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George Gissing: A parable on war, industry and the press


Anti-war essays, poems, short stories and literary excerpts

British writers on peace and war

George Gissing: Selections on war


George Gissing
From The Crown of Life

“There’s an amusing thing – called ‘Historical Fragment.’ I remember, oh I remember very well, how it pleased me when I first read it.”

He read it aloud now, with many a chuckle, many a pause of sly emphasis.

“‘The Story of the last war between the Asiatic kingdoms of Duroba and Kalaya, though it has reached us in a narrative far too concise, is one of the most interesting chapters in the history of ancient civilisation.

“‘They were bordering states, peopled by races closely akin, whose languages, it appears, were mutually intelligible; each had developed its own polity, and had advanced to a high degree of refinement in public and private life. Wars between them had been frequent, but at the time with which we are concerned the spirit of hostility was all but forgotten in a happy peace of long duration. Each country was ruled by an aged monarch, beloved of the people, but, under the burden of years, grown of late somewhat less vigilant than was consistent with popular welfare. Thus it came to pass that power fell into the hands of unscrupulous statesmen, who, aided by singular circumstances, succeeded in reviving for a moment the old sanguinary jealousies.

“‘We are told that a General in the army of Duroba, having a turn for experimental chemistry, had discovered a substance of terrible explosive power, which, by the exercise of further ingenuity, he had adapted for use in warfare. About the same time, a public official in Kalaya, whose duty it was to convey news to the community by means of a primitive system of manuscript placarding, hit upon a mechanical method whereby news-sheets could be multiplied very rapidly and be sold to readers all over the kingdom. Now the Duroban General felt eager to test his discovery in a campaign, and, happening to have a quarrel with a politician in the neighbouring state, did his utmost to excite hostile feeling against Kalaya. On the other hand, the Kalayan official, his cupidity excited by the profits already arising from his invention, desired nothing better than some stirring event which would lead to still greater demand for the news-sheets he distributed, and so he also was led to the idea of stirring up international strife. To be brief, these intrigues succeeded only too well; war was actually declared, the armies were mustered, and marched to the encounter.

“‘They met at a point of the common frontier where only a little brook flowed between the two kingdoms. It was nightfall; each host encamped, to await the great engagement which on the morrow would decide between them.

“‘It must be understood that the Durobans and the Kalayans differed markedly in national characteristics. The former people was distinguished by joyous vitality and a keen sense of humour; the latter, by a somewhat meditative disposition inclining to timidity; and doubtless these qualities had become more pronounced during the long peace which would naturally favour them. Now, when night had fallen on the camps, the common soldiers on each side began to discuss, over their evening meal, the position in which they found themselves. The men of Duroba, having drunk well, as their habit was, fell into an odd state of mind. “What!” they exclaimed to one another. “After all these years of tranquillity, are we really going to fight with the Kalayans, and to slaughter them and be ourselves slaughtered! Pray, what is it all about? Who can tell us?” Not a man could answer, save with the vaguest generalities. And so, the debate continuing, the wonder growing from moment to moment, at length, and all of a sudden, the Duroban camp echoed with huge peals of laughter. “Why, if we soldiers have no cause of quarrel, what are we doing here? Shall we be mangled and killed to please our General with the turn for chemistry? That were a joke, indeed!” And, as soon as mirth permitted, the army rose as one man, threw together their belongings, and with jovial songs trooped off to sleep comfortably in a town a couple of miles away.

“‘The Kalayans, meanwhile, had been occupied with the very same question. They were anything but martial of mood, and the soldiery, ill at ease in their camp, grumbled and protested. “After all, why are we here?” cried one to the other. “Who wants to injure the Durobans? And what man among us desires to be blown to pieces by their new instruments of war? Pray, why should we fight? If the great officials are angry, as the news-sheets tell us, e’en let them do the fighting themselves.” At this moment there sounded from the enemy’s camp a stupendous roar; it was much like laughter; no doubt the Durobans were jubilant in anticipation of their victory. Fear seized the Kalayans; they rose like one man, and incontinently fled far into the sheltering night!

“‘Thus ended the war – the last between these happy nations, who, not very long after, united to form a noble state under one ruler. It is interesting to note that the original instigators of hostility did not go without their deserts. The Duroban General, having been duly tried for a crime against his country, was imprisoned in a spacious building, the rooms of which were hung with great pictures representing every horror of battle with the ghastliest fidelity; here he was supplied with materials for chemical experiment, to occupy his leisure, and very shortly, by accident, blew himself to pieces. The Kalayan publicist was also convicted of treason against the state; they banished him to a desert island, where for many hours daily he had to multiply copies of his news-sheet – that issue which contained the declaration of war – and at evening to burn them all. He presently became imbecile, and so passed away.'”

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