We like to think the modern era is a rational one in which superstition, or folk belief, has been relegated to the distant past. A Supernatural War: Magic, Divination and Faith in the First World War(Oxford University Press, 2018), a new book by Owen Davies shows that magic thinking was alive and well during, and after, World War 1. As anyone who takes the time to inquire into these matters will know, it still is.
Can there possibly be anything new to say about the history of the bloody madness that engulfed much of Europe and elsewhere from 1914 to 1918? It seems so.
Owen Davies leaves no form of delusion and deception unexamined in his new book on magic, divination and faith in the First World War. A great number and variety of practices professed to offer supernatural insights into life and death. They included almanacs, charms, divination, fortune-telling in all its nuances, ghosts, luck, mascots, prophecy, spiritualism, talismans, visions, witchcraft and ‘zepp charms’, crafted from the aluminum skeleton of a downed German airship. These are only some of the topics excavated and investigated in this enlightening study of a little-researched aspect of the Great War.
Davies casts his glamour widely. His extensive research takes in not only British and Empire beliefs but also those of many European countries, including Germany, as well as the United States of America. While the broad contours of supernatural belief were much the same everywhere, there were national emphases. Visions of angels were largely a British preoccupation, and not only in relation to the well-known sightings associated with the Battle of Mons. Marian visions were rare in Britain but, not surprisingly, frequent in Catholic countries, yet also experienced in Germany.
Another strength of the book is Davies’ dissection of the various intellectual approaches to the supernatural. He discusses psychology, sociology, folklore and anthropology and psychical research as well as history. While folklorists in Europe and, to some extent in the USA viewed the war as an ideal event through which to investigate supernatural beliefs and practices, their British counterparts were mostly missing in action. Only one individual appears to have bothered to conduct even casual fieldwork among acquaintances and the odd soldier he encountered. Consequently, we know much less about British folk belief on the ground at this time than in many other countries. Fortunately, Davies’ extensive archival research goes a long way to plugging this gap, allowing him to provide a convincing overall picture of faith in the war, both at home and at the front.
And faith, of one kind or another, is at the centre of this inquiry. Davies early on addresses the tricky definitional and conceptual issues associated with work of this kind. What term should be used to describe the subject of study? ‘Superstition’, the popular description – also still used by psychologists – is misleading. One person’s superstition may be another’s deeply-held belief, and who is to say which belief is valid and which is not? The word has been used as a bludgeon in the struggles between Catholics and Protestants (and, in another context, in the colonisation of indigenous peoples). Davies refuses to refer to his topic as ‘superstition’ and only uses the term between inverted commas. Following that wise observation, he further declares that: ‘I do not hold the view that the beliefs and practices explored in this book are in any way symptomatic of backwardness or credulity.’ (13)
While agreeing with this view, the numbers of those who succumbed to what seem to be blatant scams, does suggest a strong level of credulity, inflamed of course by the dreadful circumstances of loss and uncertainty that was the lot of almost everyone involved in those dreadful years of conflict. Nevertheless, people needed to find whatever consolations and hopes they could, regardless of their source. It is the willingness of some to take pecuniary advantage of those needs that is reprehensible, rather than the propensity of many to believe.
As a good historian should, Davies loses no opportunity to dissolve myths. In this area of research, there are many. A popular legend of the trenches among all the combatants was ‘the White Comrade’, a spectral figure seen tending to the dead and dying. The origins and identity of this folkloric phantasm were vague, even for legends, but the comrade was soon said by many to be Jesus Christ. Citing David Clarke’s earlier research on this topic, Davies provides an account of the origin of the belief in a short story published in early 1915 and spreading via republication in parish magazines and a variety of other print forms, as well as oral transmission: ‘Once again, fiction became fact…’ (68).
Through seven (lucky?) close-packed chapters on prophecy, spirits, fortune telling, soldiers’ folk beliefs and religious faith in the trenches, A Supernatural Warprovides a nuanced and learned exposition of the profound roles of belief in the supernatural during the Great War. Davies deals with various forms of ‘new thought’, including Christian Science and Pelmanism, the moral memory system that was a favourite butt of trench humour. He also looks at the role of the supernatural in some non-Christian faiths. Such a broad approach suggests that this book is likely to remain the definitive work for a long time to come.
A final chapter provides an overview of supernatural beliefs and practices since the First World War, into the second, and beyond. Witches, real and fictional; folk magic; spiritualism; psychic research; Theosophy; astrology; prophecy; lucky chain letters; mascots, amulets, bibles and the like all continued to appeal. Some practices thrived. Commercialised horoscopes, in particular, became a still-familiar staple of newspapers and magazines. There is also a brief mention of some fascinating uses of the supernatural as propaganda in the Second World War. A future research topic, perhaps?
While this book focusses on the First World War, the beliefs and practices it illuminates are as prevalent today as they were then. The supernatural was, and is, no different to other human activities: ‘Beliefs and practices constantly ebbed and flowed, disappeared and emerged, in response to broader trends in social, cultural and economic life.’ Owen Davies concludes his excellent book with the considered observation that, despite the long history of ‘superstition’, that ‘the First World War and its legacy confirmed that the supernatural was profoundly modern.’ (232)
Graham Seal (This review appears in a slightly different form as ‘Shamans at War’, in Literary Review, February 2019).