‘Master of Misinformation’

‘Master of Misinformation’ Le Queux Workshop, Trinity College Dublin, 9th June 2015

William Le Queux, 'The Great War in England in 1897 (1894)

William Le Queux, The Great War in England in 1897 (1894)

I am very happy to promote an event I am organising alongside Ailise Bulfin (Trinity College Dublin) to take place on 9th June 2015.  ‘Master of Misinformation: William Le Queux, Invasion Scares and Spy Fever, 1880-1930′ is a follow-up to ‘Empire in Peril: Invasion-scares and Popular Politics in Britain 1890-1914′, hosted by Queen Mary University of London in November 2013 (http://www.history.qmul.ac.uk/news-and-events/event/empire-peril-invasion-scares-popular-politics).  This interdisciplinary workshop hosted by The Long Room Hub at Trinity College Dublin and funded by the Irish Research Council aims to bring together William Le Queux scholars from around the world, with a view to producing an edited collection of essays offering new thoughts/approaches to Le Queux.  Several speakers have already been confirmed, including Michael Hughes (Lancaster) and Richard Scully (University of New England, Australia).  The keynote address will be delivered by Roger Stearn, whose biographical article ‘The Mysterious Mr Le Queux’ is one of the best examinations of Le Queux’s unusual life.

If you would like more information then please get in touch with Ailise (bulfinam@tcd.ie) or myself (harry.1.wood@kcl.ac.uk).

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The Perils of Expertise

Although Edwardian invasion-scare fiction was written by people from a range of backgrounds, the genre’s authors can be neatly divided in two, between civilians on the one hand and military/naval personnel on the other.  These opposing groups formed an unusual dynamic.  As Michael Matin has explored, armed forces professionals often accused their civilian counterparts of “potentially catastrophic failures of imagination”.   Oblivious to the hardships and suffering of modern warfare thanks to several centuries of sea-girt security, Britain and the British are accused in these works of over-confidence. Yet ironically, the imaginations of these expert contributors often operated “within tightly circumscribed limits.”  Hamstrung by the “antitechnological cult of the offensive”, these professional speculators regularly offered far less accurate images of modern warfare than their civilian rivals.”[1]

Various scholars have attempted to explain this strange dynamic, in which the experts falter and the amateurs succeed.  In Imagining Future War, Antulio Echevarria points to the challenges of assessing the short-term effects of technological change.   Authors from the armed forces tend to focus “on the immediate future in an attempt to solve specific problems, usually of a tactical or technological nature.”[2] The amateur visionaries of early science fiction, by contrast, were far less temporally and thematically shackled. Falling primarily into the latter category, Echevarria suggests that the civilian authors of invasion literature made little effort “to ground…forecasts in actual events, or to verify apparent trends.”[3]  Crucially, both armed forces professionals and amateur writers used the future “as a means rather than an end”, aiming to shape contemporary military strategy and society through speculative, often opportunistic novels.[4]

This final point is particularly important.  Edwardian invasion narratives, in my view, are best understood as contemporary records rather than speculative strategic treatise.  One example of the genre that aptly illustrates this point is The New Battle of Dorking (1900).  This is one of several unimaginatively-named works that directly referenced George Chesney’s ground-breaking short-story The Battle of Dorking (1871).  It was written by Frederic Maude, a Colonel in the Royal Engineers and prolific military historian.  Maude wrote a series of strategic analyses of the Napoleonic period, including The Leipzig Campaign (1908) and The Jena Campaign (1905)He also wrote several tactical studies, such as ‘Military Training and Modern Weapons’ (Contemporary Review, 1900).

Maude was clearly more qualified than most to speculate on the future of conflict. It is curious to note, therefore, that The New Battle of Dorking offers very little in the way of accurate speculation.  Maude’s basic premise, as he set out in the work’s introduction, was thus:

“There are three months in every year – July, August, September – during which the French Army is fit for immediate warfare.  And every year during these months there is a constantly recurrent probability of a surprise raid on London by the 120,000 men whom they could without difficulty put on board ship, land in England, and march to within a dozen miles of London in less than three days…”[5]

Though accepting that such a raid was hardly guaranteed success, Maude argued that “The French have everything to gain and little to lose if they make the attempt”.  This, of course, is exactly what occurs in the novel.  After a torpedo attack on Portsmouth Dockyard, the French land troops at Rye, Hastings, Eastbourne and Worthing.  With the Navy on naval manoeuvres off the Irish Coast, and the majority of Regulars fighting in South Africa, the situation initially looks bleak.  Yet the French invasion is defeated in less than a week.  With the French advance into London halted at Shooters Hill, and a crushing victory won at Chaldon Downs, the final battle naturally takes place at Dorking, where the remaining French forces are convincing routed by a roughshod body of reservists and volunteers.

‘The New Battle of Dorking' (1900)

‘Diagram showing British and French movements’, The New Battle of Dorking (1900)

Why, then, had the military historian Maude produced such an unconvincing, disconnected narrative of future-war?  I would argue that accurate prophesy was not the primary motivation behind The New Battle of Dorking.  A far more important influence on the work was the contemporary debate over the concept of physical deterioration, set in motion by the disastrous South African War. Beginning in October 1899, the conflict was initially marked by a series of catastrophic British military defeats (the worst of which took place during the infamous ‘Black Week’).   By the war’s end in mid-1902, it had cost 22,000 British lives, more than £200 million, and required an army of 450,000 to defeat an ill-equipped enemy.[6]  Despite eventual victory, Britain’s reputation as the predominant global power had been significantly undermined. Within Britain itself, moreover, the war triggered a deep and lengthy period of introspection.  One popular explanation for this poor performance concerned the health of Regular Army applicants.  Though this debate reached its peak several years later through the Inter-Departmental Report on Physical Deterioration, these social Darwinist anxieties had developed into a prominent national discourse by the early months of 1900.  In a representative letter to The Saturday Review entitled ‘Is England Decadent?’, compulsory military service was touted as the answer to the physical health question: “If we are afraid to rouse people to self-discipline, and to the stern performance of civic obligations, decadence sooner or later will meet us.”[7]

‘David and Goliath, Kruger and Buller’ (1900), University of California

‘David and Goliath, Kruger and Buller’ (1900), University of California

Yet in The New Battle of Dorking we have an outspoken refutation of degeneration fears.  Maude goes out of his way to praise the physical and mental qualities of the British forces.  Describing an engagement at Guilford, the officer narrator describes “the quite excellent order, discipline, and the smart bearing of the men generally”.  “I still felt a thrill of pride”, he continues, “in the sterling qualities of my countrymen.  There were few if any loafers in the streets, and those there seemed quiet and resolute”.  Turning crude Darwinism to his own ends, Maude christens the men “the survivors of the fittest”.  Though accepting that Britain faced major military challenges, he “could not believe that we were as a race really degenerating. It was the fault of our training. Given a sufficient spur and properly led, our men were capable of anything.”  Later in the novel, as the British troops sought to retake Bromley, the patchwork force of Volunteers and Reservists “assaulted with an irresistible courage that, under the circumstances, disciplined troops could not have excelled.”  The French enemy, by contrast, were “without the moral stamina to stand up to serious reverses, or the physical strength to endure fatigue.  Their discipline was the discipline of fear, not of reasoned intelligence”. Britain’s civilians, too, are far superior to their French equivalents.  Addressing a crowd at Portsmouth shortly after the outbreak of war, the narrator referred disparagingly to the Paris Commune, and implored to those assembled, “Don’t lose your heads and riot, as the French mob would do”.[8]

The significance of Maude’s novel, then, is not in its vision of future warfare, but in its critique of degeneration anxieties.  While the genre more broadly was not completely bereft of strategic insight, speculation on the nature of modern warfare was rarely the primary consideration, or focus, of invasion literature authors.     Instead of seeking to understand the shortfalls of these military visions, then, historians should arguably seek to contextualise such fiction in the cultural, political, and military history of the pre-1914 period.

This post is based on a research paper originally delivered as part of the First World War Research Group Seminar Series at the Defence Studies Department, King’s College London.

[1] A. Michael Matin, ‘The Creativity of War Planners: Armed Forces Professionals and the Pre-1914 British Invasion-Scare Genre’, ELH, 78.4 (2011), p. 818-822.

[2] A. J. Echevarria II, Imagining Future War: The West’s Technological Revolution and Visions of Wars to Come, 1880-1914 (Westport CA: Praeger Security International, 2007), pp. 96-98.

[3] Ibid., p. 49.

[4] Ibid., xv.

[5] F. N. Maude, The New Battle of Dorking (London: G. Richards, 1900).

[6] D. Lowry, ‘Not Just a ‘Tea-Time War’’, in The South African War Reappraised, (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2000), p. 2.

[7] ‘Is England Decadent?’, Saturday Review, 89.2306 (1900), p. 14.

[8] Maude, The New Battle of Dorking.

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A Flight of Fancy

One of the most iconic events of the Edwardian period was Louis Blériot’s flight across the English Channel in 1909.  Piloting a craft of his own design, the Frenchman took off from near Calais early on the morning of 25th July, and landed half an hour later near Dover Castle.  Praising Blériot’s achievement, the Daily Mail heralded the event as “the dawn of a new age for man”.  There was also a sense that the flight would have profound consequences for Britain.  The “immense sacrifices” the country had suffered in order to achieve naval supremacy suddenly appeared anachronistic.  Britain, it seemed, was no longer an island.[1]

In the varied responses to this momentous occasion, a sense emerged that Blériot’s flight threw worrying light on British attitudes towards scientific and technological innovation.  The fact that a Frenchman, of all people, had succeeded in this endeavour was particularly galling.  Numerous newspapers, though heartfelt in their congratulations of Monsieur Blériot, expressed the wish that “an Englishman had secured this record”.[2]    For H. G. Wells, himself a pioneer of fictional aviation, this failure was representative of Britain’s disregard for the nuts and bolts of scientific progress:

“…the world cannot wait for the English…In the men of means and leisure in this island there was neither enterprise enough, imagination enough, knowledge nor skill enough to lead in this matter…The French and Americans can laugh at our aeroplanes, the Germans are ten years ahead of our poor navigables.  We are displayed a soft, rather backward people.”[3]

Blériot in the cockpit prior to take-off

Blériot in the cockpit prior to take-off

Such pessimism does a slight disservice to Edwardian aviators.  Though undoubtedly trailing the pack in terms of military aviation, Britain was hardly a backwater for aerial technology.[4]  Yet there were certainly people in Edwardian Britain who approached scientific progress with a mixture of suspicion and contempt.  Such attitudes, moreover, are surprisingly common in contemporary invasion and future-war literature.  Despite warning as a genre of the need for constant vigilance and greater military preparation, some authors were equally fearful of how ‘science’ might detrimentally change British society.  In C. A. Clarke’s novel Starved into Surrender (1904), one character mulls over the impact of widespread tramlines in ever-expanding Manchester, expressing a fear of “going along so fast that we can’t see where we’re going”.[5]  Highlighting the fine line between worthwhile innovation and reckless excess, ‘science’ here possesses no social conscience, having “prostituted itself to Mammon instead of working only to advance knowledge in order to perfect life.”[6]  For Gordon Stables, writing in the preface to The Meteor Flag of England (1905), scientific advance equated to “a real Tower of Babel” that “in the arts of peace, as in the arts of war…is ever, ever rising”.[7]

One writer who might have excited the ire of Wells was James Blyth.  An author of four invasion narratives over the course of the Edwardian period, Blyth’s treatment of ‘science’ was not especially advanced.  This is well-demonstrated in his changing attitude towards the prospect of flight.  Like many contemporaries, Blyth initially saw the pioneers of aviation as misguided fantasists.  In his novel Ichabod (1910), his protagonist Noel Pettigrew, himself a scientific prodigy, argues that “Whether for warfare or peace…the air is no place for man”.  Yet by 1912, perhaps unsurprisingly, Blyth seems to have had a change of heart.  In The Peril of Pines Place, a story that imagines enemy agents stirring up social unrest in Britain, the narrative is based around the success of the Gerfalcon, a prototype aeroplane designed and flown by one of the lead characters.  “Two years ago”, the pilot tells an assembled crowd, “you would have thought that I was talking nonsense in saying I’m going to fly from Essex here tonight”.  Blyth’s lack of foresight is thus explained away as the product of a wider (and perfectly natural) national cynicism.[8]

Louis Blériot’s channel crossing, then, was far more than a moment of aviation history.  It was also a moment for national reflection, and in some quarters, recrimination.  And though the aircraft came from across the channel, it was to the North Sea skies that nervous commentators turned their gaze.  For if Britain had become blinded to science, Germany was, in the words of the novelist Napier Hawke, “the one progressive and scientific country in the world”.[9]

This post was inspired by research on display at ‘When the Lamps Went Out: H. G. Wells and His World on the Eve of War’, the annual conference of the H. G. Wells Society.


[1] ‘The Meaning of the Marvel’, Daily Mail (26th July 1909), p. 6.  See also B. A. Elliot, Blériot: Herald of an Age (Stroud: Tempus, 2000).

[2] ‘Round the City’, Sheffield Evening Telegraph (26th July 1909), p. 4.

[3] H. G. Wells, An Englishman Looks at the World (London: Cassell and Company, 1914), p. 3.

[4] For a good account of early aerial technology and its relationship with military strategy see T. Biddle, Rhetoric and Reality in Air Warfare (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2002).

[5] C. A. Clarke, Starved into Surrender (London: C. W. Daniel, 1904), p. 39.

[6] Ibid., p. 199.

[7] G. Stables, The Meteor Flag of England (London: Nisbet, 1908), vii-viii.

[8] J. Blyth, The Peril of Pines Place (London: F. V. White and Co., 1912) , p. 57.

[9] N. Hawke, The Invasion That Did Not Come Off (London: Henry J. Drane, 1909), p. 78.

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Comic Relief

The prospect of invasion in Edwardian Britain, imagined so regularly and vividly in contemporary invasion literature, is generally considered to have been no laughing matter.  In his entertaining book Don’t Mention the War, John Ramsden suggests that the invasion genre was “beyond parody”.  With ostensibly ‘serious’ books having “already hi-jacked the improbable”, no room was left, in Ramsden view, for authors who wished to satirise the fear of invasion.[1]  Yet a detailed look at Edwardian invasion literature highlights that satirical works were far more common than once thought.  Examples include Allen Upward’s The Fourth Conquest of England (1904), a vision “of the re-union of the Churches of England and Rome” in which C. B. Fry is appointed Secretary for Sport, and the Vatican declares the non-existence of the Antipodes.[2]  A similarly absurd work is The North Sea Bubble (1906) by E. J. Oldmeadow.  Described by the Manchester Courier as “a good wholesome mixture of rollicking farce, gallant deeds, and a capital love story”, the work imagines an army of German immigrants fighting for the British, hoping to avoid court marshal by the invading forces for evading conscription in Germany.[3]  The satirical magazine Punch also took aim at the invasion genre.  In a 1909 column entitled ‘The Invaders’, the prolific author William Le Queux and the editor of the National Review Leo Maxse were depicted as British agents, ‘invading’ Germany to deliver some much-needed retaliation.[4]  Evidently, then, some authors and publishers believed that a market for invasion satire existed in one form or another.

Fritz Fleischmann of 'The North Sea Bubble': waiter-turned-General, and leader of a German fifth column fighting against the German invaders.

Fritz Fleischmann of The North Sea Bubble.  Waiter-turned-General, and leader of a German vigilante force fighting against the German invaders, Fleischmann is a parody of the pronounced British fear of immigrant fifth columns.

By far the most famous of these satirical narratives is The Swoop! or, How Clarence Saved England, written in 1909 by a young P. G. Wodehouse. The Swoop! sees Britain simultaneously invaded by nine separate aggressors, including Germany, Russia, the Swiss Navy and “a boisterous band of Young Turks”.  This situation is “rendered still more disquieting” by the fact that “England’s military strength at this time was practically nil”.  With the Army undermined by egalitarian socialist reforms (whereby every man in the Army has been promoted to the rank of General), and the recently-established Territorial Force finding “the strain of being referred to on the music-hall stage as Teddy-boys was too much for them”, Britain is left defenceless, save for Clarence and his indomitable Boy Scouts.[5]  The British population, largely unconcerned by the unfolding invasion disaster, appear far more interested in the county cricket scores.  Orchestrating a covert campaign of resistance (which includes persuading Grand Duke Vodkakoff of Russia and Prince Otto Saxe-Pfennig of Germany to produce rival music-hall shows), Clarence, “the Boy of Destiny”, emerges as the saviour of England.[6]

C. Harrison's much-reproduced illustration from The Swoop!, where country cricket scores appear more important than news of the German invasion.

C. Harrison’s much-reproduced illustration from The Swoop!, where country cricket scores appear more important than news of the German invasion.

Despite being considered in detail by most analyses of British invasion literature, The Swoop! was not a major success.  Selling relatively few copies (certainly in comparison to William Le Queux’s Spies of the Kaiser, published in the same year), the work remained out of print until 1979.  In a critical analysis of Wodehouse and his “conspicuously unpatriotic life”, Norman Longmate highlights that The Swoop! was a commercial and literary flop. [7]  This lack of success has been interpreted as further evidence that the invasion genre was not a suitable subject for parody.  The literary historian I. F. Clarke, for example, has argued that this indifferent reception was hardly surprising.  “After such a heavy diet of war stories and appeals to join the Territorials”, the Edwardian reading public, in Clarke’s words, “was not likely to be amused by such frivolity”.[8]

A trawl through contemporary newspapers, however, suggests that such satire was welcome in some quarters.  The Dundee Courier praised the work as “a clever and amusing skit on the invasion stories which are the vogue just now.”[9]  Going into more detail, the Aberdeen Journal described The Swoop! as “a combination of burlesques”:

‘An Englishman’s Home,’ [Guy du Maurier’s highly-successful invasion-scare play, first produced in 1909] the apprehensions of a German invasion, the zeal of the Boy Scouts, the English absorption in games, the music-hall craze, the heroics of the ‘Daily Mail,’…all being satirised in turn.[10]

The most outspoken voice of approval came from the Manchester Guardian.  In an article entitled ‘A Breath of Sane Humour’, the reviewer condemned a recent and controversial case of theatrical censorship.  Praising The Swoop! as excellent satire, the review concluded that “sincere movements or respectable institutions have not much to fear from good-natured parody.”[11]

Critical and popular reception, of course, are quite different beasts.  This collection of positive reviews does not change the fact that The Swoop! failed to achieve the level of success many ‘serious’ invasion narratives enjoyed.  Yet perhaps, after all, humour did have a place (however small) in the Edwardian invasion-scare.

[1] J. Ramsden, Don’t Mention the War: the British and the Germans since 1890 (London: Little, Brown, 2006), p. 73.

[2] A. Upward, The Fourth Conquest of England (London: Tyndale Press, 1904)

[3] Manchester Courier (16th November 1906), p. 9, E. J. Oldmeadow, The North Sea Bubble (London: E. Grant Richards, 1906), p. 92.

[4] ‘The Invaders’, Punch (17th March 1909)

[5] P. G. Wodehouse, The Swoop! or, How Clarence Saved England (Rockville: Arc Manor, 2008),pp. 18-19.

[6] Ibid., p. 64.

[7] N. Longmate, Island Fortress: The Defence of Great Britain 1603-1945 (London: Hutchinson, 1991),p. 420.

[8] I. F. Clarke, Voices Prophesying War: Future Wars 1763-3749 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1992), p. 127.

[9] ‘An Amusing Skit’, Dundee Courier (28th April 1909), p. 7.

[10] ‘Miscellaneous’, Aberdeen Journal (26th April 1909), p. 3.

[11] ‘A Breath of Sane Humour’, Manchester Guardian (21st April 1909), p. 6.   The censorship case in question was over a skit on An Englishman’s Home by Harry Pelissier, which was refused licence by the Lord Chamberlain.  See N. Hiley, ‘The Play, the Parody, the Censor and the Film’, Intelligence & National Security, 6.1 (1991), pp. 218-228.

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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]


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]


‘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]


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]   


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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