George Tomkyns Chesney
by Alicia Barnes

'The Battle of Dorking' (1871) was the first work of fiction by George Tomkyns Chesney (1830-1895), a ground-breaking text that inaugurated the popular genre of invasion-scare literature. Chesney had worked in the British Army from 1848 and spent most of his career as an engineer. Working in India, he was injured during the British efforts to put down the Indian Rebellion (1857). From 1860, he began working directly with imperial infrastructure in India, writing Indian Polity (1868) which became a staple textbook of civil service training courses. He founded and was the first principal of the Royal Indian Civil Engineering College in Egham, which trained civil engineers specifically for roles in the Indian Public Works department.

Dragon's teeth
Dragon's teeth

Chesney’s military career and training meant he had an acute awareness of the importance of functional infrastructure to successful state organisation. After the defeat of France in the Franco-Prussian War (1871), Britain’s military leaders felt anxious about the shift of power on the continent.

Early discussions about the possibility of building an underwater railway connecting Britain to the European continent were ongoing at this time, with major concerns about security constantly being raised. ‘The Battle of Dorking’ is filled with anxieties about national infrastructure, military training and the new German power.

In the tale, after this new German power defeats the British navy in the Channel, a territorial invasion is launched from the South coast. The narrator recounts his movements around London and Surrey after his Volunteer regiment is called up to fight as part of Britain’s front line of defence. The tour of Surrey the story offers is centred around the section of the North Downs in the Surrey Hills, an area of outstanding natural beauty. It is along this ‘chalk-range’ that leads south to Dover – where the Channel tunnel was to be built – that the fight for Britain takes place. The Volunteer troops take the train from Waterloo south through Surrey to Horsham, where they alight, and march back north, climbing Leith Hill and Box Hill. The beauty of the Surrey Hills offers the troops a brief moment of respite, as well as a reminder for what they are fighting for as they enjoy “a commanding view of one of the most beautiful scenes in England.”

Sir George Tomkyns Chesney, The Battle of Dorking

Stationed along the North Downs way, you can still find pillboxes: defensive military guard-posts. These were built in the early part of the second world war should Britain need to be defended against an invasion by Germany. These, along with anti-tank defences also still to be found throughout Surrey towns, formed a defensive ring around London. Chesney’s ‘The Battle of Dorking’ was the first text that imagined Surrey to be the soul of Britain, which if lost to the enemy, would mean the downfall of the nation. A wooded county within commuting distance from London, late-nineteenth-century Surrey provided an idyllic contrast to the urban sprawl of London, as well as being a gateway to the capital.

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