Science Fiction Studies

#73 = Volume 24, Part 3 = November 1997



I.F. Clarke

Future-War Fiction:

The First Main Phase, 1871-1900




Editors' Note:
This article received the Pioneer Award from the Science Fiction Research Association for the best critical essay on science fiction published in 1997.


Only the most perverse would reject the proposition that an evolutionary process of challenge and response has controlled and directed the tale of the war-to-come ever since that far-off day in 1644, when the citizens of London first had sight of a six-page fantasy about the Civil War then raging in England. This was Aulicus his Dream of the Kings Sudden Comming to London--a primitive thing, filled with passion recollected in tumultuous disquiet. The author was Francis Cheynell, who was notorious enough to secure a minor place in the Dictionary of National Biography, where he appears as a Puritan fanatic well known for his detestation of Charles I and all he represented.

Cheynell is the first dreamer in futuristic fiction. He relates how he fell asleep afflicted by thoughts of the Civil War, and in a protracted nightmare he has a fearful vision of King Charles triumphant over Cromwell and the forces of Parliament. That political fantasy had bite in the May of 1644, when it was still thought possible that the king could prove the victor in the Civil War. With that in mind Cheynell did what so many would go on doing long after him. Within the limitations of six pages he told his tale of the disaster-to-come as dramatically as he could, so that readers would have no doubt that the meaning of his message was: ACT NOW BEFORE IT IS TOO LATE.

Few followed where Cheynell had boldly gone. For two and a quarter centuries after the appearance of Aulicus his Dream, the history of future-war fiction was a series of occasional and usually most unremarkable stories--so few in number that a modest brief-case could contain them all.1 And then quite suddenly the great powers of the press, politics, and population came together in 1871, when Chesney's Battle of Dorking touched off the chain reaction of future-war stories which continued without cessation until the outbreak of the First World War. From 1871 onwards not a year went by without the appearance of a tale of the war-to-come in Britain, France, or Germany. At times of major anxiety--the Channel Tunnel panic in 1882, the Agadir Crisis of 1911, for instance--they appeared by the dozen; and the probable total for the period from 1871 to 1914 is not less than some four hundred stories in English, French, or German. Those languages point to a massive European interest in The Next Great War, der nächste Krieg, La Guerre de demain, as they called it in the cheerful language of anticipation. Their tales of the war-to-come were joined together in an unholy marriage of conflicting interests. They owed the origin, the circumstances and the consequences of their projected conflicts to the Other. Locked in a necessary and unloving embrace with tomorrow's enemy, they found complete justification for their narratives in the often repeated claim that their future war would be the next phase in the history of their nation.

As these tales of the war-to-come grew in numbers from the 1880s onwards, the range of their preoccupations expanded so that by the end of the 19th century a paradigm of military and political posibilities had come into existence both in Europe and in the United States. At the far-out paranoid end there were the total fantasies of the Yellow Peril, of Demon Scientists and Anarchists, all armed with the most fearful weapons conceivable and all hell-bent on taking over the world. These all require, and may yet obtain, their own separate assessments; but for the present it is enough to say that the Yellow Peril was one theme the Europeans had in common with the United States. As Bruce Franklin has shown in War Stars (pp. 33-45), the American versions began with Pierton Dooner's Last Days of the Republic in 1880, and within two decades they had become a flood. During that time the Europeans did almost as well: Jules Lermina in La Bataille de Strasbourg (1895) described how a scientist blows up Mont Blanc and destroys the invading Asiatics; the British writer, M.P. Shiel, dealt with the Chinese attempt to conquer the world in The Yellow Danger (1898); and the Asians were still on the move in 1908 in Bansai!, a German account of a Japanese attack on the United States by Parabellum (Ferdinand Heinrich Grautoff).

These were future-war themes taken to the limit. They had no immediate and substantial links with the contemporary world situation, as Capitaine Danrit made clear when he dedicated his three-volume tale of L'Invasion noire (The Black Invasion, 1895-6) to Jules Verne. He wrote that his account of a future invasion of Europe--by hordes of fanatic African Muslims led by a sultan of genius-- ``...depended on a very questionable proposition, since the reverse is happening in our age. The European powers are carving up the Dark Continent as they like, and they are distributing the primitive populations amongst themselves as if they were cheap livestock'' (2). That uneasiness with European colonialism was the trigger for an imaginary eruption of overwhelming forces--Chinese, Japanese, Africans--who play their own imperial power-games with the Western world. The contemporary versions of the ``Bad American Dream,'' for example, clearly derived from subliminal anxieties about the ``enemy within'' in King Wallace's The Next War: A Prediction (1892), and from American anxieties about the new Japan in J.H. Palmer's The Invasion of New York; Or, How Hawaii was Annexed (1897). For those who had the courage of their racial prejudices, however, there was a final solution for the nightmare from the East--wipe out the inferior races.

Two stories are prime contenders for the title of the Best in Genocide Fiction: the first, and likely winner on length, is the chapter on ``The Fate of the Inferior Races'' in Three Hundred Years Hence (1881) by the one-time Fellow of the Royal Geographical Society, William Delisle Hay; the second is the short story, ``The Unparalleled Invasion,'' a by-product of Jack London's work as a war correspondent during the Russo-Japanese War. The British author looked forward to the perfect world of the Victorian dream--advanced technologies, universal peace and plenty, the white races united within the Oecumenic Parliament of the States of Humanity. Throughout the Century of Peace, Hay wrote, ``men's minds had become opened to the truth, had become sensible of the diversity of species, had become conscious of Nature's law of development ...The stern logic of facts proclaimed the Negro and the Chinaman below the level of the Caucasian, and incapacitated from advance towards his intellectual standard'' (235). Nature's law required that the Caucasians should inherit the world. Vast air fleets sweep across China and discharge ``a rain of awful death upon the `Flowery Land' below...

... a rain of death to every breathing thing, a rain that exterminates the hopeless race, whose long presumption it had been, that it existed in passive prejudice to the advance of United Man.

What need is there to say more? You know the awful story, for awful it undoubtedly is, that destruction of a thousand millions of beings who once were held to be the equals of intellectual men. We look back upon the Yellow Race with pitying contempt, for to us they can but seem mere anthropoid animals, not to be regarded as belonging to the race that is summed and glorified in United Man. (248)

The American argument for wiping out the Chinese did not cite ``Nature's law of development.'' It was, in the words of Jack London, a matter of simple prudence: ``There was no combating China's amazing birth-rate. If her population was 1000 millions and was increasing 20 millions a year, in twenty-five years it would be 1500 millions--equal to the total population of the world in 1904.''2 The final solution starts with the United States in 1975, when President Moyer brings the major White powers together for the destruction of all human beings in China. On 1 May 1976 their planes begin dropping ``strange, harmless-looking missiles, tubes of fragile glass that shattered into thousands of fragments on the streets and housetops'' (269). It is the start of a planned programme of bacteriological warfare. ``During all the summer and fall of 1976, China was an inferno...

There was no eluding the miscroscopic projectiles that sought out the remotest hiding-places. The hundreds of millions of dead remained unburied, and the germs multiplied; and, toward the last, millions died daily of starvation. Besides starvation weakened the victims and destroyed their natural defenses against the plague. Cannibalism, murder and madness reigned. And so China perished.3

These extreme fantasies derived from the ceaseless dialogue between Western culture and the immense, ever-growing powers which the new industrial societies had generated since that day on Glasgow Green in 1764 when James Watt got the idea for the separate condenser. One hundred years later Jules Verne began his most profitable career as the first great writer of science fiction by demonstrating the most desirable applications of the new technologies in the achievements of Nemo, Robur, and the Baltimore Gun Club. And then in Les 500 Millions de la Bégum (The Begum's Fortune, 1879) he looked at the morality of intentions in the use of scientific knowledge. Franceville is the ideal city, dedicated to peace, the happiness of its citizens, and the good of humankind; Stahlstadt is the dark opposite, the home of Dr Schulze and his super-gun--totalitarian, regimented, bent on the conquest of the world. The unwritten conclusion was that, given sufficient power, anyone--any nation, any group, any race--could take control of planet Earth. No one put this better than H.G. Wells in the most telling and most effective of all future-war stories, The War of the Worlds (1898). In that classic tale Wells began with the notion of superior force, as it had been suffered by the Tasmanians who `` spite of their human likeness, were entirely swept out of existence in a war of extermination waged by European immigrants in the space of fifty years.'' When the Martian cylinders land on the common between Horsell and Woking, the rifles and artillery of the British prove as useless as the wooden clubs of the Tasmanians. The super-weapons of the Martians--all the fire-power and mobility any general could desire--were warning images of what science might yet do for the military.

As contemporary weaponry continued to advance, Wells pursued the theme of ever-accelerating power and came down to earth from planetary space. First, he looked at what technology could do on the battle-field in ``The Land Ironclads'' (1903). Then, he looked at total warfare in a terrestrial setting in The War in the Air (1908)--the destruction of New York and the collapse of all human society in that near-future time when ``the great nations and empires have become but names in the mouths of men.'' And then he produced the most perceptive anticipation in future-fiction with his account of atomic warfare in The World Set Free (1914). He confronted the ultimate weapon and thought that the immense destructiveness of the atomic bomb (he gave the term to the world) would lead to world peace and to ``the blazing sunshine of a reforming world.''

This discussion of military power provided abundant material for a parallel sequence of more conventional tales about ``What It Will be Like in The Sea Warfare of Tomorrow.'' These were a straightforward form of future-war fiction--all the fighting without the politics--for the narratives concentrated almost entirely on the operations of naval vessels. They were written as answers to serious questions prompted by the coming of the ironclad warship, by the introduction of the ram, and by the development of the destroyer and the submarine. And here again national interests decided the distribution of these stories. British writers dominated the field for the good reason that the Royal Navy was the first line of national defence for the United Kingdom.4 German writers were conspicuous by their absence. They had nothing to write about, since the new Reich did not start on a naval building programme until the first Navy Law of 1898. The French were more interested in, and wrote more about, their army; and across the Atlantic, as Bruce Franklin has demonstrated in War Stars (23-33), American propagandists were turning out preparedness tracts to present the case for the great navy that the United States did not have in the 1880s.

One of the best examples of this anticipatory fiction came from the British Member of Parliament, Hugh Arnold-Forster, later Secretary of the Admiralty. He wrote his tale of a ramming action, In a Conning Tower: A Story of Modern Ironclad Warfare (1888), in order to give his readers ``a faithful idea of the possible course of an action between two modern ironclads availing themselves of all the weapons of offence and defence which an armoured ship at the present day possesses''(ii). It proved most popular: after appearing in Murray's Magazine (July 1888), the story went through eight pamphlet editions, and there were translations into Dutch, French, Italian, and Swedish. There was a comparable interest in Der grosse Seekrieg im Jahre 1888 (The Great Naval War of 1888), written by Spiridion Gop evi , an officer in the Austrian Navy. His elaborate account of naval tactics in a war between the British and French first appeared in the highly professional Internationale Revue über die Gesamten Armeen und Flotten in 1886, and in the following year the story went into an immediate English translation as The Conquest of Britain in 1888.

One unusual feature of these naval anticipations was the good temper and the remarkable courtesy of the authors--a welcome change from the propaganda and invective of tales like Samuel Barton's The Battle of the Swash and the Capture of Canada (1888), George La Faure's Mort aux Anglais! (Death to the English!, 1892), or Karl Eisenhart's Die Abrechnung mit England (The Reckoning with England, 1900). For instance, the British naval historian, William Laird Clowes, assured his readers that in writing his tale of The Captain of the ``Mary Rose'' (1892) he had ``been animated by no unfriendly and by no unfair feelings towards France.'' Again, F.T. Jane, the journalist and the founder of the influential Jane's Fighting Ships, began his account of Blake of the ``Rattlesnake'' (1895) with a long preamble about ``future war yarns.'' They could not be a danger to peace between nations for the simple reason that ``Foreign nations are frequently turning out similar stories; yet I have never heard of any of us bearing them ill-will for it.'' In like manner the anonymous naval lieutenant who wrote La Guerre avec l'Angleterre (The War with England, 1900) began by saying that his subject was the war at sea, and that meant:

For France there can only be one naval war--against the British. It does not follow from this that France should fight the British, nor that France should have a greater interest in making war than in maintaining the peace. It is even less permissible to think that France should wish for a war with the British. (v)

The evident popularity of these various tales of the war-to-come marks a sudden and extensive change in long-established modes of communication. Almost overnight fiction had replaced the tract and the pamphlet as the most efficient means of airing a nation's business in public. For centuries ``the address to the nation'' had done good service in warning of the dangers-to-come--from the first signals of alarm at the coming of the Invincible Armada in 1588 to the outpouring of pamphlets that accompanied, and often profoundly influenced, the course of events in the United States in 1776, in France in 1789, and in Great Britain during the time when the Armée de l'Angleterre was waiting in Boulogne to start on the invasion of England.

Although the undisputed effectiveness of Chesney's Battle of Dorking was a most potent force in encouraging this shift into fiction, the prime movers in the great change were a combination of social and literary factors. First, there was the matter of demand and supply: the constant growth of populations and the parallel rise in the level of literacy provided more and more readers for the increasing numbers of newspapers, magazines for all interests, and books of every kind. Second, a new and most influential conclave of historians demonstrated, often with great eloquence, how their nations had secured their place in the nineteenth-century world. So, an exclusive sense of nationhood fed on and grew out of the new histories, which were the life-work of eminent writers like Guizot, Thierry, Michelet, Francis Parker, Macaulay, Carlyle, Buckle, von Ranke, Treitschke. In keeping with the general belief in ``progress,'' they explained the evolution of their nations as the work of exceptional individuals and the result of communal movements, of struggles with other nations, and of decisive victories at Austerlitz, Saratoga, and Waterloo.

The new, centralised systems of education passed on their simplified versions of one-history-for-one-people to the state schools, so that by the 1890s the young in all the major technological nations had received an appropriate grounding in the received history of their country. Again, and for the first time in human history, the young could see the evolution of the nation state in the maps that showed the unification of the German states, or the advance out of the thirteen colonies westward towards the Pacific, or the lost provinces of Alsace-Lorraine, or the many additions to the British Empire.

In the parallel universe of the new historical fiction, the heroic individual had his appointed role in the male worlds of Walter Scott, Victor Hugo, Fenimore Cooper, Alessandro Manzoni, and many others. In their various ways they sought to reveal the intimate links between character and action, between the person and the nation. And so, in January 1871, when Chesney was considering what would serve him best as a model for the tale about a German invasion he had contracted to write, he thought immediately of fiction in the style of Erckmann-Chatrian. Those two most popular writers had set their tales about the ``Conscript'' in the well-established circumstances of the Napoleonic Wars. Their handling of their stories was an ideal example for a British colonel who wished to show that the projected events in his history of the coming invasion would follow from the faults and failings of the nation in 1871. These errors of the past--so evident, so avoidable, so serious--gained a powerful psychological spin from a future history that could handle disaster or victory with equal facility. The time-frame recorded events as a chapter, often the last chapter, in the national history: victory happily and gloriously confirmed the national destiny; and defeat allowed for telling contrasts between the final disaster and the better days gone beyond recall.

All these tales of the war-to-come advanced along the contour lines of contemporary expectations. The majority--some two-thirds of them--kept closely to the political, military or naval facts; and, whenever their authors had a warning to deliver, they waved the big stick of fiction at their readers. Most of their tales were admonitory essays in preparedness--arguments for a bigger army, or for more ships. Since most of these authors were responding to some danger or menace represented by the enemy of the day, they were usually careful to present their accounts of the war-to-come as the next stage in the nation's history. Chesney did this very well in the opening sentences of his Battle of Dorking. His many imitators noted, and often adopted, the deft way in which he established the time and scale of the future disaster, as he began his ominous woe-crying in his first lines:

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. For us in England it came too late. And yet we had plenty of warnings, if we had only made use of them. The danger did not come on us suddenly unawares. It burst on us suddenly, 'tis true, but its coming was foreshadowed plainly enough to open our eyes, if we had not been wilfully blind.

Transfer that threat from the external enemy to an American setting, and ``Stochastic'' (Hugh Grattan Donnelly) responds with a Chesney-style lamen-tation to introduce an American argument for strengthening the national defences. He begins his history of The Stricken Nation (1890) by recalling the good years before the British fleet reduced New York to rubble and caused immense damage to the Eastern sea ports:

The pages of universal history may be scanned in vain for a record of disasters, swifter in their coming, more destructive in their scope, or more far-reaching in their consequences, than those which befell the United States of America in the last decade. Standing on the threshold of the twentieth century, and looking backward over the years that have passed since the United States first began to realize the tremendous possibilities of the impending crisis, we are amazed at the folly and blindness which precipitated the struggle, while bewildered and appalled by its effects on the destinies of mankind.

In 1891 we behold a nation! A Republic of sixty-two million ... an intelligent, refined, progressive people; peace and plenty within their borders from the Atlantic to the Pacific, and from the shores of the Great Lakes to the Gulf. In 1892, we see the shattered remnants of the once great Republic. We read with tear-dimmed eyes of its tens of thousands of heroes fallen in defence of its flag, of its thousands of millions of treasure wasted in tardy defence, or paid in tribute to the invader.

It was standard practice to start from established positions in the political geography of Europe or of the United States. The French, for example, saw a war with Germany and the recovery of Alsace-Lorraine as no more than patriotic duty. That agreeable prospect provided cause and consequence for a succession of anticipations that began in the year of defeat with: Edouard Dangin, La Bataille de Berlin en 1875 (The Battle of Berlin in 1875, 1871). That theme reappeared five years later in Anonymous, France et l'Allemagne au printemps prochain (France and Germany Next Spring, 1876); and again in 1877 in Général Mèche, La Guerre franco-allemande de 1878 (The Franco-German War of 1878). These were the first in an ever-growing flood of these guerres imaginaires that reached the highest-level mark in the many publications of Capitaine Danrit (Commandant Emile Augustin Cyprien Driant, 1855-1916). He belonged to the new fraternity of senior officers--patriot writers to the public--who chose to make their appeals to the masses through the medium of fiction; for they knew from the success of Chesney's Battle of Dorking that a tale of the war-to-come, fought against the expected enemy, was the most effective means of putting the case to their citizen paymasters for more funds for more troops and for more warships.

Commandant Driant was an eminent person, like so many of the authors who wrote future-war stories before the journalists of the new mass newspapers took over from them about the turn of the century. He was commissioned into the infantry and after eleven years of service with the colours he was appointed adjutant to General Boulanger at the Ministry of War in 1888. In that year the general's political activities led to the removal of his name from the army list and in that same year Driant married the general's youngest daughter and began work on his first guerre imaginaire. The distinguished record continues: instructor at St. Cyr; battalion commander by 1898; resigns commission in 1906 and goes into politics as the deputy for Nancy; dies a hero's death on the Verdun front in 1916.

The biography reveals an ardent patriotism and a determination to prepare the French for the war that they would one day have to fight with Germany. He made this very clear in his dedication of La Guerre en rase campagne (War in Open Country, 1888) to his old regiment, 4e Régiment de Zouaves:

With you I would have liked to depart for the Great War, which we are all expecting and which is so long in coming. Under your flag I still hope to see it, if there is a god of battle and he can hear me. To while away the waiting I have dreamed of this war, this holy war in which we shall be victorious; and this is the book of my dream which I dedicate to you.'

Driant always gave his readers what they wanted: heroic episodes, great victories over the Germans, and in the 1192 pages of his Guerre fatale: France-Angleterre (The Fatal War: France-England, 1902) he had ample space in which to relate the total defeat of the British. Driant has a world record as the man who turned out more future-war stories (some twelve in all) than any other writer before 1914. In 1888 he opened the war against Germany in La Guerre de demain (The War of Tomorrow) with the first of three full-length stories which told the tale of: La Guerre en forteresse (Fortress Warfare), La Guerre en rase campagne (War in Open Country), and La Guerre en ballon (Balloon Warfare). As the scene of battle shifts from forts to open country and to the skies, Driant works to link the history of France with his version of la guerre de l'avenir. The action opens in La Guerre en fortresse, as reports come in of a sudden German attack. Danrit goes into stereotype mode: the good French face the dastardly Teutons who have not declared war. The troops stand to in their positions, and at dawn their captain addresses them ``in a serious voice ...

`Mes enfants, the great day of battle has arrived, the one I have so often spoken about in our theoretical lectures. The Germans are on the move, advancing towards our line of forts. They are attacking us without any declaration of war, and without any provocation from our side, like one nation that wants to annihilate another. We are fighting for our lives, for our survival, for our homes. If we are defeated, we shall be removed from the map of Europe; we shall cease to be a military power.If we are victorious, that will be a very different matter. Here, in this small corner of France we shall soon be cut off from the rest of the world. We are going to face determined attacks; we shall face danger every second. Steel your hearts for this task! There cannot be any doubt that I would have preferred to march with you in open country, behind the regimental flag, but fate has decided otherwise. We have to guard one of the gateways of France. To let the enemy take it by storm would be most shameful; to surrender it would be a crime. I have been a prisoner in Germany; and in Cologne I went through all the humiliation of defeat after the great battles we fought over there.'

And his voice trembled with emotion as his finger pointed in the direction of Metz.

`I am too old to go through that again,' he said in a solemnn tone that moved us profoundly. `Swear all of you that you are ready to die with me in defending the fort of Liouville which France has entrusted to us.'5

By 1913 Driant had published so much fiction, and his stories were so long that half a century later Pierre Versins felt called on to protest in the name of sanity. The hundred pages of Chesney's Battle of Dorking, said Pierre Versins in his admirable Encyclopédie, were far more important and revealing ``than the thousands of white pages soiled day after day by a national hero of France (they dedicated a postage stamp to him in 1956). Thousands? Judge for yourself!


La Guerre de demain


L'Invasion noire


La Guerre fatale


L'Invasion jaune


L'Aviateur du Pacifique 




La Guerre souterraine



7616pp 6



A comparable association between the British public and the military can be examined in the ways General Sir William Francis Butler (1838-1910) and his wife exploited the general interest in warfare. He had distinguished himself in various colonial operations--the Ashanti campaign, the Zulu War, Tel-el-Kebir--and he went on from one senior post to another, and ended his career as a lieutenant-general in 1900. In between campaigns he found time to make his contribution to the growing literature of future warfare with The Invasion of England (1882), a variant on an already well-established theme. His wife, however, was far more famous. The battle-paintings of the celebrated Lady Butler were reported at length in the Press; they attracted huge numbers of viewers whenever they were shown at the Royal Academy; and the editors of the principal illustrated magazines spent thousands of pounds to secure rights of reproduction. When her paintings went on tour, it was reported that viewers queued for hours. The showing of the famous painting of Balaclava, for instance, attracted some 50,000 at the Fine Art Society in 1876 and when it arrived in Liverpool, more than 100,000 had paid to see the picture.

The general had made the connection between military preparedness and the future of the nation in his one venture into the fiction of future-warfare; and his wife gained an international reputation for paintings that showed the masses the life-and-death connection between the history of the nation and the courage of the ordinary soldier. In her most admired works--The Roll Call, The 28th Regiment at Quatre Bras, Scotland for Ever!--she revealed how much she had profited from the style of the French genre militaire, especially from the realism and accuracy of the most famous of the French military painters, Jean Louis Meissonier. He thought highly of her battle scenes, and he has been quoted as saying of Lady Butler: ``L'Angleterre n'a guère qu'un peintre militaire, c'est une femme.''7

The French had created their own heroic iconography out of their exceptional military history. A succession of gifted painters--Horace Vernet, Adolphe Yvon, Alphonse de Neuville, Edouard Detaille, and the incomparable Jean Louis Meissonier--revealed the supreme moments of victory and defeat. To look backward was to see the glorious past, battle by battle, and one great warrior after another, as they appear to this day in the ``Salle des Batailles'' at Versailles. To look forward to the war of the future, however, required gifts of imagination that were peculiar to only one man. Albert Robida (1848-1926) was the Jules Verne of the sketch pad and the magazine drawing. The two men quarried from the new technologies for their vision of things-tocome; and both had their base in the new magazines--for Verne the Magasin d'éducation et de récreation; for Robida his own La Caricature. Where Verne was all high seriousness in his stories, Robida was relaxed and amused at the images that came to him out of the future. He looked into the twentieth century in his Le Vingtième Siècle (The Twentieth Century, 1883) and found a world where the droll, whimsical images confirmed the fact of progress and universal prosperity: air taxis, aeronefs-omnibus, transatlantic balloons, aerial hotels, apartment blocks made from compressed paper, television for all, synthetic foods, submarine cities, underwater sports, and a women-only stock exchange.

Robida was equally at his ease with the possibilities of future warfare. His first anticipation of la guerre qui vient appeared in La Caricature. This was the famous account of La Guerre au vingtième siècle (War in the Twentieth Century, #200, 27 October 1883), and then a revised version came out in a magnificent 48-page album in 1887. It was a remarkable moment in the history of publishing. An amiable French civilian with a wry sense of humour had produced the first images of what the sciences could do for the military. His alphabet of aggression revealed the extraordinary shape of things to come: armoured fighting vehicles, bacteriological weaponry, bombers, chemical battalions, female combat troops, fighter planes, flame-throwers, poison gas provided by the Medical Assault Corps, psychological warfare experts, underwater troops. Although his drawings were well ahead of their time, Robida was a true man of his times in the nonchalance he showed in contemplating the most lethal weapons then conceivable. We know now what was then hidden. The planners and the prophets had drawn the wrong conclusions from the unprecedented advances of the age. A sturdy confidence in the continued progress of humankind encouraged the belief that the new weapons would lead to shorter, even better wars. In 1901, for example, at the end of a chapter on ``Changes in Military Science,'' a senior instructor at West Point set down the then current American military doctrine that ``wars between civilized nations, when carried on by the regularly organized forces, will be short.'' He reasoned that ``the great and increasing complexity of modern life, involving international contacts at an ever-increasing number of points, will combine with the military conditions herein outlined to reduce the duration of war to the utmost.''8

This view of coming things is apparent in Robida's draughtmanship. His images are brilliant, now slightly archaic anticipations of what the military would achieve in the twentieth century. Unfortunately Robida's writing is not the equal of his drawing. His narrative finds its own place in the never-never void of a fantastic future-history, as if Robida could never bring himself to make the obvious conclusions from the lethal weaponry he had drawn. The story opens, for instance, on the droll note that Robida reserves for the more destructive events in his narrative:

The first half of the year 1945 had been particularly peaceful. Apart from the usual goings-on--that is, apart from a small three-month civil war in the Danubian Empire, apart from an American offensive against our coast which was repulsed by our submarine fleet, and apart from a Chinese expedition which was smashed to pieces on the rocks of Corsica--life in Europe continued in total calm.9

Again, Robida uses the desperate and often hilarious adventures of his intrepid hero, Fabius Molinas from Toulouse, as his best means of keeping the reader amused with the unfolding jollity of total warfare. The narrative moves with lightning speed, as Molinas goes through a series of rapid promotions for the sake of the images--air gunner to pilot officer to second-lieutenant in the mobile artillery to commandant of ``the Potassium Cyanide, a submarine torpedo vessel of entirely new construction'' (105). As Molinas survives disasters far beyond the call of duty, the swift and somewhat flippant style keeps the narrative going at such a speed that the reader has little time to ponder the consequences of the more striking incidents. On occasions Robida seems to point towards a far from comfortable conclusion. There is, for example, the air attack on a town:

There was a loud cry, and a puff of smoke. Three more bombs followed; and then there was total silence. The camp fires had been extinguished, and a pall of death covered all, even the wretched inhabitants who had stayed on in the town. They were all instantly suffocated in their homes. These things are the accidents of war to which the recent advances of science have accustomed all of us.10

Robida was the Lone Ranger in the French guerres imaginaires: one of the very few (like A.A. Milne and P.G. Wodehouse) who found it possible to be funny about ``the next great war.'' He rescued his comic tale from the Bastille of real events, because he was able to ignore contemporary politics, unlike the hundreds of earnest writers--British, French, and German--for whom the tale of the European war-to-come was a desirable extension of national policy by means of fiction. For that reason these tales often sold well, and went on selling in sudden bursts of popularity whenever some perceived danger attracted the attention of a nation. In 1882, for instance, the proposals for the construction of a Channel Tunnel set the alarm bells ringing in the United Kingdom; and, as the arguments against so imprudent, so perilous a connection with the Continent went the rounds of the Press, anxious patriots took to writing fearful tales that promised the worst in their titles: The Seizure of the Channel Tunnel, The Surprise of the Channel Tunnel, How John Bull Lost London, The Siege of London, The Story of the Channel Tunnel, The Battle of Boulogne. The best of these was the work of Howard Francis Lester, a barrister and an eminent person in the British legal system. In The Taking of Dover (1888) he told a tale of French treachery--of French assault troops hidden in Dover, waiting for the day when they could emerge to seize the town and begin the invasion of England. The tale, slotted into an appropriate place in French history, is told after the conquest by the commander of the assault troops who shakes his head with great effect at his recollections of British folly and unpreparedness. It seemed only yesterday they were plotting the seizure of Dover, and now he could not ``but pity the nation; but their humiliation, as it was occasioned by sheer recklessness, by avarice for the gains of trade, and by blind stupidity, appears to my judgment to have been fully deserved'' (11).


Link to: Selected illustrations from Robida's La Guerre au Vingtième Siècle


The topicality of tomorrow's peril guaranteed that most of these stories would have their brief day of popularity before they vanished into the hands of the rare-book dealers. At their most notorious best, however, they can still bring home the seriousness of politics at the times of major crises; and they reveal how easy it was for the citizens of the pre-1914 world to believe that a future European war would be a short affair--without immense casualty lists, fought with conventional weapons, and conducted in a reasonably humane way. They were writing about, and preparing for, the wrong war. One of the ablest historians of the First World War has pointed out that

The nations entered upon the conflict with the conventional outlook and system of the eighteenth century merely modified by the events of the nineteenth century. Politically, they conceived it to be a struggle between rival coalitions based on the traditional system of diplomatic alliances, and militarily a contest between professional armies--swollen, it is true, by the continental system of conscription, yet essentially fought out by soldiers while the mass of the people watched, from seats in the amphitheatre, the efforts of their champions.11

A benign conspiracy had made it impossible for all but the very few to see that the rapid advances in weaponry would change the scale of warfare. For example, the favourite dogma of technological and social progress caused Charles Richet--the distinguished bacteriologist and winner of the Nobel Prize for medicine--to forecast a best of all possible future worlds in his Dans cent ans (In One Hundred Years, 1892). Eight years before the Wright brothers began their flights at Kitty Hawk, Richet was confident that the prospect of everlasting peace was growing day by day, because modern armaments had brought the nations up before the ultimate deterrent. Vast national armies had replaced the small forces of earlier times; and as for their weaponry,

Quick-firing rifles, enormous guns, improved shells, smokeless and noiseless gunpowder--these are so destructive that a great battle (such as there never will be, we hope) could cause the deaths of 300,000 men in a few hours. It is evident that the nations, no matter how unconcerned they may be at times when driven by a false pride, will draw back before this terrible vision.

But things are changing for the better. New means of warfare,probably more destructive than ever, are on the drawing-board. By continually improving our armaments, we will end by making war impossible. Should flying machines ever be invented, they will spread devastation everywhere. No town, no matter how far it is from the frontier, will be able to defend itself.12

Richet had no figures to support his belief that the nations would ``draw back before this terrible vision,'' whereas Ivan Bloch produced a mountain of statistics in the six volumes and 3094 pages of his lengthy treatise on The Future of War. For some nine years Bloch had studied every war since 1870--everything from the numbers of combatants, ammunition supply, rate of fire to casualty lists--and he had come to the conclusion ``that war has become impossible alike from a military, economic, and political point of view.....

The very development that has taken place in the mechanism of war has rendered war an impracticable operation. The dimensions of modern armaments and the organization of society have rendered its prosecution an economic impossibility; and, finally, that if any attempt were made to demonstrate the inaccuracy of my assertions by putting the matter to a test on a great scale, we should find the inevitable result in a catastrophe which would destroy all existing political organizations. Thus, the great war cannot be made, and any attempt to make it would result in suicide.13

The general view was the very opposite. What the majority expected can be examined in The Great War of 189- (1891), the first-ever piece of future-war writing composed by a consortium of military and naval experts. This was an action replay of contemporary assumptions and expectations about the most likely conduct of operations on land or at sea in a future European war; and it did in its time what General Sir John Hackett and associates set out to do in their Third World War (1978). The publication of the story in the then new illustrated magazine, Black and White, is even more significant than its contents. It was the first full-length illustrated study of ``the next great war''--the parts appeared weekly from 2 January to 21 May 1891. Moreover, the editor of Black and White had commissioned the story--as he told his readers in his introduction to the first part--in order to give them ``a full, vivid and interesting picture of the Great in War of the future.''

That bid to increase the print run of a new magazine marked the beginning of a new trend in the Press. The war-to-come had moved out from its original base in the middle-class journals and had become a valued commodity for the mass-circulation magazines and newspapers that began to appear in the 1890s. Thus, the editorial hand can be seen at work in the presentation of the story. One major innovation showed in the realism and careful attention to detail in ``the scene of action'' style of the narrative. This was most evident in the up-to-the-minute accounts that told the tale in a sequence of dated reports from the front, telegrams from correspondents with the combatants, and editorial comments in the manner of contemporary newspapers. Another innovation in this search for the authentic appeared in the frequent first-class action illustrations--the work of outstanding contemporary war artists who sought to give the impression of on-the-spot photography. Again, the members of the writing team represented an array of the major talents. The co-ordinator was the distinguished naval officer, Rear-Admiral P. Colomb, known as ``Column and a Half'' from his habit of writing long letters to the Times. He contributed the naval episodes, and he edited the land warfare accounts from Charles Lowe, a distinguished foreign correspondent of the Times, and Christie Murray who had been the special correspondent of the Times during the Russo-Turkish War of 1877.

The great war of 189- begins in the Balkans, in keeping with general expectations; and the immediate cause proved unusually prescient--the attempted assassination of Prince Ferdinand of Bulgaria. The ultimate cause--a preview of 1914--is the chain-effect of the Triple Alliance between Germany, Austria-Hungary, and Italy. The action begins with the Serbian attack on Bulgaria. The Austrians occupy Belgrade as a precautionary move; and in response the Russians occupy the principal Bulgarian ports on the Black Sea. Germany mobilizes in support of Austria-Hungary; the French rally to Russia and declare war on Germany. The United Kingdom begins by keeping to the traditional policy of ``glorious isolation,'' but is eventually drawn into the conflict against the French and the Russians. Well-known contemporary personalities--political, military, naval--play their parts in this drama of the expected. There are various major engagements on land and sea, most of them one-day affairs, in a war of rapid movement with infantry advancing at the double and grand cavalry charges. There are no long casualty lists; all combatants behave like gentlemen; and the war is over by Christmas.

From 1890 onwards the tale of the war-to-come adapted to the new circumstances of an ever-growing demand from the burgeoning popular press. Editors began to commission tales of ``the next great war.'' One of the first into the new business was that astute entrepreneur, Alfred Harmsworth. He began a most profitable association with the sensational writer, William Le Queux, when he commissioned a future-war story for his new tabloid, Answers. This was The Poisoned Bullet, a tale of a Franco-Russian invasion, which ran for six months and ended on 2 June 1894. The yarn went on to even greater success. When it was later published as a book with the title of The Great War in England in 1897 (1894), it ran through five editions in a month, and attracted attention in France, Italy, and Germany. Twelve years later Harmsworth (by then elevated to Viscount Northcliffe) made the newspaper coup of the pre-1914 period. In 1906 he commissioned Le Queux to write a serial, The Invasion of 1910, for his tabloid Daily Mail. The story did wonders for the circulation figures of the newspaper. It made a small fortune for Le Queux; there were translations into twenty-seven languages, and over one million copies of the book edition were sold.

At that time, however, the enemy was still France for the British. That was quite evident from the activities of editors and publishers. Grant Richards, a successful publisher, commissioned a French invasion story from Colonel Maude, The New Battle of Dorking (1900), in the hope that it would do as well as the original Chesney story. Again, the editor of Le Monde Illustré commisioned Henri de Nousanne to write an end-of-the-British Empire story, La Guerre Anglo-Franco-Russe (The Anglo-Franco-Russian War). That took up the entire special number of 10 March 1900, complete with excellent illustrations and a detailed map of the world which showed how the Russians and the French shared out the British possessions between themselves. But the scale of that hopeful history could not compare with the far greater enterprise that transferred the locations and events in Wells's War of the Worlds (without the knowledge or permission of the author) to a New England setting in the Boston Post and to the New York area in the New York Evening Journal. As David Y. Hughes has shown in a groundbreaking study, the double act of brigandage started from the legitimate publication of Wells's story in the Cosmopolitan (April-December, 1897).14 For the editor of the New York Journal, Arthur Brisbane, that version was an ideal opportunity to run a serial that would, so he calculated, send up sales towards the hoped-for million figure by the simple process of turning the British original into an all-American affair. The sub-editors on the Journal got to work--changing the text and adding their own variations to the original--and on 15 December 1897 their readers had the pleasure of beginning the serial account of Fighters from Mars: The War of the Worlds. The process was repeated in the editing room of the Post, and on 9 January 1898 the Boston-only version opened as Fighters From Mars: The War of the Worlds in and Near Boston. This spectacular triumph of entrepreneurial journalism suggests that two American editors had to fall back on the pretence of the Fighters from Mars, because the United States did not have any enemies able to wage war on the scale of the conflicts contemplated across the Atlantic. Their enterprise proved so successful, and the interest in the most fantastic of future-war fiction so great, that the Journal and the Post combined for another venture into the No Man's Land of coming things. They decided to commission, and they printed six weeks later, a great Yankee sequel: Edison's Conquest of Mars by Garrett P. Serviss. This primitive version of Star Wars was the most ambitious and the most way-out future-war story of the 1890s. The trailer in the Post promised the final salvation of planet Earth:

``Edison's Conquest of Mars,"

...A Sequel to...



How the People of All the Earth, Fearful of a Second Invasion from Mars, Under the Inspiration and Leadership of Thomas A. Edison, the Great Inventor, Combined to Conquer the Warlike Planet.

Written in Collaboration With Edison by Garrett P. Serviss,  the Well-Known Astronomical Author

Edison provides the know-how for Earth to strike back against the Martians; but the world has to find the funds to manufacture his electrical ships and vibration engines by the thousand. The word goes forth from Washington that all the nations ``must unite their resources, and if necessary, exhaust all their hoards, in order to raise the needed sum ...

Negotiations were at once begun. The United States naturally took the lead, and their leadership was never for a moment questioned abroad. Washington was selected as the place of meeting for a great congress of nations. Washington, luckily, had been one of the places which had not been touched by the Martians. But if Washington had been a city composed of hotels alone, and every hotel so great as to be a little city in itself, it would have been utterly insufficient for the accommodation of the innumerable throngs which now flocked to the banks of the Potomac. But when was American enterprise unequal to a crisis?15

By the end of the century the tale of the war-to-come had clearly become a thriving business that responded to the very different interests of two sets of readers. In the universe of serious politics and national defence the short storydeclined in numbers and vanished from all but the most prestigious magazines, like the Strand and McClure's Magazine; but the lobbyists for preparedness continued with their messages, working more effectively in long stories that often ran to many editions. In the newer universe of the fancy-free—those who followed conjecture wherever it led—there were no limits to their fantasias of the future. One favoured theme was the scientist of genius and his invention of the superweapon; and here the delightful excitement that powered these hectic dramas of the boundless—dynamite ships, immense flying machines, super-bombs—tends to obscure the beginnings of a confrontation between science and society.

Jules Verne was the first to create the Prospero image of the inventor of genius in Nemo and Robur. His heroes exemplified a confidence in science and in human capabilities; their theme song could have been set to the sweet music of progress in Walt Whitman's line: ``Never was average man, his soul, more energetic, more like a God''(``Years of the Modern,'' 1865). Those sentiments had once inspired the young Tennyson with great hopes for the future in his hymn to progress, ``Locksley Hall''; but some forty-three years later, he had very different thoughts in his ``Locksley Hall. Sixty Years After'':

Is there evil but on earth? or pain in every peopled sphere?
Well be grateful for the sounding watchword `Evolution' here.
Evolution ever climbing after some ideal good,
And Reversion ever dragging Evolution in the mud.

Jules Verne in his old age, like Tennyson, revised his ideas about the gifts of science. In Face au drapeau (Face the Flag, 1896) the invention of the super-bomb, the Fulgurator, is the occasion for weighing scientific achievement in the scales of good and evil. Verne went further in his Maître du monde (Master of the World, 1904), where Robur reappears--an Edison gone wrong--as a danger to the world. In like manner, the bad genius, ``a mad genius in charge of a new and terrible explosive,'' dominates the action in Robert Cromie's The Crack of Doom (1895). He has discovered that ``one grain of matter contains enough energy, if etherized, to raise one hundred thousand tons nearly two miles'' (36). He sets out to destroy the world, but fortunately a prototype James Bond defeats him at the last moment.

Good scientists came singly or in groups. The example of Ferdinand de Lesseps, for instance, offered the French ideas for turning the tables on their hereditary enemy. In George Le Faure's Mort aux Anglais! (Death to the English!, 1892) the good French patriot and man of genius devises yet another perfect scheme to defeat the British: reverse the Gulf Stream and freeze them out! An even more ingenious variant on that notion comes from Alphonse Allais who devotes the aptly named Projet d'attitude inamicale vis-à-vis de l'Angleterre (Plan for Hostile Relations against England, 1900) to a plan for freezing the Gulf Stream. The Channel then ices over ten feet deep and the French march across to final victory.

Other operations for the good of the nation or of humankind were the work of secret international brotherhoods like the dedicated anarchists in George Griffith's The Angel of the Revolution. That tale of terror began in January 1893 as a serial in the new British tabloid, Pearson's Weekly; it ran through 39 instalments; and worked through the contemporary schedule of super-weapons from compressed air guns to fast aerial cruisers. Good here triumphs over evil: the Franco-Russian forces are defeated; and the AngloSaxon Federation of the World is proclaimed. This happy notion of the Anglo-Saxon Conquest of the world appeared in a scenario that had similar scripts on both sides of the Atlantic. In G. Danyer's Blood is Thicker than Water (1895) a British writer reckoned the Americans and the British had so much in common that the two nations would inevitably become the policemen of the world; they would intervene in a war between France and Germany; and would finally come together in a grand fraternal union:

...all will be equal in the brotherhood of their race, and over all will float, as against the rest of the world, a common flag, which, hoisted when danger threatens, will be the signal for the rally for a common object of every force that can be disposed of by the greatest union of which history makes mention. (158-59)

An American version of these world ambitions appeared in B.R. Davenport's Anglo-Saxons Onward! A Romance of the Future (1898), where an American author looked forward to an alliance between Americans and British against the Russians and the Turks. As the President of the United States told the Senate when he presented the Treaty of Alliance between the two nations:

...the fact that Great Britain was America's only natural ally, that any circumstance tending to weaken the English nation was pregnant with danger to the influence and welfare of the Anglo-Saxon race all over the world, and consequently an attempt upon Great Britain was full of dire consequences to the Republic as the other great Anglo-Saxon nation. (257)

These final solutions for the problems of war and peace must have owed something to Andrew Carnegie who had argued for an Atlantic alliance in his tract on ``The Reunion of Britain and America'' in 1893. Indeed, the idea that the future belonged to the Anglo-Saxons was in the air about the turn of the century. It was central to Wells's forecast in Anticipations (1902) where he showed himself convinced that:

...a great federation of white English-speaking peoples, a federation having America north of Mexico as its central mass (a federation that may conceivably include Scandinavia) and its federal government will sustain a common fleet, and protect or dominate or actually administer most or all of the non-white states of the present British Empire, and in addition much of the South and Middle Pacific, the East and West Indies, the rest of America, and the larger part of black Africa. (260-61)

When Wells was engaged on his Anticipations in 1901, he saw no connection between the Navy Law of 1898, which began the construction of a large German navy, and the increased possibility of a great European war. The first signs of a possible Anglo-German confrontation, however, had already appeared in: T.W. Offin, How the Germans took London (1900); and in Karl Eisenhart, Die Abrechnung mit England (The Reckoning with England, 1900). The German writer describes the war-to-come against the United Kingdom; and he begins by saying that ``The entire Navy had long yearned for the Day when they could take on the hated English; for they had brought on themselves immense hatred and an animosity like that which the French had experienced in 1813.''16 That was the signal for a great outpouring of tales about the coming war between the British and the Germans. For the following fourteen years, British writers described a German invasion of England in tales like: The Invaders, The Invasion of 1910, The Enemy in our Midst, The Death Trap; and German writers gave their version of der nächste Krieg in their visions of: Der Weltkrieg: Deutsche Träume, Die `Offensiv-Invasion' gegen England, Deutschlands Flotte im Kampf.17 All these essays in future-think had two things in common: the authors expected a war between the Imperial Reich and the United Kingdom; and in their descriptions of naval and military engagements they failed entirely to foresee the new kind of warfare that began in the autumn of 1914.



1. For a survey of early future-war stories, see I.F. Clarke, ``Before and After The Battle of Dorking,'' SFS, 24:34-46, March 1997.

2. Jack London, ``The Unparalleled Invasion,'' Excerpt from Walt. Nervin's ``Certain Essays in History,'' McClure's Magazine (July 1910), 308-14 and reproduced in: I.F. Clarke (ed), The Tale of the Next Great War, 1871-1914 (Liverpool: Liverpool UP, 1995), 265.

3. Ibid., 269. London's story has been chosen as one of the texts to be used by students of English in the Central China Normal University at Wuhan, Hubei, People's Republic of China.

4. These British naval stories became a flood in the 1890s--an effect of the interest in many new types of warship and of the increasing tension between the United Kingdom and France, the only comparable naval power at that time. The major stories were: William Laird Clowes, The Captain of the``Mary Rose,'' 1892; A.N. Seaforth (George Sydenham Clarke), The Last Great Naval War, 1892; Captain S. Eardley-Wilmot, The Next Naval War, 1894; The Earl of Mayo, The War Cruise of the Aries, 1894; J. Eastwick, The New Centurion, 1895; F.T. Jane, Blake of the ``Rattlesnake,'' 1895; Francis G. Burton, The Naval Engineer and the Command of the Sea, 1896; H.W.Wilson and A. White, When War breaks out, 1898; P.L.Stevenson, How the Jubilee Fleet escaped Destruction, and the Battle of Ushant, 1899.

5. Capitaine Danrit, La Guerre des forts: Grand Récit Patriotique et Militaire (Paris: Fayard, 1900), 14. All translations from French and German have been made by the author.

6. See ``Danrit, Capitaine'' in Pierre Versins, Encyclopédie de l' de la Science Fiction (Lausanne: L'Age d'homme, 1972), 222-23.

7. Quoted in Paul Usherwood & Jenny Spencer-Smith, Lady Butler. Battle Artist, 1846-1933 (London: National Army Museum, 1877), 166. This survey gives an excellent acount of Lady Butler's paintings. The influence of Meissonier is examined in the chapter entitled ``The Influence of French Military Painting,'' 143-66.

8. C. De W. Willcox, ``Changes in Military Science'' in The 19th Century: A Review of Progress (London and New York: G. P. Putnam, 1901), 492-93.

9. Albert Robida, La Guerre au vingtième siecle, translated in I.F. Clarke (ed.), The Tale of the Next Great War, 1871-1914 (Liverpool: Liverpool UP, 1995), 94.

10. Ibid., 99. My thanks to Marc Madouraud of Villiers-Adam for the illustrations.

11. B.H. Liddell Hart, History of the First World War, 1970 (London: Pan Macmillan, 1992), 28.

12. Charles Richet, Dans cent ans (Paris: Paul Ollendorff, 1892), 62-3.

13. ``Has War Become Impossible?'' in Review of Reviews: Special Supplement, xix, Jane-June, 1899, 1-16. Bloch began his study of modern warfare in 1888. The book was first published in Russia in 1897, then in France and Germany in 1898. An abridged English translation appeared in 1900: W.T.Steed (ed.), Modern Weapons and Modern War (London: ``Review of Reviews'' Office, 1899).

14. The full, fascinating story appears in: David T. Hughes. ``The War of the Worlds in the Yellow Press,'' Journalism Quarterly, 43, 4 (Winter 1966), 639-646.

15. Garrett P. Serviss, Edison's Conquest of Mars, with an introduction by A. Langley Searles, Ph.D. (Los Angeles: Carcosa House, 1947), 16.

16. Karl Eisenhart, Die Abrechnung mit England (Munich: Lehmann, 1900), 3.

17. Publication details for these works are as follows: Louis Tracy, The Invaders (London: Pearson, 1901); William Le Queux, The Invasion of 1910 (London: E. Nash, 1906); Walter Wood, The Enemy in our Midst (London: J. Long, 1906); Robert William Cole, The Death Trap (London: Greening, 1907); August Niemann, Der Weltkrieg-Deutsche Träume (Leipzig: F.W. Bobach, 1904); Karl Bleibtreu, Die `Offensiv-Invasion' gegen England (Berlin: Schall & Rentel, 1907); F.H. Grautoff, Deutschlands Flotte im Kampf (Altona: J. Hrder, 1907).

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