The Battle of Dorking

identifier: 2014001 BATTLE DORKING


The Battle of Dorking: Reminiscences of a Volunteer by [George Tomkyns Chesney]. William Blackwood and Sons, Edinburgh and London, 1871. Pamphlet, 64 pages and 8 pages of advertisements, plus cover. ‘Price sixpence’ and ‘From Blackwood’s Magazine May 1871’ on front cover, and 1871 date in roman numerals at foot of title page. Illustration By W. Patterson. Size: 111mm x 169mm.

‘You ask me to tell you, my grandchildren, something about my own share in the great events that happened fifty years ago. ‘Tis sad work turning back to that bitter page in our history, but you may perhaps take profit in your new homes from the lesson it teaches. For us in England it came too late. And yet we had plenty of warnings, if we had only made use of them.’

War of the Worlds by H.G. Wells wasn’t the only Victorian fiction to set an invasion in Surrey. The Battle of Dorking: Reminiscences of a Volunteer is an 1871 novella by George Tomkyns Chesney, starting the genre of invasion literature and an important precursor of science fiction. Written just after the Prussian victory in the Franco-Prussian War, it describes an invasion of Britain by an unnamed country similar to Germany.

BattleDorking002[click to read]

The Battle of Dorking was first published as a serial in Blackwood’s Magazine. After seven reprints of the May issue, the story was printed as a stand-alone pamphlet in June 1871, and later as a hardback. It went through several editions and engaged the interest of soldiers and politicians, as well as the reading public. ‘..with translations into French, German, Danish, Dutch, Italian and Portuguese [it] had considerable impact across many areas of British public life, spawned an entire genre of “invasion literature,” and presaged science fiction tales of alien invasion, such as H.G. Wells’ 1898 classic The War of the Worlds.’ [Patrick M. Kirkwood] The version offered here is the pamphlet, the first edition as an independent text.

Chesney was a captain in the Royal Engineers and had grown concerned over the ramshackle state of Britain’s armed forces. He used fiction as a device to promulgate his views after letters and journalism on the issue had failed to impact on the public consciousness. The Franco-Prussian War (1870-1871) had just demonstrated the speed, superiority and adaptability of the Prussian Army, which meant that Chesney’s depiction of a fast-moving and determined invader hit a nerve.

The story is told as a narrative by an unnamed veteran who participated in the Battle of Dorking and is recounting the final days before and during the invasion of Britain. It is addressed to his grandchildren as an event fifty years past. Beginning sometime after an event similar to the Franco-Prussian War, concerns grow with the mobilisation of armed forces near the Netherlands. The Royal Navy is destroyed by a wonder-weapon (“fatal engines”), and an invasion force suddenly lands near Harwich, Essex, England. Demilitarisation and lack of training means that the army is forced to mobilise auxiliary units from the general public, led by ineffective and inexperienced officers. The two armies ultimately converge outside Dorking in Surrey, where the British line is cut through by the advancing enemy, and the survivors on the British side are forced to flee. The story ends with the conquest of Britain and its conversion into a heavily-taxed province of the invading empire. The British Empire is broken up, with only Gibraltar and Malta being kept by the victorious Germans. Canada and the West Indies are ceded to the United States, whilst Australia, India and Ireland are all granted independence, with Ireland entering a lengthy civil war as a direct result. [adapted from Wikipedia and other online sources]

‘A little firmness and self-denial, or political courage and foresight, might have averted this disaster, I feel that the judgment must have really been deserved. A nation too selfish to defend its liberty, could not have been fit to retain it. To you, my grandchildren, who are now going to seek a new home in a more prosperous land, let not this bitter lesson be lost upon you in the country of your adoption.’

I would encourage you to read the article by Patrick M. Kirkwood, ‘The impact of fiction on public debate in late Victorian Britain: The Battle of Dorking and the “Lost Career ” of Sir George Tomkyns Chesney’, in Graduate History Review (free download)

Kirkwood explains: ‘In this article, I contend that such an approach overlooks the story’s wider political and cultural significance, and that historians have not yet given Dorking its full due.’

He concludes: ‘In re-examining the career of its creator, Sir George Tomkyns Chesney, we find him to be a rather more substantial figure than is often noted. He was a highly competent and decorated military officer, an educational and military reformer of significant standing in both India and Great Britain, a colonial administrator of some ability, an unusually-independent actor in the factious Victorian British and Indian Armies, and a successful politician. These are no small achievements, and should not be so obscured by the literary fame of the “brilliant skit” for which he is remembered.’

Final words from Dorking Museum’s website:

‘Though its notoriety arose from the concerns of its time – the birth of a unified Germany, the unfitness of the army, and the development of new means of transport and communication – the tale had a long life in public consciousness in both Britain and Germany. In the 1940s a German edition was issued to Hitler’s army under the title ‘Was England Erwartet’: What England Expects.’

A pertinent story to read as we commemorate the First World War.


Condition: Generally good. “Chesney” is written in ink on title page. The colour of the paper cover is somewhat faded in some areas, and I have made minor professional repairs to the inside edges. I have repaired one corner of the title page. Small paper loss to lower spine (spine rolled), very small tear on front page at sewing. Now in an acid-free paper wallet, in cloth boards, ready for your bookshelf.

Price: £65.00 plus postage

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