THE LAND IRONCLADS (1)
January 19, 2022
HiLoBooks is pleased to serialize H.G. Wells’s “The Land Ironclads” for HILOBROW’s readers. Published in The Strand in 1903, this proto-sf tale contributed to Wells’s reputation as a “prophet of the future” when tanks first appeared in 1916.
The young lieutenant lay beside the war correspondent and admired the idyllic calm of the enemy’s lines through his field-glass.
“So far as I can see,” he said, at last, “one man.”
“What’s he doing?” asked the war correspondent.
“Field-glass at us,” said the young lieutenant.
“And this is war!”
“No,” said the young lieutenant, “it’s Bloch.”
“The game’s a draw.”
“No! They’ve got to win or else they lose. A draw’s a win for our side.”
They had discussed the political situation fifty times or so, and the war correspondent was weary of it. He stretched out his limbs. “Aaai s’pose it is!” he yawned.
“What was that?”
“Shot at us.”
The war correspondent shifted to a slightly lower position. “No one shot at him,” he complained.
“I wonder if they think we shall get so bored we shall go home?”
The war correspondent made no reply.
“There’s the harvest, of course….”
They had been there a month. Since the first brisk movements after the declaration of war things had gone slower and slower, until it seemed as though the whole machine of events must have run down. To begin with, they had had almost a scampering time; the invader had come across the frontier on the very dawn of the war in half-a-dozen parallel columns behind a cloud of cyclists and cavalry, with a general air of coming straight on the capital, and the defender horsemen had held him up, and peppered him and forced him to open out to outflank, and had then bolted to the next position in the most approved style, for a couple of days, until in the afternoon, bump! they had the invader against their prepared lines of defense. He did not suffer so much as had been hoped and expected: he was coming on, it seemed with his eyes open, his scouts winded the guns, and down he sat at once without the shadow of an attack and began grubbing trenches for himself, as though he meant to sit down there to the very end of time. He was slow, but much more wary than the world had been led to expect, and he kept convoys tucked in and shielded his slow marching infantry sufficiently well to prevent any heavy adverse scoring.
“But he ought to attack,” the young lieutenant had insisted.
“He’ll attack us at dawn, somewhere along the lines. You’ll get the bayonets coming into the trenches just about when you can see,” the war correspondent had held until a week ago.
The young lieutenant winked when he said that.
When one early morning the men the defenders sent to lie out five hundred yards before the trenches, with a view to the unexpected emptying of magazines into any night attack, gave way to causeless panic and blazed away at nothing for ten minutes, the war correspondent understood the meaning of that wink.
“What would you do if you were the enemy?” said the war correspondent, suddenly.
“If I had men like I’ve got now?”
“Take those trenches.”
“Oh — dodges! Crawl out half-way at night before moonrise and get into touch with the chaps we send out. Blaze at ’em if they tried to shift, and so bag some of ’em in the daylight. Learn that patch of ground by heart, lie all day in squatty holes, and come on nearer next night. There’s a bit over there, lumpy ground, where they could get across to rushing distance — easy. In a night or so. It would be a mere game for our fellows; it’s what they’re made for…. Guns? Shrapnel and stuff wouldn’t stop good men who meant business.”
“Why don’t they do that?”
“Their men aren’t brutes enough: that’s the trouble. They’re a crowd of devitalized townsmen, and that’s the truth of the matter. They’re clerks, they’re factory hands, they’re students, they’re civilized men. They can write, they can talk, they can make and do all sorts of things, but they’re poor amateurs at war. They’ve got no physical staying power, and that’s the whole thing. They’ve never slept in the open one night in their lives; they’ve never drunk anything but the purest water-company water; they’ve never gone short of three meals a day since they left their feeding-bottles. Half their cavalry never cocked leg over horse till it enlisted six months ago. They ride their horses as though they were bicycles — you watch ’em! They’re fools at the game, and they know it. Our boys of fourteen can give their grown men points…. Very well ——”
The war correspondent mused on his face with his nose between his knuckles.
“If a decent civilization,” he said, “cannot produce better men for war than ——”
He stopped with belated politeness.
“I mean ——”
“Than our open-air life,” said the young lieutenant, politely.
“Exactly,” said the war correspondent. “Then civilization has to stop.”
“It looks like it,” the young lieutenant admitted.
RADIUM AGE PROTO-SF: “Radium Age” is Josh Glenn’s name for the nascent sf genre’s c. 1900–1935 era, a period which saw the discovery of radioactivity, i.e., the revelation that matter itself is constantly in movement — a fitting metaphor for the first decades of the 20th century, during which old scientific, religious, political, and social certainties were shattered. More info here.
SERIALIZED BY HILOBOOKS: Jack London’s The Scarlet Plague | Rudyard Kipling’s With the Night Mail (and “As Easy as A.B.C.”) | Arthur Conan Doyle’s The Poison Belt | H. Rider Haggard’s When the World Shook | Edward Shanks’ The People of the Ruins | William Hope Hodgson’s The Night Land | J.D. Beresford’s Goslings | E.V. Odle’s The Clockwork Man | Cicely Hamilton’s Theodore Savage | Muriel Jaeger’s The Man With Six Senses | Jack London’s “The Red One” | Philip Francis Nowlan’s Armageddon 2419 A.D. | Homer Eon Flint’s The Devolutionist | W.E.B. DuBois’s “The Comet” | Edgar Rice Burroughs’s The Moon Men | Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s Herland | Sax Rohmer’s “The Zayat Kiss” | Eimar O’Duffy’s King Goshawk and the Birds | Frances Hodgson Burnett’s The Lost Prince | Morley Roberts’s The Fugitives | Helen MacInnes’s The Unconquerable |
Geoffrey Household’s Watcher in the Shadows | William Haggard’s The High Wire | Hammond Innes’s Air Bridge | James Branch Cabell’s Jurgen | John Buchan’s “No Man’s Land” | John Russell’s “The Fourth Man” | E.M. Forster’s “The Machine Stops” | John Buchan’s Huntingtower | Arthur Conan Doyle’s When the World Screamed | Victor Bridges’ A Rogue By Compulsion | Jack London’s The Iron Heel | H. De Vere Stacpoole’s The Man Who Lost Himself | P.G. Wodehouse’s Leave It to Psmith | Richard Connell’s “The Most Dangerous Game” | Houdini and Lovecraft’s “Imprisoned with the Pharaohs” | Arthur Conan Doyle’s “The Sussex Vampire” | Francis Stevens’s “Friend Island” | George C. Wallis’s “The Last Days of Earth” | Frank L. Pollock’s “Finis” | A. Merritt’s The Moon Pool | E. Nesbit’s “The Third Drug” | George Allan England’s “The Thing from — ‘Outside'” | Booth Tarkington’s “The Veiled Feminists of Atlantis” | H.G. Wells’s “The Land Ironclads” | J.D. Beresford’s The Hampdenshire Wonder | Valery Bryusov’s “The Republic of the Southern Cross” | Algernon Blackwood’s “A Victim of Higher Space” | A. Merritt’s “The People of the Pit”.