The Battle of London

Recently I’ve been investigating fiction about the fear of Bolshevism in the twenties, and how this encouraged a certain way of writing about soldiers in the run up to the General Strike. Yesterday I called up a couple of forgotten books from the depths of the Bodleian, both of them containing lurid accounts of an imaginary  Communist uprising in England, and the military actions needed to defeat them.
Hugh Addison’s The Battle of London was published in 1923, but apparently written in 1920. An ‘Author’s Note’ at the start rather mysteriously tells us that “the manuscript was lost for two years, in circumstances which need not be detailed here, and only now appears in book form.” This note seems to be necessary so that Addison can claim that the nation-saving Liberty League described in the novel was his own invention, and not just a copycat version of Mussolini’s fascisti.
Addison, by the way, was a pseudonym, for one Harry Collinson Owen (1882 – 1956) who according to Wikipedia was a journalist who was in Salokika during the war, editing the British Army newspaper Balkan News.In the thirties, according to Wikipedia, he “became involved in far-right politics.” Which given the tenor of The Battle of London, is not much of a surprise.
Addison imagines a London of the near future where a Labour government has demoralised England to such an extent that it has fallen into a “fatalism which was as foreign to the temperament of Old England as the pernicious doctrines which incarnated in the persons of swarthy, wild-eyed emissaries from every country of Eastern and Central Europe, had steamed through its ports like so much evil merchandise.”
His diagnosis of the country’s ills is simple. Strikes lead to a fall in trade, and therefore unemployment, which leads more men into desperate socialism. The government fails to make “one virile effort to stop the rot”, and only a few Britons still have the guts to face up to reality.
One of these is Hunter, an intelligence officer turned newspaper editor whose efforts have founded the Liberty League, a group ready to fight when the inevitable revolution comes, and whose guiding principle is that “the bourgeoisie, or whatever you like to call it, will have to be just as active in killing as the other fellows,” and “We shall only conquer violence by more violence.”
Comes “The Day” and the Reds, well-armed and well-organised have taken over most of London. (“If anybody in London or England was surprised he had only his own stupidity to blame for it.”) Three of them come to capture Hunter, but he shoots two, and in cold blood executes the third, a Jewish agitator who had grossly laid hands on Hunter’s wife.
Scenes of battle follow. The Reds have an army of 80,000, though “In many of the battalions the foreign element was as high as forty per cent.” and “quite apart from the foreign element they included a strong strain of sheer riff-raff who desired only to be on the side of plunder and disorder.”
So the best of England is posed against “the lowest dregs of society”; the Army and navy stand firm against sedition, and the Communist army soon collapses, mostly through lack of moral fibre, as they turn into a mob of looters, rifling the West End.

Fortunately, one horror was almost entirely missing. The region was practically empty of population… There was loot such as no rabble had ever dreamed of – but there were no women.

(At any point of the story where a woman is present, the threat of rape is there too. The sexual imagination is as active here as in the atrocity stories about Belgium in 1914.)
When the Liberty League captures the rebel H.Q., there is an interesting debate about what should be done with the prisoners. Some are for shooting them all, but Hunter has qualms about this (though the vile Reds had been shown gleefully executing their own captives a short while before).
There is a lengthy debate, and eventually some of the prisoners are saved. The foreigners are all shot, and the cowardly ringleaders, but men who had fought in the War are given a chance, so long as they can prove their credentials. Execution of the “sediment of a race” is regarded by the Addison  as both expedient and necessary, however, and the novel repeatedly  stresses that revolutionary violence must be met by violence, and that toughness is the only option.
The fact that they are committing war crimes does not bother them – but then the Reds are mostly seen as sub-human, and definitely as un-English. (“I can’t get rid of the belief  that true Bolshevism can’t exist in the heart of anything like a true Englishman.”)
The Reds have all along been in secret league with the resurgent Germans, who are cunningly biding their time. When the revolution has plunged England into chaos, they launch their air strike. Once again toughness wins the day, as the British bombers prove more destructive than the Germans…
How influential was a novel like this? It was published by Herbert Jenkins, who had a  canny  eye for the market. (He published P.G.Wodehouse’s novels and Darlington’s Alf’s Button, among others.) He’s an annoying publisher for scholars, because he does not put publishing info or dates at the front of the book – I suspect that this strategy helped him to maintain a healthy backlist, because readers weren’t given the hint that a book might be a few years old. The TLS review treats it with scorn (“ ‘Lurid’ is the word.”) but maybe it found an audience among those who shared its paranoia, and agreed with the Author’s Note:

Should the catastrophe of a Labour Government ever arrive – and futile discussions between the main body of the middle classes may soon bring it about – we know in advance what is the minimum of tyranny the milder Labour leaders would inflict upon us, and may be certain that the wilder spirits would soon be clamouring for more. Fortunately we now have the example of the Fascists – and the Liberty League – to show us what to do in a real crisis.

3 Comments

  1. Posted October 22, 2008 at 6:00 am | Permalink

    I tend to doubt that it was written in 1920 as Addison (Owen) claimed. The Liberty League could be based on the Freikorps in Germany, perhaps, and not the Italian Fascists. But the bomber stuff is very typical for something written after 1922, but would have been unusual before then. And how plausible was the idea of a Labour government in 1920? They only won 57 seats. But in 1922, they won 142 and of course did even better in the December 1923 general election. I think he just wanted to burnish his prophetic credentials. But I could be wrong, and it’s a while since I’ve read it …

    Having said all that, in many ways The Battle of London is a throwback to pre-war stuff like Walter Wood’s Enemy in our Midst (1906), with Jews substituted for Reds. These sorts of ‘enemy within’ novels seem to have undergone a noticeable decline after the failure of the General Strike.

  2. Posted October 22, 2008 at 7:05 am | Permalink

    I suspect you’re right about the dating. Or maybe he wrote a draft in 1920 and re-jigged it after the Miners’ Strike of 1921, which he mentions ominously in his Author’s Note.
    The change after 1926 is what I’m interested in. Before then a lot of people’s thinking was overshadowed by fear of the Russian Revolution. In her book about the General Strike, “A Very British Strike”, Anne Perkins compares its impact with that of 9/11 recently – an unexpected event that disrupted the pattern of the world, and made people fearful of an enemy within. Much fiction of the period 1919-26 is based on the strong contrast of military values versus socialist chaos.
    The fizzling out of the General Strike showed that it probably wouldn’t happen here. After 1926, there is a change of tone in writing about soldiers that is partly attributable to the decline of the Red menace.
    Today I’ll post a short account of another revolution fantasy – from R. Britten Austin’s “When the War Gods Laughed” – published in 1926, but probably just before the strike, so it may be the last of the full-blooded accounts of revolutionary bloodshed on the streets of London.

  3. Posted October 22, 2008 at 2:32 pm | Permalink

    Yes, that’s pretty much my take on the rise and decline of this sort of stuff in 1918-1926 too. But the decline wasn’t absolute — for example, one of my all-time favourite knock-out blow novels, Frank McIlraith and Roy Connolly’s Invasion from the Air (1934) also features a socialist revolution in London and fascist counter-revolution. Though this time the writers were from the left, not the right. So I guess the Slump and Hitler led to a modest revival of this genre.

    I look forward to your post on Austin … it’s even longer since I read him!


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