Yet across the gulf of space, minds that are to our minds as ours are to those of the beasts that perish, intellects vast and cool and unsympathetic, regarded this earth with envious eyes, and slowly and surely drew their plans against us.
— H. G. Wells (1898), The War of the Worlds
The Coming of the Martians
The narrative opens in an astronomical observatory at Ottershaw where explosions are seen on the surface of the planet Mars, creating much interest in the scientific community. Later a "meteor" lands on Horsell Common, near the unnamed narrator's home in Woking, Surrey. He is among the first to discover that the object is an artificial cylinder that opens, disgorging Martians who are "big" and "greyish" with "oily brown skin", "the size, perhaps, of a bear", each with "two large dark-coloured eyes", and lipless "V-shaped mouths" which drips saliva and are surrounded by two "Gorgon groups of tentacles". The narrator finds them "at once vital, intense, inhuman, crippled and monstrous". They briefly emerge, have difficulty in coping with the Earth's atmosphere, rapidly retreating into their cylinder. A human deputation (which includes the astronomer Ogilvy) approaches the cylinder with a white flag, but the Martians incinerate them and others nearby with a Heat-Ray before beginning to assemble their machinery. Military forces arrive that night to surround the common, including Maxim guns. The population of Woking and the surrounding villages are reassured by the presence of the military. A tense day begins, with much anticipation of military action by the narrator.
After heavy firing from the common and damage to the town from the Heat-Ray which suddenly erupts in the late afternoon, the narrator takes his wife to safety in nearby Leatherhead, where his cousin lives, using a rented, two-wheeled horse cart; he then returns to Woking to return the cart when in the early morning hours a violent thunderstorm erupts. On the road during the height of the storm, he has his first terrifying sight of a fast-moving Martian fighting-machine; in panic he crashes the horse cart, barely escaping detection. He discovers the Martians have assembled towering three-legged "fighting-machines" (Tripods), each armed with a Heat-Ray and a chemical weapon: the poisonous "Black Smoke". These Tripods have wiped out the army units positioned around the cylinder and attacked and destroyed most of Woking. Sheltering in his house, the narrator sees a fleeing artilleryman moving through his garden, who later tells the narrator of his experiences and mentions that another cylinder has landed between Woking and Leatherhead, cutting off the narrator from his wife. The two try to escape via Byfleet just after dawn, but are separated at the Shepperton to Weybridge Ferry during a Martian afternoon attack on Shepperton. One of the Martian fighting-machines is brought down in the River Thames by artillery as the narrator and countless others try to cross the river into Middlesex, as the Martians retreat back to their original crater. This gives the authorities precious hours to form a defence-line covering London. After the Martian's temporary repulse, the narrator is able to float down the Thames in a boat toward London, stopping at Walton, where he first encounters the curate, his companion for the coming weeks.
Towards dusk the Martians renew their offensive, breaking through the defence-line of siege guns and field artillery centred on Richmond Hill and Kingston Hill by a widespread bombardment of the Black Smoke; a mass exodus of the population of London begins. This includes the narrator's younger brother, a medical student, also unnamed, who flees to the Essex coast after the sudden, panicked predawn order to evacuate London is given by the authorities, a terrifying and harrowing journey of three days, amongst millions of similar refugees streaming from London. The brother encounters Mrs. Elphinstone and her younger sister-in-law, just in time to help them fend off a gang of men who are trying to rob them. The three continue on together (Mrs. Elphinstone's husband is missing, and his fate is never learned). After a terrifying struggle to cross a streaming mass of refugees on the road at Barnet, they head eastward. Two days later, at Chelmsford, their pony is confiscated for food by the local Committee of Public Supply; they press on to Tillingham and the sea. There they manage to buy passage to the Continent on a small paddle steamer, part of a vast throng of shipping gathered off the Essex coast to evacuate refugees. The torpedo ram HMS Thunder Child destroys two attacking Tripods before being destroyed by the Martians, though this allows the evacuation fleet, including the ship carrying the narrator's brother and his two travelling companions, to escape. Shortly after, all organised resistance has ceased, and the Martians roam the shattered landscape unhindered.
The Earth Under the Martians
At the beginning of Book Two the narrator and the Curate are plundering houses in search of food. During this excursion the men witness a Martian fighting-machine enter Kew, seizing any person it finds and tossing them into a "great metallic carrier which projected behind him, much as a workman's basket hangs over his shoulder", and the narrator realises that the Martian invaders may have "a purpose other than destruction" for their victims. At a house in Sheen "a blinding glare of green light" and a loud concussion attend the arrival of the fifth Martian cylinder, and both men are trapped beneath the ruins for two weeks. The narrator's relations with the Curate deteriorates over time, and he eventually is forced to knock him unconscious to silence his now loud ranting; but the Curate is overheard outside by a Martian, who finally removes his unconscious body with one of its handling machine tentacles. The reader is then led to believe the Martians will perform a fatal transfusion of the Curate's blood to nourish themselves, as they have done with other captive victims. The narrator just barely escapes detection from the returned foraging tentacle by hiding in the adjacent coal-cellar.
The Martians eventually abandon the cylinder's crater, and the narrator emerges from the collapsed house where he had observed the Martians up close during his ordeal; he then approaches West London. En route he finds the Martian red weed everywhere, a prickly vegetation spreading wherever there is abundant water. On Putney Heath he once again encounters the artilleryman, who briefly persuades him of a grandiose plan to rebuild civilization by living underground; but after a few hours the narrator perceives the laziness of his companion and abandons the artilleryman. Now in a deserted and silent London, he begins to slowly go mad from his accumulated trauma, finally attempting to end it all by openly approaching a stationary fighting-machine. To his surprise he quickly discovers that all the Martians have since been killed by an onslaught of earthly microbial infections to which they had no immunity: "slain, after all man's devices had failed, by the humblest things that God, in his wisdom, has put upon this earth." The narrator continues on, finally suffering a brief but complete nervous breakdown, which affects him for days; he is finally nursed back to health by a kind family. Eventually he is able to return by train to Woking via the patchworks of newly repaired track. At his home he discovers that his beloved wife has miraculously survived. The last chapter, entitled "Epilogue," reflects on the significance of the Martian invasion and the "abiding sense of doubt and insecurity" it has left in the narrator's mind.