09 January 2017

Review: The Road to Armageddon by Cecil Degrotte Eby

Hardcover, 280 pages
Published 1988
Borrowed from the library
Read July 2016
The Road to Armageddon: The Martial Spirit in English Popular Literature, 1870-1914
by Cecil Degrotte Eby

Eby's book charts English popular culture about war from The Battle of Dorking to the Great War: in invasion fiction, in H. G. Wells, in the Boy Scouts, in public schools, in sports (especially cricket), on the stage, in Rudyard Kipling, in Arthur Conan Doyle, and in material published during the Great War itself. It's one of those books that sort of lives or dies on your own interests, I think-- so I was really interested in Eby's accounts of invasion fiction and of Boy Scouts, less interested in what he had to say about public schools and sports, though it was still interesting enough to obtain some insight into the turn-of-the-century conception of manhood. The discussion of invasion fiction was nicely congruent with Gannon's Rumors of War, which I read around the same time. Gannon spends more time on invasion fiction, while Eby only spends one chapter on it-- but the myriad other chapters give it more of a cultural context than Gannon does, so the books go together nicely.

I did quite like Eby's stats: he reveals that between 1871 and 1914, there were 60-plus invasion narratives published in book or pamphlet form (so that's not counting ones published in periodicals). Germany was the aggressor in 41 of them, France 18 times, Russia 8 times, and then China, Japan, the U.S., and Mars all had one or so goes. No wonder Britain was so pumped for World War I when it finally happened! I was a little disappointed that it seemed like Eby hadn't read George Griffith-- some of his statements about the genre seemed to come from someone who hadn't read Angel of the Revolution (1893), which I would argue is the apex of the invasion genre, and as important a precursor to science fiction as H. G. Wells's work.

As a former Boy Scout (is one always a Boy Scout?) I found the chapter on the early days of Scouting fascinating: Baden-Powell was a magnificently reprehensible bastard. We've heard the stories of World War I going on pause and the combatants playing sports, but when the Boers asked Baden-Powell for a Sunday reprieve to play cricked, Baden-Powell turned them down because the English were winning the only war that mattered, the battle itself. For Baden-Powell, the Boer War was a jolly caper and a place for him to commit atrocities, and he went back to England to transform its weakling city boys into something more like Boer boys he had seen in South Africa, training his young Boy Scouts to defend their home country at all costs. Empire was the only important game.

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