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  • German Invasion Force in London, 1909! January 2, 2014

    Author: Beach Combing | in : Contemporary , trackback


    All the European nations suffered bouts of craziness leading up to the First World War: one of the reasons that so many men in jackets started throwing straw hats at each other in August 1914… However, in many ways the most endearing and incredible was the conviction in Britain that Germany was planning an invasion of the ‘island home’. Now there was an essential insight here that should be nodded through. Germany was an agressive and muscular nation and Germany was the only continental state after 1870 that seriously considered a preventative war. (The First World War might be usefully interpreted in this light.) Germany also had a lyrical disregard for world opinion in this period: ‘Prussian arrogance’ as it was typically called in the Anglophone newspapers; or the growing pains of an adolescent and overperforming MENSA-member nation as we might more charitably view it today. However, let’s also remember that Britain was the first military and commercial power in the world and that its might was based on a navy that stood between the men with spiky helmets and home sweet home. The German Navy was never going to disembark 100,000 men with mausers or – DRUM ROLL – were they? This is from Hansard 1909: the records of what was then the Imperial Parliament, the House of Commons. Note that the question was never asked in debate as there was no time: what a carnival that would have been! The reply was a written one.

    Sir John Barlow asked the Secretary of State for War whether he has any information showing that there are 66,000 trained German soldiers in England, or that there are, in a cellar within a quarter of a mile of Charing Cross, 50,000 stands of Mauser rifles and 7½ millions of Mauser cartridges, that is, 150 rounds per rifle?

    Mr Haldane: My hon. Friend has done well in bringing before the House this illustration of a class of alarmist statements to which credence is too often given by thoughtless persons. To anyone possessing even an elementary knowledge of what mobilisation requirements mean the suggestion is a ludicrous one. Such statements tend to lower our reputation abroad for common sense, and my hon. Friend has done well in exposing this one to the ridicule which it merits.

    i) Where did this rumour come from? ii) Was JB (obit 1932) setting up an aunt sally, which Haldane could knock down or was he sincere?  iii) Were there German reservists in Britain at this time?

    As to where this rumour came from there are no easy clues: can anyone help? drbeachcombing AT yahoo DOT com However, late May saw a couple of security scares in the UK. There had been claims, for example, that there were spies at Grimsby (British coastal town on the east coast). There is this partial commentary from the press of the day, though I’m not sure I understand it.

    The German reservists quietly continue occupations of barbers and waiters —we cannot get rid them. But their arms and equipment are not really here, though no less than, a quarter of a million rifles are packed in a basement just beyond Temple Bar. The weapons were purchased by the Society of Miniature Rifle Clubs [??] from our own Government. They are the old Martinis withdrawn from the army and volunteers some years ago. The weapons are being converted for the use of miniature ammunition. The War Office is probably glad to be well rid of them.

    As to Sir John Barlow he seems to have been sincere and the response given above is far less gentle than the words reported in the press. The lack of information about JB suggests that he was a force for quiet on the backbenches. Politicians who do nothing save ask occasional silly questions… The world would be a better place if there were more JBs around.

    Finally, there were thousands of German reservists in the UK. All adult male Germans without serious health problems were trained militarily so any of those German band members performing in Trafalgar Square could handle a rifle. Their excellent training proved decisive in 1914 when these ‘amateurs’ (who took up their places next to the professionals), almost long-shotted the British and French army into the waste-paper basket. Note that, in fact, Britain was one of the very few European nations not to have national service at this date: the benefit of a world class navy and  the English Channel. This led though to misunderstandings about the nature of reserve forces in general.

    BTW, the best barometer of this invasion hysteria (for so it sometimes was) are the invasion novels that emerged in late Victorian and Edwardian England. The first was The Battle of Dorking in 1871 (‘Oh my God the Germans have taken Lorraine, Surrey is next…’), the best was The Riddle of the Sands (1903) by a man who would end his life invading Ireland, and the funniest was P.G.Wodehouse’s Swoop (1909), in which Switzerland and the Bollygollans invade the UK. Of course, if you have authors of the stature of Wodehouse parodying invasion literature then you know that you have a genre on your hands.

    And on the subject of invasion scares, Beach stumbled on this outstanding invasion scare blog. The author seems to have stopped posting that is a great shame…

    3 Jan 2015: Mike G wrote in’ Regarding the obsolete phenomena of “Miniature Rifle Clubs”: A “miniature rifle” is just a rifle of  .23 calibre or less – in practice .22 calibre – or a rifle of larger calibre converted to take such small-bore ammunition, hence the mention of the “old Martinis” being converted. The advantage of so doing is that it gives people the experience of handling and operating a full-size military weight rifle, without needing the long firing range and robust backstops required when firing full-size military ammunition eg .303. And, of course, the .22 ammunition is very much cheaper.’ Thanks Mike!

    8 Jan 2014:  A great honour to have Harry Wood from Invasion Scare blog. Harry writes, ‘I can add a little on your three questions: 1 and 3. Figures on spies/German reservists had been banded around for some years, and routinely exaggerated.  As Charles Lowe highlighted in a highly critical 1910 article in Contemporary Review entitled ‘About German Spies’ , the figures ranged from 6500 to 350,000.  The last figure was, as Panayi has pointed out in The Enemy in our Midst (Oxford, 1991), over half the size of the entire German army in peace time. Such fears were almost entirely fallacious, highlighted by the relatively few number of enemy spies arrested upon the outbreak of war in 1914.  They were, nevertheless, instrumental in the foundation of Mi5.  For more see C. A. Andrew, The Defence of the Realm: the Authorised History of MI5, (London, 2009). 2. Unfortunately I do not know much about Sir John Barlow.  These scares over fifth column armies of immigrant Germans were generally not subscribed to by Liberal members, but the political climate was much more fluid than is often assumed.  The Lowe article mentioned above refers to Barlow, so it may be of help. Thanks Harry!

    8 Jan 2014: Nathaniel writes: To the list of “invasion novels” we can add the Saki (Hector Munro) 1913 work “When William Came”, about a German occupation of Britain after a surprise attack. I’d run across this before but wasn’t aware that it was part of a genre. Thanks Nathaniel!

    8 Jan 2014: Chris from Haunted Ohio Books backs up Nathaniel on Saki: Another example of slightly later invasion fiction is Saki’s When William Came, a Story of London under the Hohenzollerns (1913). Like his 1912 novel The Unbearable Bassington, WWC generally lacks the sparkling social commentary of his short stories. I have to say, as alternative history, and as a portrait of making the best of living as a conquered people, it is rather chilling.  Thanks Chris!

    8 Jan 2014: Wade writes: I have been looking a bit and haven’t found the answer to your question, but I did run across a nice article on WWI Canadian rumors of German military raids and invasion. I also found these two links about an American author and adventurer, Homer Lea, who apparently predicted both World Wars pror to his death in 1912. Also I found this wonderful May, 2009 MA in History Thesis PDF by Kimberley Searle, University of Canterbury, NZ.  Just about all one could want really, especially Chapter 3, pages 80 – 129. Thanks Wade!

    9 Jan 2014: Mike G is back ‘It suddenly occurred to me that I’d first run across Sir John Barlow and his scaremongering in David Clarke’s interesting “Scareships over Britain: The Airship Wave of 1909” – online at http://www.ufo.se/english/articles/wave.html Which in turn made me wonder how much you know about the British airship scare? It’s a classic piece of pre-Great War “war panic” lore and an interesting phenomenon in its own right.’ I know very little and looking around this morning can’t see any outstanding books on the subject. Any suggestions gratefully received! Thanks Mike!