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  • Interview: Invasion Scares (Harry Wood) February 15, 2014

    Author: Beach Combing | in : Contemporary, Modern , trackback

    island mentalities

    I am very happy today to be able to invite Harry Wood of the University of Liverpool, historian and blogger, to talk about his speciality, British invasion scares, something we looked at last month.

    Harry, thanks so much for joining us for this brief discussion. You run a very enjoyable blog, Island Mentalities, and you are an expert on British invasion hysteria, which stretched from the late nineteenth century up until the First World War, and which amounted to the, I suppose, unreasonable, fear that what was then the most powerful nation in the world was in danger from invasion. Is this a fair definition of what you study? How do you define the invasion scare?

    Hi Beach, thanks for having me.  Your definition of pre-1914 British invasion scares is essentially sound.  What I would stress, however, is the breadth of the invasion scare phenomenon in military, political, and cultural terms.  Invasion was explored in contemporary political debate, such as through several reports commissioned by the Committee of Imperial Defence; in literature, theatre, and early film; and through the growing medium of the popular press.  The fear of invasion, moreover,  was harnessed by a range of interested parties for a variety of means: such as literary visionaries aiming to predict the nature of future war; the advocates of increased military or naval spending; campaigners for the introduction of compulsory military service; and party political partisans (usually anti-Liberal in nature).  My own research focuses on the importance of domestic political themes in Edwardian invasion-scare literature.  The authors of such narratives often, in my view, harnessed the invasion threat as a vehicle for communicating a wide range of political concerns, including oppostion to Irish Home Rule and the fear of increasing industrial unrest.

    I’ve argued elsewhere that the British are hardwired to worry about invasion: they look east and they see trouble and burning villages. There are, for example, the early Celtic myths that describe British and Irish history in terms of a series of invasions. Does this seem credible to you? Was the invasion scare just a reflex of something that had been around for ever?

    Though it is a difficult idea to quantify, I think the fear of invasion can be intepreted as a deep-rooted cultural reflex, part of an ‘island mentality’, if you will.  Paradoxically, this is arguably rooted in failed invasions rather than successful ones.  From the Spanish Armada to Napoleon to the Luftwaffe, we often look back on our history as a series of repelled attacks, or a collection of near-misses.

    Invasion hysteria really seems to heat up with the rise of Prussia/Germany after Sedan. Why did late Victorian and Edwardian Britons concentrate on the Germans as the villains when there were (particularly before the Entente) the French at hand?

    As the traditional enemy and invasion threat, the French actually remained the major focus of invasion fears until the turn of the century and the signing of the Entente Cordiale.  This has been explored in detail by I F Clarke in his groundbreaking study of future-war fiction Voices Prophesying War. Clarke saw this fiction as presenting “a perfect mirror image of the international situation at the time of writing”.  His argument is vindicated in part by book titles alone.  While The Coming Waterloo (1901) and A New Trafalgar (1902) highlight the longevity of Anglo-French antagonism, the later works Spies of the Kaiser (1909), The German Invasion of England (1910) and Saki’s symbolically titled When William Came (1913) nicely illustrate the shifting sands of European power-politics.

    The great fear in this period was the ‘bolt from the blue’, the idea that a continental power might slip around the Royal Navy and land an army in largely undefended Britain. Is there any evidence anywhere that a Continental power had, even vaguely, planned for such an eventuality? Could it have happened?

    The great fear of the ‘bolt from the blue’ school was that Britain was experiencing what Paul Kennedy describes as ‘imperial overstrech’.  Though the Royal Navy was undoubtedly the world’s predominant naval force, defending global commercial and trading interests was a huge job, and one that could leave Britain’s itself vulnerable to attack.  Such an attack, of course, ultimately failed to materialise.  Yet the Kaiser did at least toy with the idea, commisioning an operational study into the plausibility of an invasion of Britain in 1897.  Led by German Admiralty Officer Ludwig Schröder, the plan envisaged seizing Antwerp and mouth of the Schelde before war was declared, then mounting an invasion from the Belgian coast.  Interestingly, this still-born plan bears remarkable similarities to the invasion plot of The Riddle of the Sands (1903), Erskine Childers’s classic espionage novel.

    What percentage of the population actually worried about invasions? Was it essentially a small Tory minority in the establishment and around the country or was it a real concern for millions?

    This is one of the questions for those of us who study invasion scares: how real was the fear of invasion for the average Briton?  Unfortunately, it is also a very difficult question to properly address.  Consider the case of pre-1914 invasion literature: we know who was writing it; who published it; what contemporary critics thought of it; and roughly how many copies were sold; but we know very little about how it was received.  Did readers take these warnings seriously, or were such books simply good entertainment?  Several historians are, thankfully, beginning to crack this nut.  Michael Paris and Brett Hollman’s work on late-Edwardian airship panics, for example, suggests that the threat of invasion was a major national concern.  Similarly, in her study of Essex and the outbreak of the First World War, Catriona Pennell has highlighted that invasion was in the forefront of many minds in late-1914, leading to a series of false-alarms.

    What role did the First World War play in the invasion scare? Did Germany’s failure to invade Britain or to do anything on British soil, bar some pin-prick air-attacks, effectively end the fears?

    What the First World War heralded was a major shift in context.  As I have already mentioned, the threat of invasion was often used as a means of speculating on the nature and dimensions of future European war.  Once this conflict finally came it rendered this habit of prophesying rather unnecessary.  The fear of invasion did not vanish during the war, but it lost something of its former status.  As is highlighted by John Buchan’s adventure novel The Thirty-Nine Steps (1915), invasion certainly remained a prominent literary theme through the conflict.

    There are, of course, a whole series of novels that dramatise the invasion: for our readers which would you rate the best in literary terms, which the most peculiar?

    I would recommend several; the genre-defining The Battle of Dorking (1871) by George Chesney, When William Came (1913) by Saki, and P. G. Wodehouse’s wonderful parody The Swoop (1909).  The Riddle of the Sands is perhaps rightly celebrated as the most ‘literary’ example of invasion literature.  Other interesting works include The Invasion of 1910 (1906) by William Le Queux, a book that sold over a million copies after its serialisation in the Daily Mail, and The War in the Air (1909) by the science fiction pioneer H. G. Wells.  As for the most bizarre, one is really spoiled for choice.  Nevertheless, The World Peril of 1910 (1907) by George Griffith is a good candidate, a novel that combines German, Russian, and Austro-Hungarian invasion with the extra-planatery threat of a comet heading for Earth.

    I’ve just ordered a copy of the World Peril on your recommendation. Your mention of H.G.Wells, though, gets me thinking. Where does War of the Worlds fit into all this. Is it a simple science fiction version of invasion fears?

    There is an awful lot of cross-over between early science fiction and pre-1914 invasion literature.  I would certaintly consider The War of the Worlds an invasion narrative, though Martian invasion was a rather different prospect to the threat of German invasion.  The literary historian Michael Matin has even suggested that the concept for The War of the Worlds was heavily influenced by one of William Le Queux’s early invasion narratives, The Great War in England in 1897 (1894).

    And if you were going to pick out one particularly bizarre episode from Britain’s phantom brush with invasion what would it be?

    One of the most interesting elements of the Edwardian preoccupation with invasion was the success of Guy Du Maurier’s invasion-scare play An Englishman’s Home, a subject I am currently writing an article about.  First produced in January 1909 at Wyndham’s Theatre, the play quickly became a theatrical sensation.  It was watched by prominent politicians, high-ranking army officers, foreign dignataries, even Edward VII attended a performance.  Generating an extraordinary level of media interest, touring throughout the Empire, and subjected to a variety of skits and satires, the affair surrounding Du Maurier’s play arguably encapsulated the invasion debate in a single, fascinating episode.

    Reading this I found myself wondering whether invasion hysteria was a very British thing or whether other cultures have experienced similar panic attacks? I seem to remember some pretty far out concerns about Soviet infiltration of the US for example in the Cold War, even a secret underground tunnel to Alaska!!

    I think this was a peculiarly British affair.  Though plenty of other countries feared the prospect of foreign attack at the time (notably French concerns over German expansionism), nothing quite matched the level of hysteria that this debate reached in Britain.  Indeed, it was enough of a national characteristic to warrant being made fun of.  One French analysis of the genre mentioned by Clarke,  Fictions guerrieres anglaises, described Britain as fearful of invasion from every direction, “at sea, in the air, and even in the bowels of the earth”. Your mention of the Cold War is interesting, as the Soviet-American rivalry produced (and indeed, continues to produce) mutiple invasion and future-war scares.  Many of Tom Clancy’s hugely popular novels, such as The Sum of All Fears, are shaped by the threat of Soviet invasion or nuclear attack.

    A final question now, one I always want to ask when I meet someone studying something so exceptionally interesting: how did you get into this field? Accident or design?

    A little of both.  I have always been interested in the debate over the origins of the First World War.  As an undergraduate at the University of Liverpool, one of my lecturers introduced me to the British invasion literature of the pre-1914 period, and highlighted that the area was ripe for further research.  Taking advantage of an excellent collection of such narratives in Liverpool’s Syndey Jones Library, I wrote my undergraduate dissertation on the subject and have never really looked back.

    Bibliography/further reading

    I. F. Clarke, Voices Prophesying War: future wars, 1763-3749, (Oxford, 1992)

    B. Holman, Airminded, research blog,

    P. M. Kennedy, The Rise of the Anglo-German Antagonism, 1860-1914, (London, 1980)

    M. Paris, Winged Warfare: the literature and theory of aerial warfare in Britain, 1859-1917, (Manchester, 1992)

    C. Pennell, ‘‘The Germans have Landed!’ Invasion Fears in the South-East of England, August to December 1914’, in H Jones, J. O’Brien, and C. Schmidt-Supprian, eds, Untold War: New Perspectives in First World War Studies, (Leiden/Boston, 2008), pp95-118