Posts Tagged ‘HG Wells’

Scare fiction and War of the Worlds

December 29, 2019
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War of the Worlds by HG Wells as re-envisaged by the BBC

The BBC’s Christmas adaptation of the War of the Worlds has brought the HG Wells work to fresh audiences. The original serial is an iconic piece of fiction and certainly boosted the reputation of Pearson’s, the monthly magazine that first published it, in 1897. It was part of a genre called ‘scare fiction’ that was popular – and influential – from the 1870s into the First World War. The inspiration for such works came from the changing European alliances of the Victorian era.

Britain was at war throughout the nineteenth century. Having put Napoleon’s ambitions to rest – with Nelson’s victory at Trafalgar and then Wellington’s at Waterloo in 1815 – there came the Crimea War against Russia. That ended in 1856, after which the hostilities were mainly outside Europe. The conflicts were about cementing the empire – the Zulu war, Abyssinia, two Anglo-Boer wars, Afghanistan, Sudan and the Nile campaigns among them. The British were able to win using small, well-drilled forces on land and sea, local allies, and superior weapons. Meanwhile, alongside these far-flung conflicts, writers were imagining how war might look closer to home, against a modern European power.

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The Battle of Dorking by George Tomkyns Chesney sparked a new genre, scare fiction

A short story in Blackwood’s Edinburgh Magazine fired the starting gun for scare fiction in May 1871. The Battle of Dorking: Reminiscences of a Volunteer, told of an invasion and was to influence public debate right up to the start of the Great War. Blackwood’s was an influential right-wing monthly – known as ‘Maga’ – that was sold globally as well as at home. Blackwood’s established the careers, among others, of Middlemarch author George Eliot and Joseph Conrad with Heart of Darkness. The initially anonymous Battle of Dorking (by army engineer George Tomkyns Chesney) describes how a secret weapon deployed by the unnamed enemy (though clearly Prussians – who had secured  the victory against Napoleon at Waterloo) destroys the Royal Navy, with the ineffectual defenders on land being defeated near Dorking in Surrey when they try to block the invaders’ road to London. The invading force conquers Britain and the empire is then broken up.

The work sold more than 100,000 copies as a pamphlet and was published in a number of editions as a book and translated into several languages. In the Second World War, a German edition was issued to Hitler’s army as Was England Erwartet (What England Expects). The Blackwood’s story was mentioned is several parliamentary debates from June 1871 and such was its influence that William Gladstone, the prime minister, had to speak out against the ‘alarmism’ it had generated. Four months after the May issue of Blackwood’s appeared, army manoeuvres involving 30,000 men were held on the Hog’s Back, a ridge between Farnham and Guildford in Surrey. Later, forts were built in the area. Chesney went on to become a reforming general and was knighted for his work in Britain and India. For one academic, Patrick Kirkwood:

The Battle of Dorking was central to the parliamentary, military and public ‘invasion’ controversies of the 1870s. Subsequent developments, ranging from recurring print and parliamentary debates, to military manoeuvres and the eventual building of a series of forts along the North Downs support this position … The Battle of Dorking was equal parts fantasy ‘invasion literature’ and policy document. Its frequent citation by members of both houses of parliament, and by military men engaged in public and private debates, serves to back this claim, as does Chesney’s rapid integration into the pro-military reform wing of the Conservative Parliamentary Party of the 1890s.

Adding to the genre, Liverpool-Irish journalist Louis Tracy wrote several books about future war, the best known being the 1896 Final War, a book dedicated to ‘Private Thomas Atkins’ (a nickname for the average British soldier that dates back at least to the time of the Battle of Waterloo – from which we get ‘Tommy’). He saw his work as describing ‘a great war to be the end of all war’ and it ends in victory for the British with the help of the United States against the Germans and French. Tracy’s books include elements of science fiction, with a British secret weapon, the ‘Thompson Electric Rifle’, helping ensure victory.

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A Martian machine wreaks havoc in War of the Worlds, illustrated by Warwick Goble, 1897

The invasion theme was taken up by HG Wells in War of the Worlds, which was published in Pearson’s Magazine in parts from June 1897. The brilliant illustrations were by Warwick Goble. For Wells, the enemy comes from another planet and, though the aliens easily overwhelm the defenders, they are ultimately defeated by nature, in the form of bacteria. As with Chesney’s book, the Surrey stockbroker belt is pivotal, with the Martians landing on the edge of the town of Woking, just fourteen miles from Dorking.

The big-selling penny weekly magazines did not miss out on the invasion craze, with Northcliffe’s Answers, one the best-selling, serialising Frederick White’s The Lion’s Claw, which has the old enemies, the French and Russians, invading. And the next week in 1900, Pearson’s Weekly put out one of Tracy’s thrillers The Invaders: A Story of Britain’s Peril, with the Germans as the villains of the piece.

Three years later, Germany returns as the enemy when a gathering invasion force is discovered in Robert Erskine Childers’ ripping yarn, Riddle of the Sands. In 1906, The Invasion of 1910 by William Le Queux adds German fifth columnists to the mix. Two years after that, in War Inevitable by Alan Burgoyne, an MP who specialised in naval affairs, a fictionalised Lord Kitchener comes to the rescue after German motor torpedo boats devastate the British fleet in a sneak attack.

A year before the horrific real war breaks out, When William Came by ‘Saki’ (Hector Hugh Munro) was published. This book follows on from Chesney’s theme of forty years earlier, describing life under German occupation: the ‘William’ of the title is Kaiser Wilhelm II – ‘Kaiser Bill’ to the British people at the time. With the outbreak of the real war, a new edition of The Battle of Dorking was published.

Ralph Straus wrote a summary of ‘scare-fictionists’ in the second issue of Bystander magazine after the Great War was declared. The genre is often referred to by academics now as ‘invasion literature’. The article, ‘Armageddon – in prophecy’, is illustrated with a painting of aerial warfare by Guy Lipscombe from Burgoyne’s War Inevitable. He discusses how ‘About the middle of the century Germany definitely emerged to take France’s old place as our potential enemy’ and describes how such writers ‘have come to the truth’.

The greatest writer of the era, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, was slow to come to the genre, but addressed it in a prophetic way, for both world wars. In its July 1914 issue, The Strand published ‘Danger! Being the log of Captain John Sirius’ by the Sherlock Holmes creator. He envisaged Britain being starved into submission by enemy submarines. The enemy was the fictional country of Norland, a thinly disguised Germany.

These fictional works spurred debate in the real world. As the new century began, Britain was the only European power that did not have a large conscript army, even though prominent figures had been pressing for compulsory military service since the first Boer War. Among these advocates was George Shee, a barrister and Liberal imperialist, who in 1901 published The Briton’s First Duty: The Case for Conscription in which he argued for a compulsory home defence army to protect against invasion. Despite the strength of the Royal Navy on the high seas, it could not guarantee being able to prevent an invasion force crossing the English Channel, only that it would be able to cut the invaders’ supply lines. Out of the conscription movement came the National Service League, a group founded in 1902. It argued the army was too weak to fight a major war and that national service was the only answer. Boer War hero Lord Roberts later led the league and saw its membership increase from 2,000 to about 95,000 by 1913.

And the success of The Invasion of 1910 – built on Le Queux’s ability to secure the backing of Lord Roberts and the media might of Lord Northcliffe – has been identified as a factor in the founding of the Secret Service in the form of MI5 and MI6. As a result, 41 German agents were identified and arrested in Britain between 1911 and the outbreak of the war.

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This post is based on a section from the book, ‘Kitchener Wants You’, by Martyn Thatcher and myself.