Great War of the Worlds at Sea
By Mike Bennighof, Ph.D.
October 2023

Just as written history isnt 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 not.

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; “its 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 avent seen the fire-beam yet.”

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 Pals 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. Theres 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 Parsons Wife, among others.

The best way to experience Wells words, of course, is to read them. The entire novels 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 youve only seen a movie version, you dont know the story, so the scenario that follows wont make a whole lot of sense otherwise.

The Flight from Harwich

Chapter 17 contains one of science fictions most memorable scenes, the Royal Navys 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 distant cover.

As the narrators brother and two women he encountered along the road board a steamer for Ostend — despite one womans 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 narrators brother only sees the rest of the Channel Fleet moving inshore to engage the third war machine before passing out of sight. It cant 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.

Mars' bane: the ram of Polyphemus.

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 summers 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 anchor.

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 Kiplings “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 1890s 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 1890s 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, its long past time we honored his work with a Daily Content variant. Polyphemus doesnt appear in any of our Great War at Sea games, as she left the Royal Navys active list well before any game situation involving British forces. But were not limited by such conventions, and today we introduce the Martians and the Earths defenders.

This is a variant for our Jutland game, and you can download the new, free game pieces here and the hit records here.

You can also defend Earth online, through the WAS Fleet Commands 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 wont 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 ships 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 Earths own terror weapons, the Black Smoke is far more effective against unarmed civilians than military targets. Use smoke markers from Panzer Grenadier series games.

Battle Scenario
Wells Battle of Southend
June 1901

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.

Earth Forces

Close Cover Force
TR01 Thunder Child

Evacuation Force
22 x slow transport

Distant Cover Force
B38 Mars
B39 Prince George
B40 Illustrious
AC26 Drake
AC27 King Alfred
AC28 Leviathan

Martian Forces

3 x war machine

Special Rules

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 of ramming.

Victory Conditions

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 wins.

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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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