08 July 2016

Wars of Futures Past

I've been reading about future wars and actual wars this week, in two different books: Charles E. Gannon's Rumors of War and Infernal Machines and Cecil D. Eby's The Road to Armageddon. Both cover that period between 1871 and 1914, from when the Franco-Prussian War caused the British to start to hate Germans up to when they actually got to fight some. Eby reports that during that time, there were over 60 stories of future invasion published in Britain-- and that's just counting ones that appeared in book or pamphlet form, as the periodical press had its fair share of short stories.

Christopher Robin
and J. V. Milne
(and Pooh)
Many were published at the behest of Alfred Harmsworth, later Lord Northcliffe. Harmsworth was a newspaper magnate of unprecedented (and, arguably, unexceeded, proportions), owning the Times, the Sunday Times, the Daily Mail, the Observer, and many local papers. Harmsworth actually went to a school where A. A. Milne's father, J. V., was headmaster and (after Harmsworth's time) H. G. Wells was a science teacher. It was at that school that Harmsworth made his first newspaper. Later, Wells had some early publications in one of Harmsworth's papers, Answers, but Wells said of Harmsworth and his brother that they worked "with an entire disregard of good taste, good value, educational influence, social consequences or political responsibility. They were as blind as young kittens to all those aspects of life. [...] In pristine innocence, naked of any sense of responsibility, with immense native energy, they set about pouring millions of printed sheets of any sort of trash that sold, into the awakening mind of the British masses" (Experiment in Autobiography 270).

I think Wells gives Harmsworth a little too much credit here, bizarrely enough. When you read about what he got up to, it's clear he knew what kind of social consequences he might have; he just didn't care if it sold papers. In 1906, he published in the Daily Mail William Le Queux's The Invasion of 1910, a novel that purposefully fanned the flames of Teutophobia, leading to discussions in Parliament as to whether or not there were German spies everywhere in the country. (Le Queux was quite adaptive; his previous invasion novel had been about evil Frenchmen, but in the interim, France and the United Kingdom had signed a new treaty, meaning Le Queux had to pivot to a different enemy nation. He kept publishing novels about evil Germans right through the war, and then after the war, novels about resurgent German terrorists.)

That Harmsworth saw a political purpose in his journalistic enterprises comes across most clearly in my favorite anecdote from this week's research. Back in 1895, he decided he would stand as a candidate for the House of Commons in Portsmouth. To bolster his run, he purchased the Portsmouth Evening Mail and ordered its editor, a former naval correspondent, to cowrite a serial about the invasion of Portsmouth by France and Russia. Harmsworth was a candidate for the Conservatives, and the story was to place all the blame for poor defenses in Portsmouth on the Liberals. One of the paper's reporters even went around town getting names of prominent citizens so that they could be written into the story dying horrible deaths, in order to galvanize the citizens of Portsmouth to vote Harmsworth into office to save them from this dire fate.

I wish I could read this. I bet it's terrible, but it might be deliciously terrible. Apparently it sold well, but failed to get Harmsworth elected. He decided it would be easier to get into Parliament by obtaining a peerage; in the House of Lords you never have to stand for election.

It wasn't just Harmsworth; everyone was just really excited about wars at the time. Though the Boer War turned out to be a little disappointing, it did yield this amazing advertisement for British Pluck cigarettes, my other favorite discovery for the week:
Smoke cigarettes and kill Boers!

Harmsworth got his war in the end, when Britain took on evil Germans in the Great War, which turned out not to be as quick and easy as all those future-war stories had imagined.

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