the Great War: Identity, Memory and Mythology, an edited collection published by Melbourne University Press. While I'd already published a peer-reviewed article on the same topic, this was broader in scope as it attempted to provide a transnational narrative and analysis of the panic as it unfolded in both Australia and New Zealand -- my one and only contribution to the history of the latter, and for that matter the only published account of these events on that side of the Tasman (that I know of). Since I believe in the virtues of open access, both for the wider public and for my own self-promotion, I like to make whatever versions of my publications I'm allowed to under the agreements I sign with the publisher available as free downloads. But while this is usually possible with journal articles, books (and book chapters) are a different matter: authors do not usually have any re-use rights until the work goes out of print. With my first book, I was able to get around this by uploading my PhD thesis, since they are similar but not the same. In this case, the copyright to my chapter's text is owned by the collection editors, Michael J. K. Walsh and Andrekos Varnava, and I am very grateful to both of them for giving me permission to make it available it here, so it can reach a wider audience.

So, as the very first event in Nyang Week, I'm making 'The enemy at the gates: the 1918 mystery aeroplane panic in Australia and New Zealand' available to download and read for free!



One hundred years ago, less a few days, a police constable named Wright saw two aeroplanes flying over Nyang in the Mallee, in north-western Victoria. There is no longer any such place -- it, or at least its station, was renamed Torrita (above) in 1921 -- and nor were there any aeroplanes. Or at least, there couldn't have been any: they weren't from a military aerodrome, and there weren't any civilian aircraft which could account for the sightings. They were mystery aeroplanes, and Constable Wright's sighting was in effect the trigger for an Australasian mystery aeroplane panic between March and June 1918, just as the Great War was reaching its climax.

I've already written about this panic a fair bit (i.e. a lot) -- in a peer-reviewed article, a chapter in an edited collection, a popular article, and of course on this blog (here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, and here -- but nevertheless I thought I should mark the centenary of the Nyang Incident, and indeed the panic as a whole, in some way. So, I've got a few things planned for the next few days and beyond. Welcome to Nyang Week!

Image source: Google Maps.