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.

Continue reading “Myths & Legends of the First World War”

The Angel of Mons

My look at Arthur Machen’s “The Bowmen” concludes with a review of a book detailing how Machen’s fiction became a modern myth.

Review: The Angel of Mons: Phantom Soldiers and Ghostly Guardians, David Clarke, 2004.Angel of Mons

On September 29, 1914, Arthur Machen presented a bit of “indifferent piping” to the world, his story “The Bowmen”.

Twenty years later he found himself still talking about that piece of fiction, arguing that there was “not one word of truth in it”.

Machen’s story had become legend, one of the great legends of the twentieth century, claimed as true in history books and an official Belgium guidebook and from the pulpit. An army of angels saved the British Expeditionary Force from annihilation by the German Army at the Battle of Mons in August 1914. The Germans were slowed (though more by the retreating BEF than at the battle itself), the Schlieffen Plan stalled, and the French and British achieved one of the pivotal victories of world history at the First Battle of the Marne.

Clarke lays out a clear, well-written chronological account on how Machen’s fiction became a legend of hope and conciliation, a story that stayed in the minds of the British military until the early days of the Cold War. Continue reading “The Angel of Mons”