If the Germans Raid England

H. G. Wells
From The Times of London, October 31, 1914

[The New York Times/Current History, December 12, 1914]

To the Editor of The [London] Times:

Sir: At the outset of the war I made a suggestion in your columns for the enrollment of all that surplus of manhood and patriotic feeling which remains after every man available for systematic military operations has been taken. My idea was that comparatively undrilled boys and older men, not sound enough for campaigning, armed with rifles, able to shoot straight with them, and using local means of transport, bicycles, cars, and so forth, would be a quite effective check upon an enemy's scouting, a danger to his supplies, and even a force capable of holding up a raiding advance—more particularly if that advance was poor in horses and artillery, as an overseas raid was likely to be. I suggested, too, that the mere enrollment and arming of the population would have a powerful educational effect in steadying and unifying the spirit of our people.

My proposals were received with what seemed even a forced amusement by the "experts." I was told that I knew nothing about warfare, and that the Germans would not permit us to do anything of the sort. The Germans, it seems, are the authorities in these matters, a point I had overlooked. They would refuse to recognize men with only improvised uniforms, they would shoot their prisoners—not that I had proposed that my irregulars should become prisoners—and burn the adjacent villages. This seemed to be an entirely adequate reply from the point of view of the expert mind, and I gathered that the proper role for such an able-bodied civilian as myself was to keep indoors while the invader was about and supply him as haughtily as possible with light refreshments and anything else he chose to requisition. I was also reminded that if only men like myself had obeyed their expert advice and worked in the past for national service and the general submission of everything to expert military direction, these troubles would not have arisen. There would have been no surplus of manhood and everything would have gone as smoothly and as well for England as—the Press Censorship.

An Improbable Invasion

For a time I was silenced. Under war conditions it is always a difficult question to determine how far it is better to obey poor, or even bad, directions or to criticise them in the hope of getting better. But the course of the war since that correspondence and the revival of the idea of a raid by your military correspondent provoke me to return to this discussion. Frankly, I do not believe in that raid, and I think we play the German game in letting our minds dwell upon it. I am supposed to be a person of feverish imagination, but even by lashing my imagination to its ruddiest I cannot, in these days of wireless telegraphy, see a properly equipped German force, not even so trivial a handful as 20,000 of them, getting itself with guns, motors, ammunition, and provisions upon British soil. I cannot even see a mere landing of infantrymen. I believe in that raid even less than I do in the suggested raid of navigables that has darkened London. I admit the risk of a few aeroplane bombs in London, but I do not see why people should be subjected to danger, darkness, and inconvenience on account of that one-in-a-million risk. Still, as the trained mind does insist upon treating all unenlisted civilians as panic-stricken imbeciles and upon frightening old ladies and influential people with these remote possibilities, and as it is likely that these alarms may even lead to the retention of troops in England when their point of maximum effectiveness is manifestly in France, it becomes necessary to insist upon the ability of our civilian population, if only the authorities will permit the small amount of organization and preparation needed, to deal quite successfully with any raid that in an extremity of German "boldness" may be attempted.

And, in the first place, let the expert have no illusions as to what we ordinary people are going to do if we find German soldiers in England one morning. We are going to fight. If we cannot fight with rifles, we shall fight with shotguns, and if we cannot fight according to rules of war apparently made by Germans for the restraint of British military experts, we will fight according to our inner light. Many men, and not a few women, will turn out to shoot Germans. There will be no preventing them after the Belgian stories. If the experts attempt any pedantic interference, we will shoot the experts. I know that in this matter I speak for so sufficient a number of people that it will be quite useless and hopelessly dangerous and foolish for any expert-instructed minority to remain "tame." They will get shot, and their houses will be burned according to the established German rules and methods on our account, so they may just as well turn out in the first place, and get some shooting as a consolation in advance for their inevitable troubles. And if the raiders, cut off by the sea from their supports, ill-equipped as they will certainly be, and against odds, are so badly advised as to try terror-striking reprisals on the Belgian pattern, we irregulars will, of course, massacre every German straggler we can put a gun to. Naturally. Such a procedure may be sanguinary, but it is just the common sense of the situation. We shall hang the officers and shoot the men. A German raid to England will in fact not be fought it will be lynched. War is war, and reprisals and striking terror are games that two can play at. This is the latent temper of the British countryside, and the sooner the authorities take it in hand and regularize it the better will be the outlook in the remote event of that hypothetical raid getting home to us. Levity is a national characteristic, but submissiveness is not. Under sufficient provocation the English are capable of very dangerous bad temper, and the expert is dreaming who thinks of a German expedition moving through an apathetic Essex, for example, resisted only by the official forces trained and in training.

And whatever one may think of the possibility of raids, I venture to suggest that the time has come when the present exclusive specialization of our combatant energy upon the production of regulation armies should cease. The gathering of these will go on anyhow; there are unlimited men ready for intelligent direction. Now that the shortage of supplies and accommodation has been remedied the enlistment sluices need only be opened again. The rank and file of this country is its strength; there is no need, and there never has been any need, for press hysterics about recruiting. But there is wanted a far more vigorous stimulation of the manufacture of material—if only experts and rich people would turn their minds to that. It is the trading and manufacturing class that needs goading at the present time. It is very satisfactory to send troops to France, but in France there are still great numbers of able-bodied, trained Frenchmen not fully equipped. It is our national duty and privilege to be the storehouse and arsenal of the Allies. Our factories for clothing and material of all sorts should be working day and night. There is the point to which enthusiasm should be turned. It is just as heroic and just as useful to the country to kill yourself making belts and boots as it is to die in a trench. But our organization for the enrollment and utilization of people not in the firing line is still amazingly unsatisfactory. The one convenient alternative to enlistment as a combatant at present is hospital work. But it is really far more urgent to direct enthusiasm and energy now to the production of war material. If this war does not end, as all the civilized world hopes it will end, in the complete victory of the Allies, our failure will not be through any shortage of men, but through a shortage of gear and organizing ability. It will not be through a default of the people, but through the slackness of the governing class.

Arms and Equipment Needed

Now so far as the enrollment of us goes, of the surplus people who are willing to be armed and to be used for quasimilitary work at home, but who are not of an age or not of a physique or who are already in shop or office serving some quite useful purpose at home, we want certain very simple things from the authorities. We want the military status that is conferred by a specific enrollment and some sort of uniform. We want accessible arms. They need not be modern service weapons; the rifles of ten years ago are quite good enough for the possible need we shall have for them. And we want to be sure that in the possible event of an invasion the Government will have the decision to give every man in the country a military status by at once resorting to the levee en masse. Given a recognized local organization and some advice—it would not take a week of Gen. Baden-Powell's time, for example, to produce a special training book for us—we could set to work upon our own local drill, rifle practice, and exercises, in such hours and ways as best suited our locality. We could also organize the local transport, list local supplies, and arrange for their removal or destruction if threatened. Finally, we could set to work to convert a number of ordinary cars into fighting cars by reconstructing and armoring them and exercising crews. And having developed a discipline and self-respect as a fighting force, we should be available not only for fighting work at home, in the extremely improbable event of a raid, but also for all kinds of supplementary purposes, as a reserve of motor drivers, as a supply of physically exercised and half-trained recruits in the events of an extended standard, and as a guarantee of national discipline under any unexpected stress. Above all, we should be relieving the real fighting forces of the country for the decisive area, which is in France and Belgium now and will, I hope, be in Westphalia before the Spring.

At present we non-army people are doing only a fraction of what we would like to do for our country. We are not being used. We are made to feel out of it, and we watch the not always very able proceedings of the military authorities and the international mischief-making of the Censorship with a bitter resentment that is restrained only by the supreme gravity of the crisis. For my own part I entertain three Belgians and make a young officer possible by supplementing his expenses, and my wife knits things. A neighbor, an able-bodied man of 42 and an excellent shot, is occasionally permitted to carry a recruit to Chelmsford. If I try to use my pen on behalf of my country abroad, where I have a few friends and readers, what I write is exposed to the clumsy editing and delays of anonymous and apparently irresponsible officials. So practically I am doing nothing, and a great number of people are doing very little more. The authorities are concentrated upon the creation of an army numerically vast, and for the rest they seem to think that the chief function of government is inhibition. Their available energy and ability is taxed to the utmost in maintaining the fighting line, and it is sheer greed for direction that has led to their systematic thwarting of civilian cooperation. Let me warn them of the boredom and irritation they are causing. This is a people's war, a war against militarism; it is not a war for the greater glory of British diplomatists, officials, and people in uniforms. It is our war, not their war, and the last thing we intend to result from it is a permanently increased importance for the military caste.

Yours very sincerely,

© J. Fred MacDonald, 2013.

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A Novel of World War One
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The Headlong Fury