By and large the ‘future war’ stories that appeared in the decades before 1914 were not very accurate predictors of the actual events and conditions of the Great War. By and large writers assumed that any future European conflict would be a war of movement, probably much like the Franco-Prussian War of 1870. Cavalry charges are often the decisive events in such stories. (Though there was of course also the more technological school of authors, who explored the possibilities of aeroplanes and death-rays, generally with even less predictive accuracy.)
The best of the ‘future war’ writers, however, was Colonel E. D. Swinton, whose fiction generally appeared (in magazines like Blackwood’s and Macmillan’s) over the pseudonym ‘Ole Luk-Oie’. All the stories in his 1909 collection The Green Curve are worth reading, but a really remarkable one is ‘The Point of View’, which prefigures many of the themes that would dominate fiction about the War.
The story is in three parts. The first describes battle unglamorously; some soldiers are facing a fierce assault on their ‘zigzag trench’, which is described as ‘squalid’. Morale is low:
‘Desparate fighting mostly ending in retirement leads first to exasperation, then to uneasiness,and finally to dogged apathy.’
The story happens at ‘the close of a July day’ in the central section of a battle which extends for thirty-odd miles. A battery commander is in despair:
He had lost nearly all his men, all his horses, and there – just over there – deserted save by corpses, were his guns.
The man dies ‘under the bitter sense of a great defeat’.
The story’s second section shows a General preparing to go fishing. ‘A kindly-looking man, he had a thoughtful face and usually a gentle manner’, and he is known as ‘Old Rule of Three’ because of his extreme rationality and sense of proportion.
An untrained observer would probably have been moved to indignation that such a thing should be possible; that while the fate of his army hung upon his actions, upon his decisions, the Commander should be engaged in sport.
– but Swinton explains to us that the General realises that, having put his plan into action, to micro-manage would be counter-productive. Going fishing is in part an act, to inspire confidence in his subordinates that everything is under control.
The third section shows a group of young staff officers, tracking the course of the battle by reaaranging flags on a huge map. They treat the advances and retreats as an exhilarating game, until one of them realises that a unit that has been completely destroyed (presumably the one mentioned in the first section) is his old battalion, and that many of his friends must therefore be dead.
The general returns, with the huge trout he has been combating all afternoon, and with a gesture shows how the collapse of this unit has allowed the ‘great flanking movement’ that will bring victory. ‘Proportion, gentlemen! Proportion!’ he tells his juniors.
The contrast between the detached staff and suffering front line will of course become a major theme of Great War literature. Swinton tackles it before the event. His story backs the General’s display of detachment, but does not underestimate the suffering of the soldiers who bear the brunt of the plan.
However you read the story, it is an antidote to the swashbuckling school of military writing. It shows a battle being won not by individual heroism, but by rational planning. Yet it also shows that this rationalism involves an alarming detachment from the facts of misery and slaughter. Some twenty-five years later, C.S.Forester’s The General would present a causic picture of a similarly detatched senior officer, whose rigidity and lack of imagination allows his men to die by the thousand. Forester’s novel is an ironic tour-de-force, but its critique of the General assumes an alternative – that the War could have been conducted more humanely. Swinton’s story, I think, casts doubt on that. It says that success in warfare depends on rigorous detatchment and a hard-headed refusal to alleviate the suffering of individuals at the expense of the whole campaign. The dreadful thing is that he’s probably right.