Book review by George S: The Earl of Halsbury’s novel, 1944 (published in 1926) is a very readable example of the ‘Future War’ genre’. Before 1914, such books had mostly been grim warnings about possible German invasions. After 1918, they still proliferated, though with a change of emphasis. My favourites are the ones where Bolshevik Russia, in league with English trades unionists, foment a revolution in Britain, but 1944 belongs to the next best type, the novel that predicts the effect of devastating air raids. Halsbury imagines that the Russians (seemingly post-Bolshevik) in alliance with the Germans, launch a surprise attack and drop thousands of gas bombs on London, causing death and chaos. Only the few who saw this coming have escaped.
This is the only novel by Hardinge Giffard, 2nd Earl of Halsbury (1880-1943), and it is intended as a warning.
He had served in the R.F.C. during the Great War, attaining the rank of Major. I think he was not a flyer, but a theorist on the Staff. He advocated attacking the German economy by bombing factories producing aeroplanes, munitions, etc. In 1917 he wrote on the moral effects of bombing, advocating daytime raids rather than night ones, since in daytime workers would feel more exposed. He discussed the effect on morale of air raids on chemical factories, where fires would get beyond the control of fire brigades, and cause panic.
This wartime work made him strongly aware of the effects of bombings on civilians, and throughout the twenties he campaigned with speeches and articles to raise awareness of the dangers of gas bombing. This novel is part of that campaign.
Alone among politicians, Sir John Blundell is alone among British politicians in recognising the potential of air raids to be a mortal threat to civilisation. His warnings fall on deaf ears. Secretly, however, he has prepared. He has a fully-stocked ship waiting off the west coast to which he will take a select few in case of war. Like Noah’s Ark, this ship will carry the tiny elite away from destroyed Europe to start again, preserving the best of civilisation.
The snag to the plan is that the Russian gas attack is fast and comes when least expected (the weaselly Russian has just aanounced his devotion to peace). Sir John and friends get away, but his son Dick can not be contacted, so they have to leave without him. When Dick finally gets the news (in the Savoy Grill) he and his girlfriend Sylvie have to try to get away through crowds who are, predictably, panicking as they flee the deadly gas. Dick and Sylvia get to the river, and take a boat upstream. This takes them through many dangers. Since all major centres of population have been gas-bombed, most of the survivors are flooding into the countryside, looting and panicking as they go.
In England affected by the bombing the various classes behave more or less as standard twenties fictional stereotypes decree. A group of the decadent West-End set have retreated to a country house, where they intend to indulge in cocaine-fuelled orgies. A gang of the underclass go in for cannibalism and rape. Poor Sylvia keeps on getting threatened by fates worse than death, but always escapes just in time. A decent upper-middle class family, however, behave as decently as one would expect, and some Romanies also turn out to be sane and helpful.
Dick and Sylvia do eventually reach the ship that Blundell has stocked to be his Noah’s Ark, and it sails away. By this time it is clear that the Russians have not only gassed Britain to incapacity, but all Britain’s European allies too, while Britain has led retaliatory airstrikes that destroy Russia and Germany. It has been an orgy of mutual destruction. But there is a twist ant the end. Instead of going away to start a new civilisation, Blundell decides to return to ruined London, to join in the effort to restore it.
Halsbury kept up his warnings about the horrors of gas bombing through the twenties and thirties; maybe these warnings of horrors contributed to the fact that in the Second World War both sides refrained from using gas as a weapon for attacking civilians, knowing that their opponents too had stockpiles of the stuff.
Since much of it is taken up by an account of an escape from the horrors of war, there is a certain pathos in what happened to Lord Halsbury in the Second World War. In 1940 he was living in Paris, and a website tells us that
When the Germans had taken Paris, he had gone into hiding and could only feed himself by selling his clothes; he was barefoot when rounded up by the authorities. A fellow internee later reported that Halsbury had been the saddest man in the whole camp and just used to stand by himself all day, unspeaking, gazing out at the horizon. When his health started to fail he was shifted to a hospital in the Vosges, the part of France that he had loved best and where he was quartered in the days of World War I when all went well for him. There he died and was buried in the common grave.
This is his only novel, and the characters are stereotpes, so he’s not exactly a rival to Henry James. But it’s fast moving and suspenseful, and tells you something about the preoccupations of the time in which it was written. I enjoyed reading it.