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.