Did Science Fiction Help Cause World War One?

There is a mountain of literature on what caused World War One and no general consensus.

I. F. Clarke’s Voices Prophesying War looks at one element of pre-World War One European culture, the science fiction sub-genre of the future war story. Nowhere, does Clarke make any bald statement about where all those stories fit in the chain of causation, whether they were cause or effect. He doesn’t even argue that you can consider all these tales of invasion by airship, Channel Tunnel, or by the sea as helping in any way to lay the rails for the train crash of European civilization.

He implies, though, they reflected and shaped popular opinions in France, England, and Germany about the nature and outcome of a coming war.

Clarke looks at two things: how technological developments shaped the future war story and how the future war story reflects the political suspicions of the time.

The great paradox running through the whole of this production of imaginary wars between 1871 and 1914 was the total failure of army and navy writers to guess what would happen when the major industrial nations decided to fight it out. … the naval and military prophets generally saw war as an affair of adaptation and improvisation. They rarely thought of what their new equipment might do. None of them ever seems to have imagined that technology might be able to create new instruments of war. That was left to the civilian: for in the fifty years before the First World War the only writers who came anywhere near to seeing how science and industry might change the traditional pattern of warfare were Albert Robida, H. G. Wells, and Conan Doyle.

Robida was what today might be called a graphic novelist. His plots weren’t that great, but his visual imagination was. Clarke says Robida foresaw, in his 1883 La Guerre au Vingtieme siècle “submarines, underwater troops, mines, torpedoes, smoke-screens, automatic small-arms fire, air bombardments of cities, a chemical corps complete with poisonous shells”, bacteriological warfare, and tanks. (You can see some of those illustrations at TheRiddleoftheSands.com.). Robida’s tone, though, seems to have been more gosh-wow combined with derision for European politics of his time than an attempt at serious political prophesy.

I certainly agree with Clarke that, despite the presence of Martians, Wells’ The War of the Worlds can be seen as a future war story with England in the unaccustomed role of the colonized. However, I think Wells’ The World Set Free is less relevant to a discussion of World War One than the post-Hiroshima world given that it depicts the first atomic war. However, it does serve as an example of a writer predicting war-changing technology that promises a great deal of misery for those on the home front too. And I’ve noted it is just as prescient in the role America would eventually play in the war as its prediction of nukes.

Arthur Conan Doyle’s reputation in this regard rests on one story, “Danger“. Written about 18 months before the outbreak of the First World War, it had a small, fictitious European country ignoring a British ultimatum. The country, which has its own submarine fleet, begins to sink merchant vessels all around Britain. The successful blockade threatens starvation, and Britain sues for peace.

It’s a fairly close analog to German Great War strategy with its submarine  fleet. Knowing they could not best the British surface fleet, they opted to go after Britain’s weak point — its dependence on imports via the sea.

Doyle may have written his story over a year before the war started, but it was published in a July 1914 issue of The Strand when the fatal gears and cogs of the next war were about to be engaged.

The British Admiralty was not impressed by the story’s central idea. Admiral Penrose Fitzgerald said, “I do not myself think that any civilized nation will torpedo unarmed and defenceless merchant ships.” Another Admiral, Sir Compton Domvile, said, “I am compelled to say that I think it most improbable … ”

On February 4, 1915, Germany announced its submarines would target merchant vessels.

There was one writer, though, that did come up with a comprehensive, correct prediction about what the Great War would be most of its time — at least on the Western Front.

Russian Ivan S. Bloch was an economist who wrote The War of the Future in Its Technical, Economic, and Political Relations in 1897. He predicted:

At first there will be an increased slaughter — increased slaughter on so terrible a scale as to render it impossible to get troops to push the battle to a decisive issue. They will try to, thinking that they are fighting under the old conditions, and they will learn such a lesson that they will abandon the attempt for ever. Then, instead of a war fought out to the bitter end in a series of decisive battles, we shall have as a substitute a long period of continually increasing strain upon the resources of the combatants. The war, instead of being hand-to-hand contest in which the combatants measure their physical and moral superiority, will become a kind of stalemate, in which, neither army being able to get at the other, both armies will be maintained in opposition to each other, threatening each other, but never able to deliver a final and decisive blow.

Bloch was, of course, ignored.

The failure of all those stories to imagine the war is somewhat understandable for two reasons. The first is that they usually occupied the same newspaper and magazine space that glorified accounts of past military engagements. This was especially true in Britain with its many colonial wars. These stories and their accompanying illustrations were large circulation boosters. (Said illustrations were almost always inaccurate. More than one artist, sent along to document a military campaign, complained that their sketches drawn from life were not used.)

The second reason was that history didn’t obviously invalidate the idea of a quick war. When Kaiser Wilhelm said to his troops after war broke out, “You will be home before the leaves have fallen from the trees”, it didn’t seem absurd. Part of the reason the Franco-Prussian War was so disturbing to people like George Chesney, author of The Battle of Dorking, the book that really kicked off the future war sub-genre, is that Prussia had defeated another major European power so quickly. The Balkan Wars of 1912 and 1913 also didn’t seem to contradict the notion that wars could still be won quickly.

Clarke also shows how the future war story so perfectly reflected, in each country, the changing alliances and anxieties.

In 1882, a number of stories sounded the alarm on the possibility of England being invaded via a Channel Tunnel, a bill for the funding of which had been introduced in Parliament. The French had their own stories of Perfidious Albion using the Chunnel to invade. That was generally in keeping with, before the Anglo-French Entente of 1904, French future war stories also seing a danger in England as well as Germany.

In 1903 The Riddle of the Sands by Erskine Childers, one of the few of these future war stories still remembered, was published. Its enemy was Germany, and soon French and English writers began to agree on that point. For their part, German writers reciprocated in 1906.

That year saw the publication of another, still famous, work: William Le Queux’s The Invasion of 1910 aka If England Were Invaded. It kicked off a round of British stories that imagined German fifth-columnists and spies everywhere including as waiters or soldiers crossing the Channel disguised as tourists. Numbers of German agents or, as they were sometimes dubbed, “trained soldiers”, ranged from 6,500 to 350,000 depending on the work.

Did science fiction start World War One? Not hardly.

But popular fiction of the time, at least in the democratic countries of Germany, Britain, and France, stoked the fuels of paranoia and had the implicit assumption that the next war was manageable, probably desirable (the enemy would only be stronger tomorrow, after all), and would be short.

It’s an area I know, apart from Wells’ and Chesney’s works, by reputation only, but plenty of primary texts and information is available at theRiddleoftheSands.com.

Too many books, too little time.

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