When William Came is one of a handful of literary works published before the outbreak of World War I that warned of the dangers of British isolationism. Like Guy du Maurier’s popular melodrama, The Englishman’s Home (1909), and Erskine Childer’s The Riddle of the Sands (1903), Saki’s novel is a cautionary tale about British military unpreparedness and the need to pay more serious attention to European affairs, especially to German militarism. Saki championed the cause of universal military training in Great Britain, and he wanted to shock those in power out of their smugness and their false sense of security. Like the other prewar jeremiads, When William Came took on an increased importance as prophecy in the aftermath of World War I.
The plot of the novel is fairly straightforward, if episodic. Murrey Yeovil is a typical Saki hero, wealthy, upper-class, conservative, British. While hunting in Siberia, he falls ill with malaria, and while recuperating learns of Great Britain’s defeat by the Germans. He returns to London, where he finds life pretty much carrying on as usual except that the Germans are in command. On the surface, very little has changed except that the street signs are bilingual, and there are more Germans about. Most of British society has been left alone. Murrey finds that most of his friends have adapted quite well to their conquerors and mingle with them amiably. He grows disgusted with the acquiescence of the British, especially the upper classes, in their acceptance of their occupation.
Murrey is finally prompted to action by a series of events that begin with the decree barring all Britons from military training. He sees this as a deliberate attempt to weaken the British and to reduce the possibility for future resistance to the Germans. On a trip he discovers groups of patriots nestled in the English countryside who have not yet succumbed to the will of the new government. Emboldened by his discovery, he returns to London to witness the passive resistance of a troop of boy scouts, which confirms his suspicion that the youth of Great Britain offer the only hope for future rebellion against the invaders. The novel ends on this somewhat optimistic note.