War of the Worlds at Sea
By Mike Bennighof, Ph.D.
Just as written history isn’t really about
the past, neither is science fiction really
about the future. In both cases, authors illuminate
their own society through the lens of past
or future — usually consciously, sometimes
H.G. Wells wrote popular history, designed
wargames, and later became a world-renowned
leftist intellectual. And in the finest of
his works, War of the Worlds, the narrator
of this tale of the invasion of Earth by Martians
is a newspaper reporter. Hard not to identify.
In his 1898 novel, Wells portrays an Earth
under attack by Martian colonialists, who
offer no warnings, offer no explanation or
justification for their actions — they
simply arrive, massacre the Earthlings and
feast on the survivors. It is a remarkable
construct of how African or Asian victims
of British colonial invasion must have felt
at the arrival of blood-thirsty aliens (in
the case of the Martians, literally blood-thirsty).
Wells places English civilians in the place
of the hapless victims, running blindly about
while their military forces are swept away
with laughable ease; “it’s bows and arrows
against the lightning anyhow,” the Artilleryman
puts it when he and the narrator encounter
an artillery battery preparing to battle the
invaders, “they ’aven’t seen the fire-beam
War of the Worlds has been the subject
of four films, all of them fairly bad and
most of them attempting to “modernize” the story (and in the case of the excremental
Spielberg version, to add his ever-present “child
in danger” theme — something not
present in Wells’ novel but surely interesting
to any Freudian). None of them capture the
essence of Wells, overlaying the angst of
their own era instead. George Pal’s 1953 film
uses the Martians as stand-ins for fear of
nuclear war; the straight-to-video 2005 film
by David Michael Latt with a surprisingly
good C. Thomas Howell in the lead role makes
them a metaphor for terrorism. The Spielberg-Tom
Cruise high-budget epic appears to frame the
Martians as representations of bitchy ex-wives
oppressing hard-working divorced fathers.
There’s a rarely-seen straight-to-video film
by Timothy Hines that attempts to follow Wells
more closely but is badly executed.
The 2019 BBC mini-series came closer to the Wells original, giving the narrator a live-in girlfriend (while not consistent with the novel, this does dovetail with Wells’ then-radical views on love, marriage and co-habitation). Eleanor Tomlinson does a lot of running away from the Martians (and even swims away from them) but otherwise the action moves rather slowly. The naval battle between the Channel Fleet and the Martians is re-worked into a much simpler shootout between battleships and tripods. A series from Fox and StudioCanal, also titled War of the Worlds, was another modern update without much relation to Well’s novel.
The most faithful adaptation is the outstanding
1978 album, Jeff Wayne's Musical Version
of the War of the Worlds. Sir Richard
Burton narrates a script drawn closely from
Wells, with appearances by teen idol David
Essex as the Artilleryman, Phil “Thin
Lizzie” Lynott as the Parson and Chris
“Manfred Mann” Thompson as the Voice
of Humanity, Julie “Don't Cry For Me, Argentina” Covington as Beth the Parson’s Wife, among others.
The best way to experience Wells’ words,
of course, is to read them. The entire novel’s
available as a free
download from Project Gutenberg for Americans,
as War of the Worlds has long been
in the public domain in the United States
(actual public domain, not the gamer fantasy
definition, though this is not true in all
countries). It's not a long novel, well worth
reading — and if you’ve only seen a
movie version, you don’t know the story, so
the scenario that follows won’t make a whole
lot of sense otherwise.
The Flight from Harwich
Chapter 17 contains one of science fiction’s
most memorable scenes, the Royal Navy’s attempt
to protect fleeing civilians from the attacking
Martians. The narrator relates a scene described
to him by his brother. Channel ferries, fishing
boats and passenger liners — Dutch,
French, Swedish and German as well as English
— are crowding the Essex coast around
Harwich to take off refugees. The Channel
Fleet, so far helpless to intervene against
the unstoppable Martians, lies offshore as
As the narrator’s brother and two women
he encountered along the road board a steamer
for Ostend — despite one woman’s objections
that the French and the Martians are equally
repulsive — three Martian war machines
appear and wade into the surf to intercept
the refugees. The closest warship, the torpedo
ram Thunder Child, slashes past at
high speed to engage the enemy. Having moved
as deep as possible into the sea, the war
machines are now close the surface with most
of their legs under water. Purposely keeping
her guns silent until the last minute, the
ram cuts down one war machine before the Martians
fully recognize the threat she represents
and turn their heat rays on her. The burning
ship continues her attack run, reaching another
machine just as she explodes, taking the Martians
down with her.
The sacrifice buys time for the steamer to
escape; the narrator’s brother only sees the
rest of the Channel Fleet moving inshore to
engage the third war machine before passing
out of sight. It can’t be coincidence —
Wells is too good a storyteller — that
the British soldiers depicted in the novel
are often cowardly or trapped in military
ritual while the Royal Navy fanatically fights
to the last man.
Wells sets his novel in the early years
of the 20th century, but the military technology
deployed by both the British Army and the
Royal Navy is about a decade behind the time
of publication. Wells describes Thunder
Child as a “torpedo ram” with
two funnels, lying low in the water. The only
vessel approximating that description is the
torpedo ram Polyphemus, though she
only had one funnel and depended on her torpedoes
rather than her ram as her primary weapon.
While Polyphemus was already an outdated
weapon by the time Wells wrote and would be
scrapped in 1903, she entered English public
consciousness in 1885 and remained there for over
two decades. During that summer’s maneuvers,
she eluded protective torpedo boats outside
the Irish port of Berehaven, rammed and broke
the protective boom outside the harbor (made
up of steel hawsers five inches thick) and
“torpedoed” several battleships
of the Evolutionary Squadron as they lay at
The Royal Navy made much of the incident.
War scares with Russia were frequent during
the 1880s, and it was well known that Berehaven
stood in for the Russian fleet base of Kronstadt
during summer exercises. “Like Polyphemus breaking the boom” became a metaphor
for starting something with great
excitement. It appears, for example, in Rudyard
Kipling’s “Bonds of Discipline,” a short story published in 1904 in Traffic
and Discoveries. Thus, Wells’ use of a
seemingly obsolete warship is totally fitting
— Polyphemus/Thunder Child is
a well-known symbol of naval power, the 1890’s
answer to “shock and awe.”
Just when Wells positions his story is harder
to deduce 120-plus years later, but would have
been well known to many readers of the time.
The first signs of Martian activity come during
the May 1894 opposition of the two planets
(when they are at their closest); it was during
this opposition that astronomer Percival Lowell
charted canals on the red planet, causing
a sensation with his 1895 book Mars. Earth
and Mars come into opposition every 26 months;
people charted this closely in the late 1890’s
so they could see the canals for themselves. Wells (riding
the wave of Mars mania) mentions more preparation
being seen during the next two oppositions,
and implies that the invasion is launched
during the third following — November
1900. They land early in the following summer.
Great War at Sea Variant
Given H.G. Wells’ inspirational career as wargame designer,
journalist, historian and rouser of rabble,
who quit his soul-deadening teaching position to follow
these pursuits, it’s long past time we honored
his work with a Daily Content variant. Polyphemus doesn’t appear in any of our Great War
at Sea games, as she left the Royal Navy’s
active list well before any game situation
involving British forces. But we’re not limited
by such conventions, and today we introduce
the Martians and the Earth’s defenders.
This is a variant for our Jutland game, and you can download the new, free game
pieces here and the hit
You can also defend Earth online, through the WAS Fleet Command’s VASSAL module, found right here. Matt Brown and Robin Rathbun have created a free module for you to play with.
1. Martian Forces
Wells portrays the Martian tripod war machines
as quite vulnerable to artillery fire —
their armor, it appears, is designed to fight
off Martian rather than Earthly weapons. It
may reflect a heat ray, but it won’t do much
to stop an explosive shell. Therefore, Martian
war machines have no armor.
Since the Martian war machines are land
vehicles, there are some special considerations.
War machines may enter land hexes, but may
not enter deep-water hexes (see scenario special
rules). A single torpedo hit destroys a war
machine. Martian war machines are worth 40
victory points each if destroyed.
The Martians do possess some terrible weapons:
A. The Heat Ray.
Martian gunnery has unlimited range. It hits
on a result of 3 through 6 at a range of one
to three hexes, on a result of 5 or 6 at a
range of four to six hexes, and on a result
of 6 at any other range. Treat it as primary
gunnery — it penetrates all armor. Roll
three times for damage and apply all results
when a hit is obtained.
B. The Black Smoke.
As good colonialists, the Martians have
no compunctions about use of weapons of mass
destruction against lesser beings. During
the first gunnery segment of each sequence
(only), the Martian player may place a single
Black Smoke marker within three hexes of each
war machine. The marker remains in place for
the entire impulse. If an Earth
warship enters the hex, the Earth player rolls
one die. On a result of 1 or 2, the ship’s
gunnery is halved (round any fractions up)
and movement reduced by one level, due to
crew losses. If a transport enters the hex,
it is eliminated. As with Earth’s own terror
weapons, the Black Smoke is far more effective
against unarmed civilians than military targets.
Use smoke markers from Panzer Grenadier series games.
Wells’ Battle of Southend
The battle as portrayed by H.G. Wells, with
the torpedo ram Thunder Child facing
three Martian war machines while the Channel
Fleet is nearby in support.
Close Cover Force
TR01 Thunder Child
22 x slow transport
Distant Cover Force
B39 Prince George
AC27 King Alfred
3 x war machine
Initiative: The Martians have the initiative and enter
anywhere on the northwest edge. The Earth
Close Cover and Evacuation forces enter anywhere
on the southeast edge. The Earth Distant Cover
Force enters anywhere on the east edge.
Escape: Earth transports may only
exit the northeast, southeast and east edges.
Earth warships and Martian war machines may
not exit the map.
Length of Battle: The game continues
for four rounds of combat or until all ships
of one side have been sunk or have exited
the map, whichever comes first.
Coastal Waters: All hexes along the
northwest edge are land hexes. Ships may not
enter them. All hexes along the northeast,
southeast and east edges, and all hexes adjacent
to them, are deep water hexes.
For King and Planet: Thunder Child may not enter a hex that takes her farther away from the closest Martian war machine. Other British warships fall under the same restriction once a British ship (warship or transport) has been destroyed by the Martians.
Ramming: All British ships are capable
The Earth player receives five victory points
for each transport that exits the map. The
Martian player receives two victory points
for each transport destroyed. The player with
the most victory points at the end of play
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Mike Bennighof is president of Avalanche Press and holds a doctorate in history from Emory University. A Fulbright Scholar and NASA Journalist in Space finalist, he has published a great many books, games and articles on historical subjects; people are saying that some of them are actually good.
He lives in Birmingham, Alabama with his wife, and three children, He misses his Iron Dog, Leopold, who was prepared in case Mars attacks.
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