Eve Of The War

HG Wells & the Swinton Libel Case
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Author:  McTodd [ Sat Dec 03, 2005 4:41 pm ]
Post subject:  HG Wells & the Swinton Libel Case

Where I work there's a superb archive on the floor above my office which contains vast quantities of military papers. For anyone interested in the origins of the tank in Britain it's a treasure trove as it contains Albert Stern's papers.

Where the relevance to good old HG makes itself felt is in a small file from Ernest Swinton's papers (Swinton was an army officer who, in late 1914, tried to persuade the War Office to experiment with armoured tracked vehicles - he later became involved with Winston Churchill's Landships Committee which, with Stern as Secretary, basically coordinated the effort to invent the tank in 1915/16).

Skip to May 1941 and Wells writes a letter to the BBC's journal 'The Listener', in which he basically accuses Swinton (by then a retired Major General) of claiming to have invented the tank in a broadcast Swinton had made some days earlier. Furthermore, he goes on to accuse Swinton of having pinched the idea from him in the first place (citing 'The Land ironclads' of 1903) and, in those desperate war-torn days, of not having the faintest idea of how to develop and use tanks properly (quite a serious charge given the context of the time)!

Very unwise, as it provoked Swinton into first demanding a public apology from Wells and when that was not forthcoming, suing him for libel!

The correspondence is quite amusing, consisting of numerous letters from Swinton and his solicitors, Wells himself and his solicitor, plus letters from various senior officials at the BBC (Swinton sued Wells and the BBC jointly) and their legal representatives!

In the end, Wells backed down (the BBC had acknowledged their culpability in publishing Wells's libellous letter in the first place) and agreed, not very gracefully, to pay damages and Swinton's costs, as well as writing a letter to 'The Listener' publicly apologising to Swinton, acknowledging his libellous statements earlier (a letter, furthermore, which was drafted by Swinton and his solicitors).

Swinton had also demanded in compensation and in acknowledgement of the very serious slur on his character, £400 from Wells and £100 from the BBC (plus costs), but in the end accepted an offer from Wells that Wells and the BBC pay £500 jointly, and that Swinton was not to know the relative dispositions of the respective sums paid by Wells and the BBC within that sum. Wells really dragged out paying the money, too, though offhand I can't remember how long it took for him to pay up.

Swinton's parting shot in his last letter to his solicitor is that the BBC did all the work on Wells's behalf and received no thanks from him, that clearly Wells grievously hated parting with the money, and that he (Swinton) bore no malice toward the BBC, whom he felt had acted with exemplary honesty, but was very embittered toward Wells.

It was quite fascinating to read all this stuff, and an odd feeling to hold a typed letter with Wells's signature, knowing that the great man himself had handled that very piece of paper 64 years ago.

Author:  Lonesome Crow [ Sat Dec 03, 2005 8:15 pm ]
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Cheers 'McTodd' it must be fascinating working there, is that where you get your old battleship designs from? or is it just old letters and correspondence?

Author:  McTodd [ Sat Dec 03, 2005 9:29 pm ]
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My job isn't at all fascinating! :lol: But you're right, with what's available there, it's a fascinating place to work. With the stuff I've been looking at it's mainly reports, committee meeting minutes and memos, together with files of photographs of early tank experiments, and some blueprints of some incredibly obscure early designs that didn't get built. There's an immense amount of material relating to the Landships Committee in the form of minutes etc.

The battleship stuff comes from elsewhere (another of my nerdy interests).

Earlier today I was watching a documentary on HG that I got on DVD yesterday. At one point the narrator says that Wells had a tendency to say things which he then went back on or later regretted. I certainly get the impression from the Swinton case that that is preceisely what happened; he made intemperate statements, which I can't believe he thought would stand up, which he then regretted and tried to get out of but he hadn't reckoned on actually being up against someone else who was as pugnacious and bloodyminded as he was.

Author:  Alland [ Sun Dec 04, 2005 1:14 am ]
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I don't see where Wells would get off, anyway. I've had a copy of "The Land Ironclads" for years (I found it in a collection of Wells' short stories in a local library, then xeroxed it off), and I can tell you that the first real tanks were nothing like Wells' "ironclads". They didn't run on caterpillar tracks, but caterpillar FEET: that's right, rows of mechanical feet, making the thing look like an armor-plated caterpillar. The thing wasn't armed with cannon, or even machine guns, but with souped-up high-powered rifles arranged in broadsides. And to top it off, only a dozen or so of these machines were used in their debut in combat, far fewer than the number of Swinton's tanks that appeared at the Somme, so if anything, Wells is even guiltier than his opponent in not having enough secret weapons available for a real punch.

Author:  Lonesome Crow [ Sun Dec 04, 2005 9:03 pm ]
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There used to be a site where you could download a card model of H.Gs "Land Ironclad", I have just tried the link and the text is still there but all the pictures have gone. but I do have a B/W copy from the instructions I downloaded several months ago, and yes it does have feet on wheels

Author:  McTodd [ Sun Dec 04, 2005 11:32 pm ]
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Wells's land ironclads use a system of footed wheels called 'pedrails', invented by an Englishman named Bramah Diplock. Although caterpillar tracks were in use on agricultural tractors they were almost entirely used in the United States where the vast, flat praries were suited to their operation (early tracks on commercial vehicles were quite delicate and not, it later transpired, really up to the job of supporting an armoured vehicle). Such tracked vehicles were virtually unknown in this country until a few years after 1903. In his defence, one cannot really blame Wells for not using tracks. Indeed, for some time during the Great War, the British tank pioneers pressed on with Big Wheel schemes, and even William Tritton, who actually designed the first tank (and a successful track for it), was utterly sceptical about tracks to start with.

What is important about Wells's machines is not the specific nature of their undercarriage but the fact that Wells realised that they needed special wheels so as to be able to cross rough ground and trenches. That is the important distinction between his land ironclads and mere armoured cars, which cannot travel other than on roads or decent ground.

Anyway, here are a couple of pictures of Diplock's pedrail wheels. In reality, they were not terribly successful as they were horrifically noisy in operation, and prone to breakages due to their complexity - one glance at the cutaway drawing below reveals that to be the case (Diplock later developed a track system, which also had hinged feet and was thus also excessively complex):



Author:  Loz [ Mon Dec 05, 2005 12:30 pm ]
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I'd like to see one in action in a period film.

There is an Elseworlds graphic novel, called Gotham by Gaslight. It is a what if Bruce wayne had been born in Victorian Times story. You could imagine the Victorian Batmobile having such wheels.

Author:  Lonesome Crow [ Mon Dec 05, 2005 9:18 pm ]
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It may not be practical but it looks impressive, great pictures 'McTodd' =D>

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