A green sludge

Suddenly a long tongue of the spume thrust straight downwards, and then sprayed like an immense puff of smoke.

This illustration, by A. C. Michael, is from T. Donovan Bayley's 'When the sea failed her' which appeared in Pall Mall Magazine in May 1909. It's subtitled 'The story of a war between England and the allies, and the terrible way it ended'. It's that terrible ending which makes this story stand out for me.

Across the chart of Europe was a thin blue line ... and along this a speck of iron was slowly moving ... 'Is it all right?' Grant asked.

It takes place during an invasion of Britain by European powers. Britain is losing. The fleet has been defeated off the Nore and London is under siege and is being shelled. But it unknowingly has a secret weapon, thanks to the Tesla-like scientist Angus Grant. He works on top of a hill in a laboratory filled with electrical apparatus which occasionally crackles purple lightning into the sky. One of the rooms inside has some unusual equipment:

One side of it was occupied by a large frame, stretched tightly across which was a transparent sheet of tracing cloth, lighted from behind, and marked with dark lines forming tiny squares. Every tenth line was numbered, and a red arrow pointed to the north, Across the chart was a thin blue line, leading east-north-east, and along this a speck of iron was slowly moving, watched by a young man [...] In front of the luminous screen was an arrangement similar to the keyboard of a typewriter, but containing only ten levers. These were attached to electric leads, and each one, when depressed, established contact with one of the ten copper rods immediately underneath, which stood in a row projecting through a vulcanite slab.1

The screen is a map of Europe, and the 'thin blue line' shows the path of Grant's 'aero-torpedo' which is on its way to Berlin. What's an aero-torpedo, you ask?

"It carries things in the air, and he directs it from his laboratory."

"The keyboard and the lighted screen?" she asked.

"That's it. That and the moving dot."

"But how?"

"No one but the master knows that. He presses levers and they alter the wireless somehow. Then the aero-torpedo shifts accordingly. It's something to do with ether waves, whatever they are, or so I've heard."

"Are there men up in it?"

"No; that's what makes it so wonderful. It gets its power from our dynamos, and that's how it's steered too. That's why it can carry so much green powder."2

I'll come back to this green powder in a moment.

Two hours later Grant locked down five of the ten keys. The moving dot no longer crept forward, but rotated slowly on its axis. He went across to the wall, unlocked a framed switchboard, and pulled the vulcanite handle down. On the roof another "spark" waked to fury. He took his watch out and counted the minutes by it.

"The cylinder seal is fused," he whispered, reversing the switch, and the "spark" on the roof died away. "It's half-past six in Berlin," he thought; "they're celebrating their victory, and the streets are full. I've timed it well."3

He did too. Unter den Linden is full of cheering crowds. At first there is just a sound, lasting over an hour, a 'steady, sibilant humming, persistent and penetrating, and indefinably terrifying'. Then the aero-torpedo itself becomes visible, 'a tiny spot in shape like a dragon-fly, dimly glinting brassily'. It is suddenly blotted out by a mist which slowly grows larger in size: the green powder has been released. The sun is eclipsed and birds fall from the sky.

Few could bear the horror of the phenomenon any longer, and there was a rush of panic-stricken men and women to get beneath a roof, but before the crowds could unlock and disperse death came down.

A clammy green rain, gently persistent, fell, and wherever it settled it corroded.

The stone-work of the city seethed as the mist wet it, and screams of pain broke from the lips of those whom it touched. Their eyeballs were seared and blinded; the skin on their faces shrivelled and cracked and peeled, and their hands were rotted down to the raw sinews.

Every breath was a misery. Within a minute not a soul who remained in the streets was left alive. Their lungs were perforated, and the dying wretches were mercifully choked by their gushing blood. By noon nothing remained in the streets of Berlin but a green sludge, out of which protruded fragments of the larger bones of the dead.4

After Berlin, Paris and then 'the large industrial towns of Europe' are destroyed. Only those who flee to the countryside survive.

As each report of fresh ruin was spread abroad, the clamour for an end to the war grew more insistent.5

The allies soon sue for peace and so, even though 'the sea failed her', Britain has won after all.

What I love about this story is its extreme nature. The struggle for national existence is all. The prospect of a British defeat at the hands of a foreign invader is blithely seen to justify the extermination of millions of enemy civilians. There is an implicit acknowledgement that this might be immoral in Grant's decision to destroy the aero-torpedo at the end of the story, but as he doesn't even show the slightest remorse it in no way invalidates his prior actions.

This sort of thing is partly why I doubt Sven Lindqvist's argument, in A History of Bombing (2002), that the idea of bombing civilians was racist and genocidal in origin, that is, to ensure white supremacy by destroying the other. As evidence he cites stories like Jack London's 'The unparalleled invasion' (1910), in which the Chinese race is wiped out by biological weapons dropped from the air. But in fact the knock-out blow was rarely employed against non-Europeans in speculative fiction: it was about nationalism, not imperialism. In Bayley's story, the millions of Europeans aren't even depicted in any way inferior to the British, who would turn into green sludge just as surely as the Germans and French if the green powder were to be used against them.

'When the sea failed her' is of course also interesting for its early anticipation of, not just aerial bombardment, but chemical warfare too. Discussions of this are fairly rare before 1914. But perhaps most interesting is the portrayal of an unmanned aerial vehicle. Bayley has put some thought into how you might actually control one using contemporary technology, with his typewriter-like keyboard, luminous cloth screens and cylinder seal fuses. The radiant power source is straight out of Tesla.

As for who T. Donovan Bayley was, I sadly have no idea. He did write a few other science fiction stories for British periodicals around this time, at least one of which also deals with a superweapon ('The frozen death'), but otherwise seems to be unknown to history. I suspect an alias.

CC BY-NC-ND 4.0 This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International License. Permissions beyond the scope of this license may be available at http://airminded.org/copyright/.

  1. T. Donovan Bayley, 'When the sea failed her', Pall Mall Magazine 9 (May 1909), 541. []
  2. Ibid., 544. []
  3. Ibid., 546. []
  4. Ibid. []
  5. Ibid., 547. []

7 thoughts on “A green sludge

  1. Erik Lund

    Or he was a young man larking about. Then the war made a man out of him (he served with distinction in a mobile laundry company), and married a chidhood sweetheart on demob. To support his new family, he got a job with Wenham Hogg, and from 1920 to his retirement in 1960, would read the morning papers every day on his way to work at Slough and think to himself, "I could write better than this."

    Trust me, it's a happier story than I've usually encountered when I try to track down the authors of one-off DAW science fiction specials from the early '70s.

  2. Post author

    Could be. I might have said the name 'T. Donovan Bayley' sounds like an alias, but then again about half the real names of the Edwardian period do ...

  3. Erik Lund

    The name actually reminded me of British science fiction writer J. Barrington Bayley (1937--2008). Like many British SFers of his generation, Bayley frequently wrote under pseudonyms, but this was his real name. Bayley published his first short at 16, went on to join the RAF before turning to full-time writing, and, apparently, was influenced by the ideas of J. W. Dunne!
    Apparently, he was also a rather strange duck, which is presumably why he kept on writing, instead of going to work for an office supply company.

  4. David Jordan

    It seems likely that he also appears under the moniker Donovan Bayley, writing a piece for Pall Mall in 1912 called 'On Manoeuvres: Flight in HM Aeroplane "Golden Eagle".

    In summary, this is an account of a journalist crossing the Atlantic in this bemoth of the skies (almost a Douhetian 'Battleplane') when it's sent on a exercise tasked with destroying the Red Fleet during an exercise. Everett Franklin Bleiler [sic] et al in 'Science-fiction, the early years', state:

    'The mission of the Golden Eagle is to destroy the Red Fleet on manoeuvres. According to the crew [of the Golden Eagle] the exercise was highly successful, but the naval men interpet things differently.' This boils down to the airship claiming to have sunk two ships, while the 'Red Fleet' claims to have shot the airship down before it had a chance to attack. Plus ca change...

    He also wrote a piece called 'How the Grey Lady Died' in the March 1911 edition of the Pall Mall Magazine in which the 'Grey Lady', an airship which has outclassed intercepting fighters to date, is brought down by a monoplane called 'The Eagle' - the end coming when the airship shoots down the aircraft at close range, but the wreck of the aircraft smashes into the gasbag and it blows up.

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