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Imagined Wars: Envisioning the War to Come

The danger did not come on us unawares. It burst on us suddenly, 'tis true; but its coming was foreshadowed plainly enough to open our eyes, if we had not been wilfully blind.

-- The Battle of Dorking, 1871.


The decades leading up to the Great War were a period of accelerating technological change, and it was during this time that the speculative writing that would eventually coalesce into the science fiction genre began its development. Many early visions of the future focused on the shape of wars to come, and as a result, by the time the Great War arrived, visions of the conflict were already imprinted on the public eye.

While forecasts of the future were not a phenomenon unique to the 19th century (see, for example, 1763’s Reign of George VI, 1900-25), the frequency of such tales increased over time. One turning point was 1871’s The Battle of Dorking, an influential tale depicting a future invasion of England, which (like many of its successors) was overtly designed to convey its author’s political views.

Future war stories of the late 19th century depicted a variety of combatants and highlighted different long-standing international rivalries, but as the Great War approached, Germany and England became frequent opponents in fiction. Some of the best-known “invasion of England” tales include Erskine Childers’ 1903 novel, The Riddle of the Sands, and William Le Queux’s The Invasion of 1910 (first serialized in 1906). These English publications were paralleled by aggressively-written German tales like 1900’s Die Abrechnung mit England (The Reckoning with England) by Karl Eisenhart and 1904’s Der Weltkrieg: Deutsche Träume (World War -- German Dreams) by August Niemann. 1909 was a particularly noteworthy year for German invasion paranoia, seeing the basic formula spilling over into poetry (The Cliffs by Charles Doughty), theatre (An Englishman’s Home by Major Guy du Maurier) and absurdist satire (P. G. Wodehouse’s The Swoop! or, How Clarence Saved England).

While many writers anticipated conflict between England and Germany, few envisioned the full scale of the war or all of the consequences, and many predictions relied too much on past precedents of less technologically-driven conflicts. Still, some futuristic visions did dream big, like the colorfully illustrated 1908 French serial La Guerre Infernale, which anticipated the second World War more than the first with its massive scale and outlandish weaponry, and H. G. Wells’ 1897 The War of the Worlds, which imagined the impact of unimaginably powerful alien war machines. Additionally, some authors wrote on a less global (or interplanetary) scale but still predicted the game-changing role of technology; for example, the devastating potential of airplanes envisioned in ‘Planes! by Frederick Britten Austin, or the submarine warfare described in Danger! by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle (1914).

It is impossible to say whether or how future war fiction directly influenced the circumstances leading up to the Great War, but it seems clear that many of the same forces that shaped the way wars were fought also shaped the way stories were told about conflict.


Full Texts

In addition to the tales mentioned above, all of these future war stories can be found online in their entirety:

Berlin-Baghdad: Das deutsche Weltreich im Zeitalter der Luftschiffahrt, 1910-1931 by Rudolf Martin (1907)

Blake of the “Rattlesnake;” or, The Man Who Saved England. A Story of Torpedo Warfare in 189- by Fred T. Jane (1895)

The Final War by Louis Tracy (1896)

The Great War of 189- by Rear-Admiral P. Colomb, Colonel J. F. Maurice, R. A., Captain F. N. Maude, Archibald Forbes, Charles Lowe, D. Christie Murray and F. Scudamore (1891).

A Maker of History by E. Phillips Oppenheim (1905)

The Message by A. J. Dawson (1907)

Spies of the Kaiser by William Le Queux (1909)

The War in the Air by H. G. Wells (1908)

When William Came: A Story of London under the Hohenzollerns by Saki (1913)


pvu-airships.jpg pvu-liberty.jpg ia-dorking-1914.jpg A marauding Martian War Machine from H. G. Wells' The War of the Worlds.


Bendle, Mervyn F., “Imagining the Great War,” Quadrant Online, December 1, 2013, (accessed March 7, 2014).

Clarke, I. F., ed. The Great War with Germany, 1890-1914. Liverpool: Liverpool University Press, 1997.

Clarke, I. F., ed. The Tale of the Next Great War, 1871-1914. Syracuse: Syracuse University Press, 1995.

Clute, John and Peter Nicholls, eds. The Encyclopedia of Science Fiction. New York: St. Martin’s, 1995.

Ferguson, Niall. The Pity of War. New York: Basic Books, 1999.


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Last Modified: 2023-08-03 16:20:36