Literary cousins – comparing alternate histories and invasion narratives

“Twelve years have passed since Churchill lost to the appeasers and Britain surrendered to Nazi Germany after Dunkirk.  As the long German war against Russia rages on in the east, the British people find themselves under dark authoritarian rule.”[1]

This intriguing passage is taken from the synopsis of the 2012 novel Dominion.  Written by C. J. Sansom (author of the excellent Spanish Civil War novel Winter in Madrid), Dominion is the latest in a long line of post-war alternate histories.  Famous examples have included The Man in the High Castle (1962) by Philip K. Dick, where the US has been divided between Japanese and German spheres of interest, and the best-selling Fatherland (1992) by Robert Harris, in which Greater Nazi Germany spans much of the European continent.  Set in 1952, the year of the author’s birth, the Britain of Dominion is governed by a coalition of political opportunists and fascist sympathisers.  While an aging Winston Churchill leads the Resistance in hiding, the press magnate Lord Beaverbrook is Prime Minister, Oswald Mosely is Home Secretary, and Erwin Rommel commands mixed levels of respect as German Ambassador.  Gripped by suffocating smog, repressive measures against British Jews and growing political violence, Sansom’s vision of London is a chilling reminder of what might have been.

Having thoroughly enjoyed reading this compelling book, I was struck by its similarity to a much earlier vision of German occupation, H. H. Munro’s short story When William Came (1913).  Written under his literary pseudonym Saki, the plot is centred on Murrey Yeovil, a typically Edwardian traveller and sportsman, returning from Siberia to Britain after a lengthy period of illness.  This convalescence was not helped by ominous reports of war, and ultimately, of spectacular British defeat.  By the time Yeovil arrives home, he emerges from Victoria Station into a post-war, German-occupied London. His detached disbelief quickly turns to disgust on gauging the submissive behaviour of his social circle; as his wife muses to a friend prior to his arrival, “he’ll think we are a set of callous revellers, fiddling while Rome is burning.”[2] Those who could not suffer a Germanised capital had followed the King in his flight to Delhi, or else had retreated to country estates.  As Yeovil attempts to adjust to his new circumstances, the narrative follows a series of events confirming the new order of things, including being fined by a bilingual policeman for walking on the grass at Hyde Park, and inadvertently accepting a lift from the establishment figure Herr Von Kwarl.  Struggling to accept what has begun to be referred to as the “fait accompli”, Yeovil oscillates between anger and bemusement, horrified by his personal and national circumstances yet incapable of mounting effective resistance.[3]

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Senate House, location of the German Embassy in Dominion

One of the key similarities between the two works is the way in which they utilise familiar buildings and locations for dramatic effect.  In Dominion, for example, a huge portrait of Hitler hangs in the National Portrait Gallery, while Senate House has been transformed into the German Embassy, complete with a network of interrogation rooms in the building’s basement.  In When William Came, the eagle standard of Prussia flies above Buckingham Palace, while in Kensington Gardens “the drinkers of larger beer” are served “sausages and potato salad”.[4]  These jarring description of occupied London are often delivered with Saki’s trademark dark humour, such as the following argument between Yeovil and an uncooperative taxi driver:

“‘Twenty-eight, Berkshire Street.’

‘Berkschirestrasse, acht-und-zwanzig,’ echoed the man, a bulky spectacled individual of unmistakable Teuton type.

‘Twenty-eight, Berkshire Street,’ repeated Yeovil, and got into the cab, leaving the driver to re-translate the direction into his own language.”[5]

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‘Wilhelm the Conqueror in German eyes’, Kladderadatsch, 1910

Both works also include glimmers of hope for a return to British independence.  The plot of Dominion centres on David Fitzgerald, a civil servant masking his Jewish family roots, who joins a Resistance cell.  Involved in a mission to stop an old university friend falling into the hands of the SS, and thus revealing highly significant military intelligence, David’s companions include the Slovakian émigré Natalia, and the indomitable Glaswegian communist Ben Hall.  Attempting to remain one step ahead of both the British and German authorities, large sections of the narrative are reminiscent of John Buchan’s adventure novel The Thirty-Nine Steps.  The hope in When William Came is rather less concrete, but is effective nonetheless. The work’s final scene sees the great and the good of London’s Anglo-German social elite gathered at Hyde Park to observe a symbolic Boy Scouts march, with Kaiser Wilhelm as the guest of honour. Hoping for a moment of significant reconciliation between victor and vanquished, the tale ends with the young Scouts having failed to appear, leaving the waiting Germans on increasingly frustrated tenterhooks.  As Yeovil recognises, while he himself had reluctantly laid down his arms, “there were others who had never hoisted the flag of surrender…young hearts that had not forgotten, had not compounded, would not yield.  The younger generation had barred the door.”[6]

These similarities are all the more interesting when one considers the different literary forms of the two works.  As an alternate history, Dominion engages its readers through a sort of abysmal fascination, describing a world that is both familiar and foreign, helping us to imagine how Nazi-collaboration might have affected British society.  When William Came is, by contrast, a warning of imminent danger.  Published in 1913, Saki used his narrative to criticise contemporary Edwardian society, emphasising that German occupation was not as far-fetched a scenario as it might appear.  While one work reflects on the past, then, the other speculates on the future; one offers historical council, the other contemporary critique.


[1] C. J. Sansom, Dominion, (London, 2012).

[2] Saki, When William Came, p56.

[3] Ibid., p74.

[4] Ibid., p81.

[5] Ibid., p61.

[6] Ibid., p182.

 

Apologies for a certain amount of repetition here, see ‘Be Prepared’, (July 2012).

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Military reform and Lord Roberts’s longevity

One of the major enjoyments I have had as an historian is the uncovering of lost conversations or exchanges of correspondence.  Such exchanges are rarely groundbreaking or paradigm-shifting in their historical significance, but they are nonetheless fascinating in nature.  Indeed, it is probably this banal quality that makes these sorts of conversations so remarkable.  Whether taking the form of angry interactions between book authors and newspaper reviewers or cordial communiqués between political associates, these are communications that have slipped out of major historical narratives and into archival obscurity.  In discovering such exchanges one cannot help but feel both excited and privileged, however mundane they may prove to be.  This post will explore the ‘invasion-scare’ implications of one such example, a 1908 conversation between the social investigator, journalist and editor W T Stead and the Victorian military hero and retired Field Marshal Lord Roberts.        

These prominent Edwardians stood on either side of a fierce contemporary debate, concerning the best method of defending Britain against the threat of invasion.  Unlike major continental powers, Britain did not have a system of compulsory military service.  Relying on the Royal Navy to protect Britain’s global commercial dominance, the British Army was a small and professional force, unlike the vast conscript armies of France and Germany.  Though in part the product of circumstance (for an island power has much greater need of a powerful navy than a large standing army), this arrangement equally reflected something of Victorian cultural attitudes. The near-universal commitment to military volunteerism was at its heart a laissez faire opposition to state intervention.  Just as the prospect of tariff reform seemed to represent an attack on the individual freedom to trade, for men such as Stead compulsory military service appeared a gross violation of liberty, an imposition that would fundamentally question the social and cultural status quo.[1]  Yet by the mid-Edwardian period a significant and vocal minority had begun to question this established principle.  Led by Lord Roberts as head of the pro-compulsion National Service League, such commentators warned the nation of the danger of over-reliance on the Royal Navy, fearing that a ‘Bolt from the Blue’ invasion could wrong-foot the fleet and leave Britain entirely undefended.[2]

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W T Stead

The exchange under examination thus engaged in this military reform debate, though as we shall see, in a rather peripheral manner.  It began in the February 1908 edition of The Review of Reviews, a periodical then edited by Stead, with an article entitled ‘What to eat, drink, and avoid: the experience of experts in the art of living’.  Responding to a similar piece in the French magazine La Revue, letters had been sent to a number of eminent and aged Britons asking for “a few jottings as to what life has taught you as to the best regimen as to food and drink and tobacco”, believing such experiences “may be very useful for the younger generation”.[3]  One of the ‘elders’ consulted was the septuagenarian Lord Roberts.  While appearing to preach respect for one’s elders, as those “who have lived longest have the right to speak first”, it appears Stead could not resist poking fun at the stalwart of the campaign for military compulsion.  Roberts, who elaborated no further than advising “little or no smoking, and moderation in food and drink”, was speculated to enjoy “a very tough constitution”, and described as “hale…hearty, and a holy terror to the opponents of universal military service in this country.”[4]   

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Lord Roberts

Much to my delight, a recent research trip to see Stead’s papers at Churchill College, Cambridge unearthed a response from Lord Roberts to this article.  Writing in early March, Roberts informed Stead that he was “quite right in thinking that I must have a very tough constitution”.  Having suffered “a very severe attack of brain fever” at an early age, he had suffered ill-health throughout his service in India.  However, as Roberts further explained, “by taking care and being moderate in all things, I found myself able to do what most men could do, even when I was much older, in age, than they were.”  Yet just as Stead’s article included a veiled criticism of calls for compulsory military service, Roberts’s reply was largely an effort to defend the value of his campaign.  Arguing that the Royal Navy “could not possibly ensure this country from invasion”, however powerful it was and may become in future, Roberts asserted that many naval experts agreed with him, pointing to the fact that “upwards of thirty Admirals of the Fleet and Admirals have joined the Service League”.  Imploring Stead to revise his views on the matter, Roberts also requested that his letter remain off the record, as he would prefer to state such opinions “in the House of Lords, than to let them appear in the public press.”[5]  And with a friendly apology for writing such a long letter, the conversation drew to a close.

A critical reading might consider this exchange a peripheral and irrelevant conversation, in which two commentators of entrenched opinions traded a combination of niceties and minor criticisms.  Yet I would defend it as a fascinating microcosm of a much larger debate, and one of countless lost conversations taking place over the course of the Edwardian period.  Finally, the episode offers tentative proof that unfaltering support for compulsory military service is key to enjoying a long and healthy life.    


[1] G. Q. Flynn, Conscription and Democracy: the draft in France, Great Britain, and the United States, (Westport, Conn., 2002), pp1-21.

[2] H. Moon, ‘The Invasion of the United Kingdom: Public Controversy and Official Planning’, unpublished PhD thesis, (University of London  1968).  For the National Service League see R. J. Q. Adams, ‘The National Service League and mandatory service in Edwardian Britain’, Armed Forces and Society, 12/53, (1985) and M. Hendley, Organised patriotism and the crucible of war: popular imperialism in Britain, 1914-1932, (Montreal, 2012). 

[3] ‘What to eat, drink, and avoid’, The Review of Reviews, (February 1908), p136. 

[4] Ibid., pp136-140.

[5] STED 1/60, Letter from Lord Roberts to Stead, (2nd March 1908), W T Stead Papers, Churchill College, Cambridge.   

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Must I paint you a picture?

As a trail through Island Mentalities hopefully shows, the illustrations of invasion-scare fiction offer extremely fertile grounds for research.  Contributing to what has been called the ‘golden age’ of book illustration, such images provided an evocative and highly effective means of communication and representation.[1]  Ranging in form from crude maps and military diagrams through to vivid depictions of battle, these visuals added to the abysmal fascination of this already popular literature.  Put simply, illustrations such as the common scene of a crumbling St. Stephen’s Tower narrowed the gap between literary speculation and reality, horrifying and delighting the fiction’s readership in equal measure.  To explore further I will focus on one particularly significant invasion-scare narrative, namely A. J. Dawson’s The Message, illustrated by H M Brock.

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Dawson himself was a Wandsworth-born journalist, author, and imperial enthusiast.  An extensively travelled man, notably in North Africa and Australasia, Dawson served a short term as Director of Information for the Government of Bombay that was curtailed by ill-health, having suffered significant injury in a 1916 gas attack during the First World War.[2]  A staunch advocate of military compulsion, his pre-war work for the pressure group the National Service League included responsibility, so reported The Times, for “the enlistment of thousands of recruits in and around London”.[3]  He also enjoyed a period as editor of The Standard of Empire, an offshoot of The Standard that encouraged closer imperial ties through British emigration to the dominions.[4]

 

The Message is a highly polemical tale of German invasion that inspires a national and religious revival.  Its lead protagonist Dick Mordan is an ambitious young journalist with socialist sympathies, who takes a job at a maligned radical journal named The Mass.   As the international situation darkens and Germany inevitably invades, Dick interprets his socialism as symptomatic of his country’s decline. While Germany successfully defeats and occupies Britain, Dick joins a resistance group, led by various figures of colonial repute and religious fervour.  Rising in revolt, ‘The Citizens’ cause the Kaiser to abandon his expeditionary force, help forge a new peace with Germany, and set about the reconstruction of Britain and her Empire.  Under the motto of, “For God, our Race, and Duty!”, Britain emerges from invasion with a federated Empire, a system of compulsory military service, and a commitment to the revivalist gospel of “New Century Puritanism”.[5]  Concluding with a lengthy passage from Kipling’s poem Recessional, ‘the message’ to which the title alludes is a shot across the national bows; Britain is not simply ill-prepared, she is deficient in almost every sense.  

The often vitriolic content of Dawson’s work might allow us to dismiss it as the haranguing of a political extremist rather than a legitimate assessment of the national climate.  Indeed, much of the contemporary reaction did just that.  One review in The Bookman praised the literary quality of Dawson’s writing, yet compared the novel to “the fair woman tailing off into a fish – for the Jingo conclusions of ‘The Message’ are fishy to the last degree.”[6] Even the National Service League attempted to distance itself from this unchecked rhetoric, believing Dawson’s rabid attacks on the Liberal government would badly damage an already shaky reputation as a non-partisan organisation. The science fiction scholar Everett Bleiler has described The Message as “imbedded in a full Edwardian Bildungsroman, told from a religious, ultraconservative, jingoistic point of view”.[7]  In concluding this rather negative summary, Bleiler notes that “the illustrations are better than the text.[8]

 

While this could be seen as a rather backhanded compliment, the illustrations were of unusually high quality.  They were drawn by Henry Matthew Brock, a well-established book illustrator, whose brother Charles Edward Brock was an equally successful artist.  In a glowing biography of the Brock family, Clifford Kelly suggest the brothers “ranked with the very best” of late-Victorian and Edwardian illustrators.  Henry Brock certainly contributed to some noteworthy works, including amongst others various works by Dickens and Arthur Conan-Doyle, The Last of the Mohicans by James Fennimore Cooper, as well as providing over 400 sketches for Punch magazine.  Moreover, his watercolour paintings were exhibited regularly at the Royal Academy and the Walker Art Gallery in Liverpool.  In 1907, the same year The Message was published, Brock became a full member of the Royal Institute of Painters in Watercolours.[9]

The illustration entitled ‘The Roaring City’ marks Dick Mordan’s move to London, described by him as “a very gloomy place”.  Though as yet unaware of the hardships of city life, Dawson’s protagonist was soon to learn “that hundreds of men of far wider experience and greater ability than mine were wearily tramping London’s pavements at that moment, longing, questing bitterly for work”.[10]  Such urban struggle is well captured by Brock, with ashen-faced pedestrians jostling for space alongside horse-drawn carriages and buses, newspaper hawkers and couriers.  Indeed, ‘London’s pavements’ are invisible, entirely obscured by this mass of human and vehicular traffic.  Silhouetted against the bleak, hazy sky are the outlines of “the cat-infested chimney pots of Bloomsbury”, criss-crossed by telegraph wires and dominated by a blurry, half-forgotten church.  This scene and its figures seem to represent what Dawson describes as “the rural exodus”, in which healthy country folk were drawn to the city and its opportunities, only to be trapped by “the hiving streets, with their chances, their flaunting vice, their incessant bustle, and their innumerable drinking bars”.[11]

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If this image of ‘The Roaring City’ is one of morose pessimism, Brock’s image of rural England is undoubtedly one of optimistic revival.  It depicts Mordan during a life-changing vision in the Dorset hills.  Having returned to his native village following the successful German invasion of Britain, he experiences a moment of clarity in which images of antiquity and anti-Roman resistance appear across the sky;

“I saw shaggy warriors with huge pointless swords, their hilts decorated with the teeth of wild beasts…I saw rude chariots of war, with murderous scythe-blades on their wheels – and, in a flash then, the figure of Boadicea: that valiant mother of our race, erect and fearless in her chariot…”[12]

This rural scene serves as the genesis of Mordan’s resistance to foreign occupation, and by extension, Britain’s fight-back against German domination.  For unlike the modern and essentially foreign city, “this ancient land was British in every blade of its grass…root and crop, hill and dale, above and beneath”.[13]  Brock’s accompanying illustration of rolling fields with a village nestled in the valley certainly seems typical of the Edwardian rural idyll, an image, as Roy Strong has described it, that “draws it strength from tradition and heritage”, and from a longing for the “pre-industrial world”.[14]  The cloud of mist sitting over the houses draws the village into the spectacular cloud scene unfolding above, as if linking the present to the linear, unbreakable past.  And distinct among her legions with her arms outstretched, Boadicea faces away from this rural scene, as if rousing the nation at large to follow her lead and resist.

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The use of illustration within invasion-scare fiction, though varied, I think offers important insight on the thematic complexity of these narratives.  As seen in the case of The Message, such illustrations regularly captured the introspective quality of this fiction, not simply scenes of foreign occupation or invasion.  Whether stressing the dangers of political unrest, the degenerative influence of the urban condition, or the cathartic image of rural, pastoral England, such images emphasise the vehicular nature of the Edwardian invasion narrative.  Clearly not confined to warning against the threat of foreign invasion, such fictions were part of a wider culture of pre-war anxiety.


[1] For a good summary of this era in book illustration see S. Houfe, The Dictionary of British Book Illustrators and Caricaturists, 1800-1914, (Woodbridge, Suffolk, 1978).

[2] S. Kemp, C. Mitchell, and D. Trotter, Edwardian Fiction: An Oxford Companion, (Oxford, 1997) p91, N. Robson, ‘A. J. Dawson, Novelist from Wandsworth’, Wandsworth Historian, No. 91, (2011),  p3.

[3] A. J Dawson Obituary, The Times, (Feb 7th, 1951), p8. 

[4] Edwardian Fiction, p91.

[5] A. J. Dawson, The Message, (London, 1907)p393.

[6] THE MESSAGE, The Bookman (Aug 1907), p179.

[7] E. Bleiler, Science Fiction: The Early Years, (Kent, Ohio, 1990), p185.

[8]Ibid.

[9] Houfe, The Dictionary of British Book Illustrators and Caricaturists, 1800-1914, p245, C. M. Kelly, The Brocks: a family of Cambridge artists and illustrators, (London, 1975), p10.

[10] The Message, p40.

[11] Ibid., p55.

[12] Ibid., p233.

[13] Ibid., p236.

[14] R. Strong, Visions of England, (London, 2011),  p147-152.

Images: E. D. Fawcett, ‘Hartmann the anarchist’ in A. Butterworth, The World that Never Was, (London, 2010).

H. M. Brock illustrations taken from Dawson, The Message, available at the Haithi Trust Digital Library.

This post was based largely on a paper I recently gave at the graduate student symposium Art, Anxiety, and Protest in the Edwardian Belle Epoque, held on March 1st at the Yale Center for British Art.   I am very grateful to Neil Robson for sharing his biographical research on  A J Dawson.  

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Duty and Disloyalty

Despite seemingly clear-cut, the fear of invasion throughout British history has rarely existed in total isolation from other anxieties.  This is reflected by the porous nature of Edwardian fiction of invasion and future war.  Sitting on the boundary of early science-fiction, of ‘Boy’s Own’ adventures and spy-scare espionage tales, thematically separating such narratives is often difficult.  The process is also arguably unnecessary, or at least not essential, as these varying subgenres enjoy such commonality of themes that they are better assessed together than apart.

This caveat provides researchers of invasion-scare fiction (such as myself) justification for straying slightly from their remit.  One case in point is the short story The North Afire, a picture of what may be by W D Newton.  A journalist and editor who additionally wrote the pacifistic invasion narrative War, Newton penned this short story in 1914 in response to the growing political impasse over Ulster’s position in the movement for Irish Home Rule.  In the context of the recent Ulster Covenant and the ever-improving military effectiveness of the paramilitary Ulster Volunteer Force, Newton feared the prospect of British soldiers having to paradoxically coerce Ulster into an independent Ireland.  The North Afire plays out his nightmare scenario, in which British troops are forced to intervene after the UVF attempt to form a provisional provincial government.  Capturing the unhappy futility of such a conflict, the UVF officer Stackpoole’s stoicism is suitably ‘British’ in its understatement, “What a damned ironic tangle we are all in”.[1]

Ulster Volunteers gather at Craigavon, March 1914

Though relatively well-written and executed, the real significance of The North Afire is not its literary quality, but its relation to the ‘Curragh mutiny’ in March of the same year.  In the wake of governmental orders to increase troop numbers in Belfast, widespread officer discontent at the prospect of coercion led the Commander in Chief in Ireland Sir Arthur Paget to secure verbal concession from the War Office that, should officers feel unable to obey orders but unwilling to accept dismissal, they could “disappear” for the duration of such operations.[2]  In the event, sixty officers of the 3rd Cavalry Brigade then at the Curragh army base resigned their commissions rather than face the possibility of leading operations in Ulster. Initially refusing to accept these resignations, the War Secretary Jack Seely further erred by promising in writing that the army would never be harnessed to force through Home Rule in Ulster, a concession the Cabinet quickly cancelled, leading to numerous ministerial resignations.  [3]

1st Dorsets en route to Holywood Barracks, Belfast, March 1914

Rightly dismissing the ‘erroneous’ title of mutiny, Ian Beckett describes the Curragh incident as “one of the very few occasions in modern times when the British army could be said openly to be challenging civil supremacy over the military in peacetime”.[4]  The events highlighted that any future operation in Ulster might threaten the unity of the army’s officer corps.  In The North Afire, Newton forecasts such a split upon outbreak of rebellion, where half of the army refuse to follow orders and join the ranks of the paramilitaries.  This schism is represented through two officers and friends, Loudoun and Stackpoole.  For the former, who has not resigned his commission, orders, however unpalatable, must be obeyed, “To me a soldier is a soldier…not a politician.”[5]  By contrast, the Ulsterman Stackpoole interprets his orders as fundamentally disloyal.  As his sister April appeals to Loudon, “for us duty means the Union”.[6]  While a compromise is eventually reached between Belfast and Westminster, it comes too late for the two officers in question, as Loudoun shoots Stackpoole as he attempts to trigger a bomb.

As one review in The Athenaeum asserts, the most concerted criticism in Newton’s tragedy is directed at “parliamentary loquacity”, or governmental incompetence.[7]  Rather than effectively managing the crisis, “the Government had started weathercock whirlings, as is the way with governments with whom the whole essence of existence is the expending of wind”.[8]  In his last speech in the Lords, Lord Roberts decried the dilemma facing soldiers between enforcing legal authority and fulfilling their sense of duty, and stressed the importance of conscience, “an innate sense of right and wrong, which neither reason nor man-made laws can affect.”[9] For Roberts, as for Newton, poor governance had forced officers to make extremely difficult judgement calls.  This dynamic highlights not only the often complex relationship between civil and military authority, but the importance of the abstract ‘duty’ for Edwardian Unionists in the debate over Irish Home Rule.


[1] W. Newton, The North Afire: a picture of what may be, (London, 1914), p86.

[2] D. Powell, The Edwardian Crisis, Britain 1901-1914, (London, 1996), p150.

[3] G. Searle, A New England? Peace and War 1886-1918, (Oxford, 2004), p431-432.

[4] I. Beckett, ed, The Army and the Curragh Incident 1914, (London, 1986), p1.  This edited collection of primary sources is the best account of the incident.

[5] The North Afire, p9.

[6] The North Afire, p10.

[7] ‘The North Afire’, The Athenaeum, (May, 1914), p740.

[8] The North Afire, p142.

[9] Lord Roberts, in R. J. Q. Adams, Field Marshal Earl Roberts: Army and Empire, in J. A. Thompson and A. Mejia, eds, Edwardian Conservatism: Five Studies in Adaptation, (London, 1988), p71.

Images: ‘Ulster Calm in Crisis’, Daily Mirror, (March 23rd 1914), p10-11.

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From our foreign correspondent

For many of the authors of invasion-scare fiction, their commitment to the prospect of invasion was akin to a sense of martyrdom.  One illustrative example is Lord Roberts, the colonial military hero, who recorded his despair in his introduction to William Le Queux’s The Invasion of 1910, “of the country ever becoming alive to the danger of the unpreparedness of our present position until too late to prevent some fatal catastrophe.”[1]   Though attracting a significant core support during the Edwardian years, ‘invasion’ largely remained a chimera, just as its advocates continued to be dismissed as alarmists.  Even those who avidly read tales of future-war arguably sought the literary thrill of speculation, and not confirmation of shared invasion fears.  As the cartoon below suggests, contemporary commentators regularly treated such themes with satirical contempt.  Even the oft-fictional enemy questioned the British invasion preoccupation.  In 1908 one contributor to the German naval journal Marine Rundschau asserted that such a military operation was “contrary to the elementary principles of the efficient use of military power”[2].

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Such assurances, of course, were not readily accepted.  As Moon explains, “German denials only reinforced English apprehension.”[3]  Furthermore, Germany had been the source of several future war narratives of British collapse and, echoing the Kaiser’s drive for Weltpolitik, imperial reorganisation.  One of the earliest of these works was August Niemann’s Der Weltkrieg – Deutsche Träume (World War – German Dreams).   Niemann was more military analyst than author of fiction, with notable works including the vast military dictionary Militär-Handlexikon[4].  First published in Germany in 1904, Der Weltkrieg was in Clarke’s words “a highly optimistic and amateur attempt to rearrange the world to suit German pretensions.”[5]  In a period of increasingly delicate Anglo-German relations, Niemann’s tract was treated by some as evidence of Germany’s aggressive, anti-British intentions.  Published in Britain as The Coming Conquest of England, the translator’s note suggested that the book’s “meaning and…moral should be obvious and valuable.”[6]

The story hinges on the formation of the ‘Triple Alliance’ of France, Germany, and Russia.  Furious at shady British involvement in the outbreak of hostilities with Japan, a crisis is engineered by Russia in Afghanistan that forces the hand of British diplomacy.  Pouring troops through the Khyber Pass, Russian troops quickly overwhelm British resistance, aided by the mutiny of Indian troops.  With Lahore and Delhi both under Russian occupation, the narrative ends with Britain in open retreat down the subcontinent, facing total capitulation.  Meanwhile, naval defeat in the North Sea allows both France and Germany to land troops in Britain.  Ending with peace negotiations at Hampton Court, the victorious German General is given the final words, “His Majesty the Emperor will enter Loudon at the head of the allied armies. Peace is assured. God grant that it may be the last war which we shall have to wage for the future happiness of the German nation!”[7]

 

 

As with the majority of such fiction, the work received mixed reviews.  Asserting that “Imaginary wars are seldom satisfactory”, The Athenaeum wearily described Niemann’s story as “feeble” and “ridiculous”, directing particular ire at his assessment of Britain’s defensive capabilities at India’s North West frontier.[8]   Another writer in the Irish Times picked up on these inaccuracies, highlighting that for Russia to cross the Hindu-Kush would involve  ascending to 18,000 feet, and as such, would require “more camels or mules than could be obtained in the whole of the Russian possessions.”[9]  Yet as the same writer recognised, to dwell on inaccuracies was to miss the significance of The Coming Conquest of England, as “the main interest in the book lies in what they [Britain’s enemies] wish to do, and not in what they can do.”[10]  This principle was echoed by the neutral voice of the New York Times, “As a novel it hardly counts; as an indication of how some people in Germany look at things; as, in some sort, a warning to Great Britain of possible joints in her armour of defence, the story has undoubted value.”[11]   

How representative was Niemann’s rhetoric of German popular opinion?  In areas he certainly touches on issues of national interest and debate, such as colonial expansion, naval reform, and the idea of pan-Germanism.  Of course, Germany, as with Edwardian Britain, was a country riven by social and political divides, and could very rarely boast a truly united opinion or voice.  However, this episode seems less a question of actual German opinion than of British understanding of German ambitions.  Accurate or otherwise, The Coming Conquest of England caused sensation because it seemed to confirm alarmist interpretations of Germany’s aggressive ambition.  From our view as historians, it thus explains far more about British fears than it does about German intentions.

 


[1] Preface to William Le Queux, The Invasion of 1910, (London, 1906). 

[2]Clarke, Voices Prophesying War, p153.

[3] H. Moon, The Invasion of the United Kingdom: Public Controversy and Official Planning, unpublished PhD thesis, (University of London  1968), p388.

[4] E. Bleiler, Science Fiction: The Early Years, (Kent, OH: Kent State U. P. 1990), p546.

[5] Clarke, Voices Prophesying War, p143.

[6] A. Niemann, The Coming Conquest of England, (London, 1904), vii. See also I. F. Clarke, The Great War with Germany, 1890-1914, (Liverpool, 1997), p183.

[7] Ibid., p384.

[8] The Athenaeum 4016 (Oct 15, 1904): 515

[9] LONDON CORRESPONDENCE Weekly Irish Times (1876-1920) [Dublin, Ireland] 28 Jan 1905: 14.

[10] Ibid.

[11] New York Times (1857-1922) [New York, N.Y] 10 Dec 1904.

 

Images: 1. W. K. Haselden, ‘The Era of Panics’, Daily Mirror, 24th May 1909, accessed through the British Cartoon Archive, http://www.cartoons.ac.uk

2. ‘The German map of the world, Kladderadatsch, 14th March 1907, in I. F. Clarke, The Great War with Germany, p214.

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Channelling the Tunnel Fear

In his seminal study Voices Prophesying War, the literary historian I F Clarke identifies future-war fiction as a political barometer.  The genre’s progress from the late-Victorian through to the Edwardian, he asserts, “presents a perfect mirror image of the international situation at the time of writing.”[1]  His argument is vindicated in part by book titles alone.  While The Coming Waterloo (1901) and A New Trafalgar (1902) highlight the longevity of Anglo-French antagonism, the later works Spies of the Kaiser (1909), The German Invasion of England (1910) and Saki’s symbolically titled When William Came (1913) nicely illustrate the shifting sands of European power-politics.   Indeed, some have suggested such literature was not purely reflective, but itself helped foster rampant xenophobia and a pronounced paranoia focused on German military and naval ambitions.  Alongside “the lies and half-truths of irresponsible journalists”, invasion-scare authors were later seen to have “encouraged militarism and promoted an unreasoning hatred of Germany.”[2]  Accurate or otherwise, Clarke is right in recognising the significance that, for the first time in history, thanks to universal literacy and the mass media, “the writing of popular fiction had begun to have a recognisable effect on the relations between countries”.[3]

The fiction did not only reflect long-term political trends, it equally responded to specific events and controversies.  An excellent example of the latter is the various publications that followed the furore over Sir Edward Watkins’s channel tunnel project.  Though exploratory work began in 1881, the project was abandoned the following year in controversy after public and political outcry.  As the Duke of Cambridge explained, years of naval precaution would be undone if a future tunnel was compromised, as Britain might “find an enemy in actual possession of both its ends, and able at pleasure to pour an army through unopposed.”[4]  Various fictional accounts including The Siege of Dover, The Seizure of the Channel Tunnel and How John Bull Lost London all played on such themes, adding the threat of an increase in French immigration creating a fifth column perfectly placed to affect such a scheme.  Britain, it seemed, was not yet ready to abandon her island status for the sake of technological modernity.     

 

Interestingly, these channel tunnel fears far outlasted the aborted scheme itself.  As late as 1901, Max Pemberton’s Pro Patria saw a story of foiled invasion based on familiar threats.  A Cambridge-educated journalist, Pemberton enjoyed a distinguished career.  Co-founding the London School of Journalism in 1919, he had earlier been the first editor of the boys’ weekly newspaper Chums in 1892.  Enjoying a long association with the media mogul Alfred Harmsworth (later Lord Northcliffe) of whom he wrote a biography, Pemberton was close to the centre of Edwardian journalism during a time of dynamic expansion and influence.[5]   

 

The story follows the amateur espionage of Alfred Hilliard, a self-confessed “obscure officer of the Hussars” who, having recognised his former associate Robert Jeffrey masquerading as a French engineer, begins to suspect treason.  Accosting Jeffrey, or Monsieur Martel, at his construction site at Escalles, Hilliard is shown the real nature of the secretive project:

“He pointed out to me the mouth of a great inclined railway which appeared to dip down in a cast cutting straight to the bowels of the earth.”[6]

Managing to evade capture and fleeing to England, Hilliard loses no time in trying to convince his countrymen of the threat they face.  Appealing to one close friend that “the French are trying to make a tunnel  to England as we contemplated making to France some years ago”, he struggles to accept the disbelief with which he is met:

“If it is possible to build a tunnel from Calais to Dover, I don’t see why a nation, which from the days of Napoleon has invited madcap schemes for the invasion of England, should not turn to this scheme.”[7]

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Endeavouring to discover the ‘English-end’ of the tunnel in and around Dover, Hilliard is captured by Jeffrey during one such reconnaissance mission, and imprisoned in the very location he was so keen to discover.  When all appears lost, however, the plot is foiled, and Britain lives to fight another day.   Though this redemption is largely thanks to several Anglophile French characters, Pemberton readily indulges in anti-French rhetoric.  Having brawled with a fellow train passenger in transit to Dover, Hilliard’s description to the police is certainly to the point, “he was a Frenchman with an absurd cravat and a deplorable hat.”[8]  Such rhetoric seems deliberately comical, but it masks a genuine horror at the dangers of this tunnel opportunism.  Later dreaming of a French army pouring through the completed tunnel, Hilliard is horrified by his own subconscious imaginings:

“the road of steel…France thrust out beneath the Channel-bed until it should touch the gardens of England and make her mistress of them.”[9]

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Unlike many of its genre, Pro Patria enjoyed a largely positive reception.  The Academy applauded the work’s “sense of conviction”, a quality it considered “uncommon in such yarns”.[10]  Echoing this sentiment, The Saturday Review praised the narrative style for its “variety and vigour”.[11]  There is a sense, however, that the threat envisaged by Pemberton was no longer at the forefront of the public mind as it had been twenty years before.  As the less complimentary Athenaeum asserts, “there is a certain amount of ingenuity…displayed in elaborating the scheme by which England is to be invaded by France, but the motives which animate the plotters seem hardly adequate”.[12]  Pro Patria thus offers interesting insight on the dynamic of reflection and influence outlined above.  Though driven by a premise that had animated readers in the past, Pemberton’s story no longer reflected a popular concern.  If anything, he aimed to reignite Anglo-French animosity.


[1] I. F. Clarke, Voices Prophesying War 1763-1984, (Oxford, 1966), p108.

[2] A. J. A. Morris, The Scaremongers: the advocacy of war and rearmament, 1896-1914, (London, 1984), p3.

[3] Clarke, Voices Prophesying War, p143.

[4] Ibid., p112.

[5] Bleiler, Science Fiction: The Early Years, p591,  Kemp, Mitchell, and Trotter, Edwardian Fiction, p312.

[6] Pro Patria, p70.

[7] Ibid., p137.

[8] Ibid., p213.

[9] Ibid., p238.

[10] PRO PATRIA. The Academy, 1869-1902, 0269-333X 1508 (Mar 30, 1901): p286

[11] “Pro Patria.” Saturday review of politics, literature, science and art91. 2373 (Apr 20, 1901): p508.

[12] Pro Patria. The Athenaeum 3835 (Apr 27, 1901): p525-526.

Images: M. Pemberton, Pro Patria, (London, 1901), p66 and 248.

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