Visualising a global war: La guerre infernale

A new post in the future-wars series: Robida and the world war of the future

La guerre infernale was written by Pierre Giffard and illustrated by Albert Robida.[1] Published in weekly instalments in 1908, La guerre infernale gives the future-war genre a satirical edge, offering a scenario in which a global conflict of massive proportions breaks out in consequence of an argument between the German and the English ambassadors over the serving order of the dessert at a dinner. To add to the irony, the dinner is taking place during the Conférence de la paix, the annual meeting of a philanthropic organisation founded by Nicholas II of Russia in 1895. In 1937, the protagonist and narrator is covering the conference periodical summit at the Hȏtel de l’Entente Universelle in La Hague, for the Paris newspaper L’an 2000, when the war breaks out. While the conflict is triggered by a disagreement between European powers, the role of Japan and China in its outcome is a clear reminder of the Russo-Japanese War of a few years before.

Novelist, reporter, illustrator, watercolourist and engraver, Albert Robida (1848-1926) is today regarded as one of the founding fathers of science fiction, and recognised as a key figure on the cultural scene of the French Third Republic. He extensively worked as editor and collaborator of Paris periodicals such as La Caricature, and imagined visionary portrayals of a future society shaped by the technological inventions exhibited at International World Fairs such as Paris 1881, 1889, and 1900.  During his life, he illustrated ninety-four books, of almost fifty of which he was sole author.[2]

 With Giffard – a fellow journalist specialised in sport, who covered the Russo-Japanese war in 1904[3] Robida collaborated in various editorial projects already during the 1880s-1890s. These included the pictures for the humorous La vie en chemin de fer and La vie au théâtre (1887-1888) and La fin du cheval (1899) on the means of transports that were soon to replace horse-drawn carriages and the socio-economic advancements that they would bring about.

Giffard himself (1853-1922), after taking part in the 1870 war as one of the youngest lieutenants in the French armée auxiliaire, had become a journalist. He collaborated with numerous newspapers and periodicals including Le Figaro, covering, among other things, the technological developments in transport and communications exhibited at Paris 1878, and travelling the world as a correspondent, from war zones such as Algeria and southern Tunisia amongst others. Creator of French cycle and car races, he became editor-in-chief of Le Petit Journal in 1887, until moving to Le Vélo in 1896 after a few years of collaboration under a pseudonym, and then to L’Auto in 1904.

One may assume thatone of the reasons Giffard mentions for choosing a humorous slant in his work on the railway in the “Préface” of La vie en chemin de fer also applies to La guerre infernale :

… avec la forme humoristique l’auteur a pu s’assurer le concours de l’un des crayons les plus spirituels de notre époque, et c’est là un gros atout dans son jeu, pour ne pas dire plus.[4]

He is referring to none other than Robida, of course, whose contribution is very likely to have been more than just illustrating: many themes and inventions are reprises of ideas and scenarios already imagined in the above-mentioned Le vingtième siècle, and its sequel La guerre au vingtième siècle, including means of instant communication, aerial means of transport, innovative weapons.[5] Furthermore, La guerre infernale shares with other works by Robida an interest in social aspects (such as the role of women),[6] and in the consequences of technology for everyday life and customs and habits. As Philippe Willems has summarised,

what really distinguishes Robida from other nineteenth-century writers of conjectural fiction is the depth of his portrayal of the future, the real-life dimension … halfway between Jules Verne’s detailed mechanical explanations and H. G. Wells’s psychological realism.[7]

The global backdrop against which the protagonists’ adventures take place, unlike the mainly French and Parisian setting of Le vingtième siècle and La vie electrique, is reminiscent of the Voyages très extraordinaires de Saturnin Farandoul (1880).[8] Paris serves nonetheless as a barycentre for the adventures of La guerre infernale’s protagonist. It is to the French capital that he returns between his adventures in the Atlantic and in Russia, and it is to Paris that knowledge and news always flow and are collected and sorted, near the palaces where the crucial decisions are discussed by French authorities.[9]

In fact, La guerre infernale plays up a global dimension brought onto the stage of individual experience and perception by the use of new means of transport and communication that earlier works by both Giffard and Robida had represented in different contexts and/or with different strategies.[10] The first instalment, tellingly entitled La Planète en feu, presents the idea of a global dimension compressed by the instantaneous nature of the telephone: awoken in the middle of the night by a massive fire starting in La Hague, the protagonist discovers that a war has started, but is unable to track down the incident that originated it. He will receive news of what happened in the very same hotel he is staying at only via a colleague in Paris, who gets a phone call from La Hague at the Café Krasnapolski. Similarly, it is the telephone that makes it possible to deliver ultimatums and institutional communications in real time, activating the various alliances that cause the conflict to escalate first to a European and then to a global dimension.[11]

Means of transport are at the centre stage from the very first pages, allowing the protagonist and his companions to travel throughout Europe and across the globe. They use an aérocar to head back to Paris, since the editor-in-chief asks the protagonist to cover the conflict for the newspaper L’an 2000, only to be redirected to the French aerial arsenal at the base in Mont Blanc.

Albert Robida. “Nouvelles du Grand Lac Salé”, Le Journal Amusant, no. 759, July 16, 1870: 3, detail. Source: Gallica, https://gallica.bnf.fr/ark:/12148/bpt6k5861280m/f3.item. On this image see also Daryl Lee, “Robida’s Mormons”, Transatlantica [En ligne], 2 | 2017, mis en ligne le 13 mai 2019, DOI : https://doi.org/10.4000/transatlantica.10869.

The massive Mont Blanc arsenal (to the description of which the second instalment, Les Armées de l’air, is almost entirely devoted) includes a Leviathan formation composed by 150 attacking aircrafts, supported by a regiment of bicycle-sized, extremely manoeuvrable flying machines operated by couples of pilots and gunners. Furthermore, aerial warfare brings about consequences in the life of civilians (e.g. the use of individual shields and the construction of subterranean cities), in terms of tactics and strategies, and in the existence of specific authorities (e.g. the ministère de l’Aérotactique, ministry of aerotactic, already imagined in La vie électrique).[12] A German bombing strikes the chemical section of the compound, where bacteriological weapons are being developed,[13] causing 150 deaths. But tragedy of even bigger proportion is reported from Belfort, blown up by a massive quantity of explosives that German soldiers placed under the city using a gigantic tunnel excavated from the Black Forest.

The first part of the novel is devoted to the conflict as it unfolds in Europe, with the German Reich attacking the French Mont Blanc base as well as bombing cities in France and bringing war to the other side of the English Channel. After an aerial battle in the skies above London, the protagonists and his friends end up stranded above the Sargasso Sea, where the only way to allow the others to regain altitude and leave the polar region is to drop the body of a dead companion. The passage to the Atlantic marks the passage of the narrative backdrop from a European to a global scale.

Along with submarines and hommes-crabes (6), the naval warfare is no less impressive: over the Atlantic the protagonist admires the American warship Minnesota on patrol: “Mille tonnes de deplacement, cinq turbines, trois arbres à helicer, un developpement al 15000 chevaux faisaient alors du Minnesota le Croiseur le plus rapide du monde” (instalment 12: 380). When cholera is used to wage bacteriological warfare in Russia against Chinese armies, a “train sanitaire” operates between Orenburg and Rostov, to help infected “whites” (instalments 25 and 26).

Economic interconnectedness is also put to use by battling countries. During the first days of the war, Britain floods Germany with false Deutschmarks in order to sink its economy (instalment 5), and when European powers coalesce against the threat of an invasion from China a “yellow tax” is approved within the alliance to fund the war against Asian powers (instalment 21).

In fact, while there is a treaty in place at the beginning of the war between Japan and France and Japanese aviators are perfecting their training with the French Voleurs corps (instalment 8). When he arrives in North America, the protagonist learns that Japanese immigrants in California had long been preparing for the invasion of America, and that now, supported by troops from Japan, are engaged in terrible battles which caused thousands of deaths, and left every American survivor deranged due to the trauma, hospitalised in a dedicated facility.

Japan and the US fight a naval battle of epic proportions between the Bahamas, Cuba and Florida (instalments 15, 16). From Canada to Africa, the Japanese multiply their invasion plans, acting as the leading force behind which the Chinese are also mobilised. It is against the backdrop of the Atlantic space and with the Asian arrival on the scene that the conflict starts to assume a fully global scale and at the same time a clear racial connotation: the “yellow” threat leads “white” nations to overcome their current disagreements and strike up new alliances. The American president arguing for an alliance with the British warns about the prolificacy of Asian populations, contrasting it with the demographic decline of the “whites” (instalment 16). Japanese and Chinese armies invade California and block the Panama Canal (instalments 18 and 20), while Europeans helps Russia to construct a “muraille blanche,” “white great wall,” against the Chinese plans to invade Europe (instalment 21). The assassination of Tsar Nicholas II and a riot or revolution demanding a new constitution leaves Russian open to Chinese occupation (instalments 21-23).

The next post in the future wars series will offer some reflections on the theme of the ‘yellow peril’ and the representation of a nature bent by technology, and then discuss the subsequent developments of the representation of the war of the future in Robida’s creative journey.


Notes

[1]   Pierre Giffard, La guerre infernale, illustrated by Albert Robida (Paris: Èdition Méricant, 1908), 30 weekly instalments, in-4°, 952 pp.

[2]   For an overview on recent scholarship on Robida and indications for further reading: Iannuzzi, “The Cruel Imagination,” 194-195; secondary sources of particular note are: Philippe Brun, Albert Robida, 1848-1926. Sa vie, son œuvre. Suivi d’une bibliographie complète de ses écrits et dessins (Paris: Editions Promodis, 1984); Daniel Compère, ed., Albert Robida du passé au futur. Un auteur-illustrateur sous la IIIe République (Paris: Belles Lettres, 2006); Sandrine Doré, “Albert Robida (1848-1926), un dessinateur fin de siècle dans la société des images” (doctoral thesis, Université Paris Ouest Nanterre La Défense, 2014).

[3]   Jacques Seray, Pierre Giffard, précurseur du journalisme moderne. Du Paris-Brest à l’affaire Dreyfus (Toulouse: Le Pas d’oiseau, 2008); C.G.P.C.S.M.-Fontaine d’histoire, La Famille Giffard (Fontaine le Dun: Fontaine d’histoire, 2007).

[4]   “… thanks to the humorous form, the author was able to secure the collaboration of one of the wittiest pencils of our time, who was a big asset to his work, to say the least.” Pierre Giffard, La vie en chemin de fer, illustrated by Albert Robida (Paris: A la Libraire illustrée, [1888]), Bibliothèque nationale de France, Gallica, ark:/12148/bpt6k1028744.

[5]   Marc Angenot, “Albert Robida’s Twentieth Century,” Science Fiction Studies 10, no. 2 (July 1983): 237-240; Philippe Brun, Albert Robida, 1848-1926. Sa vie, son œuvre. Suivi d’une bibliographie complète de ses écrits et dessins (Paris: Editions Promodis, 1984), 33; Philippe Willems, “A Stereoscopic Vision of the Future: Albert Robida’s Twentieth Century,” Science Fiction Studies 26, no. 3 (November 1999): 354-378, esp. 358 and note 7.

[6]   On Robida’s representation(s) of women: Robida et l’émancipation de la Femme, thematic issue of Le Téléphonoscope. Bulletin des amis d’Albert Robida 21 (2014); Doré, “Albert Robida,” vol. 1, 98, 150-152, 244 note 825, 296-299; Sandrine Doré, “Entre caricature et anticipation, la Parisienne définie par Albert Robida (1848-1926),” L’art de la caricature, sous la direction de Ségolène Le Men (Nanterre: Presses universitaires de Paris Nanterre, 2011), electronic edition, doi: 10.4000/books.pupo.2233; Dominique Lacaze, “Albert Robida, Explorer of the Twentieth Century,” part I, “Technical Innovation” and part II, “The Invention of a Society,” Futuribles 366 (2010): 61-70, and 367 (2010): 65-76, see II, 72-73. Depictions of women in the army by Robida are to be found in La Vie parisienne, as early as 1875, and in Le Vingtième Siècle (1883).

[7]   Willems, “A Stereoscopic Vision,” 360.

[8]   Albert Robida, Voyages très extraordinaires de Saturnin Farandoul dans les 5 ou 6 parties du monde et dans tous les pays connus et même inconnus de M. Jules Verne (Paris: Librairie illustrée- Librairie M. Dreyfous, 1880), Eng. trans. The Adventures of Saturnin Fanandoul, trans. Brian Stableford(Encino, CA: Black Coat Press, 2008).

[9]   On the representation of France at war and its ideological ambivalence in La guerre infernale: Paul Bleton, “La guerre telle qu’elle pourrait être,” Lublin Studies in Modern Languages and Literature 39, no. 1 (2015): 64-75, see 67, 70.

[10]   On the global conflict evoked in Le Vingtième siècle: Lacaze, “Albert Robida,” II, 74.

[11]  See also André Lange, “En attendant la guerre des ondes: les technologies de communication dans les anticipations militaires d’Albert Robida,” Le Téléphonoscope. Bulletin des amis d’Albert Robida 11 (2004): 7-17.

[12]  On Robida and aerial warfare: Alain Bernard, “Robida et les dirigeables,” Le Téléphonoscope. Bulletin des amis d’Albert Robida 10 (2003): 10-11; Marcellin Hodeir, “La guerre aérienne à travers la science-fiction: Albert Robida,” in Compère, Albert Robida, 117-126; here especially 120 for Robida’s inventions as extrapolations from technologies of his time.

[13]  On the possible influence of Robida on Well’s imagination on biological warfare: Helena Costa and Josep-E. Baños, “Bioterrorism in the Literature of the Nineteenth Century: The Case of Wells and ‘The Stolen Bacillus,’” Cogent Arts & Humanities 3, no. 1, doi: 10.1080/23311983.2016.1224538, see 6-7.

This post is adapted from Iannuzzi, G. (2019). “The Illustrator and the Global Wars to Come: Albert Robida, La guerre infernale, and the Long History of Imagined Warfare”, Cromohs – Cyber Review of Modern Historiography22, 95-136; par. “Techno-apocalypses”, pp. 118-121. DOI: 10.13128/cromohs-11706. Full text available in open access: https://oajournals.fupress.net/index.php/cromohs/article/view/11706.

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Cite this article as: Giulia Iannuzzi, "Visualising a global war: La guerre infernale," in Geographies of Time, 01/07/2021, https://ian.hypotheses.org/1792.

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