Essay: “The Iron That Died”, Raoul Bigot, trans. Brian Stableford, 1918.
This is one of those accidental alternate histories written during World War One.
Published in the December 1918 issue of Lectures Pour Tous, it was written before the November 11th armistice ended combat.
It’s not a particularly interesting story on its own merits though it does have historical interest since this is the first science fiction story to use to idea of iron suddenly removed from modern civilization, an idea taken up by other French authors as well as British and American ones.
The story opens with one Lieutenant Jacques in the trenches of the Western Front during some vaguely described – very likely due to wartime French censorship – battle. He’s the sole surviving officer after his position has been under artillery fire for 48 hours, “the hail of the 20s and the 150s”.1 Oddly, a list of German artillery used in the war shows no guns with those calibers whether measured in centimeters or millimeters.
The enemy attack is rebuffed, and Jacques, a man of delicate constitution, goes off to sleep. He was a scientist before the war and even has installed “an improvised wireless receiver”.2 Wireless receivers were in use by the French military by then, and it’s perfectly plausible a man of Jacques’ knowledge and training could make his own. French manufacturing provided some of the necessary parts used in British radios.
At this point in the war, it’s realized Germany needs to be beaten quickly after “what the Bocho-Maximalist had done to the old Greater Russia”3, a reference to the Bolshevik Revolution, aided by Germany sending Lenin to Russia, that had taken the Russian Empire out of the war.
As he’s about to sleep, the answer tot the gnawing problem of how to use his scientific knowledge at last comes to Jacques.
The next part of the story has Jacques sending letters to his superiors saying he has the idea for a new weapon and will only reveal to French Prime Minister Clemenceau. Eventually, he gets his meeting and makes his proposal and a secret plan, complete with combat tests and steps to avoid damage to neutrals, is put in motion.
Bigot doesn’t say what the weapon is until it’s successfully used, but, given the title (and Stableford’s introduction), he doesn’t build any suspense up to the final revelation: Jacques has created a “molecular disease of iron” transmitted via physical contact. It results in iron disintegrating under the slightest stress.
The latter part of the story describes the havoc caused to German rail and tram lines, munition factories, shells, and warships.
Reference is made to the “Franco-Anglo-Belgium, American, Italian, and Greek fronts”.4 The first two would be in the standard Western Front with American forces seeing combat there since November 1917. About a 103,000 French troops served in Italy. The French contributed to the Salonika expedition against Bulgaria. Reference is made to the metal of the Central Powers of “Austria, Bulgaria and Turkey”, and they were, of course, enemies of France in the war.
1) Bigot, Raoul. “The Iron That Died.’” French Tales of Cataclysms, Hollywood Comics, S.l., 2022, pp. 99.
2) Ibid, p.100.
4) Ibid, p. 104.
Does he explore if a chain reaction could get out of control? Or was this written when Scientists were still thought of as nigh-infallible?
It’s spread through physical contact so, for example, neutral Switzerland is warned to detach its railroad from German railroads. (It’s social distancing for iron!)
At story’s end, Jacques is going “to find a remedy”. However, there is also the strong implication that this is all a dream of Jacques — which he may or not implement.
Hahahaha! Love that social distancing for iron 😉