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H.G. Wells on the cover of Time, 20 September, 1926

H.G. Wells (September 21, 1866 – August 13, 1946) was a British writer [1] best known during his lifetime as a Fabian socialist (and Labour candidate) and better known afterwards for his science fiction novels The War of the Worlds, The Invisible Man, The Island of Dr. Moreau and The Time Machine.

Wells is also considered the ‘Father of Miniature Wargaming’, and he probably was – at least he was among the first to publish wargaming rules for toy soldiers in the English language. He was certainly the one man who made wargaming a popular and – dare we say it – respectable pastime. Wells was single-handedly responsible for the fact that on the eve of the First World War Edwardian gentlemen, sporting straw hats and well-tended moustaches, spent their Sundays staring intently at cardboard houses and toy figures – without yet having to worry about barbed wire, machine guns or mustard gas.

Illustration from Little Wars

Herbert George was born the fourth and last son of Joseph Wells, a professional gardener, shopkeeper and Jack of all trades, and Sarah Neal, a domestic and housekeeper, at 58 High Street, Bromley. His parents were poor, their china shop was a dead end. Given their life-long struggle to make ends meet and uphold some sort of middle-class decorum, Well’s political and social views seem to have come naturally to him.

In his youth wargames were still largely a matter of improvisation. As soon as he became a man of means Wells wished to develop a more structured approach which he laid down in Floor Games (1911) followed by Little Wars (1913). The first is confusingly called ‘a companion’ to the latter, but Little Wars is broadly recognised today as the first recreational wargaming handbook. Because Wells had an intellectual reputation as well as a way with words, the press soon caught on and serious amateur wargaming took off.

H. G. Wells playing a wargame, drawing from the Illustrated London News, 25 January 1913

And it all began with a gun, says Wells.

The beginning of the game of Little War, as we know it, became possible with the invention of the spring breechloader gun. This priceless gift to boyhood appeared somewhen towards the end of the last century, a gun capable of hitting a toy soldier nine times out of ten at a distance of nine yards.

This ‘spring breechloader gun’ was without a doubt the spring-powered 4.7 Naval Gun produced by William Britain Company, the first such toy ever to be manufactured. Britain was the first British toy soldier company and also the first to introduce the hollow-cast toy soldier model which made them market-leaders until the advent of plastics in the 1950’s. In fact, precisely such a 4.7 Naval Gun model can be spotted sitting in front of Wells (the gentleman seated on the left) in the above drawing from the London Illustrated News.

Spring-powered 4.7 Naval Gun by William Britain Company, produced since 1905

Wells’ rules made for a relatively simple game and Little Wars was illustrated with line drawings and photographs of a scenario called  ‘The Battle of Hook’s Farm’ to give the curious reader a general idea of what to expect. The author took great pains to explain how the rules were arrived at and how his small circle of wargaming friends had gradually developed their terrain, their buildings (no hollow shapes please, so as to avoid ungainly scenes of soldiers hiding in houses) and their unit formations. Wells discusses how and how often cannon fire, how the soldiers move, fire and fight in hand-to-hand combat.

No dice were involved, just a measuring tape and wooden ammunition for the guns. Wells seems to have been enough of a boy to have introduced house rules, such as the rule that any enemy soldier toppled by his corgy was a legitimate kill. He was also enough of a gentleman to confess this to the reader.

Since I am the chief inventor and practiser (so far) of Little Wars, there has fallen to me a disproportionate share of victories.

After much trial, error and brain-searching the rules at last reached stability, Wells tells us:

[..] and we regard them now with the virtuous pride of men who have persisted in a great undertaking and arrived at precision after much tribulation. There is not a piece of constructive legislation in the world, not a solitary attempt to meet a complicated problem, that we do not now regard the more charitably for our efforts to get a right result from this apparently easy and puerile business of fighting with tin soldiers on the floor.’

In his conclusion Wells, who was not a pacifist as some would have it, warns us that ‘you have only to play at Little Wars three or four times to realise just what a blundering thing Great War must be.’

Wells in his back garden

And a blundering thing it turned out to be. It destroyed the world Wells knew, loved and inhabited with zest, unfailing intellectual curiosity, a fine sense of humour and above all a deep attachment to fair play.

[1] Free ebooks, The University of Adelaide, Herbert George Wells 1866-1946