THE TALE OF THE NEXT GREAT WAR 1871-1914
edited by I.F. Clarke (Liverpool University Press £32.00 hb £12.95 pb)
Reviewed by L. J. Hurst
"Dad, I think I've done it wrong again," Roy Kinnear used to say to Dick Emery. And he was not the only one. When war comes no one seems prepared for it. Generals were paralyzed by men living in trenches for the four years of the Great War; in World War Two, no one had foreseen that the munitions works on both sides could increase their output and the length of the war, even while the air-raids got worse. Ronald Reagan's Neutron Bomb would have destroyed the people but left the buildings while the Gulf War seems to have destroyed the hospitals but left the dictators. We've done it wrong again. And it's not as if we hadn't been warned - "Future War" is a whole sub-world of science fiction which has been predicting what could happen for a hundred years.
Professor Clarke's Voices Prophesying War is the standard academic study and now he has edited this big anthology of stories, beginning with Sir George Chesney's "The Battle of Dorking" from 1871 and ending with Arthur Conan Doyle's "Danger", in 1914. There had been future war writers before Chesney, but he had a couple of advantages - he was a lecturer at Sandhurst who profited from the new growth of magazine publishing. It was not just the English who wrote about the threat of invasions, though: Clarke includes German, French and American authors. Gustaf Janson, who was Swedish, describes air battles between Italians and Turks fighting in Libya (including the bombing of a field hospital). Jack London, who was a bit of a socialist, has the rest of the world wiping out the Chinese with biological warfare.
So were these stories the promotion or an antidote: did 1914 have to happen? In his introduction Clarke says "The guiding principle in these stories was: tomorrow's wars begin today", but the odd sensation in reading them is their realism about the horrors of war. Chesney writes "I found Travers, sitting with his back against the bank. A ball had gone through his lungs, and blood was coming from his mouth. I was lifting him up, but the cry of agony he gave stopped me. I then saw that this was not his only wound ..." and then it gets worse.
These people knew that science and technology are part of the problem - if only because there's never time to read all the dials. Take Ernest Swinton's "The Green Curve" , which George Orwell called a favourite: a beseiged general looks at a graph on which different coloured lines show how long the military and civilian forces can hold out; just like Churchill looking at British gold reserves, or Bomber Harris's meteorologists getting the statistics on German cloudcover. Then he goes off in logistical despair and is shot in a raiding party. (In reality, General Swinton went on to invent the tank).
When Conan Doyle was defending England against charges of unpreparedness to a Canadian Prime Minister he did not say we had a strong enough Army or Navy or the Territorials. Just look at the Boy Scouts, he told the bemused colonial. There must have been a doubt even in Doyle's mind, though, because he wrote "Danger!" about the threat of submarine warfare and starvation just weeks before September 1914.
For a hundred years from 1815 to 1914 there was no major European war. But can it have been boredom that lead to people cheering in the streets in September 1914? Surely there were enough tiny wars in which any would-be mercenary could have joined (like that Italo-Turkish war of 1911)? And despite the aggravations we've resisted others: unlike Hugh Grattan Donnelly's "The Stricken Nation" where an 1890 Britain devastates the U.S.A in a war fought to preserve Canadian fishing stocks (just perm any two from Britain, Iceland, Canada, Spain for today's version, even if it's only British holidaymakers who now invade the USA).
In his study The Scaremongers: The Advocacy of War and Rearmament 1896 -1914 A.J.A Morris gives shortshrift to the role of future war stories. William LeQueux (Ian Fleming's father in fiction) gets a one page mention and that's it - Morris puts the blame firmly on the military correspondents of the main newspapers, they were in the pockets of both political and military leaders.
None of Clarke's writers were greast advocates of the scientific method. They
still had something to teach Andy McNab or Robert Harris, though.
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© L J Hurst 2007