I had never heard of this novel until I bought a copy a couple of months ago at the Bristol Radical History Festival. It been reprinted by Tangent Books after many years out of print. Fawcett was just 17 when he write this account of an attack by an anarchist airship on London.
The novel is set in 1920, the main protagonist Stanley is a reformist socialist, opposed to the violence of the anarchist groups whose views are gaining traction. The most notorious is Hartmann who tried to blow up the German Crown Prince when he was in London, but killed 50 passers-by instead. He is believed drowned at sea when trying to escape, but Stanley discovers he is alive. In the company of the anarchist journalist Burnett he is taken on board an advanced airship the Attila, built by Hartmann in Switzerland, and with which he plans to attack London. Stanley meets Hartmann at last:
Seated before a writing-desk, studded with knobs of electric bells and heaped with maps and instruments, sat a bushy-bearded man with straight piercing glance and a forehead physiognomists would have envied. There was the same independent look, the same cruel hardness that had stamped the mien of the youth, but the old impetuous air had given way to a cold inflexible sedateness, far more appropriate to the dread master of the Attila. As I advanced into the room, he rose, a grand specimen of manhood, stand- ing full six feet three inches in his shoes. He shook hands more warmly than I had expected, and motioned me tacitly to a seat.
Hartmann tells Stanley of his plans:
“But, understand, the day when the first bomb falls will witness outbreaks in every great city in Europe. We have some 12,000 adherents in London, many more in Paris, Berlin, and elsewhere— they will stir the tumult below. Lon-don is my objective to start with. During the tem-pests of bombs, the anarchists below will fire the streets in all directions, rouse up the populace, and let loose pandemonium upon earth. In the confu-sion due to our attack, order and precautions will be impossible.”
The Attila runs up a flag “Thus Returns Hartmann the Anarchist” and begins the attack on the Houses of Parliament
Horror of horrors, the great tower had fallen on the crowd, bruising into jelly a legion of buried wretches, and beating into ruins the whole mass of buildings opposite. Every outlet from the neighbourhood was being furiously fought for, hordes of screaming, shrieking madmen were fatting, crushing and stamping their victims into heaps, and with the growth of each writhing heap the ghastly confusion grew also. Of the Houses of Parliament pinnacles were collapsing and walls were being riven asunder as the shells burst within them. But this spectacle, grievous of its kind, was as nothing to the other. With eyes riveted now to the massacre, I saw frantic women trodden down by men ; huge clearings made by the shells and instantly filled up ; house-fronts crushing horses and vehicles as they fell ; fires bursting out on all sides, to devour what they listed, and terrified police struggling wildly and helplessly in the heart of the press. The roar of the guns was continuous, and every missile found its billet. Was I in Pandemonium ? I saw Burnett, black with grime, hounding his comrades on to the slaughter. I heard the roar of Schwartz’s bombs, and the roar of the burning and falling houses. Huge circles of flame raved beneath us, and shot up their feverish and scorching breath. The Attila drunk with slaughter, was careering in continually fresh tracts, spreading havoc and desolation everywhere.
Stanley manages to escape from the Attila which in the end is destroyed by Hartmann himself after receiving a letter from his dying mother and realising that Londoners are not rallying to his cause:
… a crash shattering the window-panes and deadening the car, a shock hurling us both on our backs, broke the utterance. Then thundered down a shower of massive fragments, fragments of the vast ship whose decks I had once trodden. Hartmann, dismayed with the failure of his plans and rendered desperate by the letter, had blown up the Attila ! The news of his failure and the message of a dying woman had done what human hatred was too impotent even to hope for.
The novel finishes thus;
But little more remains to be said. You are conversant with the story of the next few days. You know also how order was once more completely re- established, how the wreckage of that fell twenty-four hours was slowly replaced by modern buildings, how gradually the Empire recovered from the shock, and how dominant henceforth became the great problems of labour. My own connection with these latter was not destined to endure. After my marriage with Lena, my interests took a different turn. Travel and literary studies left no room for the surlier duties of the demagogue. Writing from this quiet German retreat I can only hope that my brief narrative will prove of some interest to you. It has not been my aim to write history. I have sought to throw light only on one of its more romantic corners, and if I have succeeded in doing so, the whole purpose of my efforts will have been accomplished.
Fawcett was clearly a fan of Jules Verne, one of the most popular fantasy authors of the C19th. In particular it seems to me that Hartmann draws heavily on Verne’s 1870 novel, 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, in which Captain Nemo commands an advanced submarine that can travel the world’s oceans unchallenged and on occasions attacks and sinks ships.