Myths & Legends of the First World War

Review: Myths & Legends of the First World War, James Hayward, 2002, 2010.

I would have thought the marketing department would have went with the title The Cult of the Clitoris and Other Myths and Legends of the First World War. Perhaps too long?

In a very concise, readable book with all the academic appurtenances of footnotes, bibliography, index and even some photos, Hayward looks at the fake news and rumors that circulated during the war and the false judgements afterwards.

Understandably, like a lot of British histography on the Great War, it focuses solely on the Western Front.

“Spy Mania” looks at the many reports of German spies and saboteurs during August 1914. They were poisoning water supplies and destroying rail bridges. Concrete tennis courts and pools and building foundations were waiting for secret German artillery installations. German spies kept homing pigeons, forbidden them by the Aliens Restriction Order. They signaled offshore German submarines. Winston Churchill even got into the act into hunting down the later. While staying in the Loch Ewe anchorage on the HMS Iron Duke, he thought a searchlight on the roof of a nearby mansion was signaling enemy submarines. Soon a party of Admirals and Commodores found themselves going ashore in an armed party to investigate. Lest we be smug about this in the 21st century, I will direct people to the many contemporary reports of non-existent terrorist actions in Washington, D.C. on Sept 11th.

Or, at least, those were the stories going around. Carl Lody’s execution on Nov. 6, 1914 pretty much ended German spying in Britain. But every German butcher, hairdresser, waiters, watchmaker, prostitute, and governess was under suspicion. Accusations of being German spies and sympathizers were made against several prominent members of the government or their spouses including Lord Haldane, Baden-Powell, and Margot Asquith, the Prime Minister’s wife.

“Russians in England”, my favorite myth of the war, covers the many reports through November 1914 of Russians secretly (with or without “snow on their boots”) waiting to land on the Western Front. Even some military figures, who should have known better, believed this. Some historians even argue, though there is no conclusive evidence, that these rumors made their way to the German General Staff causing them to delay their push on the Marne which altered the course of the war.

“Mysterious Visions and Clouds” covers not only our old friend the Angel of Mons (drawing on David Clarke’s book The Angel of Mons) but the Companion in White, a miraculous figure said to protect wounded soldiers on the battlefield, and even appearances, in the later part of the war, by Joan of Arc.

“The Rape of Belgium” is particularly good. Usually, in describing Germans shooting Belgium civilians, mention is made of Belgium and French franc-tireurs, guerillas, during the Franco-Prussian War. Hayward says the Germans lost about a 1,000 troops through guerilla action in that war and diverted 120,000 to deal with the problem. Thus German concern over franc-tireurs was reasonable in their push through Belgium. It is conceivable that some of the people the Germans executed were guerillas not covered by the Geneva Convention. Hayward even has a photograph of one. Allied propaganda reveled in atrocity reports – raped nuns, bayonetted babies, the crucified Canadian. However, there is no doubt, based on their own records, the German Army did kill about 5,000 Belgium civilians. Certainly not all were guerillas. Some Belgians found themselves used as human shield by advancing German troops. But the atrocities were so exaggerated and lurid that it created cynicism after the war and may, some have argued, created complacency about Nazi Germany. For his part, Hayward says that, even if reports of the Holocaust would have been immediately accepted, there was little that could have been done to stop it.

“Trench Myths” goes into the Crucified Canadian legend more and two other legends. One is the lurid Corpse Factory, the story concocted by British propagandists (probably General John Charteris Chief Intelligence Officer at GHQ through most of the war) that the Germans were recycling the corpses of the battlefield for their body fat to make glycerin for explosives. Another is the rumor that a vast army of deserters from all sides existed in underground communities in no-man’s land. (This one shows up in Kim Newman’s The Bloody Red Baron.)

“Lions, Donkeys and Ironclads” looks at some large-scale myths of the war probably still believed by many. German General Erich von Luddendorf did not say the British Army were “lions led by donkeys”, and Marshal Douglas Haig was not a technophobe who didn’t innovate or welcome new technology. Under his leadership, the British Army tried many new things. In particular, introducing tanks was not opposed by Haig. Vast amounts of tanks could not have been produced to break the stalemate earlier. Tank technology was not up to the task. They broke down frequently, and their crews were worthless after taking them into combat for even four hours. The crews suffered from heat exhaustion, dehydration, and carbon monoxide poisoning for several hours after a stint in the tanks.

Hayward uses lots of quotes from letters and newspapers. One particularly interesting source is a diary from Michael McDonough, a Times journalist. He seems to have heard every rumor that was going around.

Definitely recommended for those with an interest in the myths of the Great War. Oh, I suppose you want to know about the Cult of the Clitoris. In “The Hidden Hand” chapter, Hayward looks at a 1917 rumor that a vast number of German agents were sapping the will of the British public to fight. Perhaps patriotically putting their own inclinations and desires aside, the German agents were making English men and women into homosexuals. This resulted in a famous libel trial where the phrase “Cult of the Clitoris” was actually used by the defendants. They had a Black Book with 47,000 names in it, people at risk of blackmail for “moral weakness and perverse sexual” predilections. The names included, again, Haldane and Margot Asquith. However, the defendants didn’t help their case when they also named the judge himself as a member of the plot.

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