George Chesney’s startling account of an imagined invasion and conquest of Britain by the Germans in the 1870s was born in the shock reaction to the very real, very swift and unexpected German victories in the War of Surprises of 1870. Filled with regret for a nation destroyed and embittered by the passiveness with which the nation ignored all the warning signs, failing to take what with hindsight seem like obvious measure of self-preservation, a unknown soldier reminisces for history grandchildren upon his experience of the Battle of Dorking. At once level, this short story is just a shocking and gripping account of a fiction overthrow of the country. But Chesney’s tale rewards a deeper reading as well, revealing much about contemporary attitudes to empire and fears for the future. The nameless soldier encapsulates, in his regret, concerns over the squandering of energy and enterprise swallowed in the maintenance and expansion of Empire which so dominated England in the later years of the 19th century. And he exposes a perceived fragility in the security of the nation: that England falls so easily to the Germans is ascribed not only to a lack of preparedness but also to an arrogance born of a belief in the natural superiority of English civilisation and culture and, particularly, to the brittle basis on which British economic prosperity was based. It is in these arguments that the reader cannot fail to miss potential parallels with today’s circumstances: a national prosperity based not on manufacturing or labour but upon trade, credit, services and other business which could so easily be diverted elsewhere.
This short story, just short of 50 pages, is therefore not only a sad and foreboding tale of glories lost, but also a telling and disturbing assessment of a nation reaching the end of line of credit in stability and security. It is certainly a quick and easy read but it is at the same time both thought-provoking and memorable.
Read and reviewed in 2006
©Jessica Mulley 2006