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In March 1985 the Pacific Coast Conference on British Studies devoted its annual meeting to honoring George Dangerfield upon the occasion of the fiftieth anniversary of the publication of his book, The Strange Death of Liberal England. Scholars from various parts of the United States and from several British Universities came together to pay their respects to Dangerfield, and to talk about his famous history.
The principal organizers of the meeting were Professor Peter Stansky of Stanford University; Professor R. J. Q. Adams of Texas A&M University; and Professor Dan Krieger, California Polytechnic State University. These organizers made two requests of me. They invited me to deliver an oral comment upon a paper about Dangerfield which was presented to the conference by Professor Carolyn White of the University of Alabama; and they also asked that I write this essay about “Dangerfield—the man and historian.” The idea was to make his personality known to a wider audience by recalling certain experiences and by relating certain anecdotes which illustrate the character of this remarkable scholar and man of letters.
The celebration of the anniversary of The Strange Death of Liberal England actually began a few months earlier when the Chancellor of the University of California, Santa Barbara, Dr. R. A. Huttenback, presented Dangerfield with a University Medal in commemoration of the book. At this ceremony at U.C.S.B. Dangerfield casually remarked that The Strange Death of Liberal England had appeared in nineteen editions and he thought, but was not entirely certain, that a twentieth edition was about to be produced.
The British people and their rulers have always been concerned about the possibility of an invasion of their island home by a hostile power striking at them from the European continent. Arthur Balfour, the Prime Minister who did so much to modernize the defense arrangements of his country in the early years of the present century, was especially concerned with this problem of invasion. He called it “This eternal and most important question of our safety against invasion.” In 1908 an entirely new element was introduced into this area of strategic thinking when it was realized, for the first time, that Britain might be invaded from the air. Until this year the British could take comfort from the often quoted words of Admiral Lord St. Vincent to a group of nervous fellow peers at the time of the French invasion danger early in the nineteenth century: “I do not say they cannot come, my Lords, I only say they cannot come by sea.” Now, as a result of unprecedented technological developments it was possible for a vigilant and forward-looking observer to contemplate an air assault upon the United Kingdom that would put Lord St. Vincent's pithy maxim in an entirely new light. Eventually, the fear of air attack assumed a dominating position in the minds of British defense planners; but the origins of this problem have not been studied closely by scholars, even though they deserve attention.
In December 1905 R.B. Haldane, later Viscount Haldane of Cloan, became Secretary of State for War. Among his fellow politicians Haldane, at this time, was looked on as an intriguer who combined habitual meddling in high places with a curious and remarkable interest in German philosophy. The Prime Minister of the day, Sir Henry Campbell-Bannerman, who had good reason to dislike Haldane, nicknamed him “Schopenhauer.” Both men knew that the War Office had ruined the reputations of several of Haldane's predecessors. “We shall now see,” remarked Campbell-Bannerman, in a phrase that later became famous, “how Schopenhauer gets on in the Kailyard.” Despite this unpromising start Haldane's military reforms were so successful that they established his reputation in history as one of the great servants of the state in the pre-1914 era. His work and accomplishments in the field of military aviation, however, have been criticized very severely. In fact, the matter is so complicated that one aviation authority has written of the record in this area that “Haldane's actions behind the scenes may never be known with certainty.”
Even some of his closest subordinates in the field of military aeronautics were very critical of Haldane's attitude and outlook. In February 1911 a major step was taken when, by an Army Order, a unit known as the Air Battalion of the Royal Engineers was created. This Battalion was entrusted with the duty of training a “body of expert airmen.” The Battalion's first commander was Major Sir Alexander Bannerman, an officer who knew little about airplanes, but was instead a balloon expert with experience in the South African and Russo-Japanese wars.