For Americans, the defining event of the 19th Century was almost certainly the American Civil War. It settled several outstanding questions and raised several more, with effects that are still felt to this day. For Europeans, the defining event was the Franco-Prussian War (19 July 1870 – 10 May 1871), in which the French went to war with Prussia. The results of the war shocked Europe; France, felt by many to be the premier military power in Europe, was soundly beaten by Prussia. The world had turned upside down; overnight, Prussia forged the German Empire, absorbed a chunk of France, and reshaped the map of the world.
Europe shook under the impact. For Britain, Prussia had been an ally, but now Imperial Germany bestrode the continent like a colossus, threatening to alter the balance of power. For France, every effort was to be shaped towards paying off the indemnity the Germans had demanded…and then building up the force to extract revenge. For Russia, it caused a shift towards France and a newly aggressive policy in the Far East (which would result in disaster when they went to war with Japan). And, for Germany, it showed massive promise and danger; when the Kaiser spoke, eventually, of a ‘place in the sun,’ he did so in the belief that Germany could win a war and an empire by force of arms.
As events progressed, Europe became a tinderbox, something that many feared would lead to war. Eventually, it did; the assassination in Sarajevo led rapidly to four years of brutal fighting between the European powers (and America and Japan) that resulted in the tensions that led to the rise of Hitler, the Second World War and the Cold War. It comes as a surprise to many, today, to learn that the war was predicted and fought out in articles, novels and parliamentary debates. The rapid spread of ‘invasion literature’ and it’s popularity was a direct effect of the growing uncertainty in Europe.
‘Invasion Literature’ was based around a single main theme; the invasion of a country (mainly Britain; the British produced the most from the 1870-1914 period) by an enemy country. In some cases, the invasion would succeed, either due to the limitations of British defence preparations or the ‘pie-in-the-sky’ dreams of liberals and socialists. In other cases, the invasion would fail, after maximum political value had been extracted from the text. It should be noted that most of the writers, including the methodical George Tomkyns Chesney and the sensationalist William Le Queux, were writing from a conviction that the defences of their country were gravely weakened and the nation itself was in peril. They worried about the course of a future war and sought to divine how it would have been fought, peering through a glass darkly into the future and seeing nothing, but shadows. We may regard their writings as alternate history, or we may take comfort in our hindsight and know that few of their fears came to pass, but such comforts were unknown to the writers.
This article intends to examine a handful of such publications and consider how they may have affected the future of war and war preparations in Europe.
The Battle of Dorking, published in 1871, almost immediately after the end of the Franco-Prussian War. The enemy in the novel remained unnamed, but there can be little doubt that the target of Chesney’s pen was Imperial Germany, which had recently defeated France. As the narrator notes:
“Well do I remember the great review held at Paris by the Emperor Napoleon during the great Exhibition, and how proud he looked showing off his splendid Guards to the assembled kings and princes. Yet, three years afterwards, the force so long deemed the first in Europe was ignominiously beaten, and the whole army taken prisoners. Such a defeat had never happened before in the world's history; and with this proof before us of the folly of disbelieving in the possibility of disaster merely because it had never fallen upon us, it might have been supposed that we should have the sense to take the lesson to heart.”
Unfortunately, this Britain failed to take note of the growing power of its ‘unnamed’ adversary. The radicals and liberals opposed any preparation for war, the government of the day was unable to push through the reforms required, trusting to the British fleet to prevent any opponent from landing on British soil. Disaster came swiftly, however, when the British Empire was preoccupied with colonial troubles; the unnamed enemy moved into Holland and Denmark. At this point, Britain declared war and sent the fleet to intercept the German (and we may as well call them Germans from now on) fleet…and lost. The unnamed enemy landed on British soil.
It is here that Chesney’s writing becomes more effective. Amidst the panic raging over the country, he – the narrator – finds himself sent to join a reserve regiment and join the defence of the country. The defence effort, however, is in chaos; the people seem, with the Germans at the gate, to still begrudge any defence effort. Unsurprisingly, when the British reservists meet the Germans, they are rapidly and contemptuously defeated. The effect is made stronger by the limited appearances of the Germans; for most of the story, they are off-page, ever-victorious, rather than appearing as human beings. Fifty years on, the narrator moans:
“The rich were idle and luxurious; the poor grudged the cost of defence. Politics had become a mere bidding for Radical votes, and those who should have led the nation stooped rather to pander to the selfishness of the day, and humoured the popular cry which denounced those who would secure the defence of the nation by enforced arming of its manhood, as interfering with the liberties of the people. Truly the nation was ripe for a fall; but when I reflect how a little firmness and self-denial, or political courage and foresight, might have averted the disaster, I feel that the judgment must have really been deserved.”
The story, it will not surprise readers to know, was an immediate hit, with public opinion divided down the middle. One side believed that the story was a deserved judgement upon Britain, the other that the story was little short of treacherous, something that couldn’t have gone unmissed by the editors of various newspapers. The Battle of Dorking was reprinted hundreds of times in the years between 1871 and today, affecting the ebb and flow of political debate, with such stories as The Second Armada and Danger. The original even received a send-up in July; the British music halls produced a song entitled The Battle of Dorking: A Dream of John Bull, in which the Germans were soundly thrashed by the British Army. One rather assumes that it was a hit.
The War in the Air, in which Germans, Chinese and Japanese airships attack the United States, and The War of the Worlds, where the threat is quite literally out of this world. Perhaps most important, however, was a short story written by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, entitled, simply, Danger. In Danger, Britain has gone to war with a fictional country (the Netherlands?), who are a tiny nation facing the foremost power in the world. They do, however, have a secret weapon; submarines.
The war develops rapidly. The British fleet destroys the enemy fleet within weeks of the war actually starting, but they miss the problem of the submarines, which start sinking British shipping. Captain John Sirius (the hero and narrator) tells the story; each week, the price of food in Britain rises…
““Ah, Johnny, Johnny Bull,” I said, as I looked at [British lights], “you are going to have your lesson, and I am to be your master. It is I who have been chosen to teach you that one cannot live under artificial conditions and yet act as if they were natural ones. More foresight, Johnny, and less party politics—that is my lesson to you.” And then I had a wave of pity, too, when I thought of those vast droves of helpless people, Yorkshire miners, Lancashire spinners, Birmingham metal-workers, the dockers and workers of London, over whose little homes I would bring the shadow of starvation. I seemed to see all those wasted eager hands held out for food, and I, John Sirius, dashing it aside. Ah, well! war is war, and if one is foolish one must pay the price.”
And so they did. Within a month of beginning the campaign, Britain had been brought to her knees and ended the war on the enemy’s terms. It is quite possible that Danger affected some of the attempts to agree on restrictions for submarine use, something that proved completely useless when it was actually tried in real life. On the other hand, the threat of submarines proved to be overstated; the delays in introducing convoys might have been criminal in the extreme, and they were, but once a convoy system was instigated, the losses fell rapidly. Like many other weapons designed in the pages of novels, the new weapon proved to be both more and less effective when actually put to the test.
The Invasion of 1910. It is also, perhaps, the oddest of the ‘serious’ invasion books; William Le Queux, the author, wrote primarily to sensationalise and sell newspapers (the story was first published in serial form), rather than to put forward a genuine invasion concern. That said, Le Queux might have been a hack, rather than a competent writer; The Invasion of 1910 is vastly less competent than The Battle of Dorking. This may not have been entirely his fault; as he wrote, people wanted to see the Germans in their own areas of England, leaving the Germans in such places as Manchester, rather than the more logical Surrey and London. This, in hindsight, is ridiculous.
The book itself is written very much as a campaign history-style book; readers of David Downing’s The Moscow Option would not find too much different in this book. Part of the novel consists of characters who say their parts, take a bow and exit stage left, other parts are excerpts from journals, letters and so on by the fictional participants, and finally descriptions of the campaign itself. In some ways, it is like reading a good history book, although the history of a fictional war. This style can get a little confusing at times and warrants a re-read to understand just what is going on. Le Queux, like most of the others, does push a political agenda, but often to extremes. For the first third of the book, it is fairly common to see characters bemoaning that ‘they should have listened to Lord Roberts,’ who had come up with a scheme for national service.
Unlike The Battle of Dorking, The Invasion of 1910 – and the author’s previous book, The Great War in England in 1897 - has a happy ending – sort of. Although the Germans march to London and occupy half of the city, the British are able to mount a counterattack that defeats the Germans, although - Le Queux was clearly unable to resist at least one piece of alarmist thought – the Germans might be considered the overall winners, having secured Holland and Belgium. The Germans also have a large and effective spy network within Britain - Le Queux wrote at least one book on German spies, Spies of the Kaiser – and manage to mount the invasion without the British receiving any advance warning at all.
The final book I intend to examine is worth studying, simply because of its nature; The Swoop (Or How Clarence Saved England, P G Wodehouse) pokes fun at the entire concept of an invasion. It was written in 1909, during the period where The Invasion of 1910 was being serialised and An Englishman’s Home was being performed. The hero, Clarence Chugwater, leader of the Boy Scouts, bemoans his family’s failure to prepare for the invasion. Soon afterwards, the family meets some strangers…and then it is revealed that England has been ‘invaded by nine armies; the Germans, the Russians, the Mad Mullah, the Swiss, the Chinese, Monaco, the Young Turks, Moroccan brigands (?) and ‘dark-skinned warriors from the distant isle of Bollygolla.’
As Wodehouse points out, rather dryly; “England was not merely beneath the heel of the invader. It was beneath the heels of nine invaders. There was barely standing-room.” This laconic tone continues; the Germans bombard London, only to get a vote of thanks from the people. The non-European invaders rapidly leave the country, and when one of the remaining leaders is offered a music hall place, the other gets jealous and starts a battle. This is all due to the machinations of the boy scouts, who, in the end, take the remaining enemy general into custody – on pain of ‘such a whack on the shins.’ Clarence ends up on stage, where one assumes he spends his time hectoring the public about the need for defence. The novel was the height of the silly season; had Wodehouse paid more attention to the other invasion novels, he might not have acted in such an unpatriotic manner in 1940.
What, precisely, do these novels tell us about their times? Almost all of the novels in the first period concentrate on a German enemy, sometimes in alliance with other powers, a new recognition that Germany was a serious power. The Germans started a naval race with Britain once Tirpitz gained power and Bismarck’s caution was swept away; the fear over Germany successfully building a fleet that could challenge Britain for naval supremacy became a driving force that pushed the British towards funding a much larger fleet. The trials of the Boer War and the limitations that it had exposed in the British Army may have had their own effect; the British army would start a series of reforms that might have been smaller than Lord Roberts might have desired, but enough to ensure that the BEF survived its first major battle in France.
The development of technology is also an interesting point. Danger, in particular, focused on the danger of submarines, perhaps playing a role in British determination to ban the submarine. Doyle was correct to argue that the Germans would use unrestricted submarine warfare, to the point where they would even fire on neutral shipping, but he vastly overstated the effects of the submarine. This was not an uncommon problem; the writers and theorists of air power also believed that their airships and later aircraft would be almost unstoppable, but it was not until the development of the atomic bomb and precision weapons that air power really came into its own as a strategic weapon. Other technical advances, including the telegraph and even armoured vehicles, were predicted, although many of them only entered reality through a much more tortuous progress. The fear of new weapons and technology, which would threaten the survival of Great Britain, remained constant; it failed to materialise until World War Two.
Finally, the politics of the time were often predicted with some accuracy. Both George Chesney and William Le Queux predicted that Imperial Germany would make a grab for Belgium and the Netherlands, and indeed that they would be very hard to defend, despite the British commitment to their defence. In other cases, their predictions were way off; despite looking at the problem, the Germans never seriously considered the invasion of Britain. The clash of the superdreadnaughts at Jutland might have been a German tactical victory, but the High Seas Fleet remained trapped in its docks and never tried to break out again. The bloody slaughter of the First World War might well have been described by HG Wells, but Wells talked about invaders from another world. Ironically, Chesney’s description of a post-invasion Britain might well have matched reality, following the end of the Second World War.
Overall, the invasion literature period had a spectacular effect on the development of both political thought and literature in the following years. They turned books from sources of simple entertainment into political tracts and helped to start people speculating about the future. They may have been wrong more than they were right, but just by existing, they changed the world and started a whole new brand of literature.
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Chris Nuttall blogs at The Chrishanger and has a website by the same name. His books can be found on Amazon Kindle.