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Saturday, 7 June 2008

A Little Research can be a Dangerous Thing

Every now and then one is presented with a book that leads one down previously untrodden paths. So it was that a very tatty copy of Sir Ernest Dunlop Swinton's book, entitled Eyewitness, did not immediately invoke cries of delight from me, but my interest quickened when I saw the inscription on the front end-paper, 'to H. G. Wells, with the compliments of the author' etc. That alone would save it from the rubbish heap, if I had anything to do with it. However, the subtitle of the volume declared it to be personal reminiscences of the Great War, including the genesis of the tank - both subjects of almost complete indifference to me - so I thought it prudent to do a little research before trying to sell the book to the highest bidder and so on.
In these days of the web, it should be possible to find almost anything 'on-line', as they say, but this does require some expertise, which I do not profess to have acquired. It must have been by sheer dumb luck that somewhere round about the eleventh answer among many, offered by my web-crawler/spider, the magic phrase popped up "Papers and correspondence relating to Swinton's libel action brought against Herbert George (H G) Wells on the origin of the tank". This was merely the title of a file full of papers held by a military archive in the UK; so the information stopped right there, and no matter what I tried, I obviously lacked the credentials to enter the hallowed halls of military history. A few other avenues supplied some meagre facts, which at least enabled me to piece together a satisfactory description which tempted some clients to place their bids, and the item was subsequently sold.
Still, there was that unrequited curiosity, to really discover what had happened. Recently I had some spare time and decide to consult my oracle once more - but in different directions. To google is to emerge triumphant, or so the modern generation would say, while others swear that Wikipedia is king. In this case I have to acknowledge the worth of both. In less than an hour of earnest endeavour, much was revealed.
Major General Sir Ernest Swinton had the abovementioned book published in 1932. He describes his revelation to the art of tank warfare as follows: " ..within the last two weeks my vague idea of an armoured vehicle had definitely crystallized in the form of a power-driven, bullet-proof, armed engine, capable of destroying machine guns, of crossing country and trenches, of breaking through entanglements, and of climbing earthworks. But the difficulty was to find or evolve something which would fulfil these conditions - especially the last three. It was upon this that my mind was concentrated, straight ahead, in the clear morning air above the ground mist, came into view the phare(strait) of Calais. Like a beam from that same lighthouse the idea flashed across my brain - the American Caterpillar Tractor at Antwerp ! I recalled its reputed performance. If this agricultural machine could really do all that report credited it with, why should it not be modified and adapted to suit our present requirements for war? The key to the problem lay in the caterpillar track ! " He was possibly a little economical with sketching the part that the Royal Naval Air Service and a certain commodore were to play in the actual development of the idea, leading to some acrimony from the latter in the events that were to follow.
Of H. G. Wells there are but two mentions in the book. In it Sir Ernest admits to the following : " I was also shewn an old copy of the Strand Magazine of 1903, containing Mr. H. G. Wells' marvellous forecast - The Land Ironclads - in which immense armoured machines, propelled on the Pedrail system, were employed in land warfare. I had read this story when it first came out, but had looked upon it as a pure phantasy and had entirely forgotten it. The development of the internal-combustion engine seemed likely to bring about the realization on a less grandiose scale of Mr. Wells' dream." This was by way of an afterthought somewhere in the middle of the book.
All might have continued well if he had not become somewhat immoderately proud of his achievements. On the 15th of February 1940, Swinton made the public statement on air, during a BBC programme, that ' I put this idea forward and so the tank was conceived,' referring to caterpillar propulsion proposal put forward in 1914.
This was reported to H. G. Wells by some well-meaning person, and the rather irascible old writer dashed off a letter to The Listener, launching a vitriolic attack on Swinton, who was supposedly declaring himself as the inventor of an idea fully and explicitly described as early as 1903 by Wells in his work The Land Ironclads. As a coup de grace Wells added that Sir Ernest did not even fully understand the idea that he was 'lifting' from the author's earlier work.
So another puzzle raises its head. If the fateful statement was made in February, why was the book's inscription dated September 1940? Did Swinton try to appease Wells by presenting him with his entire genesis of the idea of tank warfare - did he think that when Wells saw that Swinton did, in fact give him 'honourable mention', he would desist or retract? In the book, the two quoted passages above are both highlighted with pencil in the margins, and one cannot help but wonder - was that Wells' hand, to emphasize the slight he felt, or Swinton's - a conciliatory and explanatory gesture? Or just a subsequent reader who knew the story?
Whichever, Wells had his head in a legal noose, even though he did not claim to be the inventor himself. His description of the 'ironclads' and the technology described, was neither clear nor practical. Wells' claim that Swinton did not understand the use of tanks was certainly defamatory. While Swinton's ideas on tank construction were in their infancy, but he had a conception of how useful they could be on the field of battle. The aged writer made a fool of himself and the libel suit brought by Swinton in 1941 was settled out of court, and Wells had to pay damages and costs.
All of which may have contributed to the rather derelict and unloved appearance of the book in question. It would not surprise me if H. G. had binned it in a fit of pique.

Harris J. P, Men, Ideas, and Tanks, Manchester University Press 1995
Swinton, Major General Sir E. D, Eyewitness, Hodder & Stoughton 1932