Tuesday, 31 October 2017

War and the Future (1917)

‘An account of a short tour of the war fronts made by the author in 1916,’ War and the Future is evidence of Wells's national prominence, after two decades of writing and the sudden uptick in commercial success of his war journalism and Mr Britling. That he was invited at all, and given such access to the allied military enterprise, up to and including the front line, is one mark of this. But even more notable is the way he felt confident enough to ignore government attempts to censor his criticisms of aspects of the war's prosecution, in particular the way the war was turning the common soldier into what he calls ‘the Resentful Employee’. Wells told his publisher the white lie that the work had been officially approved for publication when it hadn't (if the potential commission of high treason can be considered a white lie).

Anyhow: the book reprints articles originally published in the press: Part 1 was first printed in Cassell's Magazine (Dec. 1916), and most of Parts 3 and 4 appeared in The Daily Chronicle (Nov. 1916) and The Daily News (Dec. 1916-Jan. 1917) respectively. The book was capped off with two previously unpublished essays:

1. The Passing of the Effigy

2. The War in Italy (August, 1916)
I. The Isonzo Front
II. The Mountain War
III. Behind the Front

3. The Western War (September, 1916)
I. Ruins
II. The Grades of War
III. The War Landscape
IV. New Arms For Old Ones
V. Tanks

4. How People Think About the War
I. Do They Really Think At All?
II. The Yielding Pacifist And The Conscientious Objector
III. The Religious Revival
IV. The Riddle of the British

5. The Social Changes In Progress

6. The Ending of the War
What War and the Future is, fundamentally, is a work of travel literature, full of compelling detail and vivid observations about the places and people the narrator has seen, with this, perhaps for-the-first-time-in-literature wrinkle: the land into which the traveller is venturing is called Total War.
My earlier rides in Venetia began always with the level roads of the plain, roads frequently edged by watercourses, with plentiful willows beside the road, vines and fields of Indian corn and suchlike lush crops ... Upon the roads and beside them [now] was the enormous equipment of a modern army advancing. Everywhere I saw new roads being made, railways pushed up, vast store dumps, hospitals; everywhere the villages swarmed with grey soldiers; everywhere our automobile was threading its way and taking astonishing risks among interminable processions of motor lorries, strings of ambulances or of mule carts, waggons with timber, waggons with wire, waggons with men’s gear, waggons with casks, waggons discreetly veiled, columns of infantry, cavalry, batteries en route. Every waggon that goes up full comes back empty, and many wounded were coming down and prisoners and troops returning to rest ... One travelled through a choking dust under the blue sky, and above the steady incessant dusty succession of lorry, lorry, lorry, lorry that passed one by, one saw, looking up, the tree tops, house roofs, or the solid Venetian campanile of this or that wayside village. [2.1]
He's particularly good on the ruined landscapes of the Western front. At Fricourt he's shown round a captured German trench: ‘like the work of some horrible badger’. At Dompierre ‘the German trenches skirted the cemetery, and they turned the dead out of their vaults and made lurking places of the tombs’ (‘Dureresque’, Wells calls this). Wells concludes: ‘this war is, indeed, a troglodytic propaganda.’ [3.1] There are many lovely little turns of phrase: the way ‘a weary man is doing the toilet of a machine gun’ [3.3]; how, after loading a shell in a big gun, the breech ‘closes like a safe door’ [4.3].

His account of the situation at Arras has a wonderful Absurdist quality to it: ‘the British hold the town, the Germans hold a northern suburb; at one point near the river the trenches are just four metres apart.’ ‘This state of tension,’ Wells notes, ‘has lasted for long months’:
There is no advantage in an assault; across that narrow interval we should only get into trenches that might be costly or impossible to hold, and so it would be for the Germans on our side. But there is a kind of etiquette observed; loud vulgar talking on either side of the four-metre gap leads at once to bomb throwing. And meanwhile on both sides guns of various calibre keep up an intermittent fire, the German guns register—I think that is the right term—on the cross of Arras cathedral, the British guns search lovingly for the German batteries. As one walks about the silent streets one hears, “Bang—Pheeee—woooo” and then far away “dump.” One of ours. Then presently back comes “Pheeee—woooo—Bang!” One of theirs. Amidst these pleasantries, the life of the town goes on. [3.2]
I love the idea that it is loud or vulgar chatter that provokes potentially lethal assault. ‘Overnight,’ Wells says of the day he visited, ‘[the Germans] had killed a gendarme. There is to be a public funeral and much ceremony. It is rare for anyone now to get killed; everything is so systematised.’ Arras functions pretty much like a regular town: business and shops, its own local newspaper, and a profitable, if rather grisly, new tourist trade. At the same time, Wells notes, ‘there is an effect of waiting stillness like nothing else I have ever experienced’. It would be a great setting for a novel, actually.

Wells praises the developments in military aircraft, and his essay on the tank is simply splendid. It's almost sweet to see how diffidently proud he is that his story “The Land Ironclads” (The Strand Magazine 1903) was the main inspiration to the British government to put money into research and development of this weapon of war: ‘they were my grandchildren—I felt a little like King Lear when first I read about them.’ [3.5] He's spot-on about the early models' jolie laide quality: ‘never has any such thing so completely masked its wickedness under an appearance of genial silliness. The Tank is a creature to which one naturally flings a pet name; the five or six I was shown wandering, rooting and climbing over obstacles were as amusing and disarming as a litter of lively young pigs.’
They are like jokes by Heath Robinson. One forgets that these things have already saved the lives of many hundreds of our soldiers and smashed and defeated thousands of Germans. Said one soldier to me: “In the old attacks you used to see the British dead lying outside the machine-gun emplacements like birds outside a butt with a good shot inside. Now, these things walk through.”
The second half of the book contains observations of a more general sort. Most people, Wells, argues, don't think through what the war means, because they are ‘swamped by the spectacular side of the business’ (‘it was very largely my fear of being so swamped myself that made me reluctant to go as a spectator to the front,’ he says. ‘I knew that my chances of being hit by a bullet were infinitesimal, but I was extremely afraid of being hit by some too vivid impression.’) Wells thinks the real war is a war of ideas, and those ideas are about the future organisation of humankind. He speaks several times to the decay of individualism he is certain the war represents:
One of the larger singularities of the great war is its failure to produce great and imposing personalities, mighty leaders, Napoleons, Caesars. I would indeed make that the essential thing in my reckoning of the war. It is a drama without a hero; without countless incidental heroes no doubt, but no star part. Even the Germans, with a national predisposition for hero-cults and living still in an atmosphere of Victorian humbug, can produce nothing better than that timber image, Hindenburg. [1.3]
There is something in this, isn't there? Certainly, warmaking over the last fifty years (say) has rather reinforced the notion that the logic of modern mechanised war calls for managers rather than generals: people skilled at coordinating large quantities of men and materiel. But if that's true, then it makes me wonder whether WW2, with its pantomime villains and heroes, its Hitlers and Stalins and Churchills, its Rommells and Montys and Pattons, was a kind of blip? Or was there something distinctive about that war that led to that resurgence of the Wellington/Napoleon, Caesar/Pompey style of personality narratives? To ask this, though, is of course to stray from Wells's main point, which is not that the nature of war has changed to propel faceless bureaucrats to key high command roles. It is that humanity itself has passed through a sea-change away from notable individualism and towards a mode of religiously-inflected communalism:
In the last few years I have developed a religious belief that has become now to me as real as any commonplace fact. I think that mankind is still as it were collectively dreaming and hardly more awakened to reality than a very young child. It has these dreams that we express by the flags of nationalities and by strange loyalties and by irrational creeds and ceremonies, and its dreams at times become such nightmares as this war. But the time draws near when mankind will awake and the dreams will fade away, and then there will be no nationality in all the world but humanity, and no kind, no emperor, nor leader but the one God of mankind. This is my faith. I am as certain of this as I was in 1900 that men would presently fly. To me it is as if it must be so. [1.4]
So, it must be so, must it? OK then. It's the old, old fault-line in Wells's writing, this: because however earnestly the duller later sections argue this thesis, it is the very spectacularism that Wells disavows that tickles his writerly imagination and leads to the most memorable sections in the book. As (to close) this account—again, I think the first such widescreen visual SFX representation of such a thing—of the Death Star exploding at the end of Return of the Jedi a German Zeppelin intercepted on a bombing raid over Essex:
The Zeppelins of Billericay and Potter’s Bar are—heroic things. (The Cuffley one came down too quickly, and the fourth one which came down for its crew to surrender is despised.) I have heard people describe the two former with eyes shining with enthusiasm.

“First,” they say, “you saw a little round red glow that spread. Then you saw the whole Zeppelin glowing. Oh, it was beautiful! Then it began to turn over and come down, and it flames and pieces began to break away. And then down it came, leaving flaming pieces all up the sky. At last it was a pillar of fire eight thousand feet high. Everyone said, ‘Ooooo!’ And then someone pointed out the little aeroplane lit up by the flare—such a leetle thing up there in the night! It is the greatest thing I have ever seen. Oh! the most wonderful—most wonderful!”

There is a feeling that the Germans really must after all be a splendid people to provide such magnificent pyrotechnics. [4.1]
Evoking this filmic quality is where Wells is, often, at his best. Everyone said, ‘Ooooo!’ indeed


  1. In John Keegan's The Mask of Command he puts forward four types of command; the heroic, such as Alexander the Great who lead from the front; anti-heroic, such as Wellington who was sometimes at the front, and sometimes not; the unheroic which he demonstrates with Grant, commanding from a tent behind the lines; and finally the mock-heroic, which he characterises with Hitler, who believed that improved communication with the front and his own theatrics allowed him to micromanage his subordinates. Each of these relies to an extent on both political and technological changes. Keegan, writing during the cold war, comes to the conclusion that maybe our leaders shouldn't be heroes (and also that fighting wars is probably bad.)

    If so, then the emergence of great figures during WW2 might be a combination of the improved communications and media along with the desire of senior leaders to believe themselves in as much danger as the troops they command, even when in a place of relative safety. Why not in WW1 I do't know; that the nations involved were in many cases formed of traditions several generations deep rather than being stamped in the image of revolutionary leaders might have something to do with it.

    1. That's plausible. But then why aren't we hip-deep in media celebrity military commanders nowadays? Why wasn't Vietnam, or Iraq, lead by such figures?

    2. If I wanted to seriously defend/expand on Keegan's scheme I'd probably have to go back and re-read it. I suppose the question is, is the Cold War an abberation, in that the leaders were deliberately avoiding heroism and greatness because the logical heroic outcome is mutual destruction? America picked coalition-building military bureaucrat Eisenhower over flamboyant MacArthur as both military template and president.

      I think Saddam Hussein was exactly the mock-heroic model of leader Keegan described and that didn't work out so well. So maybe that's the answer. I seem to recall a certain amount of talk about "Stormin'" Norman Schwartkopf (who was actually very much in the model of Eisenhower).

  2. That would be my point, I suppose. Who remembers Stormin Norman now? Or Colin Powell? Or Peter Wall?