Science Fiction Studies

#71 = Volume 24, Part 1 = March 1997

I.F. Clarke

Before and After The Battle of Dorking

The most recent performance in the long-running drama of the war-to-come is an all-American anticipation. Caspar Weinberger, a former secretary of defense, joined with Peter Schweizer some time ago to produce the five scenarios in The Next War (Regnery, 1996). Their book is a telling sign of the interesting times in which we live. In marked contrast to most of their fore-runners these last two hundred years, the authors do not concentrate on one chosen enemy. Because they accept the unique role of their country as the still dominant superpower in a world that technology has made one, they find good reasons for warning their fellow Americans of the coming confrontations with Mexico, Iran, Russia, Japan, and China. Their five projections combine to send one urgent message to the people of the United States: defense spending is no longer sufficient to meet the dangers they foresee between 1998 and 2008.

Preparedness is the theme of The Next War. That same need for the intelligent anticipation of future possibilities—external or internal dangers, new weapons or new political alignments—is the leitmotif echoing through most of the future-war stories that have followed from the unprecedented and extraordinary effect of Chesney’s Battle of Dorking. The evidence shows that the modern tale of the coming conflict dates from the May 1871 issue of Blackwood’s Magazine; and that event offers a convenient opportunity to tell American readers that, for reasons which will soon become apparent, much of this account has to deal with European affairs and, worse still, some parts will be unavoidably Anglocentric.

The Letter Books for 1871 in the Blackwood’s Archives in the National Library of Scotland show that John Blackwood rejoiced frequently at the hectic activity which kept the presses at work from May to late August in the printing room in George Street, Edinburgh. It was the best business they had ever had. And yet there is nothing to show that, although John Blackwood appreciated the novelty and effectiveness of Chesney’s story, he ever realized how The Battle of Dorking had given a new model to futuristic fiction. There are, however, indications in his correspondence with Chesney that suggest he had perceived how the link between today and tomorrow helped to generate the nightmare of the Chesney story. That total, necessary concentration on the scenario of the coming conflict leads into a nonstop revelation of triumph or disaster. The alarm bells ring in vain in future- war fiction, if the projected action is not seen to follow directly from the dangers or the opportunities that have always shaped contemporary thinking about the future of a nation or of the whole world.

The tale of the war-to-come is undoubtedly the most limited form of futuristic fiction. This tale of consequences has to develop through a projected pattern of military operations and apposite comments so that readers cannot fail to perceive how the end—victory or defeat—was present from the start in yesterday’s world before the projected war began. During the first phase in the evolution of the new genre—from the French declaration of war on Great Britain in 1793 to the German victories in the War of 1870—propagandists and patriots on both sides of the English Channel selected whatever literary form they found most convenient for presenting their hopes or fears to their nations. The French began proceedings with a play, Le jugement dernier des rois, which opened in Paris on 17 October 1793, the day after the execution of Marie-Antoinette.

That atrocious act signaled the end of the old order as clearly as the declaration of the levée en masse two months earlier had confirmed the authority of the Committee of Public Safety and had inaugurated the new epoch of vast citizen armies. In 1793 France was at war with most European countries; the Vendée had risen in revolt; the royalists had handed over Toulon to the British; and Charlotte Corday had stabbed Marat to death. These threats to the unity of the nation and to the survival of the revolution raised the most serious questions about the future of France. The response of Maréchal Sylvain in Le jugement dernier des rois was true to the hopes of the French republicans and to the nature of futuristic fiction. He composed a dramatic, exultant preview of the last days of monarchy. There, already present at the inception of the new mode, were two elements that have appeared time and again in these anticipations of future warfare: association, collaboration, or connivance with the government of the day, evident in the note that the play had the support of the Committee of Public Safety; and a preposterous self-assurance which tailored the future to suit the propaganda. The peoples of the earth have risen up and ended monarchical government everywhere. Sans-culottes from all the European nations transport the last kings to a desert island. Declamations and pronouncements proclaim the new republic: "In a word, France is a republic in every sense of the word. The French have risen up. They said: We want no more kings; and the throne vanished. They said once more: We want a republic, and we are now all republicans."1 The kings fight between themselves; a volcano explodes; and fire descends from above. End of monarchy and end of play.

The theme must have chimed with the general mood, and no doubt it found favour with the Committee of Public Safety, since two more plays followed on the same theme: Les potentats foudroyés...ou la déportation des rois de l’Europe in 1793; and in the following year Jean Antoine Lebrun-Tossa staged a British variant on the end of monarchy. This was La folie du roi George; ou l’ouverture du parlement d’Angleterre—a hectic succession of republican statements which ended with the deposition of George III and the proclamation of a republic by Charles James Fox, the most ardent supporter of the French republicans in the British parliament. The last lines look forward to happy times in the new British republic: "Let us meet with the French, since we are worthy of them now that we have learnt to imitate them. They were our enemies in the days when we were governed by tyrants. May a sacred friendship unite us for ever, and may our example hasten that happy moment when all the peoples of earth will be united in one family."

The British response to that time of troubles went forward on a broader front. In the hour of greatest danger, when the veterans of Napoleon’s Armée de l’Angleterre were encamped along the Channel coast from Boulogne to Dunkirk, there were plays that spoke defiance to the would-be French invaders —The Invasion of England, 1803; The Armed Briton, 1806—and there were occasional highly imaginative speeches and proclamations attributed to Bonaparte in The Anti-Gallican, which never failed to give the worst news about the intentions of the French. These usually followed the lines of:




Respecting their Conduct when they

shall have captured London, and

subdued Britain.


In sending you to Britain I send heroes to cope with raw pedlars and shopkeepers. History bears witness that whenever French and British have met, that British effeminacy has always yielded to Gallic prowess....2

These warnings of the terrors-to-come were rudimentary attempts to give a realistic edge to straightforward propaganda. They were unsparing in their dreadful revelations, as is apparent in the final paragraph of Bonaparte’s purported "Address to his Army encamped on the plains of Calais":

We will, O! Frenchmen, enjoy their riches, their power, their lands, their palaces and their women. These are the splendid rewards I promise you. No English bosom shall once again breathe British air—her commerce, her navy, her riches shall be transferred to France. France then indeed will be mistress of the world as she will be then of the ocean!!!

On one occasion, however, these brief pieces rose to the originality of a three-page action story and came close to meeting all the requirements for a tale of future warfare. This was the projection developed in "An Invasion Sketch" which ran swiftly through the first week of Bonaparte’s arrival in London, from the atrocities of 10 Thermidor, year—to the final decrees of 17 Thermidor, year—when the Corsican ordered: "the name of London to be changed for Bonapartopolis, and the appellation of the country to be altered from Great Britain to that of La France insulaire; Edinburgh to take the name of Lucienville, Dublin that of Massenopolis.3

The most original response, however, came from British and French engravers who did a thriving trade in supplying prints of vast troop transports— rafts powered by windmills—supposed to be waiting for GB Day in Boulogne harbour. This myth, which began in France, seems to be the first example of a deception plan in the making. The word went (was passed?) round that the eminent mathematician and inventor of descriptive geometry, Gaspard Monge, had ordered the construction of vast rafts 700 yards long and 350 yards wide.

It seemed a likely story, since Monge had been appointed minister of marine in 1792; and the French printmakers hastened to exploit the opportunity for patriotic fantasies by publishing the first artists’ impressions of secret weapons. These showed enormous rafts—windmills at the corners, filled with infantry and artillery, or taking aboard squadrons of cavalry—all with inscriptions that looked forward to the final conquest of the United Kingdom.4

British printmakers had the French prints copied, and they added captions that presented: "The real view of the FRENCH RAFT as intended for the Invasion of ENGLAND. Drawn From the Original at Brest." Some included details that had appeared in the French originals:

A new MACHINE (or RAFT) to cover (or protect)

the Landing of the FRENCH on their intended


Engraved after an Original Drawing made by a FRENCH PRISONER of WAR.

This machine is flat: 2 100 feet long, and 1 500 feet broad; has 500 Cannon round it, of 36 and 48 pounders; at each end is (sic) two Wind Mills, which turn Wheels in the Water at every point of the Wind to Navigate; in the middle is a Fort enclosing Mortars, Perriers, etc. It carries 60 000 Men, Cavalry, Infantry, and Artillery.

London: Published by Wm. HINTON, Engraver and Printer, Fetter Lane, Jan. 29, 1798




The nightmare of a French invasion was made visible in many prophetic caricatures that circulated throughout Europe. The most dramatic and forceful were the work of James Gillray, a worthy second to the greatest of pictorial satirists, William Hogarth. Gillray’s works appeared regularly in the windows of Miss Humphrey’s print shop at 29 St. James’s Street. This was a favorite spot for Londoners, where crowds of spectators stood, by the day and by the


month, as they followed the course of the war of the prints against the Corsican up to the brief interlude of the Treaty of Amiens. Gillray celebrated the fourteen months of that peace treaty (March 1802 to May 1803) with a notorious satire, "The First Kiss These Ten Years." It went the rounds of the European printmakers and gave great amusement to Napoleon. Gillray’s most effective essays in patriotic propaganda, however, appeared in a series of elaborate prints, famous in their time, devoted to the "Consequences of a Successful French Invasion." All of the plates carried a derisive text which enlarged on the horror of each scene:

No III, Plate 2d. Me teach de English Republicans to work.

Description: A row of English People in Tatters and wooden Shoes, hoeing a field of Garlic. A tall raw-boned Frenchman with a long Queue behind, like a Negro Driver with a long Waggoner’s Whip in each Hand, walking by their side. The People very sulky, but tolerably obedient and tractable for so short a Time....

Although the print war went on until the final defeat of Napoleon in 1815, the various projections of the invasion-to-come tailed off rapidly after the decisive naval engagement off Trafalgar (20 October 1805). Nelson’s victory ruled out the possibility that a sea-borne force could ever leave Boulogne; and, as Admiral Mahan would note later on, their mastery at sea allowed the British to establish bridgeheads wherever they chose on the coasts of Europe. And then the Emperor met his Waterloo about 8 pm on 18 June 1815, when the British squares repulsed the last assault of the Old Guard against the allied positions in front of Mont S. Jean.

What had the tale of the war-to-come achieved during the 20 years of fighting the Republic and the Empire? The answer has to be: very little—no



more than a brief exchange of some unremarkable plays, a few minor pieces of fiction, and a number of original, often brilliant satirical prints. That comparative failure in response contrasts with the remarkable flowering of the new prophetic fiction during the first twenty years of the new century: A.K. Ruh, Guirlanden um die Urnen der Zukuft (1800 ); Restif de la Bretonne, Les Posthumes (1802 ); Cousin de Grainville, Le Dernier Homme (1805); Le Duc de Lévis, Les Voyages de Kang-hi (1810); Julius von Voss, Ini: ein Roman aus dem ein und zwanzigstein Jahrhundert (1810); Mary Shelley, Frankenstein (1818).5 The reasons for this difference in quality and originality start from the fact that these authors wrote from within an established practice of speculation about things-to-come which goes back to the European success of Sebastien Mercier’s L’an deux mille quatre cent quarante (1771). Fiction was the area where the imagination was free to wander at will. For the business of dealing with everyday realities, however, it was reckoned that nothing could compare with the tracts and pamphlets which had long been the most favored means of presenting arguments about political and military matters. The immense influence of the future-think ideas presented in, for example, Tom Paine’s Common Sense and the Abbé Sieyes’ Que’est-ce que le Tiers état? guaranteed that the tract would continue to be the dominant form for the day-to-day debates about church and state, the monarchy and the people, the armed forces and the enemy. And so, year after year during the long struggle with the French, British writers poured out tracts and pamphlets by the hundred to advise, warn, or exhort their countrymen about the future of their country: Britons Beware: The Tender Mercies of Napoleon in Egypt!, England in Danger and Britons Asleep!, The Prospect; or a Brief View of the Evils which the Common People of England are likely to suffer, by a successful Invasion from the French.

It will be evident that, for want of a satisfactory narrative mode, there could be little variation in the time-honored way of arguing the case for new naval vessels or for radical changes in the army system. In 1844, when the Prince de Joinville wrote in his Notes sur les forces navales de la France that the new steamships had greatly increased the chances of a successful sea-borne invasion of the United Kingdom, there was a flood of pamphlets: On the Defense of England, The Defenses of London, The Perils of Portsmouth and so on. The nearest any of them ever came to fiction was a brief passage in The Defenseless State of Great Britain (1850) by Sir Francis Head. There, in "Part IV: On the Capture of London by a French Army," the author described the course of a French landing, their advance, and their successful attack on London. His analysis posed serious communication problems: the text (410 pages) was for specialists only. The lay reader would have to wait another two decades before Chesney invented a narrative that revealed in the most dramatic manner possible the price to be paid for neglecting the armed forces.

Until 1871, then, enterprise and originality were only to be found beyond the British Isles. First, in France, where Louis Geoffroy invented the new mode of the alternative history in his Napoléon et la conquête du monde 1812- 1832: Histoire de la Monarchie universelle (1836). It was a Bonapartist might-have- been dream of the Emperor victorious in Russia, conqueror of Great Britain and of Asia, and finally of the whole world, when the presidents, monarchs, generals, and rulers of all the nations in the Americas accept him as their Universal Monarch. The story remains a stupendous achievement, analyzed ably and at length in Pierre Versins’ Encyclopédie (360-66).

The major prizes for achievement in the first phase of the future-war story have to go to the United States, and to two writers from the Old Dominion: Nathaniel B. Tucker (Professor of Law at William and Mary, 1833-51) for The Partisan Leader, secretly printed in Washington in 1836; and Edmund Ruffin (pioneer agriculturist and publisher of the influential Farmers’ Register) for his Anticipations of the Future, to serve as Lessons for the Present Time, published in Richmond, Virginia, in 1860. How was it that two American writers succeeded in establishing a reasonable narrative form for their tales of the coming civil war, when the Europeans achieved so little—even though the British and French had lived through a great land war that raged from Moscow to Madrid and a naval war that saw engagements at the Nile, in the Atlantic, and as far north as Copenhagen and the Baltic?

In war and in future-war stories the objective decides everything. As in war, so in fiction: the scale of the projected action increases in keeping with the range of the story. Because the accident of the English Channel reduced the options for British and French writers to the winner-take-all theme of invasion, their anticipations were necessarily limited to the success or failure of the initial landings and the subsequent British repulse of the invaders or the French seizure of London.

When two American writers, better informed and far more intelligent than their European counterparts, chose to contemplate the awesome possibility of a war between the States, their stories had to take in a swathe of social interests and historical associations in order to deal adequately with the Constitution of the United States and the different interests of North and South. Nathaniel Tucker took on this task in an overlong, meandering story, stronger on romance than on action, and did not examine the issue of a civil war in all its ramificiations. So, the first prize has to go to Edmund Ruffin: for originality, since he secured great flexibility for his narrative by telling his tale in "Extracts of Letters from an English Resident in the United States, to the London Times, from 1864 to 1870"; and for the completeness of his history, since his narrative covered most major matters from the social and political causes of the projected disruption to engagements on land and at sea.

Although Ruffin’s Anticipations of the Future dealt well enough with the consequences of a civil war, it proved to be the last of the old- style tales of close- quarter infantry engagements, small armies and short casualty lists. The American Civil War and, more especially for the Europeans, the Franco-German War of 1870 changed all thinking about warfare. Mass armies, rifled artillery, entrenchments, troop transportation by train, telegraphic communications, primitive ironclads, and the strength of the defensive shown by the rifle fire at Saint-Privat and at Gettysburg—these changes imposed a general rethink. The new practices and new weaponry of technological warfare found an immediate response in tales of the war-to-come. For the Europeans, and especially for the British, the spectacular and unexpected German victories in 1870 signaled an all-change in political alignments: the new Reich had replaced France as the dominant military and political power in Europe. Moreover, the victories of the Prussian reservists had shown how nationwide conscription was the only way to survive in the future.

In the United Kingdom these lessons were digested in innumerable articles, tracts and books about the defence of the nation and the future of the army. The major newspapers, journals, and magazines reported at length on the course of the War of 1870 and on the prospects for the British in the changed Europe of 1871. Out of that turmoil of arguments and proposals came Chesney’s "Battle of Dorking"—a short story and the first item in Blackwood’s Magazine for May 1871. It touched off a chain reaction of stupefaction, alarm, and such indignation in the United Kingdom that the prime minister, William Gladstone, felt he had to speak out against the "alarmism" of "a famous article called The Battle of Dorking." How this came about is a complex story about the man, his moment, and his method. Lieut. Chesney (later General Sir George Tomkyns Chesney) left England in 1850 to begin a military career as an officer in the Bengal Engineers. His outstanding competence earned him rapid promotion: distinguished service as brigade major in the siege of Delhi; appointed Director of Public Works in 1860; and in 1870 recalled to England to found the Royal Indian Civil Engineering College in Middlesex. Up to that time he had published nothing but an article and a few reviews in Blackwood’s; and then, on 8 February 1871 when the whole country was discussing the current program of army reforms, he wrote to John Blackwood that "a useful way of bringing home to the country the necessity for a thorough reorganisation might be a tale—after the manner of Erckmann-Chatrian— describing a successful invasion of England, and the collapse of our power and commerce in consequence."6

As a first-time writer of fiction Chesney was doubly fortunate. His experience of warfare and military organization ensured that he would not fudge the details of the battles he had to describe; and, even more important, his decision to use the fiction of Erckmann-Chatrian as the model for his narrative gave him an ideal means for telling his story. He borrowed several major features from The Conscript (1864) and Waterloo (1865). First, the narrator who sees all and tells all. In the French stories he is a conscript who experiences the hazards and disasters of the Napoleonic Wars from 1810 onwards. In The Battle of Dorking he becomes the Volunteer, a half- trained soldier in the wrong military system. Second, Chesney learnt from the French originals how to distance the narrator from the events he relates by telling the story long after the German conquest. Interested readers should compare, for instance, the similarities between the opening paragraphs in The Conscript and The Battle of Dorking. In The Conscript the story begins:

Those people who did not see the glory of the Emperor Napoleon during the years 1810, 1811 and 1812, can never know to what a height the power of a man may rise. When the Emperor passed through Champagne, Lorraine, or Alsace, people who were hard at work at the vintage or harvesting would leave everything to go and see him.

Chesney improved on this, since he made his narrator an old man who begins:

You ask me to tell you, my grandchildren, something about my own share in the great events that happened fifty years ago. ‘Tis sad work turning back to that bitter page in our history, but you may perhaps take profit in your new homes from the lesson it teaches.

From that ominous start Chesney goes on to lament the past glories, wealth and power of a defeated nation like any grandfather recalling the good old days as they used to be. Indeed, Chesney does better than Erckmann-Chatrian. In his persona as the young Volunteer, he is able to recount the sad history of the national disaster in a series of brilliantly observed episodes; and, when he moves into the reflective mode of the grandfather, he comments on the failures and defeats with all the benefit of hindsight.

Chesney’s most successful device was the presentation of the German invaders, since the narrator always keeps his eye on the increasingly desperate situation of the British forces. The narrator is forever looking over his shoulder at the advancing enemy, as the Volunteer and his comrades march and countermarch, badly equipped, half- trained, and uncertain of their role. For most of the action the enemy are off-stage—always victorious, an irresistible force which approaches nearer and near—as the defense forces are for ever retreating. On the two climactic set- piece occasions, when Chesney turns his attention to the German troops, they dominate both episodes—by their marked superiority as soldiers and by their contempt for their half- trained enemy. These are the moments when Chesney begins to move towards the Quod erat demonstrandum of his conclusion; and in the final, eloquent paragraphs the grandfather piles on the agony of recollecting happier days in a miserable old age: "the bitterest part of our reflection is that all this misery and decay might have been so easily prevented and that we brought it about ourselves by our own shortsighted recklessness." The rich were idle and luxurious, Chesney wrote in his last paragraph; and the poor begrudged the cost of defense:

Politics had become a mere bidding for Radical votes, and those who should have led the nation stooped rather to pander to the selfishness of the day, and humoured the popular cry which denounced those who would secure the defence of the nation by the enforced arming of its manhood, as interfering with the liberties of the people.

During the first week of May 1871, as Chesney’s story went the rounds of the subscribers, the clubs, and casual readers on the bookstalls, there was an immediate and absolute division of opinion. For many the final disaster came as a condign punishment for a feckless nation; but for even more it was an outrageous, unmerited judgment and a betrayal of their country. Suddenly, for the first time in fiction, a short story became a matter of intense debate for a nation. The issue was conscription. If the British could have created a vast army on the European scale, they would be more than ready for any invading force; and here Chesney had to give a hostage to fortune by arranging for the fleet to be far away in foreign waters at the time of the projected German landings. The "absence of the fleet" was a fictional device that left the British Isles open to invasion. The logic of Chesney’s story was arranged to show that conscription had to be the answer to the problems of living with the new military power.7

There is a book waiting to be written about the history of Chesney’s Battle of Dorking. It would begin with the first ranging round from the not-so-silent majority. On 8 May 1871, within days of the appearance of the May issue of Blackwood’s Magazine, the London Times discharged a leading article at the anonymous author of "The Battle of Dorking": "It is really hard that the keynote of a new panic should be struck at the very moment we are doing our best, at no small cost of money and controversy, to put an end to old ones" (7). At that date the editor of the Times was the great John Thaddeus Delane, who always kept a close eye on his foreign correspondents and leader-writers. His immense experience seems to have told him that the success of the Blackwood’s invasion story was the end of the venerable tradition of argument by tracts. The new era of the highly motivated short story had begun; for Delane commissioned one of the best-known journalists of the day, Abraham Hayward, to tell the tale of what really happened after the last stand at Dorking. This was "The Second Armada (A Chapter of Future History)," which opened in the Times on 22 June 1871 with another blast from a leading article:

One imaginary history is, as far as argument goes, as good as another, for none does more than express what the the author thinks may happen, or might have happened, and the very nature of the literary artifice precludes any serious reading. We beg, therefore, to present our readers with a sketch of an Invasion of England which, though less elaborate in description than the Battle of Dorking, has quite as much claim to be considered a just view of the event of such an enterprise. The Battle of Dorking has given a new thrill, not unmixed with a sensation of gloomy pleasure, to our alarmists. (9)

The entries for 1871 in the Blackwood’s Archives show that future-war themes had become a new element in the calculation of publishers: British readers began buying and kept on buying, as new editions of the May issue poured out. On 25 May Blackwood’s received a terse telegram from their London office: "Reprint five hundred magazine. We have seventy-five left also complete Battle of Dorking at once for publication next week." That was the start of the most profitable pamphlet editions of Chesney’s story; and three weeks later John Blackwood sent Chesney a cheque for £250 for the first reprints, and he added the good news that the money was "for just 50 000, and as our sales are now materially over 80 000 there is a pleasant prospect in store."8 The interest of readers overseas was just as great—for reasons that had nothing to do with the defense of the United Kingdom. From New Zealand to Toronto there was universal astonishment over a story that described the collapse and disappearance of the dominant superpower of that time. As the new telegraphic systems spread the news of Chesney’s story throughout Europe, and further afield to Australia, Canada, and the United States, the demand for the original version led to translations into Dutch, French, German, Italian, Portuguese, and Swedish, plus two pirated (?) US editions, two reprints in Canada, one in Melbourne, and one in New Zealand—all within months of the original printing.9 At the same time there was a rolling barrage from the opposition in the United Kingdom—a succession of some twenty counterblasts, all presenting their very different versions of the Chesney story on the lines of The Other Side at the Battle of Dorking, What Happened after the Battle of Dorking, The Battle of Dorking: A Myth. By July Chesney’s invasion story had received the supreme award of a music hall song, The Battle of Dorking: A Dream of John Bull’s, words by Frank W. Green, Esq. and the music arranged by Carl Bernstein. The chorus, to the tune of The British Grenadiers, spoke of defiance to the foe and of final victory: Then like a mighty whirlwind the British Army came,

Then came the roar of battle, the cannon smoke and flame.

Above the din of battle rose some hearty ringing cheers,

As driving back the foe were seen our British Volunteers.

Then shout hurrah! for Britain, boys, her Line and grenadiers,

And three times three for England’s pride, her gallant Volunteers.

Chesney’s Battle of Dorking, which is about to see yet another resurrection in the Popular Fiction series of Oxford University Press, must be the most talked-about and imitated short story in the history of printing. It certainly attracted more immediate attention than that other contender for immediate notoriety, Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four. Although it vanished from the lists of books-in-print in 1873, it has gone on reappearing ever since. The overseas reception of Chesney’s story points to some of the reasons for this remarkable record of survival. One of the earliest comments on The Battle of Dorking appeared in the "Correspondance de Londres" in the May 1871 number of the Revue Britannique (217), where the editor reported from London that

This story is enjoying an extraordinary success. The Revue Britannique has to translate it, and I am sending you herewith the fifteenth edition. There is such an air of verisimilitude about this little tale of the future that one would think it is about what happened yesterday rather than about what will happen tomorrow.

In the June number Le Bataille de Dorking appeared (279-337) without introduction or comment. The story spoke for itself. The same thoughts occurred to the editor of a German periodical, Die Grenzboten, who introduced the first installment of Die Schlacht bei Dorking in the May 1871 issue (870-79):

This is such a significant story that we present it in translation, without regard to the entirely mistaken opening account in which the author represented Germany as eager for war and for territory.....because it contains a number of truths about the British situation and because it is written in an unsually attractive manner.

Another German periodical, Die Allgemeine Zeitung, went even further and made fun of the Chesney story. In a special supplement (Nr 154, 3 June, 2765-68) the editor had much fun in printing "A Special Message from John Michael Trutz-Baumwoll, Anglo-German politician of the future to HRH the German Emperor." This elaborate take-off was another innovation in the new-style tale of the war-to-come. It would be seen more frequently in the eighties and nineties, when British, French, or German propagandists would transpose tales from the other side to their own national settings. The British response to this first German exercise in Schadenfreude shows how thoughts of mutual profitability had already entered into the international gamesmanship of the new future-war stories. Five days after German readers had read the special message from Trutz-Baumwoll, the Pall Mall Gazette came out with a wry column on:

A German View of England’s Future

The idea of a German invasion of England as developed in ‘The Battle of Dorking’ has now been taken up by the German press, and in its number of Saturday last the Allgemeine Zeitung publishes a facetious the German Emperor, in which the latter is recommended to conquer England, as William of Normandy and William of Orange did before him. Herr Trutz-Baumwoll says that, as a German, he warmly desires the extension of the German Empire and of the glories of his race, while as an English citizen he is no less mindful of the real interests of his adopted country, and that he is convinced that the two objects might both be attained by the same means.

By the end of September sales of the Battle of Dorking pamphlet editions had gone into a terminal decline. By April 1872, when Chesney received his last cheque from John Blackwood, the British had begun to forget the panic and alarm of The Dorking episode; but the story lived on in the public memory as a model for would-be historians of the war-to-come. The French displayed a particular admiration for the Chesney story. As their Batailles imaginaires multiplied in keeping with the great expansion of future-war fiction in the last quarter of the nineteenth century, there were occasional respectful gestures to their British model. For example, Augustin Garçon edited a series of translations from English originals in the eighteen-eighties; and in 1885 he introduced La Bataille de Londres en 188_ (his translation of The Siege of London, 1884) with a tribute to The Battle of Dorking. He went on to give the French view of future-war fiction:

The Siege of London belongs to that kind of publications in which the British seem to be the masters, especially since the War of 1870. These can be classified under the heading of Imaginary Battles. Their objective is either to criticise the actions of the government, or to influence public opinion enough to oblige the government to prepare for possible dangers or for probable international disputes; and to bring about an increase and improvement in the defences of a country.10

Time presses and word-count warns that this history is reaching the length of the old military tracts. What remains to be said, and may be said another time, is that the short story continued to be the favored form for European future-war stories until the eighteen-nineties. Then the new mass press demanded serial stories to keep their readers interested, and the increasing chauvinism of European readers led to a sad falling away from the urbane standards Chesney had set. By 1900 the tale of "the next great war" had become a minor publishing industry in Britain and in Germany, as more and more propagandists and patriots described the war they all expected. The new military technologies—flying machines, submarines, even armored fighting vehicles—began to appear in future-war stories, notably in the most original anticipations of H.G. Wells. In a succession of famous stories he foresaw how the perfection of weaponry would endanger the entire planet. Microbes save humankind from a Martian takeover in The War of the Worlds (1898), whereas reckless imprudence and a total lack of restraint lead inevitably to the end of civilization in The War in the Air (1908). Although Wells’s future world of 1956 seized on the second chance he offered after the atomic war in The World Set Free (1914), the major European nations pressed on from one accident to another to the long foretold Great War. The final irony take us back to Chesney. Had the British accepted his argument for conscription in 1871, the offensive power of a vastly enlarged British Expeditionary Force might well have prevented the outbreak of war in 1914.

The American people soon discovered that no nation can be an island unto itself, when the new submarines went to war in the manner Sir Arthur Conan Doyle had described in his prophetic short story, "Danger," in 1914. President Wilson protested against the sinking of the Lusitania, 7 May 1915, and by the end of that year it had become evident to many Americans that their country might be drawn into the European conflict. Suppose a great power conquered all Europe, assembled a vast fleet and sailed westwards to the United States. What then? This was the Chesney syndrome of 1871 transferred to Manhattan. One response to that nightmare came from a great American publisher, George Haven Putnam. The United States, he argued, had to increase its armed forces. In his introduction to America Fallen, an invasion-of-America story, he held up Chesney’s Battle of Dorking as an admirable model and as a means of looking at the future of the United States. He wrote in his long introduction:

Nearly half a century ago Sir George Chesney brought into print a bit of prophetic history entitled The Battle of Dorking. There was even as far back as the late sixties increasing apprehension with certain groups of Englishmen in regard to the designs of their big neighbor across the North Sea. At that time Germany had practically no fleet, or at least no fleet which Englishmen needed to take into account. But military leaders like Sir George Chesney, who certainly could not be accused of hysterical imagination, pictured to themselves that it might be possible, nevertheless, to transport into England, during some temporary absence of the Channel Fleet, a scientifically organized army strong enough to overcome any forces which could be brought together from the small posts of Regulars and from the Militia. The Battle of Dorking is the work of a man who was a great staff officer and an literary accomplished student of military history. The author possessed also dramatic power and literary skill, and his prophetic story has been compared to the famous account given by De Foe of the plague in London.

The Battle of Dorking sold by the thousands, and the influence that it exerted upon the thinking power of patriotic Englishmen was sufficient to bring into existence the Volunteer Force, a force the purpose of which was the defense of England. The methods under which the patriotism of English citizens has since been utilized for defensive organization have changed somewhat in the later decades, but the Territorials who are now sturdily defending the Empire in the trenches of Northern France may be considered as the direct result of the forcible arraignment by Chesney of the policy of leaving England undefended.

The author of America Fallen is a leading member of the New York Bar, who has made a careful study of the possibilities of defense for his country and has given special attention to the needs of the American Navy; and he has presented in America Fallen a similar bit of prophetic history .... America Fallen is a very cleverly presented bit of possible history, and the book makes an appeal for the realization on the part of American citizens of the risk of invasion, which is very similar to the appeal made in The Battle of Dorking.11


1. Maréchal, Sylvain, Le Jugement dernier des rois. Prophétie en un Acte, en prose (Paris, 1793), 9. Other plays were: Anon., Les Prisonniers français en Angleterre (Paris, 1797) and J. Coriande Mittié, La Descente en Angleterre (Paris, 1798).

2. The Anti-Gallican, 1804, 212-14.

3. The Anti-Gallican//invasion.

4. For a full account of the invasion plays and the rafts see: H.F.B. Wheeler & A.M. Broadley, Napoleon and the Invasion of England (London: John Lane, 1908).

5. For a full discussion of these early stories see the excellent account in: Paul Alkon, Origins of Futuristic Fiction (Athens and London, University of Georgia Press, 1987).

6. Mrs Gerald Porter, John Blackwood, 3 vols. (Edinburgh: William Blackwood, 1898), 299.

7. Chesney’s choice of Germany was in no sense political, since Great Britain and the new Reich were on, and remained on, good terms until the Germans decided to build a great fleet in 1898. Chesney had no choice: after the elimination of France in 1870 Germany was the only power that could conceivably attempt an invasion.

8. Blackwood MSS, National Library of Scotland: see respectively (1) MS 30022 No. 218, 25 May 1871; and (2) MS 30, 364, 15 July 1871.

9. Although the various entries in the Letter Books for 1871 in the Blackwood’s Archives (National Library of Scotland, Edinburgh) cover the main business of publishing from May to December 1871, there are gaps in the correspondence and in the instructions to the printers. For instance, there is nothing to indicate the total number of the reprint editions of the May issue. Amédie Pichot, editor of the Revue Britannique, sent the journal a copy of "the fifteenth edition" in May 1871 (see p 21). Were there later editions? Again, the suspicion that most of the translations were pirated, especially the American and Canadian reprints, seems to be confirmed by the absence of correspondence on copyright arrangements save for the French translation published by Plon. Postgraduate students with a thesis in mind will find that the entries in the National Union Catalogue and in the Catalogue of Printed Books in the British Library together provide a lengthy list of reprints and translations.

10. Augustin Garçon, Les Batailles imaginaires: La bataille de Londres en 188- (Paris: H. Charles_Lavauzelle, 1885), 7-8.

11. George Haven Putnam, introduction to J. Bernard Walker’s America Fallen (London and Edinburgh: Ballantyne. 1915), 1-10.

moonbut.gif (4466 bytes) Back to Home