H.G. Wells in the Great War

Wells pre 1922David Smith, in his splendid biography of Wells, sees the Great War as being a crucial turning point in Wellss’ life. His mind became attuned to thinking in terms of the problems of the whole world. Things that had worried him before now seemed trivial. “What did matter was the future of the world, of the species; to use a later phrase of his, who would win the race between education and catastrophe?” (Smith 218). He wrote five or six novels, published four or five collections of his innumerable newspaper pieces, held a government position for a while, campaigned to revise the school science curriculum, and worked from early on to bring about the League of Nations.

Wells was particularly busy in the first few weeks of the war. In September 1914, Wells published his first substantial contribution to the debate about the War: a little 99-page booklet entitled The War That Will End War (London: Frank and Cecil Palmer, 1914). It is interesting to see how it was packaged: the title page calls Wells ‘author of “The War of the Worlds,” “The War in the Air,” etc’, while the last page contains an advertisement for his book Little Wars—which maintains that although this was intended for children, for playing with soldiers on the nursery floor, “the game has been taken up in earnest by a number of prominent, military men, who find in it a really instructive substitute for the somewhat dull and complicated Krieg-spiel of older days”. In other words, Wells was an expert on war, and should be taken seriously. (The other books advertised at the back of the book are Angelo S. Rappaport’s Brave Belgium: Her History and Her People; Fred T. Jane’s Your Navy as a Fighting Machine, and J.M. Kennedy’s The War Lord: A Character Study of Emperor William II, by means of his Letters, Speeches & Telegrams.)

The first point Wells makes is that it was a matter of honour to defend the Belgian treaty, and that the quarrel is not with Germans, but with Prussian Imperialism, and their “evil system of government” in Germany (8-9).

This is already the vastest war in history. It is a war not of nations, but of mankind. It is a war to exorcise a world-madness and end an age (9). […] This is now a war for peace. It aims straight at disarmament. It aims at a settlement that shall stop this sort of thing for ever. Every soldier who fights against Germany now is a crusader against war. This, the greatest of all wars, is not just another war—it is the last war! (11). […] Never was war begun so joylessly, and never was war begun with so grim a resolution (12). And not simply the present belligerents must come into the settlement. All America, Italy, China, the Scandinavian Powers, must have a voice in the final readjustment, and set their hands to the ultimate guarantees. I do not mean that they need fire a single shot or load a single gun. But they must come it. And in particular to the United States do we look to play a part in that pacification of the world for which our whole nation is working, and for which, be the thousand, men are now laying down their lives (13, end of chapter 1).

Chapter 5 is called “The Most Necessary Measures in the World”. Wells believed that the new situation has made things “reasonable and practical” which only a few weeks before would have seemed Utopian. The first thing he mentions is national disarmament—the ending of Kruppism. In the next chapter he remarks on the importance of redrawing the map of Europe: giving Lorraine back to France; rescuing the three bits of Poland and making them into a kingdom (under the Tsar of Russia, he suggests); reorganising the parts of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. The aim of all this is “so that there may be no more rankling sores or unsatisfied national ambitions” (60). This will be an opportunity for liberalism to penetrate all those illiberal parts of Europe, and to bring them into a more just future. He talks about solving the problems of the Balkans. And he ends by talking about how people’s minds have to be changed, and brought to think of the potentialities of the future. We need enlightenment: the book ends—

It [the war] goes on only because we, who are voices, who suggestt, who might elucidate and inspire, are ourselves such little scattered creatures that though we strain to the breaking point, we still have no strength to turn on the light that would save us. There have been moments in the last three weeks then life has been a walking nightmare, one of those frozen nightmares when, with salvation within one’s reach, one cannot move, and the voice dies in one’s throat (98-99).

It was clear by Christmas 1914 that the War would not be over soon. All the more reason, Wells thought, to plan for a world after the War—which depended on ending the War in the right way. In 1915 he published The Peace of the World, which came out as a pamphlet.

Some of his ideas, as ever, Wells put across in the form of a novel. His “Great War novel”, little read now, was Mr Britling Sees it Through, which Cassells published in September 1916. It was translated into several languages, including German. Maxim Gorky wrote to Wells from Russia, calling it “the finest, most courageous, truthful, and human book written in Europe in the course of this accursed war” (quoted Smith 224). It encapsulated Wells’ firmly held beief that the War was not against Germans, but against “Kaiserism cum Kruppism”; it features a German man, who is going through just the same worries as Mr Britling himself—”little Briton”, a close self-portrait of Wells.

Mr Britling received a large postbag, which was forwarded to Mr Wells: much of it offered sympathy for the death of Mr Britling’s son in the War, which Wells had described with great compassion (even if it appears overly sentimental today). The success of the novel persuaded the Daily Mail to ask him to write a series about what people actually thought about the war (they were published in Decmeber 1916 and January 1917). He talked about things that people did not talk about much: conscientious objectors, war-profits, the anti-Americanism of the upper classes. Those essays can be seen alongside the series he had written earlier, for The Times (July and August 1916)  which looked at the changes that were needed in the world: a class restructuring, better education, proportional representation, nationalisation of industry, an Imperial Parliament. Both these commissions were a result of the close links which Wells had with the owner of both the Daily Mail and The Times: Alfred Harmsworth, the First Viscount Northcliffe.

Between these two series of articles, in August 1916, Wells was invited to take a tour of the French and Italian fronts, which left him very well informed on the War itself. He wrote about his visit in War and the Future: Italy, France and Britain at War (London: Cassell, 1917).

He starts by musing on the strange idea that opinion-formers were invited to visit the Front: among the English writers he mentions are Arnold Bennett, Mr Noyes, Hugh Walpole, Stephen Graham, and others.

For my own part I did not want to go. I evaded a suggestion that I should go in 1915. I travel badly, I spread French and Italian with incredible atrocity, and m extreme Pacifist. I hate soldiering. And also I did not want to write anything “under instruction” (7).

He carries on about his pacifism, which he is keen to distinguish from the pacifism of people like Fenner Brockway, editor of the Labour Leader.

I avow myself an extreme Pacifist. I am against the man who first takes up the weapon. I carry my pacifism far beyond the position of that ambiguous little group of British and foreign sentimentalists who pretend so amusingly to be socialists in the Labour Leader, whose conception of foreign policy is to give Germany now a peace that would be no more than a breathing time for a fresh outrage upon civilisation, and who would even make heroes of the crazy young assassins of the Dublin crime (11).

Being antagonistic to Heroes and Personages, Wells was very impressed with Joffre: ordinary, thoughtful, unambitious.

In Italy, Wells talks first of his visit to Udine and up into the Alps, to see where much of the Italian campaigns had been; he met people in Verona, and Milan. But it was all very different on the Western front. There the main impression one gets from Wells is of the ruins, or worse: “The villages of this wide battle region are not ruined; they are obliterated” (87). Arras was held by the British, except for a northern suburb, which is held by the Germans—their lines a mere four metres apart at one point (90-91). The centre of Arras was as quiet as the city of London on a Sunday afternoon, apart from the explosions.

Wells remarks on some aspects of the war. The British airmen, for instance, are bombing German trenches much more frequently than the Germans bomb theirs (at a differential of 20 to 1, Wells estimates). The French were doing amazing work with aerial photographs of the German positions. The British are getting good at flying low and strafing the enemy. “I do not think the Germans have reckoned on the use of machine guns in aeroplanes, supported by and supporting cavalry or automobiles” (114).

He explored part of the trench system; his guide was C.E. Montague: I quote from Wells’ description of him on Montague‘s page.

“The pith of the lesson I have learnt at the front,” writes Wells (134), was that warfare has changed completely in the current generation, even in the last two years. The unspecialised common soldier is as “obsolete as the dodo. The rifle and bayonet very probably are becoming obsolete too. Knives and clubs and revolvers serve better in the trenches” (136-7). Wells met M. Citroen, who showed Wells a new world: before the war he made cars, and hoped to make cars after the war. Now he made shells. Most of the workers were women, who wore simply overalls and caps with a coloured rosette. “each shed has its own colour of rosette. “There is much esprit de corps here,’ says M. Citroen. “And also […] we can see at once if a women is not in her proper shed” (143).

The horse in warfare is dead too, Wells thought; and its place is taken by the tank (of which he is reasonably proud, since he predicted them in 1903).

With the tank, Wells’ account of his visit to the Italian and French fronts comes to an end; but the book does not. It concludes with a series of chapters on “How People Think About the War”, taken from his Daily Mail articles mentioned above: “Do They Really Think at ALL?, “The Yielding Pacifist and the Conscientious Objector”, “The Religious Revival”, “The Riddle of the British”, “The Social Changes in Progress”, and “The Ending of the War”.

As we have already, seen Wells wrote on a wide range of issues throughout the war. Russia was one of his special subjects (he had visited Russia in both 1913 and 1914). Early in the War he had engaged in a controversy with George Bernard Shaw on the issue (Shaw’s Common Sense About the War, was basically an attack on Wells), in which he was supported vigorously by his friend Ford Madox Hueffer. Once the Russian Revolution broke out, of course, Wells was again a commentator.

The government eventually harnessed Wells’s energy and his knowledge. He began to work in Crewe House, from May 1918, as part of the Advisory Committee to the Director of Propaganda, Lord Northcliffe. His specific charge was the German Section Propaganda committee. It did not last long: his first meeting was 10 May 1918; by the end of June he was complaining to Lord Northcliffe about the disorganisation and feuding in Crewe House, and on 30 July he resigned. This was not only because of his dissatisfaction with the committee, but also because he was by then working on a series of pamphlets about the League of Nations, intended as advice for the government. The fact that his ideas were not taken up (the actual League of Nations was to be a pale shadow of what Wells had campaigned for) contributed to his feeling that he was better off henceforth agitating outside rather than inside the government.

I have generally followed David C. Smith, H.G. Wells: Desperately Mortal. A Biography (New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 1986), but have consulted numerous other sources, including J.R. Hammond, An H.G. Wells Chronology (Basingstoke: Macmillan, 1999); Vincent Brome, H.G. Wells: A Biography (London: Longman, 1951).

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