from ‘the War Illustrated Deluxe’ volume II page 608
'Will The War Change England?'
by H. G. Wells

Speculation on the Future

the author


No English writer of our times has achieved such universal fame as Mr. H. Q. Wells by his bold forecasts of the future. Both in the realms of philosophic speculation and imaginative fiction he stands foremost as a modern prophet. His large vision and clear reading of national tendencies make his opinions as to the future peculiarly valuable. The Editor is happy in being able to present his readers with an important contribution specially written for "The War Illustrated," in which Mr. Wells applies his well-known method of critical analysis to answering the above question. Of course, "The War Illustrated" accepts no responsibility for Mr. Wells's opinions.


So far as superficialities go there is no answer to this question but Yes. There will be the widest modification of fashions and appearance all over the world as the outcome of this world convulsion. There will be, moreover, at least a temporary and conceivably even a permanent impoverishment that will leave its mark upon the arts, upon the way of living, upon the social progress of several generations. All sorts of little things that were already on the wane will vanish for ever, and their disappearance will give a character to books and pictures and photographs. If presently one sees a picture with men in silk hats or British soldiers in busbies and redcoats or servants in livery, or if one comes upon a spiked helmet, or a piece of Morris furniture, or a cricket-bat, or a coachman with a cockade, one will be reminded pleasantly of the good old times. And we shall develop a superstition that all men wore silk hats in town, or carried cricket-bats in the country before 1914. But these are the mere outward shows of life. What we would speculate upon now is the probability of deeper changes in the national attitude and the general way of taking life in Britain, and more especially in England, which is—so to speak—the writer's field of observation.

The Briton as a "Quadruple Abstraction"

In such changes what is called national character necessarily plays a large part, and what may happen to the English soul may differ in several respects from the reaction of the Irish, who are so much more closely akin to the Russians; of the Welsh, who have touches that make them resemble the Indian and the Ruthenian; or of the Scotch, who are so peculiarly northern and Protestant, to the same influences.

No doubt all over our islands there will be much of our experiences in common, but it is quite impossible to generalise accurately of so quadruple an abstraction as a Briton. So let an Englishman deal with the, English, with the confession that the East Anglian and the Kentish and Wessex men and Cockney are chiefly in his thoughts. Such an England has a very definite character of its own, and is likely to react as a whole to the tremendous impact of this war.

Now, first, it has to be remarked that our English mind and soul has not been hit hard by any general human fact since the late cholera epidemics, which won it over to sanitation. It has not been pressed upon the keen edge ol urgency since that time Before that little crisis there was nothing after the economic stresses that followed the

Napoleonic wars, and ended in the adjustments of the Reform Bill and Free Trade. The rest of British experience was an experience of irresponsible immunity. And neither of these realities I have cited, neither the pestilence nor the economic stress, can be described as supreme human stresses. One must go much further back than these things to find England profoundly stirred— stirred, that is, to the extent of regeneration.

It was really not so deeply stirred by the Napoleonic wars as many people imagine. Read for that the tranquillities of Jane Austen, and remember that these were tales of the days of Trafalgar and Waterloo. The Napoleonic wars simply continued the older French wars "away there," that had become almost a habit with the English. Taxes were rather heavy. Occasional young men went off soldiering, and came back or did not come back. Sometimes the church bells rang. That was the sum of it in the national consciousness. The Jacobite revolt, that made a great epoch for Scotland, was a mere little raid in English experience.

Indeed, the last fundamental system ol convulsions in English life was the system of disturbances that began with the Reformation, and ended with the establishment of aristocratic parliamentarianism, and the rule of our influential families under our present German monarchy. Then it was that the England of to-day—or rather, let us say the England of 1914—was made and settled. Since then there has been nothing fundamental. People talk and write about an Industrial Revolution, meaning the coming of coal, factories, railways and the great towns, but these changes were not a revolution; they were a growth.

The War as a Welding Force on Social England

They changed England only as fatness, or cancer, or, if you will, the enlargement of a limb, might change the character of a man. They added something perhaps, but they reconstructed nothing. The monarchy, the aristocracy, the Church, the universities and education, the well-adapted literature, the ruling conceptions of social relationship went on essentially unchanged. They have an air of going on now—as a house seems still to stand when it is brightly afire. Because now less swiftly than in France or Belgium, but as steadily, as thoroughly, as profoundly, this war burns its way through all the substance of England. It is touching everything, it is seizing upon everything. It is our fact. All our talk, all our living, all our judgments, though they may resist for a time, swing round at last and orient themselves to it And we are still far from the climax of the war. The Empire is only at the beginning of its effort; the greater burthen and heat of this tremendous task is still to be felt. The bulk of our Army, for example, is still training at home.

Now the psychology of England is not to be understood until this great period of unstimulating security of which this war is the end, has been apprehended. We have been going by inertia for two centuries. Generation after generation of English people have been born with the persuasion that, whatever realities tore the rest of the world, Britain was safe and established for ever, and that here at least things would go on as they were going—interminably. War, famine, earthquake were the exciting but dubious privileges of foreigners. So it has been for two hundred years in England and Wales, for a century and a half in Scotland, for half a century in Ireland—as it is and has been now for fifty years in the United States of America— and necessarily this has involved a spectacular attitude towards life, a certain unreality, a levity, and a detachment.

The Attitude of the Onlooker

We were the happy people in the boxes; if we went down into the arena we did it for fun and some added advantage, not of necessity, and always with the possibility of coming back to our box when we had had enough of it. And it is still true, after six months of world-wide and fundamental warfare, that the English are mentally still half spectators. Every third man is in khaki, London is in darkness of a night, and the papers are filled with inconceivable photographs of smashed houses and bodies in Scarborough— Scarborough of all places—and Yarmouth, English homes and people blown to pieces by German shells and air bombs; and yet we are still far short of realising that this is ourselves.

When people talk of the apathy of the English they must grasp this peculiar aloofness and unreality of English life for the last ten generations or so. For all that time England has been to the English like home to a child—a place from which one went out upon adventures; a place in which one sat in absolute security, reading of romance, tragedies, martyrdoms, wild beasts, and stellar distances. The Channel, and the wasting of the strength and honour of France by the two Napoleons, gave us through all that time a detachment from the struggle for life such as no other people but the Chinese before the Manchurian conquest, and the citizens of the United States of America since their Civil War, have ever enjoyed. Now, upon this long- secure people comes beating a gigantic hate and the call for our help of those who have trusted us. "Fight!" cries destiny. "Use your utmost effort. Vae victis! Save your friends who have trusted you, and yourselves, or such ignominy, such hardship, such shame shall fall upon you as will make the lot of an Englishman too bitter for life." Englishmen and Englishwomen and children are killed by the shot and shell of their enemies in the streets of quiet English towns. What will be the effect upon our nation? Will it be found that two hundred years of safety have been two hundred years of wasted opportunity, degeneration, or have we, beneath much superficial ineffectiveness, reserved and even gathered force? Has peace husbanded or destroyed us? Are we a people softened, or only a people unprepared?

England's Real Triumph in the Boer War

Now, there was some ground for doubting whether England was capable of rising to any supreme call such as this German challenge. The Germans certainly did not believe she could. Very many considerable observers in Britain and America were troubled by these doubts. There were many signs that her two hundred years of security had made her indolent; it was a question whether she had not also softened and decayed morally and intellectually. The Boer War displayed her at the outset slovenly, ill-prepared, ignorant, wanting in foresight, but she roused herself to an effort; she displayed a toughness, an obstinacy that in that issue at least atoned lor her general shortcomings. The ending of the Boer War was a creditable effort, and she emerged not merely triumphant in a military sense but successful politically. She did not merely conquer; she did what is more difficult—she won back. And then— then she lapsed again. It seemed at first as though a national renascence might follow the searchings of heart that followed the strains and shames of the South African struggle. But for the most part the " Wake up, England! " movement seemed to fade out again. National vanity had been chastened; the loud, aggressive and threatening "Anglo-Saxonism" that was so closely akin to "Pan-Germanism," the " professor's Imperialism " of Froude and Freeman, became sensibly less offensive, and has never recovered such ascendency as it formerly had over the British imagination. That much was to the good.

Renascence and Wrangling in England

There was a real modernisation of the Army, a new determination of officers and gentlemen to be good professional soldiers; there was an increase in the seriousness of popular literature, and a greater keenness in the younger generation. But there was no vigorous fresh development of educational organisation such as many had hoped to see, and the tone of political life mended not at all. Reconstruction decayed into wrangling. The forces making for renascence seemed to be unable to take hold at any point of the social and legislative organisation. The Court remained a damp discouragement to reconstructive initiative, as indeed since the coming of the alien Hanoverians, with the exception of the brief phase of the Prince Consort's influence, it has always been. The schools and universities compromised by accepting cadet corps and resisting science and modern thought. The mercantile class continued to fall behind the advances in technical and industrial science and organisation made by the Germans and Americans. After a spurt of social constructiveness, the great political parties settled down to their old discreditable exploitation of the two aspects of Irish disloyalty, and the ignorance and prejudice of Larkinism on the one hand and Ulsterism on the other were stirred up and pitted against each other until Ireland was within a measurable distance of civil war. The shameless sale of peerages and honours by the Party machines continued—a rottenness only equalled in ail history by the sale by the venial Polish nobility of their national crown and honour.

How the Great War found England

It seemed as manifest in 1914 as it was in 1899 that to do anything well, to serve one's country faithfully, to give one's life to art or literature or research, was the way to live in Great Britain without respect or influence, while to the toady, the self- advertising impostor, the Party hack and the financial adventurer, whether alien or British, were given honour, influence, and the control of the Empire. True there were some strident voices in protest, but they seemed of small effect. Whatever new vigour had come from the Boer War into British life was certainly no longer upon the surface of things in the spring of 1914. A new generation was growing up which had been too young to be chastened by the long-drawn humiliations of South Africa It danced an indecent dance called the Tango to express itself. "Tangoism" was not a chance phenomenon in British life; it was allied to a movement of irrational extravagance in art, to such phenomena as the diseased growth of night clubs in London, and to the violent last hysteria of the feminist movement. The secure young people had rebelled against a movement towards gravity and discipline that had neither power nor authority. What was the good of it? What did it matter? England in the beginning of 1914 was like Russia after 1906. It had an extraordinary appearance of spent forces and intellectual despair; its life seemed to be divided between dense stupidity on the side of authority, venal muddleheadedness in politics, and an almost insane personal irresponsibility. Every idiot in the country was professing to be a "Rebel," and trying to do something more conspicuously mischievous and silly than the others. And then with the suddenness of a summer thunderstorm came the war.

There were intimations of the coming cataclysm. One of the most notable incidents before the black crisis of the first days of August was the King's effort to settle the Irish squabble, to persuade Sir Edward Carson and his opponents to cease from distressing Ireland. Things were very near us then, and there was a certain knowledge of their nearness. But these men were the creatures of the time, professionals playing at the lawyers' game of politics, men who would still gamble for a party advantage if they were starving upon a raft, and Sir Edward remained "firm" and to this day he is "firm"; the thunder burst upon us, the lightnings lit the heavens, the German millions poured down through Belgium upon Paris, but to anyone who cares to listen, this disgruntled mischief-maker is still ready to declare his irreconcilable obstructiveness to peace in Ireland and between English and Irish. He passes dwarfed but unchanged through a world catastrophe.

We Must Beat the Enemy to His Knees, or-----

Because now Britain is up against things. No partial victory will save her. She has to beat her enemy to his knees and disarm him, she has not only to recover the freedom of Belgium, she has to reinstate and enlarge Belgium, she has to do her loyal utmost for her every ally, or quite plainly she has to prepare for the destruction of her Empire and a dwindling and dishonourable future. It is no defeat at the ends of the earth that we shall suffer if we are defeated, a defeat that can be lied about and forgotten at the tennis-net; it will be defeat that will sit at table with us, that will shame us in the streets, that will darken us in our homes and persecute us by day and night. And the issue is so plainly before the British that they cannot fail to see it; the situation is elementary and direct. And our country is rising to it; she was not dead but inattentive, and this time she is setting herself in order upon a scale that justifies us in believing that what the Boer War was insufficient to teach us is now to be exhaustively learnt. She rises and she must rise; that is the tragic excellence of this situation.

Only by learning her lesson can she prevail. If she slackens after some partial success, if presently her century-long habits of indolence turn her thoughts to a premature peace, then the pressure will lift only to recur. That Song of Hate which is being taught to little children in the schools of Berlin is the ultimate guarantee that the long lethargy of easy-going England is for ever at an end.

Now what are the chief changes that are necessitated by the great struggle in which we are involved? The essential change, the change that involves all the others, is the abandonment of that spectacular attitude into which our long age of immunity has lured us. The Englishman will cease to be a looker-on, not only at cricket matches and football matches, but at military reviews, at the political "arena," at the life of art and literature, at the pageant of royalty. That idea of modest and respectable detachment and irresponsibility must vanish from our lives. So, too, will the feeling that Government is something to be resisted, avoided, and neglected; that some clever fellow round the corner can be trusted to keep research going and everything straight, and that it is rather wise and kind to under-educate our children and be amiably fatuous in speech and thought. Such sections of the population as may still cling to these will ultimately be dragged in by the effects of taxes, requisitions, and the approach of conscription. The average Englishman of 1913 was conspicuously out of the great game of human life; he was in the Empire but not of the Empire, his ideal was to drum along in that state of life to which it has pleased God to call him, to be "left alone" by the Government and to escape public service and taxation; the average Englishman of 1916 will be consciously in the process of humanity, he will be a conscious part of the Empire, he will be as much in the game as a half-back at football and as keen that the goalkeeper and forwards should play their keenest and best.

The New Englishman after the War Will Want to go on "Doing Things"

He will, to the number of two million or more, have recently put off khaki and come back to a civil life that will be calling imperatively for able organisation, or he will still be in khaki while the economic life of the country reorganises. If he has not actually been a soldier, he will have been working under emergency conditions because of the war; he will be none the less dislocated. All the old pre-war time habits will have gone. He will, as chemists say, be "nascent," unsubmissive, critical. He will want to know the good of this and that. And about a great number of things; about his relations to Indians and Irishmen and all sorts of alien people, about how the State may control finance and railways, and how, when the greed of "private enterprise" is a little in suspense, men may be very well fed and clothed and shod by the million, he will have had illuminating experiences.

He will be impatient with a Government that "lools about"; he will want it to go on doing things. So that I do not see that the old forensic party game is likely to return to British political life with the ending of the war. There will be too much to do and too much will that it should be done. And it is not beyond the wit of man to improve our methods of representation so as to prevent altogether that relapse of Parliamentary Government into a party struggle which is inevitable under our present electoral system.

And this return of reality will not be a change of mind simply in the mass of the English people. The slow process of Anglicising our Hanoverian Kings must be completed. The Court must cease to think and speak with a German accent. Unless the King is henceforth certain to be an active and disinterested Englishman, it would be better for the Empire to become a republic. The present indecent Teutonic restriction upon the marriages of the Royal family, which kept the British Court an alien deadening influence at the head of our national life for two enervating centuries, must be abolished. An English Court in touch with English thought and character, and inter-marrying freely with British and American families, is the only conceivable monarchy for the coming days. Few people realise the deep obstructive mischief this head of clay has worked in the past with the thought and vigour of our people.

The True English Patriotism of King George a Portent of the Future

But the present occupant of the throne has shown throughout a strongly patriotic and Anglicising disposition, and it is not too much to hope that the British Court will presently be playing its part vigorously in the general renascence. Presumptuous Teutonic royalty with semi-divine claims and preposterous etiquette is inconceivable in the England of the coming days, but an energetic, able, apologetic English King is probably the very best conceivable head of our great Empire under existing conditions.

But where the movement towards reality and participation is most likely to be evident is in our educational life. This war has already been a liberal education for the whole Empire. It has indeed gone further than that, for it has aroused America to the importance of international politics. But it has also brought out into a glaring light the defects and deficiencies of British technical and higher education. No doubt this war has been altogether glorious for the British fighting man as a fighting man. It has brought to light our tremendous resources of cheerful pluck and unassuming devotion. All the more is it necessary to point to the many evidences of dullness, clumsiness, and want of imaginative foresight in the conduct of the war. The record of the War Office, in relation to recruiting and to the general helpful willingness of the country, has been one almost of unmitigated stupidity.

The deficiency of military supplies in the country and the unsuitable nature of these supplies, has and will cost the Empire and Europe months of avoidable fighting and hundreds of thousands of lives. The British Admiralty went into the war not only short of mines, but without any adequate schemes or apparatus for sweeping up and destroying minefields — although for ten years and more the only probable war has been war with Germany. There were, and still are, no special shallow-water gun- platforms for counter-attacks upon the German ships in port.

Important Educational Changes in the Coming Years

The aviators' equipment was as insufficient as the aviators themselves were admirable. The Army was equally unprepared, either with guns or with a proper machinery for turning out a sufficiency of rifles. The showing of the influential and intellectual classes in Britain has, in fact, been as poor as the response of the common people has been admirable. The elementary schools have produced pluck, cheerfulness, willing patriotism in unlimited abundance; they have swamped the recruiting offices and all our resources of weapons and equipment; the public schools, though they have been patriotic enough, have produced no equivalent leadership and mental vigour. We must have schools that will fill our children's minds with the habitual veracities of science, with a knowledge and understanding of France, India, and Russia, and of the great world outside genteel British life. We want schools alive with criticism and intolerant of cant. The thing is so patent, it continues so conspicuously obvious, that no class conceit, no vested interests, no "social" influence can now stand in the way of a vigorous overhauling of our universities and higher schools.

A Great Renascence of National Temperament

From these considerations one may deduce that the Englishman of the future will be a keener, abler, better educated, and more responsible type than the Englishman of the immediate past. He will have learnt the danger and absurdity of giving respect to position rather than capacity; he will be more jealously alive to the national honour in politics, and with a quite new hostility to that venal ennoblement of financiers and contractors and suchlike stuff, which he has hitherto been disposed to regard as part of the jest of life. He will be more alert about the monarchy and more helpfully critical of it.

He will be more impatient of humdrum and cant. He will feel, that he owns his country as he has never felt that ownership before; he will have bought it in the trenches of Flanders and the battlefields of Prussia. He will have come into his own. And being alive and awake, he will no longer read for slack amusement, but to inform and fine his mind, which will be a good thing for literature; and having a quickened mind he will no longer tolerate sham and pretentiousness in art. Even now he changes visibly to this new strength and dignity. You can imagine no conceivable sort of success in this war, no sort of event, that would give rise to the rowdy follies of Mafeking night now. It is Berlin that will maffick, they will wave flags and decorate and sing of being "over all," and of the splendours of their hate — until the chill of what is happening touches the Berliners to their bones and their shouts die away. England has come back to reality at last; she carries her life in her hand.


Back to Index