The War to Portend All Wars?

Orwell was correct in his perception of the importance of the First World War in having a profound effect on Wells, as it did on so many of his contemporaries. Summing up the armistice, Prime Minister Lloyd George stated "At eleven o'clock this morning came to an end the cruellest and most terrible war that has ever scourged mankind. I hope we may say that thus, this fateful morning, came an end to all wars." Wells had coined a similar phrase to Lloyd George's as the title of a book - 'The War that Will End War' - written towards the beginning of the conflict. Although the sentiment was to prove hopelessly optimistic, it was an understandable reaction to the colossal loss of life and apocalyptic destruction wrought upon Europe by the most widespread and most mechanised war ever fought. However, if there ever was a war to end all wars it is the one described in The War of the Worlds. Where as the First World War did nothing but magnify enmities, the Narrator of The War of The Worlds describes how the Martian invasion "has done much to promote the conception of the commonwealth of mankind."

What is more remarkable though, is Wells' description of a mechanised war before not only the First World War but even the Boer War. But it is not a war of machine guns and tanks: the chief vehicles are the "monstrous tripod[s]" that the Narrator witnesses: "higher than many houses, striding over the young pine-trees, and smashing them aside in its career; a walking engine of glittering metal, striding now across the heather; articulate ropes of steel dangling from it, and the clattering tumult of its passage mingling with the riot of the thunder... Machine it was, with a ringing metallic pace, and long, flexible, glittering tentacles... swinging and rattling about its strange body... the brazen hood that surmounted it moved to and fro with the inevitable suggestion of a head looking about. Behind the main body was a huge mass of white metal like a gigantic fisherman's basket, and puffs of green smoke squirted out from the joints of the limbs as the monster swept by me." And with these machines they effect a Blitzkrieg unknown in Earthly warfare (until the destruction wrought by twentieth-century weaponry made the Martian weapons look like pea- shooters): "they've made their footing good and crippled the greatest power in the world," says the artillery-man "This isn't a war... it was never a war, any more than there's a war between men and ants."

The Martian's war is a Total War - aimed as much at disrupting the civilian infrastructure (and acquiring humans as food) as at the pitifully inadequate human guns. One of the most striking pictures painted by Wells is that of the mass exodus of London: "the stream of flight rising swiftly to a torrent, lashing into a foaming tumult round the railway stations, banked up into a horrible struggle about the shipping in the Thames, and hurrying by every available channel northward and eastward... the main road was a boiling stream of people, a torrent of human beings rushing northward, one pressing on another... a dense crowd of horses and of men and women on foot, and by the wheels of vehicles of every description... this was a whole population in movement... Never before in the history of the world had such a mass of human being moved and suffered together. The legendary hosts of Goths and Huns, the hugest armies Asia has ever seen, would have been a drop in the current. And this was no disciplined march; it was a stampede - a stampede gigantic and terrible - without order and without a goal, six million people, unarmed and unprovisioned, driving headlong." Never before in history perhaps, but a scene that was to be repeated across the world repeatedly throughout the next century, and now is beamed through our television sets into our front rooms.

At the end of the nineteenth century, though the media had far less reach than today, Wells incisively satirises its familiar practises and sentiment. As the shooting stars that herald the destruction head earthwards, "The serio-comic periodical Punch... made a happy use of it in the political cartoon... People in these latter times scarcely realise the abundance and enterprise of our nineteenth-century papers." And early on in the conflict, when the humans are confident that they can repel the alien invasion, the papers duly encourage belligerent patriotism. As the Narrator observes: "Something very like the war-fever that occasionally runs through a civilised community had got into my blood... I was even afraid that the last fusillade I had heard might mean the extermination of our invaders from Mars. I can best express my state of mind by saying that I wanted to be in at the kill." And later, as the Martians descend on London, the newspapers' habit of exploiting dramatic incidences to promote sales is personified by a paper man, "running away... selling his papers for a shilling each as he ran - a grotesque mingling of profit and panic."

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