In April 1916 the German airship L.14 dropped over forty bombs on Edinburgh and Leith before recrossing the coast at Dunbar to return to her base. The aerial attack by 'The Demon of War' had been forecast twenty three years before it happened by William Le Queux, the father of the spy novel. War fiction set in the future was already a popular subject with the Victorian public when William Le Queux wrote his book, The Great War in England in 1897. The Battle of Dorking had been published in 1871 documenting an invasion of Britain by the Germans which led to the collapse of the British Empire and ended the country's power and influence in world affairs. In 1892 the new sixpenny weekly Black and White Illustrated published the 'Great War of 1897'. The story had been written by a team of military experts to entertain its mainly middle class readers and the serial was so well received that publisher Alfred Harmsworth commissioned twenty nine year old William Le Queux to write a cover version of the story aimed at the working classes.
Le Queux's epic was called 'The Poisoned Bullet' and the first instalment was published in 1893 as' The Invasion of England' in Harmworth's yellow covered penny publication Answers. The serial was an immediate success and the Tower Publishing Company published the story in book form entitled The Great War in England in 1897. The book was bound with a colourful cover portraying British and Russian soldiers and included a foreword by Field Marshal Lord Roberts warning the readers of the dangers of neglecting the country's defence. The text was supplemented with easy-to-follow maps and illustrated with monochrome plates.
In 1897 a great deal of unrest existed in the country over the state of Britain's defences especially in Scotland where one cavalry regiment and three infantry battalions were stationed. Unlike the continental armies Britain did not operate a national service system and the soldiers of the Queen were thinly stretched over the Empire. In 1881 the British regiments had been linked into pairs. Each regiment now had two battalions one for home service while the other was sent overseas. In 1897 the British Army was in the process of retaking the Sudan and as usual there was a conflict being fought on India's north west frontier where the tribesmen objected to their territory being coloured red on British maps.
The 1st Battalion of the Royal Scots was garrisoned at Edinburgh Castle while the Scots Greys were stationed at Piershill Cavalry Barracks. The 1st Battalion of the Argylle and Sutherland Highlanders occupied Maryhill Barracks in Glasgow and the 2nd Battalion of the Queen's Own Cameron Highianders was stationed in the barracks at Fort George. The officers and gunners of the 39th Company, South Division Royal Garrison Artillery based at Leith Fort were responsible for the defence of the Firth of Forth.
The regular British Army regiments and militia were supported up by the Volunteer regiments which had been raised over the last forty years in cities, towns and villages all over Britain. In the Lothiaris the Volunteer regiments consisted of the 1st Edinburgh (City) R.C.A. and the 1st Mid-Lothian R.G.A. The infantry Volunteer regiments consisted of the Queen's Rifle Volunteer Brigade and the 4th, 5th, 6th, 7th, 8th Volunteer Battalions of the Royal Scots.
Captain John Paul Jones had proved how vulnerable the coast of Scotland could be when he sailed up the Firth of Forth in August 1779. Although the raid had failed due to the timely arrival of a storm, the tiny three ship armada had put the wind up the authorities and they had commissioned the architect of the New Town, James Craig to draw up plans for a fortress to defend the coastal waters of the Lothians.
Leith Fort was completed in 1793 when it was garrisoned by the gunners of Captain Rimmington's blue-coated Royal Artillery company. A Martello tower was constructed at Leith by the army's engineers seventeen years later but the government continued to neglect Scotland's defences and it was not until 1879 that three forts, which were armed two years later, with four guns were built on the island of Inchkeith to protect the mouth of the Forth. To test the defences H.M.S. Sultan was ordered to steam up the firth in 1884 and bombard the forts which had been garrisoned with dummy defenders. The bluejackets poured 4500 bullets into the defences which resulted in direct hits on six of the fort's immobile garrison.
The Gmat War in England in 1897 was William Le Queux's warning of what might happen if the War Office did not get their act together and the novel documented the details a sudden surprise attack on Britain by Russia and her French allies in August 1897. The origin of the war had stemmed from a disagreement between the two countries over Bosnia. The British Army was unprepared for the invasion as it had insufficient horses and equipment due to the country's colonial commitments. There were not enough regular troops stationed in the country to prevent the French from landing on the British mainland and the defence of the United Kingdom depended on the rifles and artillery of the citizen soldiers of the Volunteer regiments.
A French agent employed as an Admiralty clerk had disposed of the officer responsible for sending mobilisation telegrams to the Navy. The spy had sent out false orders to the British home fleet sending it off on a wild goose chase. Unopposed at sea the French and Russian warships bombarded Britain's ports and coastal towns while the French invasion forces landed on the beaches and marched inland. Defence lines were speedily set up in Kent and Surrey to protect London and the soldiers of the regular regiments and the volunteers fought courageously to check the invaders from across the Channel. The war continued to escalate. Fighting took place at sea and in the colonies while the armed forces of Germany and Italy entered the global conflict as allies of the British.
Up north the irondads of the Russian Imperial Fleet steamed up the Firth of Forth and bombarded the port of Leith and the forts on Inchkeith, setting fire to the distillery and destroying the Corn Exchange. Three corps each consisting of 20,000 infantrymen armed with 1891 Mosin-Nagant rifles, Cossack lancers and fur-capped artillery men were disembarked from the Russian warships and landed on Scottish soil. Several black boxes sealed with the Russian War Office cypher were also brought ashore in three boats by the Russians and loaded on to carts which had been commandeered from a local builder. The Russian Army's 1st Corps marched through to Glasgow via South Queensferry, Kirkliston and Linlithgow burning the towns and villages to the ground as they advanced, while the 2nd Corps marched directly on Edinburgh, leaving the soldiers of the 3rd Corps to occupy the Pentland Hills.
The black boxes brought ashore by the Russians contained parts for an electrically driven airship. When inflated the dirigible's balloon was 143 feet long and 63 feet in diameter with a car suspended underneath it in which the Thar's aeronauts planned to fly over the Scottish capital to drop steel bombs filled with picric acid on the city's defenders.
The Russian plans for Edinburgh's destruction were discovered by a Scottish inventor named Mackenzie who had designed a pneumatic gun which fired dynamite shells. His field piece had been turned down by the War Office and the Russian invasion now gave him a chance to show what his invention could do. Setting his revolutionary weapon up on the Blackford Hill, Mackenzie and his six man gun team shot down the Russian airship and its deadly cargo just as it was approaching Arthur's Seat in the Queen's Park. The 2nd Corps and part of the 3rd marched on Edinburgh where the Tsar's troops were opposed by the capital's citizens who had constructed barricades to defend their streets. The gunners of the Volunteer artillery had situated their guns on Arthur's Seat, the Calton Hill and St. Andrew's Square while the regular artillery from Leith Fort bombarded the Russian forces from ramparts of the castle. The streets of the capital were filled with fighting men as the townspeople struggled with the dark green uniformed Russian infantrymen and mounted Cossacks in a desperate effort to save their city from destruction.
Savage hand to hand struggles with rifle and bayonet took place in the centre of the town as the bloody battle raged in Princes Street, Lothian Road, all the way down the Royal Mile and into the Grassmarket. The Thar's troops set fire to the city's shops, houses and public buildings including Register House, the Palace Hotel and the University, while fur-capped Cossacks forced their way into shops and houses carrying away the citizens' goods and valuables. The Russian soldiers looted and burned the town cutting down anyone who tried to stop them with their cavalry sabres or shooting them with their rifles.
The garrison at Edinburgh Castle was forced to surrender to the Tsar's troops and the double-headed Russian Eagle was raised and now floated above the capital. The Volunteer artillery regiments had fought valiantly but their antiquated forty pounder muzzle loading guns had not been equal to the task.
Law and order collapsed in England due to food shortages which lead to hunger, starvation and riots but the tide was finally turning in the British defenders' favour. The Russian Army was defeated near Glasgow and Scotland was saved. Indian reinforcements including the Bengal lancers, Gurkhas and Australian mounted infantry landed in England and joined the British Army and the Volunteers in a desperate battle to drive the enemy out of London. The Russian naval forces were forced to surrender by the British Navy's warships in the Mediterranean and the English Channel and the invaders were finally defeated at the battle of Caterham ending the five month war in December 1897.
Britannia armed with her three pronged trident was triumphant and resumed her role as ruler of the waves restoring Britain's peace and prosperity. The book was a commercial success but after travelling extensively in Europe, North Africa and the Middle East William Le Queux began to be convinced that Germany and not Russia was Britain's enemy.
The government was now beginning to increase its defence budget and construct gun emplacements to protect Britain's ports. By 1901 a heavy battery for two six-inch guns had been completed on the cliffs at Carlingnose near North Queensferry while two 12-pounders were mounted overlooking the Forth at Coastguard Battery. On the south side of the flrth two emplacements had been built at Dalmeny Battery for a pair of two 4.7 inch guns and two 12-pounder quick firing guns were mounted on Inchgarvie. Two years later the Joint Naval and Military Committee decided that the Forth should now be classified as a principal naval base and work commenced on building Rosyth Dockyard.
In 1906 William Le Queux wrote the 'Invasion of 1910' which was serialised in the Daily Mail over a three month period. This time it was the Germans who invaded Britain, and the feature was advertised in London by sandwich board men dressed in Prussian blue uniforms and wearing spiked helmets. Like The Great War in England in 1897 William Le Queux had another hit on his hands. The instalments were published in book form. The 550 page novel had the German imperial eagle on the cover and at the price of six shillings it turned out to be another best seller.
The cinema was now catching on with the Edwardian public. New technology fascinated Le Queux. In 1912 the Gaumont Cinematograph Company filmed the London author's German invasion book setting it three years forward in the future by entitling it 'The Raid of 1915'. The film was not passed for public release until two years after it had been made and it was finally shown to the public when Britain was at war with Germany.
On 2 April 1916 four German airships L.13, L.14, L.16, and L.22 left Northolz and Hage with orders to attack Rosyth, the Forth Bridge or any other objectives in the area of the Firth of Forth. The L.13 was forced to turn back due to engine trouble. The other airships flew on but were blown off course except for the L.14. Kapitanleutnant Böcker made an accurate landfall at St Abb's head where he was chased and fired upon by British destroyers. Out running the ships the L.14 approached Leith and Edinburgh from the northeast after turning to starboard off Dunbar. Wheeling westwards the captain and his crew saw lights ahead of them which were quickly extinguished before the airship reached them. At that moment the L.14 was picked up by a searchlight and unable to see the Forth Bridge or Rosyth the German captain dropped his load of bombs hoping to target Leith docks. The bombs killed a man and a child and wrecked three houses, a grainstore, a tannery and a bonded warehouse containing thousands of gallons of whisky. The airship then passed over Edinburgh dropping twenty four bombs, damaging eight buildings and Princes Street Station at the city's west end before recrossing the coast south east of Dunbar on its return to Germany. The captain of the L.22 had eventually found his way to the Forth after sighting the Bass Rock. The airship dropped three of its bombs which did little damage apart from breaking windows in the Edinburgh suburbs but the raid of the L.14 had left thirty five people killed or injured in the Scottish capital. This raid had been real and unlike the plot in Le Queux's War of 1897, there had been no Mackenzie with his pneumatic gun to save the city. Only a couple of bursts from two machine guns had been fired at the L.14 while she was flying above the Lothians.
Although William Le Queux had prophesied the possibility of an aerial attack on the Scottish capital in The Great War in England in 1897 like the other authors of books on future war he had not foreseen the possibility of trench warfare which would develop due to the use of the machine gun.
The London author had written over a hundred novels to make a living but the father of the spy novel had also done his best to awaken the British public to the dangers of neglecting their country's defence.
The Great War in England in 1897, William Le Queux.
'The Mysterious Mr Le Queux', Roger T Steam (S.O.T.Q. issue 70).
The Scottish Volunteer Force, Major-General J.M. Grierson.
Leith and it's Antiquities, James Campbell Irons M.A.
Fortress Britain, Andrew Saunders.
The Airship, Basil Collier.
Scottish Barracks Records, John Thomson.
Reproduced from Soldiers of the Queen, issue 85