|Cartoon from a trench newspaper|
The defeat of the British Expeditionary Force (BEF) at Mons in August 1914 was a crushing early blow that gave rise to a still controversial legend of divine intervention and assistance known as ‘The Angels of Mons’. This persistent story is well-known, but the war generated an endless array of other enigmatic trench legends, myths and rumours.
BOILING DOWN THE BODIES
According to this grisly tale, the Germans were recovering bodies from the battlefield and boiling them down in specially-constructed factories to make tallow for candles. Despite no evidence ever being presented to support this fantastic rumour, it was widely believed and re-told throughout the war. So poor was the credibility of atrocity stories that Lord Northcliffe the newspaper mogul, offered a prize for any authentic photograph of a German atrocity. The prize was never claimed.
THE PHANTOM MAJOR
There were ongoing rumours of enemy agents in the allied trenches, usually disguised as officers, like the mysterious German spy, usually in a British major’s uniform, who was said to appear in allied trenches just prior to an attack.
As well as the creepy major in the trenches, spies were spotted everywhere, as they would be for the rest of the war. At this early point in the conflict there were reports of suspicious characters all over Britain and throughout the forces in France.
These stories were given some credence by real events in which a number of German espionage operations had been uncovered. But most of the stories, such as the German arrested on his way to the local water supply with a pocketful of deadly poison, were urban legends of the time, the result of fear rather than clandestine enemy activity.
THE COMRADE IN WHITE
In 1915, another mysterious story began to circulate. It was said that wounded British and French soldiers had been assisted in the trenches by a ghostly white figure. Usually the soldier was sheltering from a hail of bullets and shrapnel, through which the white figure seemed to pass without difficulty or injury. The phantasm reached the soldier who then lost consciousness for a moment or two, and subsequently found himself magically removed from danger. He then notices that there is a wound on the apparition’s hand. The figure explains that it is an old wound which has recently reopened.
The French called this apparition or hallucination ‘The Comrade in White’, a term adopted by the British, who also called him the ‘Helper in White’. Many found this legend a much-needed consolation and it would continue to be heard throughout the war.
THE CRUCIFIED CANADIAN
The Times of May 10, 1915 ran the first press report of the story which claimed that a group of Canadians wounded in the fighting near Ypres had come across one of their officers who had been crucified:
‘He had been pinned to a wall by bayonets thrust through his hand and feet, another bayonet had been driven through his throat and, finally, he had been riddled with bullets.’
A similar horrific tale was picked up by the Canadian press and related in a number of versions and stories of crucified Canadians, as well as British and Australian troops, continued throughout the war. There were numerous attempts to verify the stories, but they never were, though the belief that the event, or something like it had occurred, was certainly strong among Canadian troops at the front and also many on the home front.
SNOWY RUSSIAN SOLDIERS
An early legend involved mysterious brigades of Russian soldiers in sealed trains passing through transportation junctions. They were said to be in full battle dress and with snow upon their boots – in summertime. These were usually said to have originated in the Russian city of Archangel and to be travelling to the Western Front to reinforce the British and French.
It was said that the British had suffered catastrophic losses against the Germans, that hospitals were full to overflowing with wounded troops and that there had been an insurrection in Paris.
A large naval battle had been fought off Holland in which the British were also rumoured to have suffered devastating losses, including the death of Admiral Jellicoe. British naval ports were said to be clogged with war ravaged ships.
It was said that the defenders of the forts at Liege were not Belgians but British soldiers in Belgian uniforms. The British were paying the French rent for the trenches they were occupying and Vickers machine gunners fired their water-cooled weapons in order to boil water for tea.
Many other rumours swirled through the home front and battlefront during the war years:
· One was a tale told in many wars of the ‘Wild Deserters’, a horde of refugees from all armies, who lived underground, emerging onto the battlefields at night to forage and pillage the dead and dying.
· Most World War 1 soldiers were familiar with the rumours about ‘free shooters’ who were not fussy which side they shot at.
· There were stories born of envy or wishful thinking, such as those about the enemy having women in their trenches.
· Other rumours were spawned by fear and suspicion, including the belief that disloyal Belgians had signalled allied positions to German gunners
· And there were revenge stories, like that about ‘The Admiral’, a crazed inventor who was horribly killed when one of his own devices of death malfunctioned.
Like most myths, these were the product of ignorance, fear and wishful thinking.
KEYWORDS: World War One trench myths, soldiers newspapers