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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