For many people living in Western Europe during the late 19th century the defining event of the era was the Franco-Prussian War of 1870 to 1871. The Second French Empire, regarded by most contemporary observers as the Continent’s premier power, suffered a shockingly rapid defeat at the hands of the North German Confederation led by the Kingdom of Prussia and its monarch, William I, supported (or directed) by his ambitious minister president, Otto von Bismarck. With the humiliating capture of Napoleon III and 100,000 soldiers at the Battle of Sedan, the imperial regime in Paris effectively collapsed, the capital suffering a prolonged and dreadful siege, something many previously believed unthinkable. The emergence of a democratically chaotic Third Republic, born not just through invasion but also revolution and civil war, was overshadowed by events in Germany where a patchwork quilt of Medieval kingdoms, principalities and duchies were drawn into a new German Empire dominated by Prussia. The effect of all this on Europeans, of all classes, cannot be underestimated. The United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland, the Russian Empire and numerous other nation states were now faced with a new political order in Berlin, and one with ambitions as great as any found in London, Paris or Moscow.
Though the events of 1870-71 were followed by four decades of relative peace they were predicated on the widespread belief that war between the “superpowers” was inevitable. Fear and pessimism was more common than confidence and hope, leading to exhibitions of paranoia and hedonism in the metropolitan societies of Europe. Britain in particular, building on the hegemony of Greater England over its neighbours, had become a global empire, its wealth dependant on dozens of subject nations and peoples. Anxieties about unforeseen or hidden threats to its supremacy were widespread, giving birth to a popular genre of fiction known as “invasion literature”. In time countries like Germany, France and others would develop their own localised versions, based upon the same premise: an invasion by a known or unknown enemy. In some cases the danger would come through a domestic threat; foreign-inspired socialists or communists in Germany and France: Irish republican or Fenian revolutionaries in Britain and Ireland (the latter movement in particular created an entire sub-genre for British and anglophile American readers, normally involving exiled Irish nationalists supported by the German Empire or the United States. From Fenian dynamiters blowing up the Palace of Westminster to Fenian submarines stalking the English Channel, creative imaginations ran riot, though both examples at least had some basis in reality).
One of the earliest instances of the publishing phenomenon was George Tomkyns Chesney’s The Battle of Dorking: Reminiscences of a Volunteer, issued in 1871, which detailed an attempted conquest of Britain by an unnamed but suspiciously Teutonic-sounding foe. If controversial it was also popular, sparking numerous reprints, debates in the newspapers and even music-hall songs. Most other tales followed this basic template, though HG Wells chose to subvert the genre with his science-fiction invasion adventure, The War of the Worlds, in 1897. Even Sir Arthur Conan Doyle was caught up in the jingoistic mindset, leaving aside the investigations of Sherlock Holmes to write the story “Danger” on the very eve of war in 1914. However the most influential publications of the era were probably the 1903 novel, The Riddle of the Sands, by the Irish author Erskine Childers, and William Le Queux’s The Invasion of 1910 (first serialized in 1906). The former, at least, remains in print to the present day.
Inevitably, after their recent experiences, the French had their own obsession with “future war”, resulting in the popular French serial, La Guerre Infernale (Infernal War), which anticipated in some ways the weapons, technology and tactics of the Second World War, not the first. Published every Saturday, and running to some thirty issues during 1908, the famed French artist, Albert Robida, provided over 500 drawings, including the energetic covers, while the story was written by the noted magazine editor, Pierre Giffard. The Compiègne-born Robida had already gained acclaim in the 1880s for a trilogy of futuristic novels he wrote and and illustrated, Le Vingtième Siècle (1883), La Guerre au vingtième siècle (1887) and Le Vingtième siècle. La vie électrique (1890). While the narrative, aimed at children, is typical of the period and of no great merit, the exquisite artwork is well worth enjoying. Unfortunately most of Albert Robida’s works are long out of print and no modern retrospective of his career has been issued in English (or indeed, French). Fortunately Villanova University in Radnor Township, Pennsylvania, has digitised and archived five copies of La Guerre Infernale online which can be read and/or downloaded from their website.