The Perils of Expertise

This piece by Harry Wood (University of Liverpool) comes to the Invasion Network from the archive of his research blog Island Mentalities. Originally posted 14th January 2015.

Although Edwardian invasion-scare fiction was written by people from a range of backgrounds, the genre’s authors can be neatly divided in two, between civilians on the one hand and military/naval personnel on the other.  These opposing groups formed an unusual dynamic.  As Michael Matin has explored, armed forces professionals often accused their civilian counterparts of “potentially catastrophic failures of imagination”.   Oblivious to the hardships and suffering of modern warfare thanks to several centuries of sea-girt security, Britain and the British are accused in these works of over-confidence. Yet ironically, the imaginations of these expert contributors often operated “within tightly circumscribed limits.”  Hamstrung by the “antitechnological cult of the offensive”, these professional speculators regularly offered far less accurate images of modern warfare than their civilian rivals.”[1]

Various scholars have attempted to explain this strange dynamic, in which the experts falter and the amateurs succeed.  In Imagining Future War, Antulio Echevarria points to the challenges of assessing the short-term effects of technological change.   Authors from the armed forces tend to focus “on the immediate future in an attempt to solve specific problems, usually of a tactical or technological nature.”[2] The amateur visionaries of early science fiction, by contrast, were far less temporally and thematically shackled. Falling primarily into the latter category, Echevarria suggests that the civilian authors of invasion literature made little effort “to ground…forecasts in actual events, or to verify apparent trends.”[3]  Crucially, both armed forces professionals and amateur writers used the future “as a means rather than an end”, aiming to shape contemporary military strategy and society through speculative, often opportunistic novels.[4]

This final point is particularly important.  Edwardian invasion narratives, in my view, are best understood as contemporary records rather than speculative strategic treatise.  One example of the genre that aptly illustrates this point is The New Battle of Dorking (1900).  This is one of several unimaginatively-named works that directly referenced George Chesney’s ground-breaking short-story The Battle of Dorking (1871).  It was written by Frederic Maude, a Colonel in the Royal Engineers and prolific military historian.  Maude wrote a series of strategic analyses of the Napoleonic period, including The Leipzig Campaign (1908) and The Jena Campaign (1905)He also wrote several tactical studies, such as ‘Military Training and Modern Weapons’ (Contemporary Review, 1900).

Maude was clearly more qualified than most to speculate on the future of conflict. It is curious to note, therefore, that The New Battle of Dorking offers very little in the way of accurate speculation.  Maude’s basic premise, as he set out in the work’s introduction, was thus:

“There are three months in every year – July, August, September – during which the French Army is fit for immediate warfare.  And every year during these months there is a constantly recurrent probability of a surprise raid on London by the 120,000 men whom they could without difficulty put on board ship, land in England, and march to within a dozen miles of London in less than three days…”[5]

Though accepting that such a raid was hardly guaranteed success, Maude argued that “The French have everything to gain and little to lose if they make the attempt”.  This, of course, is exactly what occurs in the novel.  After a torpedo attack on Portsmouth Dockyard, the French land troops at Rye, Hastings, Eastbourne and Worthing.  With the Navy on naval manoeuvres off the Irish Coast, and the majority of Regulars fighting in South Africa, the situation initially looks bleak.  Yet the French invasion is defeated in less than a week.  With the French advance into London halted at Shooters Hill, and a crushing victory won at Chaldon Downs, the final battle naturally takes place at Dorking, where the remaining French forces are convincing routed by a roughshod body of reservists and volunteers.

‘The New Battle of Dorking' (1900)

Why, then, had the military historian Maude produced such an unconvincing, disconnected narrative of future-war?  I would argue that accurate prophesy was not the primary motivation behind The New Battle of Dorking.  A far more important influence on the work was the contemporary debate over the concept of physical deterioration, set in motion by the disastrous South African War. Beginning in October 1899, the conflict was initially marked by a series of catastrophic British military defeats (the worst of which took place during the infamous ‘Black Week’).   By the war’s end in mid-1902, it had cost 22,000 British lives, more than £200 million, and required an army of 450,000 to defeat an ill-equipped enemy.[6]  Despite eventual victory, Britain’s reputation as the predominant global power had been significantly undermined. Within Britain itself, moreover, the war triggered a deep and lengthy period of introspection.  One popular explanation for this poor performance concerned the health of Regular Army applicants.  Though this debate reached its peak several years later through the Inter-Departmental Report on Physical Deterioration, these social Darwinist anxieties had developed into a prominent national discourse by the early months of 1900.  In a representative letter toThe Saturday Review entitled ‘Is England Decadent?’, compulsory military service was touted as the answer to the physical health question: “If we are afraid to rouse people to self-discipline, and to the stern performance of civic obligations, decadence sooner or later will meet us.”[7]

‘David and Goliath, Kruger and Buller’ (1900), University of California

Yet in The New Battle of Dorking we have an outspoken refutation of degeneration fears.  Maude goes out of his way to praise the physical and mental qualities of the British forces.  Describing an engagement at Guilford, the officer narrator describes “the quite excellent order, discipline, and the smart bearing of the men generally”.  “I still felt a thrill of pride”, he continues, “in the sterling qualities of my countrymen.  There were few if any loafers in the streets, and those there seemed quiet and resolute”.  Turning crude Darwinism to his own ends, Maude christens the men “the survivors of the fittest”.  Though accepting that Britain faced major military challenges, he “could not believe that we were as a race really degenerating. It was the fault of our training. Given a sufficient spur and properly led, our men were capable of anything.”  Later in the novel, as the British troops sought to retake Bromley, the patchwork force of Volunteers and Reservists “assaulted with an irresistible courage that, under the circumstances, disciplined troops could not have excelled.”  The French enemy, by contrast, were “without the moral stamina to stand up to serious reverses, or the physical strength to endure fatigue.  Their discipline was the discipline of fear, not of reasoned intelligence”. Britain’s civilians, too, are far superior to their French equivalents.  Addressing a crowd at Portsmouth shortly after the outbreak of war, the narrator referred disparagingly to the Paris Commune, and implored to those assembled, “Don’t lose your heads and riot, as the French mob would do”.[8]

The significance of Maude’s novel, then, is not in its vision of future warfare, but in its critique of degeneration anxieties.  While the genre more broadly was not completely bereft of strategic insight, speculation on the nature of modern warfare was rarely the primary consideration, or focus, of invasion literature authors.     Instead of seeking to understand the shortfalls of these military visions, then, historians should arguably seek to contextualise such fiction in the cultural, political, and military history of the pre-1914 period.

This post is based on a research paper originally delivered as part of the First World War Research Group Seminar Series at the Defence Studies Department, King’s College London.

[1] A. Michael Matin, ‘The Creativity of War Planners: Armed Forces Professionals and the Pre-1914 British Invasion-Scare Genre’, ELH, 78.4 (2011), p. 818-822.

[2] A. J. Echevarria II, Imagining Future War: The West’s Technological Revolution and Visions of Wars to Come, 1880-1914 (Westport CA: Praeger Security International, 2007), pp. 96-98.

[3] Ibid., p. 49.

[4] Ibid., xv.

[5] F. N. Maude, The New Battle of Dorking (London: G. Richards, 1900).

[6] D. Lowry, ‘Not Just a ‘Tea-Time War’’, in The South African War Reappraised,(Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2000), p. 2.

[7] ‘Is England Decadent?’, Saturday Review, 89.2306 (1900), p. 14.

[8] Maude, The New Battle of Dorking.

Posted in F. N. Maude, General Invasion topics | Leave a comment

The Conquest of England (and Those Other Nations)

This short piece by Christian Melby (King’s College London) originally appeared on the Four Nations History Network blog, a research community based at KCL. A link to the original post is provided below.

When the French finally, in the later 1880s, decided to vanquish Perfidious Albion, they not only decided to invade by way of Scotland, but also tried to convince the Scottish people to join them:

[I]t was soon found that the Highlanders were not to be tempted from their allegiance to the British Crown. The Bas Breton interpreters employed by the French appealed to them as kindred Celts, but their appeals were in vain…[1]

This description of Scottish loyalty is taken from an invasion-scare story written by the pseudonym “Posteritas”, titled The Siege of London. Such stories were churned out in large numbers in the years between 1871 and 1914, with Britain being downtrodden by a host of conquering armies, depending on which country relations were on lukewarm or hostile terms with at the time of publication. However, invasion-scare stories were often more preoccupied with domestic issues rather than external enemies, meaning that Britain and the British are portrayed more vividly than the invaders. As the stories were mostly written from a metropolitan and southern-English viewpoint – with English authors portraying a Great War in Little England, so to speak – it is easy to gloss over the other nations, seeing them as less important. This would be a mistake, however, as invasion-scare fiction as a genre involved all four nations in one way or another.  After all, the story that constituted ‘the break-in phase’ of the invasion-scare genre – George Chesney’s The Battle of Dorking from 1871 – was originally published by Blackwood’s Magazine, an Edinburgh journal;[2] and the perhaps best known story, The Riddle of the Sands, was written by the Englishman Erskine Childers,[3] who died in front of a firing squad as a staunch Irish nationalist.[4] In the fictional realm as well, although southern England at times seems like a veritable highway for various invading armies, the other nations are actively present.

In a number of invasion-scare stories, doubts and mistrust of the Irish are the most obvious examples of how the genre portrays different nationalities. Already in The Battle of Dorking Britain is vulnerable to invasion because of the need to station troops in disloyal Ireland, thereby further diluting the already dangerously thin red line of British troops. Ireland, in this narrative, is part of a general imperial overstretch: the disturbance in the country is presented as part of a wider imperial problem that also includes a rising in India.[5] Similarly, ‘Posteritas’ makes it clear that while the Highlanders stay loyal, Irish troops are more open to treachery: Irish artillerymen in The Siege of London set the magazine at Dover castle ablaze, enabling a French army to take the city. This is in marked contrast to the loyal inhabitants of Edinburgh, who blow up their castle only after the city has fallen to the invaders, taking many French soldiers with them in death.[6] ‘Posteritas’ contrasts Irish betrayal with Scottish and English resolve: the enemy is ‘daunted by the splendid fighting qualities and magnificent valour of English and Scotch [sic] soldiers’ as the Highlanders, ‘shouting to each other in Gaelic, made such a mad onslaught on their foes that the French lines recoiled’.[7]

Accounts like this, of English and Scottish soldiers fighting side by side, also described a Britain that was more than the sum of its parts. Writers of invasion-scare fiction, aside from stereotyping different nationalities, often specifically mentioned the impact invasion had on nations and localities of Britain. In a pamphlet written in the immediate aftermath of The Battle of Dorking, local communities come together to resist the invader, presenting a united front composed of all walks of life and from different parts of the country:

The stalwart miners of Northumberland and Durham, of Cornwall and the Welsh coal-districts; the great muscular navvies, and healthy agricultural labourers, the sharp mechanics of the manufacturing towns, and the yeomen, gentlemen, clerks – in fact everybody rushed to arms.[8]

Others even included Ireland in this united opposition, like the anonymous author of After the Battle of Dorking, also from 1871. In this pamphlet, when invaders attempt to foment rebellion in Ireland they discover that ‘like a bickering wife, HIBERNIA quarrels with her husband JOHN BULL simply because he never allows her to have another enemy; but now, having the opportunity, she has shown both her love and her fighting powers…’.  The marriage thus saved, Britain and Ireland prevails over the invaders.[9]

Invasion-scare stories primarily belonged on the Conservative side of the political spectrum, and their readers did not passively accept the arguments put forth in them. Nevertheless, the way this kind of literature described the four nations is still an indication of how a group of writers, eager to present political arguments in the guise of colourful prose, wanted their imagined invasions to impact all of Britain. A narrow focus on England alone leaves the genre’s treatment of national identities and politics unexplored, as the other nations had their melodramatic parts to play in the fictional dramas of subjugation or resistance. As the above examples suggest, while having the invaders reach the heart of England was often the climax of invasion-scare fiction of this period, it was Britain that was invaded, not just England.

[1] Posteritas’, The Siege of London (London: Wyman & Sons, 1885), 42.

[2] I.F. Clarke, Voices Prophesying War: Future Wars 1763-3749, second edition (Oxford, 1992), 27.

[3] Erskine Childers, The Riddle of the Sands (London, 1903).

[4] Jim Ring, Erskine Childers: Author of The Riddle of the Sands (London, 1996).

[5] Anon. [George T. Chesney], The Battle of Dorking: Reminiscences of a Volunteer (Edinburgh, 1871), 7.

[6] Posteritas’, The Siege of London, 37, 49-50.

[7] Posteritas’, The Siege of London, 65.

[8] Anon. [Charles John Stone], What Happened After the Battle of Dorking: Reminiscences of a Volunteer. Being an Account of the Victory at Tunbridge Wells (London, [1871]), 7.

[9] [Anon.], After the Battle of Dorking; or What Became at the Invaders! (London, 1871), 14-15.

Posted in Colonial/imperial perspectives, Erskine Childers, General Invasion topics, George T. Chesney | 2 Comments

The Welsh Connection

Having spent quite a few years reading and re-reading (and re-reading… and re-reading…) the works of William Le Queux, I think I’m quite adept at recognizing his style. However, in the midst of recent research into receptions of Le Queux’s works (i.e., trying to find reviews of his books), I must confess to bafflement when I came across the following letter to the editor, printed in the Western Mail on May 23rd, 1882.

SIR—,  A rumour has been prevalent during the past week to the effect that the tradesmen of Cardiff will keep their shops open on Whit-Monday. I ask—Why this innovation? Does it stand to reason that people will come to Cardiff on a Bank holiday to purchase goods? I am inclined to think they will come for the purpose of seeing the agricultural show more especially. Why should shop assistants, who work many more consecutive hours than the common labourer, be deprived of a holiday which is universal throughout the kingdom? I hope that employers who read this will think over the matter, and, coming to a favourable conclusion, will be ready to sign an agreement to close. I am, &c., W.T. LE QUEUX, Hon. Sec. Cardiff Early Closing Association.

‘Letters to the Editor’, The Western Mail, May 23, 1882, p. 4.

Not quite the breathless style we’re accustomed to, I know. (No bombs, no bullets, no spies, and only the merest hint of intrigue. Pshaw!) Then again, we shouldn’t expect the fully developed Le Queux style from the 17 year old of May 1882, as he was clearly still struggling to find his authorial feet for quite some time after this. Even before The Graphic described his first novel Guilty Bonds (1891) as evidence that ‘the average novelist is scarcely to be regarded as an authority’ on the subject of Nihilism, his theatrical production ‘Tootsie’s Lovers’ (staged at the Beach’s Theatre in Brentford in 1886) was dismissed by The Era’s special correspondent as ‘not a very brilliant affair’.

(The above quotes are taken from The Graphic, August 22nd, 1891, p.221 and The Era, April 24th, 1886, p. 14, respectively.)

Sadly, for our purposes, ‘Tootsie’s Lovers’ was neither a spy thriller nor an invasion scare novel. Rather, this was a ‘new burlesque’ featuring the eponymous Tootsie, along with her lovers the Lord Bob, the Honourable Billy and the Duke of Snook. Interestingly, this last seems to echo Le Queux’s later alliterative agents: Duckworth Drew, Jack Jardine, et al. A bit of a stretch, perhaps, but I digress…

Returning to the Welsh connection, nothing I’ve ever read about Le Queux mentions an interest in early closing or the plight of the shop-working masses, let alone him or his father having lived in Cardiff. On balance, I think this is more likely to be his father (hereafter Le Queux Sr). Listed on Le Queux Jr’s birth-certificate (1864), and Le Queux Sr’s death certificate (1890) as a ‘draper’s assistant’, it seems plausible that in the aftermath of the 1881 census (which placed the Le Queux family in London) Le Queux Sr moved to Cardiff for a time. (Welsh people need curtains too… right?) In that context, office-holding in a local association would be understandable.

I suppose this might have been Le Queux Jr. As far as I know, Le Queux Sr was known as ‘William Lequeux’, while the above letter is signed ‘W.T. LE QUEUX’. (Admittedly, Le Queux Sr was also called ‘William Tufnell’, so the initials match.) If his father was a member of the association then Le Queux Jr, with his aspiration to lead a life of letters, might have acted as honorary secretary, keeping the minutes and penning it’s letters. It may be even simpler than this: Le Queux Jr himself might have been a member. He was certainly old enough to be working, and could joined his father in the drapery trade by this time. Alternately, there might have been other Le Queuxs, related or unrelated, living in Wales. (The Le Quws?). Regardless, almost everything else we ‘know’ about Le Queux’s early life is based on his own notoriously unreliable assertions, so why not? At the very least, it’s possible.

Tantalizingly, if it really was Le Queux Jr, this could give the lie to his claims to have studied art in Paris in the early 1880s. Even if it was his father, how surprising would it be to discover that Le Queux, a man so concerned to carve out an urbane, cultured and above all cosmopolitan public image, kept his family’s provincial, petit-bourgeois background to himself?

My only other thought is that this could have been a Teutonic impersonator, stoking the fires of social conflict amongst the toiling Welsh masses and besmirching the family honour, requiring a climactic tussle atop the Devil’s Appendix. Before going to press, however, I thought it best to put it to the experts…

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Master of Misinformation: William Le Queux, Invasion Scares and Spy Fever, 1880-1930

Trinity College Dublin, 9th June 2015

The inaugural Invasion Network conference ‘Master of Misinformation’ focused on the unusual life, literary output, and cultural legacy of the British author William Le Queux. Held at Trinity College Dublin in early-June 2015, the event was a notable success, and has laid the groundwork for a great deal of future research and collaboration.

Opening the event and welcoming the participants to Trinity College, Darryl Jones provided some valuable contextual remarks on the late-Victorian and Edwardian literary climate. This was followed by Roger Stearn’s keynote address, ‘Still mysterious: William Le Queux revisited’. The foremost modern biographer of Le Queux, Roger’s talk offered an excellent account of Le Queux scholarship to-date, before suggesting ways in which new research might move the field forward.

The first of two workshop panels began with Pete Mills, who introduced the idea of Le Queux as a ‘popular conspiracist’, and emphasised the conspiracy-driven nature of much of his fiction. Pete was followed by Harry Wood, whose paper focused on the politics of Le Queux, and proposed that he is best understood as a product of the Edwardian ‘Radical Right’. Closing the panel was Michael Hughes, whose focus on Russia highlighted Le Queux’s role in demonising the ‘Mad Monk’ Rasputin in British political and literary discourse. The second panel opened with Tony Taylor, whose focus on the representation (and regular destruction) of London in Le Queux’s novels explored an important and little-understood trope. Finally, Michael Matin considered Le Queux’s position in literary history, and addressed his curious lack of involvement with the War Propaganda Bureau on the outbreak of hostilities in 1914.

‘Master of Misinformation’ closed with a discussion session (chaired by Ailise Bulfin) which aimed to tie together the themes of the workshop before establishing concrete plans to move this research forward. The major point of debate that emerged concerned the issues of popular reception and quantifiable cultural and political impact. Most participants accepted that invasion fiction had an effect on the ‘popular imagination’, specifically shaping how the British population related to the dual threats (fallacious or otherwise) of invasion and enemy espionage. All agreed that Le Queux played a role in creating the widespread belief that German invasion was inevitable, and the similarly popular conviction that a hidden network of German spies existed in Britain. Yet as several speakers emphasised, it is very difficult to substantiate these kind of claims, or to create a methodology that accurately captures the influence of fiction on its audience. It is one thing to claim that invasion scares influenced popular opinion, it is another thing to work out whether and/or how this translated into an impact on behaviour.

It was nonetheless recognised that a range of circumstantial evidence exists that can help to measure the cultural and political impact of invasion and espionage anxieties. Various examples explored in past research were raised: the late-Edwardian airship panic (Paris 1992; Holman 2014), the role of Le Queux’s Spies of the Kaiser in the formation of the Secret Service Bureau (Hiley 1996), and the significant political impact of George Chesney’s The Battle of Dorking (Matin 2011; Kirkwood 2012). Several other comparable avenues of inquiry were suggested during the discussion, including the potential of modern cognitive science in assessing the influence of popular fiction on its readers, the importance of analysing the sales figures of invasion narratives, and measuring the impact (if any) of such scares on voting and volunteering behaviour.

Central to the discussion, unsurprisingly, was the position of William Le Queux in these debates. A prolific author with extremely high sales figures, close relationships with influential military and political figures, unprecedented publicity efforts, and a much-debated record in amateur espionage, it was affirmed that Le Queux was worthy of further research. Le Queux was the writer and campaigner around whom many of the socio-cultural forces surrounding invasion scares coalesced, and as such, forms a natural focus for the first project of the Invasion Network.

It was decided that the best way of beginning this process was putting together a special edition journal proposal, which would allow the themes of the workshop to be developed further, and for this reconsideration of Le Queux to be more widely disseminated. While individual articles will pursue specific themes, the key contention of this project is that invasion and espionage scares were far more complex phenomena than previously assumed. Far from a straightforward response to international crises, or a narrowly-focused popular panic, the fear of invasion and enemy espionage in Britain was equally influenced by domestic politics, literary trends, ideological and philosophical debates, and cultural and social upheaval. This principle will be explored from a range of interdisciplinary angles, from recurrent literary tropes and genre boundaries through to the literary marketplace, popular reception, and party politics. Several journals have been contacted in the months following this event, and we are delighted to announce that Critical Survey have accepted our special edition proposal, provisional titled ‘Literature and Propaganda: William Le Queux, Invasion Scares and Spy Fever, 1880-1920’.

The great success of ‘Master of Misinformation’ heralds, we hope, a new departure for the study of British invasion anxieties. It could not have occurred without the help and cooperation of several organisations and individuals. Thanks go to all of the speakers and participants, the Irish Research Council, the Long Room Hub at Trinity College Dublin and the School of English at Trinity College Dublin.

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The Invasion Network


William Le Queux, ‘The Great War in England in 1897’ (1894)

Welcome to The Invasion Network, a group designed with the aim of encouraging and disseminating interdisciplinary research on the subject of British invasion anxieties.  For more information please see the ‘About’ section of the website.  Watch this space for a report on the recent workshop ‘Master of Misinformation: William Le Queux, Invasion Scares and Spy Fever, 1880-1930′, hosted by Trinity College Dublin on 9th June 2015.

Posted in General Invasion topics, Invasion Network overview | Leave a comment