But then computers so often don't ...

OK, so earlier today I upgraded my WordPress theme, Tarski, in preparation for an update to WordPress itself. After 3 hours, much cursing and many broken plugins, I mostly got things working and looking the way they were before. Then, about 6 hours later, I noticed that the Similar Posts plugin also wasn't working, so (hoping for a quick fix) I upgraded that to the latest version. This turned out to be a bad idea, because then all pages started showing up completely blank -- including admin ones. Presumably Similar Posts did something bad to the php then: that happens sometimes. So I went in with ftp and deleted Similar Posts. No change. I deleted the old Similar Posts too. Still no change! Now I'm worried that the mysql database has been hosed somehow (which would serve me right, as I decided I couldn't be bothered backing it up earlier in the day). I reverted to the previous version of Tarski, the one I'd been using before I touched anything today. No change. Finally I reverted to a really old version of Tarski, some six months old, and that finally undid the damage. (The WordPress Default theme works as well.)

So the database actually is ok (and is now backed it up, of course ...) But this all makes no sense. It was clearly Similar Posts which caused the whole problem, so why did I have revert Tarski to an ancient version to fix it? Bleh. I was quite happy with Tarski, but the way it's being developed means that I have to rewrite more and more of it in order to make it do what I want. So maybe I'll have to look around for another nice, clean theme.

It might just be some sort of caching thing, or I might have another look tomorrow and figure out what the problem really was, but for the moment things Airminded will not quite be itself until I can do something about it. Apologies for any inconvenience!

Update: fixed now. The problem was some extra code relating to Similar Posts which was residing in Tarski's constants.php file, which explains why I had to go back to an old version of Tarski (when I wasn't using Similar Posts), but not why going back to the previous version of Similar Posts didn't work, when it had been a few minutes earlier ... But as a bonus, in the process of getting Similar Posts to work again, I now understand Tarski's new way of doing things better, so it has a reprieve :)

5 Comments

[Cross-posted at Revise and Dissent.]

It's 50 years since Sputnik I lifted off. Although I was airminded as a kid, I was much more spaceminded. So 1957 was always a crucial year in my understanding of history back then: it was where the modern age began. (In fact the very first historical work I ever I started -- but never finished! -- was a history of the space race from Sputnik on. I can't have been older than 12 so it's not exactly sophisticated ...)

More than that, to me 1957 was where the future began. A future where humans would spread out into the solar system and then explore the universe beyond. And who knows? Maybe I'd even get to take part in that somehow! That future hasn't quite worked out the way I'd envisaged it -- yet -- but of course, I'm in good company where failing to predict the future is concerned. There's a good article by Michael J. Neufeld in the July/August 2007 issue of the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, on Wernher von Braun's proposals for manned orbital battle stations. In the early 1950s, von Braun predicted that these would be used to deploy nuclear weapons in orbit. For example, in a conference paper published in 1951, he wrote that

Our space station could be utilized as a very effective bomb carrier, and for all present-day means of defense, a non-interceptible one.1

and that

The political situation being what it is, with the Earth divided into a Western and an Eastern camp, I am convinced that such a station will be the inevitable result of the present race of armaments.2

Neufeld makes the point that for all his expertise in rocketry -- including leading the V2's development team -- von Braun's obsession with space stations meant that he failed to realise that ballistic missiles actually made a lot more sense as a delivery platform for nuclear weapons, rather than space-launched hypersonic gliders -- a space station being a relatively big and very predictable target, for one thing.3

Von Braun wasn't the only one arguing along those lines. There were others. The science fiction writer Robert A. Heinlein co-authored a popular article in 1947 for Collier's Magazine which suggested putting nukes in orbit. In a novel published the following year, Space Cadet, he expanded upon this idea. Now, I read Space Cadet probably a couple of dozen times when I was a kid, but haven't for a long time so I'll have to rely upon the Wikipedia page to explain:

The Space Patrol is entrusted by the worldwide Earth government with a monopoly on nuclear weapons, and is expected to maintain a credible threat to drop them on Earth from orbit as a deterrent against breaking the peace. [...] The cadets are taught that they should renounce their allegiance to their country of origin and replace it by a wider allegiance to humanity as a whole and to all of the sentient species of the Solar System.

It never occurred to me before now, but this is nothing more than the international air force concept, so beloved of liberal internationalists in the 1930s (it was included in the Labour Party's manifesto for the 1935 general election, for example), but now updated for the coming space age! Only now instead of pilots of all nations standing by, ready to drop high explosives on any aggressor nation, it would be astronauts with atom bombs. Plus ça change ... sometimes, anyway.

When I was 12, I understood that Sputnik I was part of a 'Race for Space' between two superpowers, as I put it, but I mainly saw it it as a straightforward -- if impressive -- technical achievement, which the Soviet Union managed to do first. I certainly didn't have much clue about the bigger picture of the Cold War or the historical background to the decision to launch a small sphere into orbit, though. Now it's hard for me to see things in any other way, as all of the above probably demonstrates. But sometimes it's good just to forget about all that context and just appreciate the thing-in-itself.

So I'll end by reverting to age 12 and saying wow, that is just so ace!


  1. Quoted in Michael J. Neufeld, "Wernher von Braun's ultimate weapon", Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, July/August 2007, 53. 

  2. Quoted in ibid. 

  3. But the fact that von Braun was still trying to sell the public on manned space stations in 1965 with no military role beyond reconnaissance suggests that it's more that he just really, really liked space stations, rather than that he wasn't aware of the potential of ballistic missiles. 

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Probably my favourite place to research in London was the Liddell Hart Centre for Military Archives at King's College London, where I spent the better part of two weeks digging through several personal archives. It's a very pleasant environment to work in, and the staff were very helpful in accommodating this rude colonial's requests, even at short notice! (Plus they actually sent me the roughly 200 pages of photocopies I ordered; I still haven't got the batch I ordered from the British Library, and quite possibly won't now, since it shouldn't take a month to arrive by airmail ...) KCL lies between Strand and the Victoria Embankment, near Waterloo Bridge; I'd usually take the Tube to Embankment and walk up from there, keeping my eye out for anything interesting along the way ...

Imperial Camel Corps Memorial

This is the Imperial Camel Corps memorial in Victoria Embankment Gardens. I've previously written about a relative who was in the ICC and knew there was a memorial to it in London (in itself a bit odd, as most of them were Australians), which I vaguely thought I should seek out while I was there. Turns out I didn't have to as I stumbled across it completely by chance! It's quite a striking -- though incongruous, amid all the green -- statue, though the photo probably exaggerates the size of it.
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One of the benefits of living in London for two months is the way it helped me to understand its geography. So when I read, for example, that 500 men, women and children walked from Greenwich to Trafalgar Square on 22 July 1917 to demand 'improved air defences for London and the adoption of a systematic offensive air offensive against German towns',1 I know now that it was actually a fairly long walk (even if they took the omnibus home!) and so shows that their protest march was not a casual affair. And my experience also comes in handy when reading about what was predicted to happen to London when it was bombed, and what actually happened when it was bombed.

In some places, the effects are still easy to see. But sometimes my imagination needed a little help. This is the enclosed garden in the middle of Mecklenburgh Square, where I was staying, in Bloomsbury:

Mecklenburgh Square garden

And this is how the poet John Lehmann described Mecklenburgh Square after being blitzed (possibly in September 1940):

Mecklenburgh Square was a pretty sight when I left it. Broken glass everywhere, half the garden scorched with incendiary bombs, and two houses of Byron Court on the east side nothing but a pile of rubble. Clouds of steam were pouring out of one side, firemen still clambering over it and ambulances and blood transfusion units standing by with ARP workers and police. The road was filled with a mass of rubble muddied by the firemen's hoses, but the light grey powder that had covered the bushes at dawn had been washed off by the drizzle. The time bomb in the Square garden sat in its earth crater coyly waiting. The tabby Persian cat from No. 40 picked her way daintily and dishevelledly among the splinters of glass on her favourite porch.2

The garden where the UXB fell looks so peaceful and quiet today, but once it was right in the front line.


  1. Daily Mail, 23 July 1917, p. 3. 

  2. Quoted in Peter Hennessey, Never Again: Britain 1945-1951 (London: Penguin, 2006), 35-6. 

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Australians, arise!

WHAT AUSTRALIA WOULD BE LIKE UNDER HUN RULE. -- An original recruiting poster which was used with great success in South Australia. Tasmania, it will be noted, becomes Kaisermania, and the idols of the Huns have provided other place-names.

This is from the Daily Mail, 3 July 1917, p. 8, and would appear to be a South Australian recruiting poster, showing how the map of Australia might be redrawn if Germany won. Australia itself becomes "New-Germany"; Perth becomes Tirpitzburg; Adelaide, Hindenburg; Brisbane, Bernhardiburg; Sydney, Nietscheburg [sic]; Tasmania (not Hobart), Kaisermania; and, most appropriately from my point of view, Melbourne would be renamed Zeppelinburg!

I don't think much has been written on German plans for Australia in the event of victory in the First World War, probably because the Germans themselves gave very little thought to the place. However, it seems unlikely that Germany would have wanted to take over Australia lock, stock and barrel; better to turn us into some sort of client state instead. They'd probably have wanted to take a few of Britain's colonial possessions in the area, and perhaps would have insisted upon reparations or favourable trade terms. And our battlecruiser HMAS Australia -- which caused von Spee such headaches in 1914 -- would no doubt have had to go. No independent foreign policy, perhaps (not that we had much of one as it was!) But we probably wouldn't have had to go so far as to need to translate such phrases as "don't come the raw prawn with me, mate" into German -- fortunately!

This idea that we had to fight Germany in France in order to prevent the Kaiser's victory parade down Swanston St had obvious potential as a motivational device, and was used in stories and films as well. Did people really believe it? The Daily Mail said that the poster had 'great success', so perhaps they did.

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Face to face

OK, it's time to start catching up on my backlog of travel posts! The day after visiting Westminster Abbey, as it was a nice day I decided I'd go to Hampton Court Palace. Unfortunately it was too nice and I was sweating like a pig while standing in line at the ticket office at Waterloo, so I decided I couldn't be bothered, went back to Russell Square (after a pointless detour to see how long the queues at the London Eye were) and instead went to the British Museum for a return visit.

Above: detail of a frieze on the Nereid Monument,1 showing two warriors face to face and shield to shield. (Despite thinking this sort of thing was really cool, I couldn't stand to watch more than 10 minutes of 300 on the plane on the way home.)
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  1. Actually it might not have been part of the Monument itself; it was in the same room though. This is the problem with writing these posts two months after the event! 

I've just spent two months at various libraries and archives in the UK. As I've noted previously, I now have a huge amount of extra primary source material to go through. Sure, in the abstract, more is better, but in concrete terms, how will this help make my thesis better than it would otherwise have been?

The most immediate benefit is for the chapter I'm currently working on, on defence panics. The primary sources for this are newspapers and other periodicals, a few of which I can get here, but not the single most important one: the right-wing and populist Daily Mail, a major advocate of aerial armaments over my period. I was able to survey the relevant dates (covering periods between 1913 and 1940) of the Daily Mail for all of the panics I'm interested in. (I also looked at a couple of months' worth of the Evening News, another Rothermere paper, from 1935; and the aviation magazine, the Aeroplane.) Ideally I would have examined other important conservative newspapers such the Daily Express and the Daily Telegraph as well, but realistically I was never going to have enough time for that: scanning page after page of microfilmed newspapers for the occasional article of interest is very time-consuming, and it took me almost a month as it was! But now I know how the most influential press scaremonger in the British press portrayed the aerial menace, and so my chapter will be that much better.

The second chapter with which my research will help is a projected one on the organisation of aerial advocacy: that is, which organisations promoted aerial armaments, who joined them, what did they argue, how were they financed? I'm now in a position to be able to talk about groups such as the Air League of the British Empire, the Navy League (oddly enough), and the National League of Airmen. I will partly be viewing these through the prisms of some of their key figures: P. R. C. Groves, Lord Montagu of Beaulieu, and Norman Macmillan, the personal archives of all of whom I was able to examine in London. I'll supplement this with information about their activities from their journals and/or the press, and I also have the Air League's minute books for 1909-1941 to draw upon. I guess with this chapter, the question I want to answer is: where were the leagues? Anyone familiar with navalism before the First World War will recall that the Navy League and Imperial Maritime League were very active in trying to alert public opinion to the need for more battleships to counter the growing German fleet. I expected something similar would be the case with airmindedness, yet the Air League has been almost invisible in my research so far. And it turns out that this was actually a criticism the Air League had to face several times in its early history. Once I've sifted through all the data I should be better able to explain why this was.

Finally, my (already-written) chapters on the origin and evolution of the knock-out blow will need to be updated somewhat in light of some of the books and archival sources I looked at. Nothing major -- just refining and clarifying the narrative in places. For example, I now know a bit more about when and why F. W. Lanchester wrote Aircraft in Warfare (1916), a key text in the creation of the knock-out blow paradigm. Actually, now that I think of it, the main advantage here is probably an increased confidence that I've got the the story largely right: although I obviously can't be sure that something startling might turn up, I've at least now filled in the more glaring gaps in my review of the literature.

Of course I picked up a lot of other things of interest here and there along the way, and there are the intangible benefits of meeting other researchers working on related topics as well. Overall, my thesis will certainly be much the better for the time I spent in the UK; it was two months very well spent!

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[Cross-posted at Revise and Dissent.]

Six months ago, I used Cliopatria's list of history blogs to assess the state of the military portion of the historioblogosphere. My original plan was to do this every year, but because things move fast online I'll update it every six months instead. I won't waffle on too much about my methodology (if it can be called that!); for that, please refer to the original post, as well as for the plots from March 2006.

Blogs: numbers

First, let's look at the number of blogs in the military historioblogosphere. This increased by just over 50% in six months, i.e. an annualised rate of more than 100%, which is considerably faster growth than in the year to March 2007. This is now only slightly slower than the rate of growth of the blogosphere as a whole, which as of April 2007 was doubling every 320 days (as measured by Technorati. Of course that rate may have changed by now). Some 13% of the blogs in the March 2007 list don't appear in the current version, which, sustained over a year, would be a touch higher than the churn rate last time.
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I ordered these months before I left for London; of course they only turned up a couple of weeks after I left!

Basil Collier. The Defence of the United Kingdom. Uckfield: Naval and Military Press, 2004 [1957]. The volume of the official British history of the Second World War dealing primarily with air defence, but also the threat of invasion.

Henry Probert. Bomber Harris: His Life and Times. London: Greenhill Books, 2003. The standard biography of Harris. Not all that relevant for me -- I think I got it cheap ...

Keith Rennles. Independent Force: The War Diaries of the Daylight Squadrons of the Independent Air Force, June-November 1918. London: Grub Street, 2002. I would have preferred a straight history of the Independent Force but this at least tells me what it was actually doing.

Military History Carnival #6 is up at Armchair General. The stand-out post this month is a rebuttal of the alleged decline in military history at American universities, undertaken by David Stone at The Russian Front (which is an ambitious -- and very stylish! -- new group blog on Russian military and diplomatic history, the editor-in-chief of which is none other than Scott Palmer of The Avia-Corner). Stone uses some actual data to show that, no, as far as we can tell, there were more military historians in US history departments, in absolute terms, in 2005 than there were in 1975: nearly three times as many, in fact. The total number of historians employed has risen even more dramatically, so the proportion of military historians has in fact decreased (from 2.4% to 1.9%). So there's still room to argue that there's a relative decline going on. But I suspect the real complaint of the declinists is, as Stone discusses near the end of his post, that there's less "real" military history being done -- less operational-type stuff and more of the war-and-society variety. As somebody whose research is firmly of the latter school I'd hardly complain if that were so (which is not to say at all that operational history is unnecessary, unimportant or uninteresting); but again, some decent statistics (as opposed to cherry-picking and anecdotes) are needed to show whether this is even true or not.

Also noted from this carnival, a new blog: War and Game, dealing with both wargaming and history. It's an eclectic mix of topics, including some very airminded ones -- see for example the current top post on what was nearly the RAF's first-ever raid on Berlin in November 1918. Looks like a blog worth following.

By the way, the next Military History Carnival will be appear here on Airminded on 14 October! So please send me nominations by email at bholman at airminded dot org or use the form.