Invasion literature

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The Battle of Dorking (1871) triggered an explosion of invasion literature. Cover of a 1914 edition.

Invasion literature (or the invasion novel) is a literary genre most notable between 1871 and the First World War (1914) but still practised to this day. The genre first became recognizable starting in Britain in 1871 with The Battle of Dorking, a fictional account of an invasion of England by Germany. This short story was so popular it started a literary craze for tales that aroused imaginations and anxieties about hypothetical invasions by foreign powers, and by 1914 the genre had amassed a corpus of over 400 books, many best-sellers, and a world-wide audience.[1] The genre was influential in Britain in shaping politics, national policies, and popular perceptions in the years leading up to the First World War, and remains a part of popular culture to this day. Several of the books were written by or ghostwritten for military officers and experts of the day who believed that the nation would be saved if the particular tactic that they favoured was or would be adopted.[2]


Nearly a century before the invasion literature genre became a true popular phenomenon after the publication of The Battle of Dorking in the 1870s, a mini-boom of invasion stories appeared soon after the French developed the hot-air balloon. Poems and plays that centred on armies of balloons invading England could be found in France, and even America. However, it was not until the Prussians used advanced technologies such as breech-loading artillery and railroads to defeat the French in the 1870 War that the fear of invasion by a technologically superior enemy became more realistic.

In Europe[edit]

The Battle of Dorking (1871) by George Tomkyns Chesney first appeared in Blackwood's Magazine, a respected Victorian political journal read by important British politicians.[3] This short story describes the invasion of England by an unnamed enemy (who happen to speak German), in which the narrator and 1,000 citizens defend the small English town of Dorking, with no supplies or news of outside events. The story then moves forward in time 50 years and England is still devastated.

The author, like many of his countrymen at the time, was alarmed by Prussia's successful invasion of France in 1870, defeating Europe's largest army in only two months.[1] The Battle of Dorking was initially meant to shock readers into becoming more aware of the possible dangers of a foreign threat, but unwittingly created a new literary genre appealing to popular anxieties. The story was an immediate success, with one reviewer saying "We do not know that we ever saw anything better in any magazine... it describes exactly what we all feel."[1] It was so popular that the magazine was re-printed six times, a new pamphlet version was created, dozens of spoofs were created, and it was for sale throughout the British Empire.[1] One running joke in England at the time was an injury, such as a bruise or scrape, being attributed to a wound received at the battle of Dorking.

Between the publication of The Battle of Dorking in 1871 and the start of the First World War in 1914 there were hundreds of authors writing invasion literature, often topping the best seller lists in Germany, France, England and the United States.[1] During the period it is estimated over 400 invasion works were published. Probably the best known work was H. G. Wells's The War of the Worlds (1898), bearing plot similarities to The Battle of Dorking but with a science fiction theme. In 1907, Wells wrote The War in the Air, a cautionary tale depicting purely human invasions: a German invasion of the US triggers off a worldwide chain of attacks and counter-attacks, leading to the destruction of all major cities and centers, the collapse of world economy, disintegration of all the fighting nations and the sinking of the world into new Middle Ages.

Dracula (1897) also tapped into English fears of foreign forces arriving unopposed on its shores, although between 1870 and 1903 the majority of these works assumed that the enemy would be France, rather than Germany. This changed with the publication of Erskine Childers's 1903 novel The Riddle of the Sands. Often called the first modern spy novel, two men on a sailing holiday thwart a German invasion of England when they discover a secret fleet of invasion barges assembling on the German coast. Of these hundreds of authors, few are in print now. Saki is one of the exceptions, although his 1913 novel When William Came (subtitled "A Story of London Under the Hohenzollerns") is more jingoistic than literary. Another is John Buchan, whose novel The Thirty-Nine Steps, published in 1915 but written just prior to the outbreak of World War I, is a thriller dealing with German agents in Britain preparing for an invasion.

William Le Queux was the most prolific author of the genre; his first novel was The Great War in England in 1897 (1894) and he went on to publish from one to twelve novels a year until his death in 1927. His work was regularly serialised in newspapers, particularly the Daily Mail, and attracted many readers. It is believed[by whom?] Ian Fleming's James Bond character was inspired by Le Queux's agent "Duckworth Drew". In some ways The Great War can be considered an antithesis to The Battle of Dorking – with the one ending for Britain in sombre and irrevocable defeat and decline, while in the other the invasion of London is pushed back in the last moment (with the help of Germany, portrayed as a staunch ally against France and Russia), with enormous territorial aggrandizement (Britain gets Algeria and Russian Central Asia; "Britannia" becomes "Empress of the World").

Le Queux's most popular invasion novel was The Invasion of 1910 (1906) which was translated into twenty-seven languages selling more than a million copies world-wide. Le Queux and his publisher changed the ending depending on the language, so in the German print edition the fatherland wins, while in the English edition the Germans lose. Le Queux was said to be Queen Alexandra's favorite author.

P. G. Wodehouse parodied the genre in The Swoop!, in which England is simultaneously invaded by nine different armies, including Switzerland and Germany. English elites appear to be more interested in a cricket tournament, and the country is eventually saved by a boy scout named Clarence.

In Asia[edit]

Invasion literature had its impact also in Japan, at the time undergoing a fast process of modernization. Shunrō Oshikawa, a pioneer of Japanese science fiction and adventure stories (genres unknown in Japan until a few years earlier), published around the start of the 20th century the best-seller Kaitō Bōken Kidan: Kaitei Gunkan ("Undersea Battleship"): the story of an armoured, ram-armed submarine involved in a future history of war between Japan and Russia. The novel reflected the imperialist ambitions of Japan at the time, and foreshadowed the Russo-Japanese War that followed a few years later, in 1904. When the actual war with Russia broke out, Oshikawa covered it as a journalist while also continuing to publish further volumes of fiction depicting Japanese imperial exploits set in the Pacific and Indian Ocean – which also proved an enormous success with the Japanese public. In a later career as a magazine editor, he also encouraged the writing of more fiction in the same vein by other Japanese authors.

Colonial Hong Kong's earliest work of invasion literature is believed to have been the 1897 The Back Door. Published in serial form in a local English-language newspaper, it described a fictional French and Russian naval landing at Hong Kong Island's Deep Water Bay; the story was intended to criticise the lack of British funding for the defence of Hong Kong, and it is speculated that members of the Imperial Japanese Army may have read the book in preparation for the 1941 Battle of Hong Kong.[4]

In the U.S.[edit]

Joseph Pennell's 1918 Liberty bond poster calls up the pictorial image of an invaded, burning New York City.

One of the earliest stories to appear in print in the U.S. was "The Stricken Nation" by Henry Grattan Donnelly published in 1890 in New York. It tells of a successful British invasion of the U.S.[5] The move of American public opinion towards participation in World War I was reflected in Uncle Sam's Boys at The Invasion of the United States by H. Irving Hancock. This four-book series, published by the Henry Altemus Company in 1916, depicts a German invasion of the U.S. in 1920–1921. The plot seems to transfer the main story line of Le Queux's The Great War (with which the writer may have been familiar) to an American theatre: the Germans launch a surprise attack, capture Boston despite heroic resistance by "Uncle Sam's boys", overrun all of New England and New York and reach as far as Pittsburgh – but at last are gloriously crushed by fresh American forces.

In Australia[edit]

Australia's contribution to invasion literature was set against the background of pre-Federation colonial fears of the "Yellow Peril" and the foundations of the White Australia policy. From the late 1880s through to the beginning of World War I, this fear was expressed in Australia through cartoons, poems, plays and novels. Three of the most well known of these novels were White or Yellow? A Story of the Race War of AD 1908 (1888) by journalist William Lane, The Yellow Wave (1895) by Kenneth Mackay and The Australian Crisis (1909) by Charles H. Kirmess (possibly a pseudonym for another Australian author Frank Fox). Each of these novels contained two major common themes which were a reflection of the fears and concerns within a contemporary Australian context; the Australian continent was at risk of major invasion from a strong Asian power (ie. China or Japan, sometimes with the assistance of the Russian Empire) and that the United Kingdom was apathetic towards the protection of its faraway colonies, and would not come to Australia's aid when needed.[6]

After World War I[edit]

The "First Red Scare" following World War I produced Edgar Rice Burroughs's The Moon Men (1925), a depiction of Earth (and specifically, the United States) under the rule of cruel invaders from the Moon. This book is known to have been originally written as Under the Red Flag, an explicit anti-Communist novel, and when rejected by the publishers in that form it was successfully "recycled" by Burroughs as science fiction.

Ivan Petrushevich's "The Flying Submarine" (1922), depicted an invasion of The United Kingdom by Soviet forces after most of Europe and Asia had fallen to communism. The story features the British fleet being destroyed by a swarm of insect-like single pilot submarines which can emerge from the water to attack their foes.

Robert A. Heinlein's Sixth Column (1941) told the story of the invasion and conquest of the United States by the technologically advanced PanAsians, and the subsequent guerrilla struggle to overthrow them with even more advanced technology.

After World War II[edit]

Fears of Communist invasion became even more pronounced in books like Robert A. Heinlein's The Puppet Masters (1951) and films like Invasion USA (1953) and a Department of Defense information film released to the general public Red Nightmare (1957). A more explicit Soviet invasion and occupation is depicted in Jerry Sohl's Point Ultimate (1955) – where the United States lies prostrate under cruel and degenerate Soviet occupiers, helped by "Commie" American collaborators – but a band of undaunted rebels manage the improbable feat of launching an extensive space program under the Soviets' noses, colonising Mars and using it as a base of operations. Similar themes were continued in the 1980s with the film Red Dawn (1984) and TV miniseries Amerika (1987).

During the 1960s, the enemy was changed from the Soviet Union to Red China where China was shown as behind plots to destroy the American economy with a nuclear weapon in Goldfinger (1964), instigating a war between the USA and USSR in You Only Live Twice and invading the United States from tunnels dug beneath the ocean in Battle Beneath the Earth (1967).

In 1971, when realization of losing the Vietnam War was sinking into the American consciousness, two books appeared almost simultaneously, both depicting a United States under Soviet occupation. In Vandenberg by Oliver Lange – written, like "Dorking", as a cautionary tale – most Americans accept Soviet overlordship without much protest, the only resistance coming from a group of oddballs in a corner of New Mexico. In contrast, in John Ball's The First Team – as in "The Great War" – a seemingly hopeless situation is retrieved by a band of courageous patriots with the book ending on a note of uplifting liberation. The Amerika TV miniseries, depicting a Soviet-occupied US, was aired in 1987 - a time when Gorbachev's Perestroika already rendered its theme highly implausible.

The Tomorrow series by John Marsden, published between 1993 and 1999, detail an invasion of Australia by an unnamed country from the perspective of a band of teenage guerillas.

Allebury, All Our Tomorrows, resistance to a Soviet occupation of the U.K.

Political impact[edit]

Stories of a planned German invasion rose to increasing political prominence from 1906. Taking their inspiration from the stories of Le Queux and Childers, hundreds of ordinary citizens began to suspect foreigners of espionage. This trend was accentuated by Le Queux, who collected 'sightings' brought to his attention by readers and raised them through his association with the Daily Mail. Subsequent research has since shown that no significant German espionage network existed in Britain at this time. Claims about the scale of German invasion preparations grew increasingly ambitious. The number of German spies was put at between 60,000 and 300,000 (in spite of the total German community in Britain being no more than 44,000 people). It was alleged that thousands of rifles were being stockpiled by German spies in order to arm saboteurs at the outbreak of war.

Calls for government action grew ever more intense, and in 1909 it was given as the reason for the secret foundation of the Secret Service Bureau, the forerunner of MI5 and MI6. Historians today debate whether this was in fact the real reason, but in any case the concerns raised in invasion literature came to define the early duties of the Bureau's Home Section. Vernon Kell, the section head, remained obsessed with the location of these saboteurs, focusing his operational plans both before and during the war on defeating the saboteurs imagined by Le Queux.

Invasion literature was not without detractors; policy experts in the years preceding the First World War said invasion literature risked inciting war between England and Germany and France. Critics such as Prime Minister Henry Campbell-Bannerman denounced Le Queux's The Invasion of 1910 as "calculated to inflame public opinion abroad and alarm the more ignorant public at home."[1] Journalist Charles Lowe wrote in 1910: "Among all the causes contributing to the continuance of a state of bad blood between England and Germany perhaps the most potent is the baneful industry of those unscrupulous writers who are forever asserting that the Germans are only awaiting a fitting opportunity to attack us in our island home and burst us up."[1]

Notable invasion literature[edit]

"Promised Horrors of the French Invasion" – a cartoon by the British James Gillray published during the French Revolution and depicting a London occupied by the French

Pre-World War I[edit]

Post-World War I[edit]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ a b c d e f g Reiss 2005.
  2. ^ Echevarria, Antonio J. (2007). Imagining Future War: The West's Technological Revolution and Visions of Wars to Come 1880–1914. Prager Institute. ISBN 9780313051104.
  3. ^ Patrick M Kirkwood, "The Impact of Fiction on Public Debate in Late Victorian Britain: The Battle of Dorking and the 'Lost Career' of Sir George Tomkyns Chesney," The Graduate History Review 4, No. 1 (Fall, 2012), 1-16.
  4. ^ Bickley, Gillian. Hong Kong Invaded! A 97 Nightmare. Hong Kong, China: Hong Kong University Press. ISBN 962-209-526-7.
  5. ^ Clarke, I. F., ed. (1995). Tales of the next great war. Syracuse University Press. ISBN 081562672X.
  6. ^ Curran, James; Ward, Stuart, eds. (2013). Australia and the Wider World: Selected Essays of Neville Meaney. Sydney University Press. ISBN 9781743320259.


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