World War I

Imagining the Great War

The pictures are 130 years old but they are stark and disturbing in their bizarre detail. In a series of vivid illustrations, mechanised Australian juggernauts are depicted rumbling across the battlefield to crush the Mozambique mobile fortresses in a titanic African war. Immense cannons travelling on railway tracks engage huge iron-clad land dreadnoughts in an artillery duel at point-blank range. Australian troops deftly wield their bayonets and electric rifles as they clamber over the human carnage and mechanical wreckage to confront their foe in hand-to-hand battle, supported by covering fire from waves of low-flying armoured dirigibles and giant rapid-firing mobile mortars with multiple rotating barrels.

Elsewhere, the Australian navy’s monster submarine, Voracious, erupts from the ocean depths to impale an enemy vessel with its huge ram as the crew swarm out of its hull brandishing axes and electric pistols. Around them, scouts riding torpedoes and armed with lances joust lethally amongst the waves as brilliant beams of electric light sweep the seas.

The tide only turns when the Mozambique scientists open their secret reserves of “Miasma” and unleash their deadly contents. Carefully inserted into torpedoes and grenades and launched against the invaders, the diabolical bacilli and poison gas asphyxiate the Australians in their thousands …

Such are some scenes from a future war imag­ined in 1883 by the French writer and artist Albert Robida, who was attempting to illustrate the appalling nature of the mighty battles that an ever-growing number of people believed were inevitable as the European balance of power disintegrated in the final decades of the nineteenth century. They were reproduced in a Life magazine article of June 1942 as Americans searched for some sense of what the future might hold as global conflict engulfed them after Japan’s attack on Pearl Harbor.

As Life observed, Robida was a compatriot of Jules Verne and possessed a “vaulting imagination” that excelled even the founder of modern science fiction. In his voluminous works Robida “envisaged giant tanks, armored cars, flying fortresses, machine guns, electrical communications, submarines, anti-aircraft weapons, gas, torpedoes, and even bacteria, all playing their part in the smoke and brimstone of modern technological three dimensional war”. His illustrations remain unsurpassed in their imagination and vividness, and are even enlivened by a sense of humour, with depictions, for example, of a corps of armoured camels burdened with massive cannons attached precariously to their humps. Above all, they depict the total nature of the modern technological warfare that lay ahead, with various forms of futuristic weaponry engaged in massive battles, while the vast human masses are reduced to antlike vulnerability.

The future war genre had exploded in popularity after the shock of the Prussian victory in the Franco-Prussian War of 1870–71. The entire shape of European politics was transformed by the entry onto centre stage of a mighty new military and industrial power, and many scenarios were explored fictionally over the decades leading up to the outbreak of the Great War, shaping official and popular conceptions of what that war would be like. As I.F. Clarke observed in a 1997 article, “Future War Fiction: The First Main Phase, 1870–1900”:


From 1871 onwards not a year went by without the appearance of a tale of the war-to-come in Britain, France, or Germany. At times of major anxiety … they appeared by the dozen; and the probable total for the period from 1871 to 1914 is not less than some four hundred stories in English, French, or German, [indicating the] massive European interest in The Next Great War, der nächste Krieg, La Guerre de demain, as they called it in the cheerful language of anticipation.


The Franco-Prussian War had been one-sided and brutal. Prussia, under the wily direction of Chancellor Otto von Bismarck, had manoeuvred France into declaring war and had then crushed the French forces at the Battle of Sedan, even capturing Emperor Napoleon III. Subsequent battles raged across northern France before Paris fell in January 1871 after a lengthy siege. Total casualties amounted to some 400,000, about three-quarters of them French. Four epoch-defining events then followed: the various German states united under the Prussian King who became the Kaiser of the new German empire, which radically destabilised the European balance of power; liberal forces within the German political system were marginalised while radical nationalists and Prussian militarists seized and held the initiative for the next half-century; Germany annexed the French provinces of Alsace-Lorraine, inciting a barely suppressed rage amongst the French that fuelled the outbreak of the Great War forty-three years later; and the Paris Commune rose in mass rebellion against the new French Republic before being crushed with extreme brutality (about 30,000 Parisians were killed, and 60,000 were executed, imprisoned or exiled). This revived once again the spectre of socialist revolution, inspiring the radical forces and terrifying the ruling elites throughout Europe until the unthinkable happened and Russia became a communist state in the middle of the bloodiest war Europe had seen for nearly 300 years.

Above all, the performance of the Prussian army astounded the world. In every aspect of war, including leadership, planning, training, discipline, combat, logistics and technology, it was clearly superior, and politicians and military theorists throughout Europe struggled to comprehend the implications of its easy victory. (On the other hand, the lessons of the near-contemporaneous American Civil War were largely ignored.) In particular, it was noted that Prussia employed comprehensive national service and that its army was composed largely of well-trained conscripts, so that Prussia and its German allies were able to field some 1.2 million soldiers. The Prussian army was also unique in possessing a General Staff responsible for overall military strategy and planning, while overseeing operations, logistics, communications and mobilisation in time of war.


The lead role in sounding the alarm about the comparative inadequacies of British military power was played by a British colonel of engineers, Sir George Tomkyns Chesney, who published his cautionary tale, “The Battle of Dorking”, anonymously in the May 1871 issue of Blackwood’s Magazine. Recounted by a veteran looking back from fifty years in the future, it describes the final days of the invasion of Britain by an unnamed country. That this is Germany is made clear as the invasion follows on from the defeat of France and the mobilisation of immense forces across the Channel. Royal Navy forces are quickly destroyed by a mysterious wonder-weapon and the invaders land in Essex where the British army’s incompetence, inexperience and lack of training and resources are quickly revealed. In the final battle at Dorking in Surrey the defenders are routed and Britain is left devastated, reduced to the status of an economically exploited dependency of the victorious power. The British Empire is dismantled, with Australia and India granted their independence, as is Ireland, which then sinks into a sectarian civil war.

Chesney used the future-war genre to raise the alarm at the sudden ascendancy of Germany in a new age of technological warfare, and to demonstrate the necessity of “securing the defence of the nation by the enforced arming of the people” through conscription. He also inadvertently unleashed a hitherto repressed desire amongst the European peoples to explore in minute detail the imagined destruction of their own societies. The relevant issue of Blackwood’s was reprinted seven times within a month before the story was published as a sixpenny pamphlet that sold 80,000 copies. It was then quickly translated into Dutch, French and German, while special editions were printed in America, Canada, Australia and New Zealand. Other writers followed the lead, including Colonel Frederic Maude, who updated the concept by casting the French as the invaders in The New Battle of Dorking (1900).

Indeed, during the final decades of the nineteenth century the future wars most often depicted involving Britain were against France (often allied with Russia). These attracted widespread popular interest, including in the dominions, where The Great Naval War of 1887 by “Anonymous” was reprinted as a serial in the Brisbane Courier, starting on Christmas Eve 1886, apparently to enliven the festive spirit. Earlier, proposals to connect Britain with France by a tunnel led to paranoid scenarios such as that explored by “Grip” in How John Bull Lost London; Or, The Capture of the Channel Tunnel (1882), which lays out a plot for an invasion spearheaded by three trainloads of French “holiday makers”—“The Allied Brothers of the Amity Lodges of the Freemasons”—who were ostensibly using the tunnel to come over for a fete, but were followed quickly by the rest of the French Army, which reduced the British to servitude while appropriating much of the empire. On the French side, John Bull’s Downfall: The Remarkable History of the Destruction of England’s Power on Land and Sea by Camille Debans (1884) continued the mutual tendency to describe Anglo-French conflict in terms of the hideous violence and perfidious behaviour perpetrated by the enemy.

A notorious example of such tales was The Great War in England in 1897 (1894) by William Le Queux. This novel described a massive Franco-Russian invasion that penetrates to the heart of London before Germany enters the war on the side of the British to turn the tide. In the aftermath, the victors divide up the world: Britain takes Algeria from France and Central Asia from Russia, while Germany annexes more of France to add to Alsace-Lorraine. The novel had great success in Britain and achieved notoriety on the continent where the editor of Le Monde Illustré returned the gesture and commissioned Henri de Nousanne to write The Anglo-Franco-Russian War (1900). This described the destruction of the British Empire, complete with comprehensive illustrations and maps to show how the Russians and the French disposed of the British imperial possessions between themselves. Inevitably, such tales focused on battles decided at sea, given the role played by the Royal Navy in protecting the lifelines of the empire. Examples included George Sydenham Clarke, The Last Great Naval War (1892); Captain S. Eardley-Wilmot, The Next Naval War (1894); Francis G. Burton, The Naval Engineer and the Command of the Sea (1896); and P.L. Stevenson, How the Jubilee Fleet Escaped Destruction (1899).


The likelihood that the war would be with Germany rather than France increased exponentially in 1898 with the outbreak of the Anglo-German naval arms race, as the first of a series of five Naval Laws passed through the Reichstag under the direction of Kaiser Wilhelm II and his Naval Minister, Grand Admiral Alfred von Tirpitz. Both were devotees of the Alfred Thayer Mahan’s epochal study, The Influence of Sea Power upon History, 1660–1783 (1890), which purported to show that naval power was the determinative factor in the rise and fall of empires. Inspired, the German government committed stupendous amounts of money to the creation of a powerful fleet capable of competing with the hitherto dominant Royal Navy. British policy aimed to ensure that its fleet was always as large as the next two largest navies combined, while Wilhelm aimed to expand the German High Seas Fleet until it was at least two-thirds the size of the Royal Navy. Given that France, Russia and Japan already had large fleets, and America was acquiring one (the Great White Fleet of sixteen new battleships toured the world, including Australia, in 1908), this ensured an open-ended global arms race.

Confronted by Wilhelm’s determination to compete, Britain signed the Entente Cordiale with France in 1904 and then revolutionised the entire process by launching HMS Dreadnought in 1906. Heavily armoured, powered by steam turbines and very fast, the Dreadnought class were “super-weapons” whose massive firepower made almost all previous battleships obsolete (including much of the Royal Navy), creating a new baseline from which the race was subsequently pursued.

The implications of the 1898 Naval Law for future warfare were immediately explored by novelists on both sides. T.W. Offin described How the Germans Took London (1900), while Louis Tracy wrote of The Invaders (1901) and Walter Wood revealed The Enemy in Our Midst (1906). In Germany, Karl Eisenhart wrote The Reckoning with England (1900) to emphasise how the new Imperial Navy “yearned for the Day when they could take on the hated English”, and the leading German novelist August Niemann rejoiced in The Coming Conquest of England (1904) at how a “new distribution of ownership of the earth [served] as the ultimate goal of this mighty world war” now finally under way. He also depicted “his majesty, the Emperor [entering] London at the head of the allied armies [ensuring] the future happiness of the German nation”.

Most successful of the Anglo-German future-war novelists was Le Queux, who was commissioned by the Daily Mail to write The Invasion of 1910 (1906), a serialised novel concerning an imminent German invasion. Le Queux worked closely with Field Marshal Frederick Roberts and other military experts, touring East Anglia to identify the most likely invasion route while Roberts planned the campaign from a German perspective. Initially, the line of advance took the imaginary German forces through areas with small Daily Mail readerships and so the plan was revised to impact most directly on towns where people were likely to buy the paper to read of their prospects in the upcoming war. As the serialised story unfolded each day, the Daily Mail, the Times, the Daily Telegraph and associated papers published a list of the districts the fictional Germans would attack the following morning, thus ensuring mass public interest and a sales bonanza.

Advancing relentlessly from the English east coast, the invaders destroyed all communications, implemented a scorched earth policy, and overwhelmed military resistance to occupy much of London. A junior but charismatic member of parliament remained defiant and organised the “League of Defenders” to resist, provoking severe German reprisals but inspiring a popular uprising and a resurgent Army, which marched upon London towards victory, although the end is ambiguous as the Germans retained critical control over Belgium and the Netherlands. Both as a serial and a book, The Invasion of 1910 was an immense success. The book version was translated into twenty-seven languages and sold over a million copies, while a pirated German version was produced, complete with an appropriately different ending.

Le Queux then had another success with Spies of the Kaiser: Plotting the Downfall of England (1909). Like E. Phillips Oppenheim’s A Maker of History (1905) and When England Slept by Henry Curties (1909), it described how England had been systematically infiltrated by a vast German fifth column. Alarmed and under political pressure, the government set up an inquiry that led to the creation of the Secret Service. Its brief was to counter suspected German espionage, much of which may have been a creation of fertile imaginations. The last prominent example of this genre was When William Came: A Story of London under the Hohenzollerns (1913) by Saki (Hector Hugh Munro), who was killed by a sniper in 1916 during the Great War whose consequences he had tried to imagine.


Meanwhile, French rage at the loss of Alsace-Lorraine remained unquenchable, and it led to a new sub-genre of military revenge tales, including The Battle of Berlin in 1875, by Edouard Dangin (1871); France and Germany Next Spring, by “Anonymous” (1876); and The Franco-German War of 1878 by Général Mèche (1877). Most famous of all was the massive multi-volume works of “Capitaine Danrit”, a nom de plume for Commandant Emile Driant, a distinguished career soldier. Inspired by Chesney’s example, and desperate to rally the French people behind the military revolution that would be required to defeat Germany, Driant published a dozen future-war stories before the Great War finally broke out in 1914. He began his fictional campaign against the dreaded “Teutons” in 1888 with The War of Tomorrow, made up of three full-length novels: Fortress Warfare, War in Open Country and Balloon Warfare. Although he took time out to devote a further 1192 pages to The Fatal War: France–England (1902) Driant remained obsessed with Germany, as he made clear in his “Dedication” to his comrades in War in Open Country. There he looked forward to


the Great War, which we are all expecting and which is so long in coming. Under your flag I still hope to see it, if there is a god of battle and he can hear me … I have dreamed of this war, this holy war in which we shall be victorious; and this is the book of my dream which I dedicate to you.


Driant ultimately died a hero’s death at Verdun.

The Franco-Prussian War also profoundly affected Jules Verne, who had previously been anti-militaristic. In 1864 he had been happy to cast Germans as the heroic adventurers in Journey to the Centre of the Earth, but after the war he gave expression to the stark choice that many Europeans felt they faced with the rise of the Prussian-led German powerhouse. The Begum’s Fortune (1879) describes the divergent paths taken by two scientists who have inherited parts of a vast fortune and who set out to create their own versions of the perfect society. One, Dr Sarrasin, dedicates his new wealth to the construction of a model city, “Franceville”, a rather laissezfaire metropolis where the quality of life and public health and welfare are the primary considerations. The other, Professor Schultze, sets out to build “Stahlstadt”, a City of Steel. This is a totalitarian city-state devoted to achieving maximum industrial and social efficiency in the manufacture of weapons of mass destruction. Schultze’s scientific research has convinced him that the “Latins” of Franceville are degenerate while the “Saxon” people of Stahlstadt are the rightful rulers of the world, and he sets out to prove this by obliterating Franceville using his advanced weapons. These include super-cannon whose massive projectiles are composed of gas canisters capable of destroying numerous separate targets. Above all, he is desperate to use his “ice-gun”, which fires projectiles filled with a chemical compound that, upon impact, instantly reduces the ambient temperature to minus 100˚C, quick-freezing all living things in the vicinity. Schultze boasts, “With my system, there are no wounded, just the dead.”

Eventually, as Franceville lies defenceless before the Stahlstadt juggernaut it is saved by chance when Schultze falls victim to his own hubris and an ice-gun projectile accidentally explodes in his office, instantly freezing him and ensuring his leaderless city’s rapid decline. Ironically, workers from Franceville keep its armament production going so that they need never fear another attack.

This fable drew upon actual personalities and events. The aggressive nationalist and racial attitudes expressed by Schultze echo those of Heinrich von Treitschke, an extremely influential German historian, polemicist and politician who laid the ideological foundations for German imperialism under Wilhelm II and the Nazis. His 1870 pamphlet, What We Demand from France, expressed the view that Germany’s victory over France derived not only from Germany’s advanced science and material progress but also from its superior culture and spiritual virility, which contrasted with French decadence and lassitude. The annexation of Alsace-Lorraine was portrayed as the rescue of German people from “half-educated barbarians”. One of Treitschke’s many prominent students was Friedrich von Bernhardi, a decorated German general, historian, militarist and best-selling author. His lengthy polemic, Germany and the Next War (1911), promoted a war of imperialism not only as Germany’s sole chance for survival, but as a “divine business [and] biological necessity”, which must be fought without any restraint and in accordance with one law only—“the natural law, upon which all the laws of Nature rest, the law of the struggle for existence”.

“Stahlstadt” was an extrapolation from the paternalistic structure of the highly regimented company town built by Alfred Krupp to service his giant munitions works at Essen. This “state-within-a-state” provided many services that were otherwise unavailable to workers but it also demanded absolute loyalty and obedience. It inspired Bismarck’s social policies, which were designed to attract support away from the socialists. Moreover, Verne’s focus on the superiority of Schultze’s guns reflected the controversy that surrounded Krupp’s invention of rapid-fire, breech-loading, cast-steel artillery at a time when the European military remained committed to muzzle-loading bronze cannons. Eventually, Krupp was able to convince the Prussian king and his generals of the value of his guns and they were successfully deployed in the Franco-Prussian War, much to the discomfiture of the French. This success established Krupp as the industry leader and initiated an international arms race, involving the leading armaments manufacturers in England and France.

Verne had begun his writing career celebrating the technocratic utopian visions of Saint-Simon but after the war his works began to feature scientists and technocrats as evil geniuses bent upon world domination and destruction.


Another great visionary who foresaw the implications of modern technology and total war was H.G. Wells, whose marvellously imaginative “scientific romances”, including The Time Machine (1895), The Island of Doctor Moreau (1896), The Invisible Man (1897), The War of the Worlds (1898), When the Sleeper Wakes (1899) and The First Men in the Moon (1901), introduced many of the core themes of science fiction. Like Verne, Wells kept abreast of scientific and technical developments and he produced many stories about future warfare. Of these, The War of the Worlds was the most influential, inspiring innumerable other works and being adapted to many other media, including several films and the famous 1938 live radio play narrated and directed by Orson Welles. This broadcast generated widespread panic throughout the eastern United States as Americans became convinced they were being invaded by Martians, with distraught women reportedly appearing at hospitals and police stations claiming that they had been raped by the aliens.

The War of the Worlds is notable for its relentless realism and utter pessimism about the capacity of people to respond to an invasion by a technologically superior military force. Confronted by gigantic armoured Tripods, equipped with searing heat rays and chemical weapons including the lethal “Black Smoke”, the British army is impotent as southern England is systematically destroyed and the population hunted down and drained of blood to feed the invaders, while the Martian “Red Weed” quickly infests the countryside and transforms the ecosystem. The roads are blocked as millions of desperate refugees flee their indescribable fate, and the narrator meets various figures whose mental disintegration illustrates the enormous trauma and stress such an event would have on the victim population. One is a curate who becomes convinced that the invasion heralds the Apocalypse and whose ravings lead to his capture and brutal exsanguination by the Martians. Another is an artillery expert who announces a grandiose plan to rebuild human civilisation underground but is quickly revealed to be deranged. The implication of such encounters is that humanity is simply quite out of its depth and that its demise is assured. The one display of effective defiance (oddly omitted in subsequent adaptations) is provided by HMS Thunder Child, who covers herself with glory in a stupendous battle off the Essex coast, destroying three Tripods in an intrepid act of self-sacrifice that allows shiploads of refugees to escape to the continent. Ultimately, humanity is saved by the Martians’ inexplicable ignorance of the danger posed to them by the earth’s bacteria.

In non-fiction studies like Anticipations (1902), Wells forecast many of the technological and organisational advances that would come to characterise modern war, such as an increasing dominance of centralised command structures, specialist military staff, mechanised artillery, automatic weapons, and armoured fighting vehicles or “land ironclads”, which helped inspire the development of the tank under the sponsorship of Winston Churchill. Wells is also famous for predicting the atomic bomb in The World Set Free (1913), based on his reading of the work of nuclear physicists at the time. Ironically, he drew the conclusion that the colossal power of such bombs would make war impossible:


All through the nineteenth and twentieth centuries the amount of energy that men were able to command was continually increasing. Applied to warfare that meant that the power … to destroy was continually increasing [while] there was no increase whatever in the ability to escape … Destruction was becoming so facile that any little body of malcontents could use it … A man could carry about in a handbag an amount of latent energy sufficient to wreck half a city.


The British military engineer Captain Frederick Guggisberg wrote the study Modern Warfare: Or, How Our Soldiers Fight (1903), which provided what proved to be an accurate description of the German invasion of Belgium and the processes by which this led to the mobilisation of the entire British Empire for war with Germany. Unfortunately, his work received little public attention.

A more commercially successful account on a similar topic was provided by Erskine Childers in The Riddle of the Sands (1903). Widely acclaimed as a pioneering spy thriller, the book was very successful despite its rather straightforward plot. This concerns the courageous efforts of a young British Foreign Office official and his friend to sail their small boat around the Frisian Islands to investigate sinister activities, which they discover involve the massing of German invasion forces operating under the guidance of a renegade Englishman. Some romantic tension is introduced by having one of the young men fall in love with the renegade’s daughter, but eventually they foil the plot and make their way to safety.

The Riddle of the Sands was credited by Winston Churchill and others as having played a key role in mobilising political support to increase funding for the Royal Navy. It was also said to have cemented anti-German feelings in Britain and to have helped prepare public opinion for war with Germany. When war broke out, Churchill arranged for Childers to take up a post in naval intelligence and he served in that capacity and as a seaplane pilot during the war, including at Gallipoli, earning a DSC. (Childers became an extreme Irish nationalist and in 1922, during the Irish Civil War, he was arrested by Irish Free State forces and summarily executed.)

Another prescient author from the period was Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, who found himself embroiled in controversy for describing the potential of unrestricted submarine warfare in a short story, “Danger”, which appeared, coincidentally, in the Strand magazine in July 1914, just as the Great War was about to break out. Doyle set out to “direct public attention to the great danger which threatened this country”, in the form of submarines preying on coastal shipping around the British Isles. His vivid depiction of mass destruction and loss of life led the Strand editor to invite comments from several admirals, one of whom declared the notion of such attacks to be mere fantasy, while another declared that they were impossible because they transgressed the rules of war: “No nation would permit it, and the officer who did it would be shot.” It was, of course, the adoption by the German High Command of unrestricted submarine warfare that contributed largely to America’s entry into the Great War in 1917.

H.G. Wells returned to the horrors of total war in The War in the Air (1908). Written only four years after the Wright brothers made their flight, the tale envisages a global conflagration spearheaded by vast air forces that ultimately consumes civilisation. The highly unlikely protagonist is Bert Smallways, a ne’er-do-well bicycle mechanic who literally happens upon a massive German air armada about to launch a pre-emptive strike against the United States. Masquerading as an aeronautical genius whose secret plans he has stolen, Smallways is taken along for the ride by the commander, “Prince Karl Albert” (a caricature of Wilhelm II), an extreme nationalist who fancies himself as a modern Alexander the Great.

Coincidentally, however, the “Confederation of Eastern Asia” (China and Japan) also possesses a massive air force, an imaginative departure in the genre inspired by Japan’s astonishing victory in the Russo-Japanese War (1904–5). This is also unleashed against the Americans, who find themselves suddenly attacked on both coasts. In the east, the Germans annihilate the American naval forces in the Atlantic, destroy New York City—with their airships ranging up and down Broadway raining destruction on the people below—and then land troops at Niagara Falls, to ethnically cleanse the region and set up a vast airbase. In the west, however, the Asians have destroyed San Francisco and send their aerial forces over the Rockies to confront the Germans, whom they overwhelm thanks to their superior aircraft and weaponry, including incendiary shells that quickly dispatch the German airships.

Having seized the initiative, the Asians land another million troops in California and a savage ground war ensues on a continental scale, with no prisoners taken. Across America, Asians are lynched amidst growing chaos as the President hides out in “Pinkerville on the Hudson” in upstate New York. Making his way there, Smallways hands over the secret plans for a revolutionary aircraft, which is quickly built in huge numbers, not only by the Americans but also by her new allies throughout Europe. When these aircraft devastate Hamburg and Berlin, the Germans respond by destroying London and Paris. Meanwhile, the unstoppable Asians defeat an Anglo-Indian air force and conquer Burma, Australia and the Pacific islands, before swinging west to capture the Middle East and South Africa, where they build new bases. Moving north they defeat the German forces in the Battle of the Carpathians before moving on to attack Western Europe. The global financial system collapses, a vast epidemic breaks out, and within five years there is a total collapse of the fabric of civilisation, the inevitable outcome of total war that Wells vividly reiterated twenty-five years later in The Shape of Things to Come, another prescient work.


The Franco-Prussian War inspired the future-war genre as politicians, the military and the general population looked to imaginative writers for a vision of what the impending great European war would be like. There was little sense that it could be avoided, and many scenarios were explored as people were brought regularly to a fever pitch of apprehension as various international crises erupted, decade after decade. Heroism and innovative technology figured prominently in all the tales, as did the certitude that it would be an offensive war of movement, where military prowess would determine the outcome in a series of short, sharp encounters.

Perhaps only Wells had the vision to see more clearly what the future had in store, and that the war would grind down the great powers over years of conflict and leave a denuded and traumatised world. However, not even he could envisage the haphazard manner in which “some damn foolish thing in the Balkans” (as Bismarck predicted in 1888) would send Europe sliding over the edge into a titanic conflict whose baleful consequences have so decisively shaped the past century of global history.

Among Mervyn F. Bendle’s contributions to Quadrant is “Anzac in Ashes” in the April 2010 issue. He wrote on Pope Francis in the November issue.


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