Have you ever been to a quiet, peaceful and unexciting place and pictured it in your mind as the scene of a colossal disaster? This is the imaginative journey that Sir George Tomkyns Chesney was inviting his readers to make with his 1871 novella The Battle of Dorking. As a high-ranking army officer with a keen interest in politics, he had become concerned about the fragility of Britain’s defences and the complacency of the British public at a time of turbulence in Europe and he decided that creative fiction was the means by which to sound his warning.
He was clearly right. The Battle of Dorking is even now, over a hundred years after it was published, a striking read. It is written as the recollections of an elderly veteran of the battle, which he commits to paper for the benefit of his grandchildren, bemoaning the complacency and short-sightedness that had lead to the easily avoidable disaster, and serving as a warning for them as they leave the country to make a new life. The tale he tells is tragic: a tranquil summer rudely interrupted (it is set in this very week of August); a declaration of war; the alarming, rapid defeat of the Navy, quickly followed by the invasion and the enemy’s swift progress inland towards the capital.
The veteran narrator, a city gent, is among the many volunteers to take part in the national call to arms, and, setting out from London with the rest, he ends up in Dorking, a quiet town in Surrey not far out of the city. What we would like to see here, of course, is a successful action that stops the enemy in his tracks. It would have been a famous literary victory, especially as part of the battle takes place on Box Hill, an iconic English beauty spot famously used by Jane Austen as the setting for a memorable picnic. It would have been a famous victory, but alas, despite a heroic effort – spoiler alert – that is not how it turns out.
The enemy – we never hear where they come from, but they speak German – wins the day. Great Britain is stripped of its colonies, humiliated, and subjugated, even fifty years later when the veteran narrator reminisces on his experiences. His story concludes with his grim regrets:
When I look at my country as it is now–its trade gone, its factories silent, its harbours empty, a prey to pauperism and decay–when I see all this, and think what Great Britain was in my youth, I ask myself whether I have really a heart or any sense of patriotism that I should have witnessed such degradation and still care to live. … After all the bitterest part of our reflection is, that all this misery and decay might have been so easily prevented, and that we brought it about ourselves by our own shortsighted recklessness.There, across the narrow Straits, was the writing on the wall, but we would not choose to read it. The warnings of the few were drowned in the voice of the multitude...Truly the nation was ripe for a fall.
Having read the story, it did not surprise me to learn that its all too plausible portrayal of the rapid collapse of the world’s dominant superpower made quite an impact when first published in 1871. It is not great literature, but it hit a nerve, and quickly sold over 80,000 copies. In penning the tale, Chesney had stuck a heavier blow at the complacency which so alarmed him than he was ever likely to achieve through any amount of conventional political argument. So much so that Prime Minister William Gladstone felt compelled to speak against its alarmism, warning that these sorts of stories “make us ridiculous in the eyes of the whole world”. Alternative versions were written, describing less alarming outcomes of the imagined invasion, and a music hall ballad The Battle of Dorking: A Dream of John Bull. Though sales faded away the year after publication, the story spawned the new genre of invasion literature.
The Battle of Dorking was a product of the concerns of the time in which it was written, but the story lived long in the public imagination both for its horror and for its apparent plausibility. Indeed, its description of the outbreak of war , a sudden summer shock at a time when the public felt prosperous and confident, are not unlike those of the First World War. Moreover, in 1940 the Germans brought out a new edition – Was England Erwartet (“What England Expects”) – which was issued to Hitler’s army presumably by way of encouragement. Even now, it has left its mark, as growing up in Surrey, just down the road from Dorking, I was often told by many a local that I should read the story, though I have only just got round to doing so. Perhaps it is because the mere idea of battle coming to Box Hill, – the site of many a childhood outing – is shocking and a reminder that however safe, content and prosperous we feel, disaster may always be imminent.