Invasion fear itself is not simply an Edwardian phenomenon but can be seen at any time of international tension combined with rapid technological change. There were serious invasion scares during the Napoleonic Wars, for example, when it was feared the French would invade by sea or even by balloon. However, Edwardian invasion literature has a particular flavour of its own. Its roots lie in the late Victorian period, with George Tomkyns Chesney's sensational novel The Battle of Dorking of 1871. This novel was designed to rouse its readers out of their complacency about British security, while it also helped to create further popularity for the genre. Its themes, and those of the stories to follow, were of sluggish Britons being roused out of their torpor by the military ambitions of the Continental powers. Would Britain's army be able to cope with modern warfare against a quickly industrialising nation like France or Germany? Britain's experience in the Anglo-Boer War of 1899-1902 suggested not.
Chesney's novel was a success and a flush of related stories and novels were published up to and during the First World War. These fed both on diplomatic tensions - it was by no means clear that a future war would be against Germany rather than against France or Russia - and on the growth of new technologies. Balloons had come into use during the Boer War for aerial reconnaissance, airships were being developed, and finally in 1909, the French pilot, Louis Bleriot, succeeded in flying across the Channel to Dover, making the possibilities of airborne warfare as well as of recreation, graphically apparent. ironclad vessels, which before the First World War, were to culminate in the Dreadnought, were being developed, as were plans for the first submarines or U-boats. Plans to build a Channel Tunnel provoked fears of invading troops using it as a routeway. In a time of diplomatic tension and rapid technological change, it was no wonder that invasion scare stories should hold the public interest and become an established genre. ≈
One of the most sensational of invasion fear narratives was William Le Quex's The Invasion of 1910 which was advertised in London by sandwich board men wearing German uniforms and was serialised very successfully in 'The Daily Mail'. Indeed by this date, the genre was so well-known, that it was subject to spoofs.1909 saw A.A. Milne's satirical short story, 'The Secret of the Enemy Aeroplane', and P.G. Wodehouse's light novel, The Swoop! or How Clarence Saved England in which last eight foreign armies invade Britian, and are only rebuffed by a boy scout. In these spoof stories, you can see clearly guyed the themes of the originals: the honest, decent, but sleepy John Bull, finally being roused from his lethargy by pluck and patriotism. Interestingly, cartoons of the Edwardian period convey similar ideas, for example by depicting a sleepy Jack tar alongside his brisker German naval counterpart who seems to be all the more prepared for war.
Famous authors contributed to the genre. H.G. Wells nourished his own distinctive blend of fears of invasion and technology in his 1898, The War of the Worlds, also writing a telling description of the potential horrors of aerial bombardment in The War in the Air of 1908. Even Arthur Conan Doyle got in on the the act, with his Sherlock Holmes story, 'The Adventure of the Bruce-Partington Plans' of 1908, in which enemy agents attempt to steal the design for a new submarine. Enduringly famous is John Buchan's The Thirty Nine Steps of 1915 after the outbreak of war, featuring Richard Hannay's flight from German agents who are portrayed as stage villains.
Invasion fear stories contain less attractive features. The narratives, as was utterly typical of their time, show constant slippage between Britain and England. One could also argue that fictional and press coverage of a forthcoming war made that war more likely. They make fascinating period pieces but we should expect them to be jingoistic and xenophobic. What they do show is an intriguing blend of Edwardian politics, social fears, and literary taste, while giving early examples of the thriller genre and of the spy story story. One of the most readable remains Erskine Childers's spy novel of 1903, The Riddle of the Sands. This story follows the fortunes of the heroes on the yacht, 'Dulcibella', as they track down German agents who are using the Frisian Islands as the base for a mass invasion of England. This novel has little xenophobia, but a strong sense of atmosphere, interweaving the intricacies of international espionage with the intricacies of sailing a yacht along the misty, winding Frisian coastline.