Invasion on the Radio

I am a committed Radio 4 listener (to the extent that I am the proud owner of Today Programme egg cups which immortalise Jim Naughtie, Sarah Montague and John Humphreys in pottery-form). I was nonetheless surprised to learn recently that Alistair Cooke’s Letter from America and Melvyn Bragg’s In Our Time have covered British invasion-scare fiction. Having accessed both on the BBC IPlayer archive, it is interesting to reflect on how these prominent cultural commentary programmes have contextualised and interpreted the invasion literature phenomenon.

Broadcast on 13th May 1988, ‘The Forgotten William Le Queux’ edition of Letter from America was responding to the death of the British spy and double agent Kim Philby. The programme considers Le Queux’s role in the emergence of the British Intelligence Service. This is a debatable legacy linked to the novel Spies of the Kaiser, and one that has been discussed at length by Nicholas Hiley and David French.[1] After the publication of the book in 1909 Le Queux received a significant number of letters from concerned readers, “telling him of the suspicious behaviour of German waiters, barbers and tourists in the vicinity of telephone, telegraph, and railway lines, bridges, and water-mains on the east coast and near London”.[2] Le Queux sent his portfolio of letters on to the director of the military operations counter-insurgency section Lieutenant-Colonel James Edmonds, a fellow Germanophobe who readily accepted the veracity of this highly-questionable evidence. Compelled into acting “if only to remedy its own ignorance”, in March 1909 the cabinet established a sub-committee to investigate the situation, a development which led, albeit circuitously, to the establishment of the Secret Service Bureau.[3] Labelled “the improbable founding father of modern espionage, Cooke describes Le Queux’s fiction as “early spy melodrama of the most lurid, preposterous sort, a good deal less credible than the incredible exploits of James Bond”.

Delivered with Cooke’s trademark eloquence, the crux of the episode is an extraordinary anecdote about U Thant, the Burmese diplomat and Secretary General of the United Nations for most of the 1960s. In an interview conducted towards the end of his tenure, Cooke recalls asking U Thant about his reading habits as a child. He had bashfully replied that he was “the only boy in the class who did not read Charles Garvice and William Le Queux”. Cooke dwells on his astonishment at the popular reach of these now obscure Edwardian authors. “The incredible thing about U Thant’s remark”, he thought, “was that it came from a Burmese, way off there a million miles away from our life”. It was surely true, Cooke went on to muse by paraphrasing Rupert Brooke, that there is “some corner of a foreign field that is forever England”.

14975-U_Thant

U Thant – Not a Le Queux man

The extent of Le Queux’s popularity with the reading public remains difficult to judge, as Ailise Bulfin’s recent bibliographical article explores in detail. Yet this anecdote points to the global nature of Le Queux’s audience, an author as popular in the public schools of colonial Burma as he was among Daily Mail subscribers. As for In Our Time…all in good time.

 

[1] N. Hiley, ‘Decoding German Spies: British Spy Fiction 1908-18’, Intelligence and National Security, 5.4 (1990), 61, D. French, ‘Spy Fever in Britain, 1900-1915’, Historical Journal, 21.2 (1978), 357.

[2] Ibid.

[3] Ibid., 358.

‘The Forgotten William Le Queux’ is available at http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/p00yds45

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After the Watershed

The majority of research on British invasion-scare fiction has treated August 1914 as a natural watershed. This is in part a reflection of wider historiographical trends in which the outbreak of the First World War is assumed to represent the end of an era, be it Edwardian or Victorian.[1] It is also a recognition of an important change in circumstance. For a generation of writers that had made their names prophesying inevitable war, the events of August 1914 saw the political context of invasion literature irrecoverably shift. The threat of foreign attack was no longer the province of authors dismissed as alarmists and scaremongers, it was an occupational hazard of total warfare, as German zeppelin raids would soon confirm. While some novelists responded by heeding Kitchener’s call for men (such as A. J. Dawson and Saki), others continued to write anti-German tracts (notably William Le Queux) or became involved in the official propaganda effort (H. G. Wells).

Yet ‘traditional’ invasion narratives did not dry up as quickly as has often been thought. Edgar Wallace’s “1925”: the Story of a Fatal Peace (1915) imagined the invasion of Britain by a resurgent post war Germany, stressing the importance, a la Versailles, of total subjugation. Continuing the Edwardian genre’s focus on the compulsory military service campaign, “Wake Up!”: a Dream of Tomorrow (1915) by L. Cowen argued that conscription was essential if Britain was to be secured against the ongoing threat of invasion. In an interesting play on the pre-war issue of Irish Home Rule, a debate that was violently re-opened during the 1916 Easter Rising, The Germans in Cork (1917) by the pseudonymous Baron Von Kartoffel imagined a German-occupied Ireland, emphasising to Irish nationalists that a German victory over Britain was unlikely to trigger independence. The theme of invasion, then, maintained a degree of influence and relevance in British wartime popular fiction.[2]

Fetch

Daily Mail (30 October 1914)

One of the most interesting examples of this longevity, Hindenburg’s March into London, raises important questions concerning the genre boundaries of British invasion fiction. Originally published in German as Hindenburgs Einmarsch in London (1915), written by Paul Georg Mϋnch, the work quickly piqued the interest of the British press. Described as “extraordinarily and amusingly crude” by The Times, the Dundee Courier christened it “the book of the Christmas season in Germany”.[3] Various newspapers quoted enormous sales figures. Stimulating “all the worst passions of the German people”, the Western Daily Press reported that over two million copies had been sold, while the People’s Journal suggested that “[w]aggon-loads have been sent to the front for distribution among German soldiers with the intention of feeding their carefully fostered hate for Britain”.[4] When the English translation was first serialised in the People’s Journal in early-1916, it was billed as “an opportunity to see the real working of the German mind”.[5] 

British readers of Hindenburg’s March into London were treated to a sensationalist and belligerent narrative of German triumphalism. Beginning with a historical survey of pre-1914 Europe, Britain is described as a “ruthless schoolmistress […] [educating] the countries of the European continent in accordance with England’s wish and will”. Dismissing the Balance of Power as a synonym for “English Predominance”, the author lays the blame for the war firmly at the feet of warmongering British statesmen.[6] The story proper begins with a Hindenburg-inspired victory on the eastern front, forcing Russia to conclude a separate peace. Turning westwards, the combined German armies quickly defeat their French and British foes.  The Royal Navy, in turn, is dispatched in a single paragraph, as a coordinated zeppelin and submarine attack on the Channel Fleet paves the way for the German invasion of Britain.[7] Landing troops at several points along the coasts of Kent and Sussex, a decisive battle is fought on the North Downs, in which the Germans inflict a resounding defeat on the British defence forces. The story concludes with a symbolic march of German troops down the famous thoroughfares of London. Addressing his men outside Buckingham Palace, the victorious Hindenburg praises his audience for making history:

“[…] tell your children the great things you have witnessed in these days, and write all this with a firm stylet on your family tablets, so that in the future […] your children’s children shall say to your honour and to the confusion of our enemies: “One of my forefathers once bivouacked before Buckingham Palace after helping to subdue a whole world of enemies.” Good night, comrades!”8]

hindenberg_cover_1-198x300

Cover of original German edition

 

In Voices Prophesying War, I. F. Clarke categorises Hindenburg’s March into London as a work of German future-war fiction. Comparing it with Arthur Machen’s fantasy The Bowman (1915), Clarke describes the novel “a denunciation of enemy wickedness” shaped by an “exaggerated sense of absolute right”.[9] Many contemporary commentators interpreted the novel in similar terms. The Yorkshire Post considered Mϋnch’s book “as amusingly arrogant as anything that has come out of Germany”, while the Aberdeen Journal suggested the work “ought to give as much amusement in this country as it gave satisfaction in Germany”.[10] Yet the English translation arguably highlights the complex reception of this narrative in Britain. Writing in his introduction, L. G. Redmond offered the following thoughts:

“Had the present bombastic adventure been by way of warning, or even by way of threat, and had it come from the pen of an Englishman, like, say, “The Battle of Dorking,” or Wells’ “War in the Air,” or even William Le Queux’s “Invasion,” we might have questioned its good taste, but we could have felt no qualms in taking it as a tribute to Germany’s greatness; but coming at this belated hour from the pen of an unknown poet of the Fatherland […] it simply indicates a blindness and an unconscious sense of irony[.]”[11]

Despite distinguishing Mϋnch from Chesney, Wells, and Le Queux, Redmond indirectly identifies Hindenburg’s March into London as part of the invasion-scare genre. Various newspaper reviews discussed the book in similar terms. For the Manchester Guardian there was “nothing new in a fantasy in these lines”, as “[t]he most sensational of our own imaginative writers had worked out the same plot much more convincingly before the war”.[12]

There is a clear difference between German visions of future-war and British invasion narratives. The case of Hindenburg’s March into London, however, is a curious one, and raises interesting questions relating to the status of translated works. Much like earlier German novels including The Coming Conquest of England (1904), Redmond’s translation was consciously and deliberately framed with the Edwardian invasion literature tradition. Despite its German origins, the work can arguably be approached as an example of ‘British’ invasion-scare fiction.

 

 

[1] See for example A. Marwick, The Deluge: British Society and the First World War (London: Bodley Head, 1965), M. Eksteins, Rites of Spring: The Great War and the Birth of the Modern Age (London: Bantam, 1989).

[2] I. F. Clarke, Tale of the Future, 3rd ed. (London: The Library Association, 1978), 44-46.

[3] The Times (23 November 1915), 7, Dundee Courier (29 December 1915), 2.

[4] Western Daily Press (12 February 1916), 5, Dundee, Perth, Forfar, and Fife’s People’s Journal (5 February 1916), 11.

[5] Ibid.

[6] L. G. Redmond, ed., Hindenburg’s March into London: Being a Translation from the German Original (London: John Long, 1916), 23, 33.

[7] Ibid., 43, 66-67.

[8] Ibid., 252-253.

[9] I. F. Clarke, Voices Prophesying War: Future Wars 1763-3749, 2nd ed. (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1992), 129.

[10] Yorkshire Post (24 January 1916), 6, Aberdeen Journal (27 January 1916), 4.

[11] Redmond, ed., Hindenburg’s March into London, 13-14.

[12] Manchester Guardian (31 January 1916), 6.  

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Inevitable or Contemptible? Popular Attitudes to the Threat of Invasion

In his vast thesis ‘The Invasion of the United Kingdom’, Howard Moon argued that invasion in late-Victorian and Edwardian Britain was “nothing less than a national obsession”.[1]  This cut-and-dry statement has always raised questions with me.  It seems to suggest that all Britons, regardless of their background, saw the threat of invasion as a pressing concern.  Such generalisation is almost always misleading.  To offer a contemporary comparison, it is akin to suggesting that all (or indeed no) modern-day Britons are anxious about immigration, or the potential impact of scrapping the Trident nuclear deterrent.

There is no doubt that invasion anxieties were common in the years approaching 1914.  There is, in turn, substantial evidence, albeit of a circumstantial kind, that the fear of invasion cut across boundaries of class and national identity.  The late-Edwardian airship panic, recently reassessed by Brett Holman, is one such example.  Between 1912 and 1913 people all over Britain and Ireland reported seeing mysterious aircraft in the night sky, sightings which were presumed to represent a worrying expansion of German aerial power.  Despite having little basis in reality, the sense of unchecked German activity in British airspace exerted an extraordinary hold on the national consciousness.[2]  The popularity of invasion literature has also been identified as evidence of the purchase of such anxieties.  According to Sam Sutcliffe, a working class youth from north London, people read invasion fiction “with excitement and, perhaps, concealed fear”.  It encouraged its readers to assume “that war with Germany was inevitable”.[3]

Associated Newspapers Ltd/Solo Syndication, British Cartoon Archive, University of Kent, David Low, The Spectator (23 June 1908)

Associated Newspapers Ltd/Solo Syndication, British Cartoon Archive, University of Kent, David Low, The Spectator (23 June 1908)

Yet I would argue that the national relationship with invasion was far more complex than such accounts would suggest.  This thesis is certainly born out by research I have recently conducted of oral interviews in the Imperial War Museum Sound Archive.  In the first instance, interviewees who discuss invasion tend to refer to their wartime experience rather than to pre-war anxieties.  For Stanley Harris, serving with the King’s Liverpool Regiment having joined up in August 1914, a rumour of German invasion was one of several “funny stories” recounted from his period of basic military training.[4]  The threat of invasion often seems to have been seen as an improbable panic, and met with a mixture of bemusement and disinterest.  One illustrative example of this is recalled by Thomas Northcote, a private in the 6th Battalion Manchester Regiment.  Awaiting transport to Egypt at Southampton in August 1914, Northcote and his fellow soldiers were suddenly dished out with the full compliment of ammunition.  “We wondered what was going on…[we] found out afterwards that two German cruisers had sailed down the east coast…and the powers that be thought it was the start of an invasion.”  Laughing at the memory, Northcote concluded that “it was just a false alarm really”.[5]

This dismissive attitude, however, was far from universal among interviewees.  One reason for this variance could be location.  As Catriona Pennell has demonstrated in her research on invasion fears in Essex, the population of coastal counties were aware of their strategic vulnerability, and as such, were particularly susceptible to invasion anxieties.[6]  As a resident of Colchester, Stanley Parker Bird remembered being “conscious of the possibility of invasion”, adding that he still had “the cards which were distributed to the inhabitants showing what steps we should take if the alarm was sounded”.[7]  A bleaker picture is painted by Godfrey Buxton, a member of the Cambridge Inter-Collegiate Christian Union holidaying on the Isle of Wight as war broke out.  Asked whether he remembers any steps being taken in anticipation of German landings on the island, Buxton suggests there was a sense of resignation, “a feeling that this was hopeless, they’re coming anyway”.[8]  Yet others in the coastal regions of Britain did not share this fear of inevitable attack.  Dorothy Haigh, a civilian who worked at Hamble Aviation Works near Southampton towards the end of the war, gave little thought to the prospect of invasion, “[we] never thought of it then”.  Despite witnessing Zeppelin raids on visits to London, German invasion for Haigh seemed a very remote threat.[9]

Some of the most interesting interviews in the archive, from my point of view, are those that register pre-war invasion anxieties.  Such records illustrate that the fear of invasion was not solely a response to the outbreak of war, as might easily be assumed.  For Agnes Allan, a Red Cross nurse based at Lochee Hospital near Dundee, invasion scares were something she associated with the pre-war years, rather than the conflict itself: “all the talk before the war was of invasion.  And that was what we expected, we expected a German invasion”.  Recalling a trip to London with her husband in 1909, Allan even describes watching an invasion-scare play:

“It was in two parts, and one is the Germans invaded England, and the people are all in civilian clothes, and they were all taken prisoner and shot.  And then the next thing the men were in Territorial Army uniform and the girls were in VAD uniform and they didn’t get shot, that’s all I remember about it.”[10]

This is a fascinating account, as it almost certainly refers to Guy du Maurier’s hugely successful An Englishman’s Home, first produced at Wyndham’s Theatre in late-January 1909.  Allan and her husband were two of nearly 200,000 who watched the play, and it clearly left a lasting impression.

Scene from An Englishman's Home, Illustrated London News (6 February 1909)

Scene from An Englishman’s Home, Illustrated London News (6 February 1909)

This handful of interviews is, of course, hardly an exhaustive analysis of public opinion.  Nonetheless, the range of recollections on display highlights an extremely important point regarding the popular experience of invasion anxieties, namely the danger of poorly-evidenced generalisations.  As with many cultural and political phenomena, pre-war and wartime fears of invasion were complex and multi-layered, and were arguably as widely derided as they were embraced.

[1] H. Moon, ‘The Invasion of the United Kingdom: Public Controversy and Official Planning’, unpublished PhD thesis (University of London, 1968), p. 652.

[2] B. Holman, The Next War in the Air: Britain’s Fear of the Bomber, 1908-1941 (Ashgate: Farnham, 2014), pp. 187-202.

[3] S. Sutcliffe, Nobody of Any Importance: A Foot Soldier’s Memoir of World War I (Kindle ed.: Sutcliffe Publishing, 2014).

[4] Imperial War Museum Sound Archive (IWM SA), 24547, Reel 1(1984).

[5] IWM SA, 8834, Reel 2 (1985).

[6] C. Pennell, ‘‘The Germans Have Landed!’: Invasion Fears in the South-East of England. August to December 1914’, in H. Jones, J. O’Brien and C. Schmidt-Supprian, eds, Untold War: New Perspectives in First World War Studies (Leiden: Brill, 2008), pp. 106-112.  See also C. Pennell, A Kingdom United: Popular Responses to the Outbreak of the First World War in Britain and Ireland (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2012).

[7] IWM SA, 7375, Reel 1 (1984).

[8] IWM SA, 299, Reel 1 (1974).

[9] IWM SA, 734, Reel 3 (1976).

[10] IWM SA, 517, Reel 9 (1975).

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‘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.

https://www.dur.ac.uk/english.studies/events/?eventno=20289

[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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