F. Britten Austin

Frederick Britten Austin (1885-1941) was a writer who was particularly interested in the theme of war. Beyond the fact that he servef-britten-austin1d in the Great War as a captain, I know almost nothing as yet about this man. His first novel was The Shaping of Lavinia (1911), which was about the marriage of a young woman. But one of his main interests was warfare: the first of the books on this theme was In Action: Studies of War in 1913

The British Library copy of In Action was accessioned on 11 November 1913, on the day that would be Armistice. At least two of the stories are “historicals”” one is set during the American Civil War, and another one in the recent Balkan War of 1912-1913. But some of the stories do appear to be prophetic of the war that would come a year later. “Death” is about trench warfare; “‘Planes!'” is about a group of soldiers which is ousted from their entrenched positions by six planes which fly over and drop bombs on them. Had that actually happened in any conflict before 1913, or is this technically “science fiction”? According to Wikipedia, the first air strike in warfare happened on November 1 1911, when Second Lieutenant Giulio Gavotti dropped four bombs on two Turkish-held oases in Libya, during the Italo-Turkish War. But this story suggests an escalation of this, a prediction about future warfare.

Austin also wrote a number of collections of short stories on a particular theme, which range from the prehistoric past to the present today. One of these is Tomorrow (Eyre and Spottiswoode, no date, but accessioned by the British Library in December 1930), where the first story is “Isis of the Stone Age” and the last is “Mother Earth”, a story of the Great War. These stories, he writes in the Foreword (p. viii) “summarise the social progress of mankind from its remote beginning until today”.

Of fantasy interest is his book On the Borderland (London: Hurst and Blackett, 1922). The dust jacket blurb runs:

There is no mystery so dark or so bewildering as the one enigma of the human spirit. Britten Austin, like Algernon Blackwood, has explored the dim borderland of the subconscious world, and in this book of twelve tales he brings to light the unbelievable strange things that really happen.

Most of the twelve stories have fantasy or supernatural elements: ghosts, mesmerism, looking back into the past (using a crystal ball). The Great War is recalled in most of the stories. In some it has brought about a loss of identity. In “A Point of Ethics”, onaustin On the Borderlande of the stories with no fantasy element) a husband returns home to  his wife in 1920; she has not seen him since he sailed to France in 1918, and has been told by the War Office that he has died in action. She has married again. It turns out that he had recovered his identity, but only temporarily—he reverts to the identity constructed after suffering shell-
shock, and returns to the wife that he has married. In another, “Held in Bondage”, a German mesmerist has convinced a young woman that she is German rather than French. In “From the Depths” a ship’s radio picks up a radio message from a ship that had been torpedoed and lost with all hands exactly a year before.

In the page on Austin’s war experiences, I quote from Major-General Swinton’s introduction to Austin’s 1926 book When the War-God Walks Again. This book is the closest that Austin’s fiction to science fiction. It is dedicated to “those brave myriads who, from 1914 to 1918, paid with their lives for a national economy of thought on the eternally recurrent realities of war”; and its six stories offer ideas on the shape of war in the future. In the title story, set ten years after the Great War, the infantry is advancing fast, with no idea of settling into trench warfare: “it’s the elimination of horse-transport and horse-drawn artillery that’s made the difference” (15). But they discover that they are not up against infantry at all, as they had assumed. They are hit by hundreds of bombers dropping gas shells, followed up not by infantry but by a massed assault of tanks. The victorious general from the other side concludes: “We’ve seen the last of infantry, and unprotected limber-drawn artillery on a battle-field, poor devils. We’ve inaugurated a new era today, and who knows what will be the end of it” Landships as big as dreadnoughts, perhaps, fighting high-speed battles of manoeuvres across every sort of country short of a mountain or a marsh” (46-47).

The second story, “In the China Sea”, is about a war in the Pacific, between “white and yellow races” (55). As it starts, the Japanese have taken Guam from the USA, and are moving on the Philippines. “The American Pacific Fleet is concentrating at its nearest base—Pearl Harbour, in the Hawaiian Islands” (56). “I am afraid the British garrison of Hong Kong is in for a hot time” (59). The Japanese bomb the British fleet from the air, and sink the aircraft carrier; and the story ends with the British fleet annihilated—too small to cope with the threat thanks to penny-pinching politicians—and “a Japanese transport-fleet. laden with heavy fortress artillery, peacefully pursued its course towards Guam” (88).

This is followed by “A Battlepiece: Old Style”, which seems to describe the Great War itself, with cynical army officers, horrified politicians, and a munitions worker back home who is earning more that he had ever dreamed possible and who thinks that “this ruddy war can go on for ever for all that I care” (123). “A Battlepiece: New Style”, on the other hand, the old-fashioned British generals keep most of the war-planes attached to the Army and the Navy, not realising that the Army and the Navy will have no chance to fight at all. The enemy throws all its aircraft against the cities. “It seemed that that rain of giant bombs, that constant eruption of house-high flashes in which whole blocks of buildings disappeared, those detonations violent beyond human endurance, would never cease” ( (159). They are forced to surrender.

In “Goliath” a fleet is wiped out by poison-gas delivered by air; and in the last story, “They Who Laughed”, millions of striking trades-unionists, assisted by Russians, set up Soviets in the major towns, and are defeated not by guns (the Army does not want to kill them) but by tanks equipped with hoses that expel Lachrimatory-Cacchinatory  gas.

He jerked round—dabbing quickly at his eyes—burst out laughing maniacally at them. They stared at him bewilderedly in the instant before their eyes began to burn—before they also began to laugh hysterically, involuntarily—in a sudden terrifying blindness of eyes that streamed scaldingly, while still they laughed—laughed as though some fantastic magic spell were on them, laughed uncontrollably against an inward mad exasperation that became an impotent panic, laughed so that they reeled and shook and staggered and cannoned into each other, laughed so that they could not utter the vomit of curses that ought to have come fluently, savagely, obscenely, blasphemously, in an up gush of frustrated diabolism, from their contorted mouths—

They were still laughing, twenty minutes later, when the squad of gas-masked soldiers entered the Banqueting House. They could not see those soldiers—could scarcely hear the tramp of their heavy boots in the torturing convulsions of that uncheckable merriment which continued even when they felt their wrists seized, forced back in an unrelaxing, terrifying grip—

As one of the soldiers afterwards remarked: “They laughed like hell—Gave me the creeps.” [End of story and book; pp. 246-7]

Thanks to John Clute and David Langford’s entry in The Encyclopedia of Science Fiction, which alerted me to this author.

 

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