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.
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."
"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.
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- T. Donovan Bayley, 'When the sea failed her', Pall Mall Magazine 9 (May 1909), 541.
- Ibid., 544.
- Ibid., 546.
- Ibid., 547.