I've been reading the Daily Mail quite a lot since I've been here, but only issues published in 1940 or earlier. So I'm grateful to Jakob for pointing me in the direction of an article in today's edition about German boardgames from the Second World War. It's fascinating, but why is it news? Ostensibly because a German collector is auctioning them in Britain, but really the point would seem to be to contrast the bloodthirsty German kids of 1940 with their far more innocent British counterparts:

During the dark days of the Second World War, British children passed the time with marbles, hopscotch, tiddlywinks and, for a lucky few, a Monopoly set.

But over in Germany, the amusements were far less innocent.

In one version of bagatelle named Bombers over England, children as young as four were encouraged to blow up settlements by firing a spring-driven ball on to a board featuring a map of Britain and the tip of Northern Europe.

Players were awarded a maximum 100 points for landing on London, while Liverpool was worth 40.

It's not just the Mail either. Says the Sun:

WARTIME Nazi board games rewarding German children for “blowing up” British targets have been unearthed.

The 1940s toys show that while UK kids played marbles and tiddlywinks, German youngsters were trying to score points by destroying London.

The Daily Mirror titles its story "Sick 'blast Brits' Nazi toys found" and adds that 'Board games based on snakes and ladders and battleships also get a disturbing Nazi twist'.

Well, Nazis are an easy target, aren't they -- even juvenile ones. But of course, as I've discussed here recently, British children played war games too, so it's really rather silly to pretend that they spent the whole war playing tiddlywinks, whereas the kinder on the other side of the North Sea were plotting the destruction of Britain. And to their credit, most of the commenters on the articles have seen through this too (one even mentioned L'Attaque!)
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The fifth Military History Carnival is up. A lot of good stuff; the post I enjoyed most was at History is Elementary, on the evolution of camouflage in the First World War -- it's not only informative but enables us to vicariously share in the pleasure of teaching. And all that camouflage reminds me of Fed Square back home ...

Ships painted in dazzle camouflage schemes, in particular, look incredible, but I wonder if people at the time found them jarring and disconcerting? These did not look like the familiar symbols of British naval might that people had grown up with. Just another alienating marker of hyperindustrialised warfare to add to the pile, I guess, and I'm sure the topic has been done to death, historiographically speaking.

In my recent post on the Imperial War Museum I remarked upon the commemorative function of the museum, or rather the apparent lack of it. So I was interested to come across this comment made in 1922 by Major-General Sir Frederick Maurice (he of the Maurice Affair), explaining what he thought the true value of the IWM was:

We of the generation who fought have in this matter grave responsibilities; we have to think not of ourselves but of our children and our children's children. The memorials to our dead now to be found in nearly every town, village and parish, with their simple record of sacrifice, will do much, but the effect of these memorials will become every year less poignant. The War Museum impresses the mind in another but not less direct way. I have talked with numbers of people who have told me that on seeing it they, for the first time, began to understand the nature of trench warfare on the Western Front. The devastated areas in France and Belgium are rapidly ceasing to be devastated. Within a generation the area of the trenches will have much the same appearance as have the Roman and British camps on Salisbury Plain. The cemeteries will remain, but they are not in our midst. To refuse to have a permanent and national memorial of the nature of the Great War because to many of us it evokes memories which are terrible and terrifying is to give way to unmanly sentiment and to do a grave wrong to the generations to come after us.1

(The context here was that the IWM was then housed temporarily at the Crystal Palace, and it had been proposed to move it to the Imperial Institute, where Imperial College is now. The Institute protested about this, and in turn somebody, somewhere seems to have taken this as a pretext to argue against the idea of having a war museum at all, because (a) the weapons were nearly all out of date; (b) the British Museum and the Committee of Imperial Defence already had books and records about the war; and (c) local war memorials were a better 'record of the sufferings, sacrifice and achievements of the war'.2 Maurice was, obviously, trying to knock this idea on the head.)

In an age when everyone, more or less, has seen Gallipoli or Blackadder goes Forth or both, it's easy to forget that there was a time when the general public did not have much of an idea as to what trench warfare was actually like. So in educating the public about the war's realities, it was in fact serving a memorial function: this is how your father lived, this is how your sweetheart died.3 I think my observation, or rather lack of observation, about the IWM's non-commemorative nature was based upon the assumption that its museum functions were something fundamentally apart from its memorial aspects, which of course doesn't make much sense if you think about it. The whole purpose of the museum, founded in a time of war, was to make sure that future generations would remember what had happened. And of course the choice of what is exhibited in the IWM, what wars are featured and whose stories are told, is an exercise in (necessarily) selective memory.

So the Imperial War Museum itself, just by existing, can be said to serve the memory of those who served. On the other hand, it is still true that the Australian War Memorial (and note it is called a memorial, not a museum) was clearly designed in a different way, with a part of it expressly set aside for commemoration. The creators of the IWM and of the AWM chose different paths but that doesn't mean they were starting from different assumptions.

  1. Observer, 11 June 1922, p. 7. 

  2. Ibid. 

  3. Maurice probably would have approved of the Trench Experience, then. 


While I'm on the topic of Things to Come, I should correct a mistake I made in the talk I gave at the summer school. I said that Things to Come didn't do particularly well at the box office. I still haven't found any actual figures for that, but I've found what may be better, a ranking of its popularity out of all films shown in Britain in 1936. It turns out it was the 9th most popular film that year, out of over a hundred shown, so obviously it should actually be counted as a success. (Given that it was also an expensive film to make, it may not have turned much of a profit, if any, and that may have been what I was thinking of.)

This information comes from a very interesting exercise in quantitative history, John Sedgwick's Popular Filmgoing in 1930s Britain: A Choice of Pleasures (Exeter: University of Exeter Press, 2000). What Sedgwick did was take a sample of cinemas and go through their programmes to see how many weeks each feature film was shown for, and whether it had first or second billing, to be used as a weight. He also came up with a weighting for each cinema, based on its capacity to earn revenue (more seats and/or higher ticket prices means more weight). The number of weeks a film was shown for at a given cinema is then multiplied by the billing weight and the cinema weight, and this number was summed across all cinemas the film was shown at, to arrive at a popularity statistic, POPSTAT, for the film. Just in case that explanation failed to confuse you, here's the equation defining POPSTAT, from p. 71 of his book:1

POPSTAT equation

To the extent that POPSTAT actually means something, I suppose it is the potential total earnings of a film, and this in turn reflects the judgement of cinema managers as to whether cinema patrons would actually come to see the film, which in its turn would have been based upon how well the film was actually doing (ie, is it worth keeping it on for another week?) So in the end, assuming that cinema managers were responding to market forces, POPSTAT does indirectly measure something of a film's popularity.2 For the record, Things to Come has a POPSTAT of 40.65, just behind Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers in Swing Time (40.95 -- so close as makes no difference) but comfortably ahead of the Dickens adaptation, A Tale of Two Cities (34.18). The most popular film of the year was Charlie Chaplin's Modern Times (83.26). Most films in the top 100 had POPSTATs in the teens. (The results for 1934-6 are actually online as an appendix to a seminar given by Sedgwick.)

And if you don't trust all that number-crunching, then here's one data point Sedgwick mentions, relating specifically to Things to Come: its run at the Leicester Square Theatre (where it premiered, as it happens) was 9 weeks, with the longest run for that cinema in 1932-7 being 11 weeks. So, I think it can safely be said that it wasn't a flop (contra me). I stand by my other point, however, which was that Things to Come is actually very singular, at least in British feature films: there are very few depictions of a city being turned to rubble by air attack, as in the clip in the previous post. In fact, I don't know of any. So however successful Things to Come actually was -- and it should be remembered that this may have been due more to the visually stunning scenes set in 2036 than the more depressing scenes set in 1940 -- it's not something film producers rushed out to emulate.

  1. You can create your own using a LaTeX-based generator. Try it, it's fun! 

  2. The exact numbers should be taken with a grain of salt -- I doubt four significant figures can be meaningful with such a dataset. One important caveat is the cinema sample. Not every cinema in Britain is used but only a selection of West End and first-run provincial cinemas. But unless films were markedly more popular in their second runs, I don't think this would matter too much. 


The week before last, I had the opportunity to present a talk about my PhD topic at an Open University summer school (cheers Chris!) It was the first time I've given a talk about the thesis as a whole and I think it went OK -- I don't know that I'm getting better as a public speaker but at least I'm not so nervous these days. But I had intended to show a scene from the 1936 science fiction classic, Things to Come (adapted by H. G. Wells from his own 1933 novel, The Shape of Things to Come). For once the technology worked; but I'd queued up the wrong scene on the DVD and so after a few attempts at finding the right part I gave up. But thanks to YouTube, here's the scene the students didn't get to see. It's the air raid on Everytown on Christmas eve, 1940:

I think it's very well done, and would have been very impressive on a big screen. For the small screen, there's a new special edition DVD, which I must get around to buying ...


Cleopatra's Needle

Yesterday I had occasion to pass Cleopatra's Needle on the Victoria Embankment. It's not really Cleopatra's at all but Thutmose III's, as it was he who caused it to be erected at Heliopolis, in around 1450 BC. It was eventually transported from Egypt to London and re-erected there in 1878, after trials and tribulations in the Bay of Biscay.
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Tate Modern
My third Sunday here: I still hadn't seen the Thames yet and so decided today was the day. I began with a visit to the Tate Modern, which was tres cool (especially the Dalí exhibition, for all your clock-melting and eyeball-slicing needs) but they don't allow cameras. So you'll have to be satisfied with this photo of the gallery itself, or at least its smokestack (it used to be a power station). The pretty little pub on the left is called the White Hart -- sadly, not Arthur C. Clarke's non-existent pub of the same name.
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[Cross-posted at Revise and Dissent.]

One interesting minor theme of my recent museum visits here in London has been, I suppose, the popular origins of wargames (as opposed to the intellectual origins): I've been coming across a number of games, produced in the first half of the twentieth century and aimed presumably at children, which represent war in some way. War games, but not yet wargames. So for example, one exhibit in the Science Museum's aviation gallery was a First World War-era board game called Aviation: The Aerial Tactics Game of Attack and Defence. The board represents the sky, and the pieces are aircraft and squadrons. Here's the box:


According to the caption, it was published around 1920, and the cover shows 'stylised First World War tanks and Handley Page H.P. 0/400 [sic] bombers'. It doesn't look particularly like an O/400 to me; the corresponding game-piece is just called a Battle Plane (and the "tanks" are actually anti-aircraft guns on tank chassis, very advanced!)
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