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1908, Wells, H.G. , The War in the Air 


H.G. Wells, (1908) The War in the Air

The War in the Air, a military science fiction novel by H. G. Wells written in four months in 1907 and serialised and published in 1908 in The Pall Mall Magazine, is like many of Wells’s works notable for its prophetic ideas, images, and concepts—in this case, the use of the aircraft for the purpose of warfare and the coming of World War I. The novel’s hero is Bert Smallways, a “forward-thinking young man” and a “kind of bicycle engineer of the let’s-‘ave-a-look-at-it and enamel-chipping variety.”

Overview [Wikipedia]

The first three chapters of The War in the Air relate details of the life of Bert Smallways and his extended family in Bun Hill – a (fictional) former Kentish village which had become a London suburb within living memory (in many ways similar to Bromley where Wells was born). The story begins with Bert’s brother Tom, a stolid greengrocer who views technological progress with suspicion and apprehension (which would turn out to be all too well founded) and their aged father, who recalls with longing the time when Bun Hill was a quiet village and he had driven the local squire’s carriage. However, the story soon focuses on Bert who is an unimpressive, not particularly gifted, unsuccessful young man with few ideas about larger things – but far from unintelligent. He has a strong attachment to a young woman named Edna, and works as a helper and later a partner in a bicycle shop.

When bankruptcy threatens one summer, he and his partner abandon the shop, devise a singing act (“the Desert Dervishes”), and resolve to try their fortunes in English sea resorts. As chance would have, their initial performance is interrupted by a balloon which lands on the beach before them, and which turns out to contain one Mr. Butteridge. Butteridge is famous for his successful invention of an easily manoeuvrable fixed-wing aircraft whose secret he has not revealed and that he is seeking to sell to the British government or, failing that, to Germany. Prior to Butteridge, nobody had succeeded in producing a practical heavier-than-air machine, only a few awkward devices of limited utility such as the German “Drachenflieger”, which had to be towed aloft and released from an airship. Butteridge’s invention is a major breakthrough, as it is highly manoeuvrable, capable of both very fast and very slow flight, and requires only a small area to take off and land, reminiscent of the later autogyro.

By accident Bert is carried off in Butteridge’s balloon, and discovers Butteridge’s secret plans on board it. Bert is clever enough to appraise his situation, and when the balloon is shot down in a secret German “aeronautic park east of Hamburg,” Bert intends to pass himself off as Butteridge to sell the secret, but he has stumbled upon the German air fleet just as it is about to launch a surprise attack on the United States, and Prince Karl Albert, the author and leader of this plan, decides to take him along for the campaign. The Prince, world-famous as “The German Alexander” or Napoleon, is a living manifestation of German Nationalism and boundless imperial ambitions, his personality as depicted by Wells in some ways resembling that of Kaiser Wilhelm II. Bert’s disguise is soon seen through by the Germans, and – narrowly avoiding being summarily thrown overboard by the furious Prince – he is relegated to the role of a witness to the true horror of war.

The German aerial forces, comprising airships and Drachenfliegers, are mounting their surprise attack on the US before the Americans can build a large aerial navy; the pretext for the attack is a German demand for the US to abandon the Monroe Doctrine, so as to facilitate German imperial ambitions in South America. The Germans are, however, unaware that the “Confederation of Eastern Asia” (China and Japan) has secretly been building a massive air force. Tensions between Japan and the United States, exacerbated by the issue of American citizenship being denied to Japanese immigrants, lead to war breaking out between the Confederation of Eastern Asia and the US, whereupon the Confederation turns out to possess overwhelmingly strong aerial forces, and the US finds itself fighting a war on two fronts: the Eastern and the Western, in the air as well on sea.

Bert Smallways is present as the Germans first attack an American naval fleet in the Atlantic, utterly obliterating it and proving Dreadnoughts to be obsolete and helpless against aerial bombardment. The Germans then appear over New York City, bomb several key points, and establish that they have the city at their mercy, whereupon the Mayor, with the consent of the White House, offers New York’s surrender. However, the surrender announcement rouses the population’s patriotic fury; local militias rebel and manage to destroy a German airship over Union Square using a concealed artillery piece. Following this, the vengeful Prince orders a wholesale destruction, airships moving along Broadway and systematically raining death and destruction on the population below.

Following the destruction of New York, the far inferior American flying machines launch a suicidal attack on the overwhelming German force. They are almost completely obliterated, but cripple the Germans. The Prince’s flagship is disabled, and is unable to avoid being driven north by gale force winds, eventually crashlanding in Labrador. Bert becomes an official member of the crew, as they struggle to survive in the freezing wilderness, befriends an English-speaking German junior officer, and for a time feels strong fellowship towards his crew mates. After a week they are picked up by another German airship, and carried directly into the fray of a ferocious new battle.

According to the Prince’s plans for the attack on the US, simultaneously with the subduing of New York, other German forces had landed at Niagara Falls, summarily evicted all the American population as far as Buffalo, and set to work building a large German airbase on American soil. However, the Asians – who have their own plans of conquest in America, and have already destroyed San Francisco – send their aerial forces over the Rocky Mountains, and engage the Germans in battle, seeking to conquer or destroy the Niagara base.

The Asiatic air fleet is equipped with large numbers of lightweight one-man flying machines called Niais, which appear to be ornithopters, armed with a gun carried by the pilot firing explosive bullets “loaded with oxygen” (i.e. incendiary bullets) for use against the hydrogen-filled airships. The Asians prove overwhelmingly superior, and the German airships are either destroyed or forced to flee, eventually surrendering to the Americans; only a few remain with Prince Karl Albert, who attempts a heroic last stand.

Bert is stranded on Goat Island in the middle of Niagara Falls, where he finds a crashed Niais and discovers that Prince Karl Albert and a surviving German officer share the island with him. Their clash of personalities eventually culminates in a life-or-death confrontation, and Bert – originally gentle and sickened by bloodshed – overcomes his civilised scruples and kills the Prince. Bert then manages to repair the Asian flying machine and escapes from the island on it, crash-landing near Tanooda, New York.

Upon making contact with local Americans, Bert learns that the Asiatic forces have landed “a million men” on the western seaboard. The original German-American conflict, which had set off the conflagration, is almost forgotten in the massive conflict with the Asian forces – a conflict carried out with great savagery, neither side taking prisoners. All over the US, Chinese Americans are being lynched and in some places the lynching extends to Blacks as well.

Bert learns that the war is going badly for the Americans, who are unable to withstand the superior Asian flying machines; the Americans mourn the loss of the Butteridge machine which might have turned the tide, if its inventor had not died suddenly shortly before the outbreak of war, taking his secret with him. Bert discloses that the plans for Butteridge’s flying machine are in his possession, whereupon a local militia leader named Laurier urges him to turn the plans over to the President.

After an adventurous ride through war-ravaged upstate New York they find the President hiding out in “Pinkerville on the Hudson.” The President proceeds to have copies printed and distributed widely all over the US, as well as sent to Europe. However, the results are not quite as expected. A decisive Asiatic victory is, indeed, averted – but there is no American or European victory, either. The Butteridge machine is cheap, easy and quick to build, and needs no big fields to take off or land – which mean it can be built and operated not only by national governments, but also by private groups, local militias, and even bandits – a development which tends to break up the war into a vast, incoherent multitude of localised struggles and which accelerates the already-begun process of break-up and disintegration of the world’s nations.

While Bert experiences directly the events in America, news about what has happened in the rest of the world – specifically, in his native England – is few and scattered, with newspapers reduced to a single page before finally ceasing publication altogether; still, he does hear with great alarm that London had shared the fate of New York.

The omniscient author – whose point of view is that of a future historian documenting the war and its aftermath – reveals information not available to Bert. The German assault on the US had bypassed Germany’s European rivals, whose air fleets were considered too puny to constitute a threat, with the intention of totally dominating them once the Americans had been subdued. However, the alarmed United Kingdom, France, Spain and Italy pooled their aerial resources into a single strong force, passed through Swiss airspace after destroying that country’s own flying machines, and devastated Hamburg and Berlin. The Germans mobilised a counter-attack which destroyed London and Paris, but then, as in America, the feuding Europeans were faced with an enormous attack from Asia.

The Asiatic fleet had attacked a combined Anglo-Indian aerial force, captured the Burmese airfields, and Australia and the Pacific islands. They then struck westwards, capturing the Middle East and South Africa and starting to build airships at Cairo, Damascus and Johannesburg. Moving further northwards, they soon reached Armenia and then defeating the German forces in the Battle of the Carpathians before attacking Western Europe.

A global financial collapse is caused by hostile nations freezing assets, and the end of the credit system. This is referred to as “the Panic,” which is followed by “The Purple Death.” The War in the Air, the Panic, and the Purple Death bring about “[w]ithin the space of five years” a total collapse of “the whole fabric of civilisation.” But Bert Smallways, fixated on his amorous attachment, returns home after many adventures to kill a rival and win the hand of his beloved Edna; they marry and have eleven children. We are assured in the final chapter that “our present world state, orderly, scientific, and secured,” is eventually established, but the novel reverts to the ensuing fortunes of the Smallways family as England relapses into a sort of an agricultural barbaric age.

 Full text of the novel is available at: