Air warfare from Zeppelin’s 1900 flight to neo-Edwardian fiction

A new post in the Anticipations and aerostatic warfare series – 3/3

After Zeppelin’s flight over Lake Constance in 1900 in a hydrogen-filled aluminium airship and the Wright brothers’ flight in 1903, investment in aircraft research and production by Western powers such as Germany and the United States increased dramatically. Air assaults such as those during the Italian invasion of Libya (1911-1912) and the Balkan Wars (1912-1913) demonstrated a new role for air warfare, not only in intelligence gathering but also in combat, to attack and destroy buildings, artillery and ground troops.

In Europe, Russia and the United States, the potential military applications of the new flight technologies were one of the main attractions around which an ‘air-mindedness’, coagulated – that popular fascination with airships which gave rise to a series of clubs, societies, shows and competitions devoted to gliders and rockets.

Attacks from the sky were to be found in key works in the history of future wars such as Robur-le-Conquérant and Maître du Monde by Jules Verne (1886, 1904) and The War in the Air and The World Set Free by H. G. Wells (1908, 1914). Air-to-ground battles and airborne weaponry remained a constant feature of future war narratives throughout the 20th century.

The author who codified the idea of future warfare fought with balloons with perhaps the greatest vividness and inventiveness between the 19th and early 20th centuries was Albert Robida. A journalist and caricaturist as well as a novelist and illustrator, Robida imagined entire societies revolutionised by the use of electricity, human flight and other incredible inventions in telecommunications.

Illustrated novels such as La guerre au vingtième siècle (1887) and La guerre infernale (1908, with Pierre Giffard) drew inspiration from conflicts fought on the fringes of European space, such as the Russo-Turkish War (1877-1878) and the Russo-Japanese War (1904-1905), which reached the French media with documentation, including photographs, of the massacres. In the designer’s fictional imagination, the balloon remained, alongside gliders and aeroplanes, a central element in the creation of a futuristic sense of wonder. Thus, during the 1937-1938 world war imagined in La guerre infernale, the Channel was again crossed by French air armies, this time not to attack but to rescue London, threatened by a German offensive (see Figure below).

Albert Robida, illustration for La guerre infernale by Pierre Giffard, Paris, Èdition Méricant, 1908, detail of the back cover of the first fascicle. Copy at the British Library, London. Work in the public domain, photo by the author.


In the age of aeroplanes and spaceships, far from waning, the trope of the balloon has been re-functionalised and recurs in alternate history narratives. In the lively trend that since the 1980s has been known with labels such as steampunk or dieselpunk, alternate historical courses are imagined by changing known premises, starting from nineteenth- and early twentieth-century settings.

Writers and designers depict a retro-futuristic steam age in which, for example, the analogue computer was invented or in which aerostatic flight reached heights of sophistication unknown in history. Contemporary authors are explicitly inspired by predecessors such as Verne and Robida, taking pleasure in inventing futures that look back to the past.

The balloon is now central to a whole new strand of imagined wars and war technologies. The airship lifted by lighter-than-air gases has become the manifesto of a new aesthetic and synthesises the ambivalent relationship that neo-Victorian and neo-Edwardian fiction has with the course of events in the real world, a relationship of recreation and resistance, of fetishization of the past, questioning the idea of a progressive and teleological historical diachrony.


In literary and figurative invention we find vivid evidence of the consequences that armed confrontation, mass violence and the application of techno-science for the purpose of war have produced in the European mind in the late modern and contemporary eras.

The fact that an omnivorous Italian memorabilia collector like Diego de Henriquez planned to devote the final section of his War for Peace Museum to the anticipations of science fiction clearly testifies to his interest in the effects of war on all levels of society – including cultural and symbolic – as well as the pedagogical ambitions that increasingly characterised his projects in the 1940s and 1960s.

The anonymous novel The Reign of George VI had imagined, immediately after the Treaty of Paris in 1763, an alternative course of the Seven Years’ War, projecting a global conflict between Britain and France into the future. The pamphlet Anticipation (1778) employed a futuristic and exquisitely satirical mechanism to comment on the actuality of British parliamentary debates on the American War of Independence. Between the 1790s and 1805 literary and figurative works had interpreted French ambitions (and specular British fears) of an invasion of Britain, such as the etching La Thiloriere (1803), in which Jean Louis Argaud de Barges envisaged the transportation of Gallic armies across the Channel in huge balloons. Through the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries of Edgard Allan Poe, Jules Verne, Albert Robida and H. G. Wells, the aerostat recurred in futuristic wars, continuing to be part of the repertoire of a narrative genre that was being codified. In this guise it has survived into the 2000s, and proliferates in contemporary steampunk, where it becomes the epitome of the ambivalent relationship that neo-Victorian and neo-Edwardian science fiction entertain with history.

References

A. J. Echevarria II, Imagining Future War: The West’s Technological Revolution and Visions of Wars to Come, 1880-1914, Westport, CT-London, Praeger Security International, 2007, pp. 81-94.

Ariela Freedman, Zeppelin Fictions and the British Home Front, in: “Journal of Modern Literature”, No. 27, 3, 2004, pp. 47-62.

I. Csicsery-Ronay Jr, ‘Empire’, in The Routledge Companion to Science Fiction, edited by M. Bould, A. M. Butler, A. Roberts, and S. Vint, London and New York, Routledge, 2009, pp. 362-72.

J. Verne, Robur-le-Conquérant (1886), Paris, Hetzel, 1890; J. Verne, Maître du Monde, Paris, Hetzel, 1904.

H. G. Wells, The War in the Air: And Particularly How Mr. Bert Smallways Fared While It Lasted, London, George Bell and Sons, 1908.

H. G. Wells, The World Set Free: A Story of Mankind, New York, E.P. Dutton & Company, 1914.

A. Robida, La guerre au vingtième siècle, Paris, Georges Decaux, 1887.

P. Giffard, La guerre infernale, illustrated by Albert Robida, Paris, Èdition Méricant, 1908.

G. Iannuzzi, The illustrator and the global wars to come. Albert Robida, La guerre infernale, and the long history of imagined warfare, in: “Cromohs” 22, 2019, pp. 95-136, doi: https://doi.org/10.13128/cromohs-11706.

R. A. Bowser and B. Croxall, ed., Steampunk, Science, and (Neo)Victorian Technologies, monographic issue of “Neo-Victorian Studies”, no. 3, 1, 2010.

Board game: Scythe: The Wind Gambit, designer Jamey Stegmaier, edition Stonemaier Games at al., 2017.

Video game: BioShock Infinite, director Ken Levine, production Irrational Games, 2013.

M. Perschon, Steam Wars, in: “Neo-Victorian Studies”, no. 3, 12010, pp. 127-66.

E. Guffey and K. C. Lemay, ‘Retrofuturism and Steampunk’, in The Oxford Handbook of Science Fiction, edited by R. Latham, Oxford, Oxford University Press, 2014, pp. 434-48.

G. Iannuzzi, Il collezionista di guerre future. Un percorso nelle collezioni di Diego de Henriquez presso i Civici Musei di Trieste, “Qualestoria”, 1,2020 pp. 98-110.

This blog post is adapted from Giulia Iannuzzi, Guerre del futuro: Anticipazioni e aerostati da battaglia, dall’invasione napoleonica della Gran Bretagna al conflitto mondiale del 1937, in Ragioni Comuni 2017-18, ed. Ilaria Micheli (Trieste: EUT, 2022), 127-142. ISBN: 9788855113076, eISNB: 9788855113083.

Anticipations, celebrations, satires

A new post in the Anticipations and aerostatic warfare series – 2/3

Imaginary wars, projected onto the future of Europe as ominous warnings and political arguments, were part of the emergence of a conception of history pliable by human action. This colonisation of the future within fictional narratives at the end of the eighteenth century already had some significant precedents. One such precedent, The Reign of George VI,[1] was a curious novel – or rather a fictional treatise on the history of the future – published in London in 1763, which offered a fascinating proto-fantascientific remake of the Seven Years’ War. The anonymous author, dissatisfied with the terms of the Treaty of Paris, imagined that the dispute between France and Britain might end very differently in the future, leading to British supremacy over all of continental Europe and global maritime trade. The pamphlet was written in the form of a historical reconstruction of events that took place in the twentieth century, testifying to a mixture of genres between typical modes of historical-political reflection and propaganda and an emerging narrative invention.[2] Continue reading “Anticipations, celebrations, satires”

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