After ten paragraphs of introductory remarks 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, southwest of London, near the 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 "oil brown skin," "the size, perhaps, of a bear," with "two large dark-coloured eyes," and a lipless "V-shaped mouth surrounded by "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, and rapidly retreat into the 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.
An army of Martian fighting-machines destroying England.
The narrator takes his wife to safety in nearby Leatherhead, where she has relatives, and then returns to Woking. He discovers the Martians have assembled towering three-legged "fighting-machines" (Tripods), each armed with a heat-ray and a chemical weapon: the so-called "black smoke". These Tripods wipe out the army units positioned around the crater and attack surrounding communities, moving toward London. Fleeing the scene, the narrator meets a retreating artilleryman, who tells him that another cylinder has landed between Woking and Leatherhead, cutting the narrator off from his wife. The two try to escape via Byfleet, but are separated at the Shepperton to Weybridge Ferry during a Martian attack on Shepperton. One of the Martian fighting machines is brought down in the River Thames by British artillery as the narrator and countless others try to cross the river into Middlesex, while the Martians escape. Our hero is able to float down the Thames toward London in a boat, stopping at Walton.
A Martian fighting-machine battling with HMS Thunder Child
More cylinders are landing across Southern England, and a panicked flight of the population of London begins. This includes the narrator's brother, who flees to the Essex coast after Black Smoke is used to devastate London. The torpedo ram HMS Thunder Child destroys two tripods before being sunk by the Martians, though this allows the ship carrying the narrator's brother and his two female travelling companions to escape to the continent. Shortly after, all organised resistance has ceased, and the Martians roam the shattered landscape unhindered. Red weed, a Martian form of vegetation, spreads with extraordinary rapidity over the landscape wherever there is abundant water.