Thanks to Brett over at Airminded for bringing this to my attention. It is Google’s Ngram Viewer, which I have to admit is rather cool. The basis of it is that you can insert key terms that will search the Google Books database and illustrate trends and patterns over a given time period. As Brett has already shown it brings up some interesting patterns.

I have to admit at being fascinated by its use in illustrating trends in the historiography of a given subject. For example, take my thesis on Air Chief Marshal Sir Trafford Leigh-Mallory, the key reason I am writing a thesis on this is because there is very little in the literature that deals with him adequately. Of course short of writing a review of every book that deals with him any way it is only possible to draw out this general conclusion. However, using the Ngram viewer I can plot the occurence of his name in a variety of sources compared to his contemporaries.

Here is one plotting his name against Hugh Dowding and Keith Park, who were of course his two contemporaries during the Battle of Britain.

It quite clearly shows that Leigh-Mallory’s name does not occur as often as that of either Park or Dowding. This search was done using English as the corpus language, which is a merge of both American and British English. For example, this is the same graph using British English.

Here is the same search using American English.

These all highlight some interesting historiographical points that are worth noting. The first is Leigh-Mallory’s absence from a large chunk of the historiography. Given his early death and lack of papers or memoirs this is hardly surprising and something that needs rectifying. The second point is that Dowding figures rise sharply in the British English corpus in the period c.1940. Again this should not be overly surprising given his role at the time. Thirdly, Park’s place in the American English corpus rises markedly in the late 60’s. Arguably, I would suggest this is because of his place in the 1969 film The Battle of Britain, which truly thrust Park’s role into the public spotlight. However, overall for my own purpose this does really highlight the lack of understanding surrounding Leigh-Mallory and that many historians have accepted much of the vitriol directed at him rather than dealing with a complex character.

Indeed I can creat similar searches using key contemporaries to highlight the lack of work on him. One of base line comparisons I am using, rather arbitrarily I admit, is the Air Force List from October 1944, the month before his death. In this graph I included the active MRAF, Charles Portal, and the Air Chief Marshals.

Even here Leigh-Mallory is low on the list. He is hidden away with such characters as Edgar Ludlow-Hewitt, Richard Pierse, Christopher Courtney and Frederick Bowhill, who interestingly sees a boom in his occurence in the late 40s. Even restricting the dates to the wartime years does not significantly change his position.

In this one Bowhill, who was AOC-in-C Ferry/Transport Command from 1941 to 1945 comes out better again. Interesting given that Leigh-Mallory, who was one of the most senior RAF officers and commander of one of the RAF’s most important commands, Fighter, and of course AOC-in-C of AEAF, fares quite this badly. Of course one of the issues with Google Ngram is that it does not include newspaper so perhaps his place would change if this was included. It also shows how little has been written on the senior commanders of the RAF and probably highlight a distinct misunderstanding of their development and the organisational culture of the inter-war and wartime RAF.

Moving away from Leigh-Mallory I thought I would try a different search term. This time I thought I would try strategic bombing Vs. aerial bombing because most of the historiography insists on using the former term. However, inter-war RAF doctrine specifically talked of aerial bombing so It is interesting to illustrate the rise and fall of this term against the rise of the term strategic bombing. An impact of american historiography on the subject as they did talk and use the term in the run up to the Second World War?

Go on have a go and see if you can discern any gaps that needs filling…


3 thoughts on “The Rise and Fall of…

  1. A fascinating tool, Ross – thanks for pointing it out.

    Try Haig for the period 1860-2008 – shows the war years & his death with the volume then picking up in the 1960s (“Donkeys” etc) and declining before the start of more serious analysis in the late 1980s.

    I am puzzled about the decline since then though – is that a systematic fault arising from more recent books not yet being captured by Google Books possibly?


  2. Brian,

    Possibly. I suspect the decline is more to do with the fact that much was written in the inter-war years especially with the number of personal accounts of the war being written. However, since the 1960s, with the passing on of many of the veterans the number of personal accounts has declined and we are left more and more with academic accounts which are fewer in number.

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