‘War’ by W. Douglas Newton

The second-hand bookshops of Cecil Court (just off the Charing Cross Road) are always worth a look, though often rather expensive. For bargains you need to rummage through the miscellaneous stacks outside the shops. Last week I found a good one. For just £4 I bought a copy of War by W. Douglas Newton, a novel published early in 1914, and one of the most graphic and realistic examples of the ‘future-war’ genre.
The book is prefaced by a long extract from Rudyard Kipling (‘Reproduced by permission’. Is it from a newspaper article, or a speech? I would like to know.) This begins:

It is almost as impossible to make a people who have never known invasion realize what invasion is as it is to make a man realize the fact of his own death. The nearest a man can come in imagination to his own death is the idea of lying in a coffin with his eyes shut listening to the pleasant things he thinks his neighbours are saying about him; and the nearest that a people who have never known conquest or invasion can come to the idea of conquest or invasion is a hazy notion of going about their usual work and paying their taxes to tax collectors who will perhaps talk with a slightly foreign accent. Even attempted invasion does not mean that; it means riot and arson and disorder and bloodshed and starvation on a scale that a man can scarcely imagine to himself.

Newton’s novel is an attempt to imagine this unimaginable. A huge army lands on the coast of a country that is never identified, but is very like Britain). Because defences have not been prepared, this enemy force (equally unidentified, but Germany fits the bill) establishes a beachhead and moves inexorably inland. In their wake they leave ruined farmers whose fields have been trampled and whose crops and livestock have been forcibly requisitioned.

Refugees flock to the city, which is besieged. Starvation and disease inevitably ensue. Resistance is forcibly crushed; when civilians attempt guerilla tactics, they are summarily shot, and villages are destroyed. The book makes it clear – this is what is necessary in war. The horrors escalate, until finally the central character, who up to now has been merely a  desperate observer, tries to escape the war zone with his fiancée; they are caught by drunken soldiers, and is knocked to unconsciousness before they put into action their obvious intention to rape her.

I have found an Observer review (Feb 15, 1914) which takes for granted that the country invaded is England, and commends ‘this astounding book’ for the way in which it ‘proceeds to work out a theorem of conflict which in its brevity and result takes one’s breath away’. The critic is impressed by the book’s ‘quick transfiguration of rural England into a howling wilderness’. What strikes a reader a century later is how well the novel predicts the results of the German invasion of Belgium, with the devastation of cities and the brutal reprisals against franc-tireurs. The book authenticates its descriptions of horrors by references to events of the Franco-Prussian War, the Boer War and the Russo-Japanese War. It constantly tells the reader that these are things that he or she should have known before, and that the country should have been prepared.

The Kipling piece at the start of the book  drums in this message of unpreparedness. Britain has ‘at present neither the men nor the means nor the organisation’ to defend itself against total war.

That is why those of us who think go about in fear and in doubt; that is why those of us who do not think are full of silly boastings one day and of blind panic the next; that is why we have no security inside or outside our borders; that is why we tell each other lies to cover our own fears and yet know all the time that our lies are useless.

(Perhaps the phrasing of this early warning in Kipling’s mind when he wrote, a long war later: If any question why we died,/ Tell them, because our fathers lied.)
Judged by sophisticated criteria for novels, War is not very good. The characters are no more than ciphers, and the narrative, while gripping, is predictable. How good is it as prophecy? Well, as I have said, the events of the invasion prefigure incidents that happened in Belgium. As a warning for Britain, it is less convincing, since there was never a realistic chance of an invasion of our island. The Observer‘s main criticism of the book is that it forgets the Navy, which was indeed pretty well prepared and equipped to repel intruders. As a general warning, that war is inevitably horrible, even when the invaders are relatively civilised, as most of those depicted in the book are, apart from the drunken rioters at the end) it still makes an impact.

In May of 1914, Newton (obviously a prolific writer) followed this up with a new topical novel, The North Afire, imagining how an accidental shooting might spark civil war in Ireland.

7 Comments

  1. Posted August 15, 2010 at 10:06 pm | Permalink

    I’ve now worked out that the Kipling piece quoted is an address made to the National Service League in Burwash (the village near his home, Bateman’s, in Sussex). It is reported in The Times of Sep 26, 1913.

  2. Posted May 6, 2012 at 10:12 pm | Permalink

    I have found all this so very interesting. I have read up on w.Douglas Newton, The Charge, Mons but I can find no real information on W.Douglas Newton himself at all. If anyone has any I would be most grateful.

  3. Snowspain
    Posted March 2, 2013 at 11:29 pm | Permalink

    W Douglas Newton served in MI7 B (1) between October 1917 and November 1918. Their job was to write propaganda for use around the world. He worked with A A Milne and J B Morton and H R Wakefield.

  4. Posted March 3, 2013 at 8:39 am | Permalink

    Thanks. I didn’t know this.

  5. Jack Adrian
    Posted May 9, 2013 at 11:25 pm | Permalink

    Interesting comments re. Douglas Newton, some of which go back a year or two. Newton was a highly successful British pulp-fiction writer who started by writing short stories for the glossy weeklies such as The Illustrated London News and The Sphere (ca 1910-1916). He wrote many thrillers during the inter-war years, and was one of the ‘backbone’ writers for the British weekly The Thriller (roughly 30,000-word novellas each week based on a kind of Edgar Wallace template; lasted from 1929 thru to 1940). He was a Roman Catholic, altho tended not to preach in his fiction (unlike, say, Hugh Benson), which was pacey and dramatic. Excellent all-round writer, much of his fiction work was done for the Amalgamated Press, then (1920s/1930s)the biggest fiction factory in the world bar none (not even the US’s Street & Smith came anywhere near in product output).War was said to have been written in a couple of weeks, and The North Afire as quick, or quicker.

    • Posted May 10, 2013 at 6:12 am | Permalink

      Thanks for this, Jack. I’ve looked at ‘The Thriller’ for the early Leslie Charteris stories, but haven’t read any of Newton’s contributions. Obviously, he’s worth following up.

      • Frank Cather
        Posted December 10, 2013 at 11:21 pm | Permalink

        (From the US) This is the only site in which I’ve been able to find anything on Mr. Newton and his work — at least here in the US. I found “The Charge” in a six-volume set of short stories published by P.F. Collier (New York) editions printed in 1915, 1940 and 1953. It was included, oddly, in the set’s American stories (Volume III), with Mark Twain, Bret Harte, et al. What struck me most about the story is its clear kinship to Ambrose Bierce’s classic “An Occurence at Owl Creek Bridge” story from the American Civil War, published in 1891. Mr. Newton’s story definitely stands on its own, but the similarity is fascinating and exciting.


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  1. […] century-old copy of my great grand father’s book predicting the horrors of the Western front, War, which probably belonged to her dad (his son in law, and my grand father, Daniel Counihan). The […]

  2. […] popular and ubiquitous. For writers like H G Wells, and my much less well-known great grandfather W Douglas Newton, authoring Science Fiction, Thrillers and Romance was consistent with writing impassioned, serious […]

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