Goorkas Slaughtering the French Artillery at Greenwich Observatory
Mon dieu! Here’s a terrifying incident from recent history – if you’re in some alternate universe, and a fan of proto-SF writer William le Queux, that is.
Le Queux was a prolific Victorian fantasy/mystery/thriller writer, who seems to have been rather prescient given that he wrote The Great War in England in 1897 in 1894.
Well, okay – he got pretty much everything wrong, though at least in an almost exact-opposite sort of way- but he did predate the concept of European war by exactly 20 years. His particular USP was that the Germans were going to invade, and he returned to the theme again and again. And his lurid novels – of which he wrote 150 were good sellers, not least because he was into the new-fangled idea of publicity stunts. For his terrify-’em-in-the-Home-Counties thriller, The Invasion of 1910, serialised in the Daily Mail (plus ça change…) Lord Northcliffe coughed up the cash for Le Queux to hire a bunch of actors, dress them in German army uniform and march them up and down Regent Street.
He was what we now call an early adopter. He was mad about flying, broadcast his own wireless music programme before most people even had crystal sets and would have helped John Logie Baird with his exciting new ‘television’ if he hadn’t already tied up his cash elsewhere.
Invasion Literature, not a genre that flies off the shelves these days, started with the unpromisingly-titled Battle of Dorking in 1871 by George Tomkyns Chesney, an army officer who wrote it as much to tell the government not to make cuts in the armed forces as to entertain.
The Great War in England of 1897 defeated me, I have to say. I was very excited when Nick told me about it, but I guess there’s a reason why classics are classics and it’s not just that they’re old. I would hazard that this is not a classic. I tried to read it, I really did, but I ended up having to pinch the plot off Wikipedia. There was just too much ‘and then this happened…’ for me.
So – basically, Britain is invaded by an alliance of France and Russia but the plucky little Englishmen fight back bravely. Le Queux hadn’t got quite into his stride yet, and Germany is actually the good guys in this book. They wade into help, save the day and then the New best Friends go a-plundering across Europe. Germany gets most of France; Britain gets Algeria and Russian Central Asia.
Wikipedia (yeah, I delved deep for this post…) tells me that The Great War in England in 1897 is pretty much the exact opposite of what happened 20 years later when the world really was at war. Unfortunately for Le Queux, by that point he’d switched his allegiances and decided that Germany wore the black hat after all. Consequently, when war broke out, he became paranoid that German assassins were after him and plagued his local police force, and then the Met to give him him special protection. Unsurprisingly they didn’t take his request very seriously, and, given that he lived until 1927, I guess they were right. But perhaps it will explain why, in his not-very-revered autobiography, Things I Know About Kings, Celebrities and Crooks, he claims to have seen a document by Rasputin saying Jack the Ripper was a Russian doctor who dunnit to confuse and ridicule Scotland Yard…
There is a 2007 book about Le Queux, William Le-Queux – Master of Mystery – which I am sorely tempted to try, given his bizarre life – anyone read it?
In the meanwhile I must give The Great War in England in 1897 another go, if only to work out how the hell it is supposed to have influenced H.G. Wells War of the Worlds. Now – if they’d said Joseph Conrad’s The Secret Agent, I’d have bought that…
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